Our more rugged wild landscapes tend to generate obsession. Mountains are the worst for the human collectors: all the peaks over a certain elevation, each of those peaks in every season or month, every named summit, and so forth. The Colorado Plateau is in my experience the very worst; though the absurdity of trying to hike every canyon is made more evident by their unnamable profusion, plenty of people still at least want to try.
The ordering these quests lend to ones outdoor adventuring is laudable, and often a good motivator to go out in less than ideal conditions and to on the face less than spectacular places, but I’ve always been wary of them. Even in an age approaching seven billion humans we’re done a great favor by the acute limits of our own powers of understanding, and the wild places still left to us are an infinity of infinities when measured by the human mind and footstep. I go in search of the crucial turn between familiarity and intimacy.
Some familiarity is not only comforting for walking in the wild, but helpful for inculcating powerful experiences. The best routes bring an open human mind into the landscape in the most efficient way, and prior experience in that place makes this possible. At the same time, newness and the unexpected are the cornerstone for how the wild and wildness fosters human development. There are new things to be seen walking the same ridge every week for years on end, but for me the next ridge over typically better serves my purpose. The paragon here is a mental map sufficiently enriched with direct experience that from a given place I can link points visible with memories accessible, chaining them together to the limits of all horizons, with plenty of unknown shadows in the lacunae.
A rather clumsy analogy might be made to a life partnership with the right person: comfort built on knowledge gained from years of accompaniment in all seasons of life, but with enough change and nuance and complexity so that nothing can ever be taken for granted.
This is the reason, I tell myself, why I was compelled to go back to Craters of the Moon National Monument this weekend. Early last week, when the dead skiing legs had yet to reawaken, I saw the webcam images and called to confirm that the road was being plowed. There’s a narrow season for backpacking in Craters, when enough snow remains for melting but not enough to hinder walking, and the time to go was this week. So Friday afternoon I went; driving far south late into the night. Eventually I pulled off into the high Idaho desert, tired, and fell asleep under uninterrupted stars and the (very) nearby song of coyotes.
I could have done other things close to home. Ryan was filming just down the road, the skiing would have been spring exceptional, and it was even warm enough to go rock climbing. But the compulsion of memory was too strong.
In 2009 I came in June, drove to the end of the open road, and poked around the edges of the cinder path which reaches SSE out into the lava fields. In 2011 we came in April, brought snowshoes, and exhausted ourselves investigating the eastern reaches. Last year we came a week earlier, had less snow, and did a more complete loop. This year, I headed west, and got thoroughly worked by the western lava fields. Unlike the more solid eastern ones, these were randomly undulating talus slopes which went on for miles.
I analyze talus by how sticky it is, and thus how likely the rocks are to move and prove treacherous. Rock type, size, angle of repose, weathering forces; all influence talus adhesion. The light rocks of Craters are not sticky at all, and the modest weathering they receive gives the hiker little assistance. The miles between Big Cinder and North Laidlaw Butte would be the hardest I’ve ever walked if the miles going SE from Laidlaw hadn’t been worse.
That ridiculous lava between Laidlaw and the Bridge of the Moon had about one big, old, gnarled pine per acre. How deep are their roots in a rough land whose ground voraciously vanishes all moisture?
I came to the Bridge of the Moon, and back into contact with previous walkings, late in the day and very tired. It was a relief. Having been there 11.5 months earlier, a GPS was still invaluable. You could walk within 50 yards of the bridge, not look at it quite the right way, and never see it. It is collapsed back into the ground, and the top sits flush with the landscape. For all of this places outward spikiness and hostility, the bridge is a good metaphor; the most astonishing details are both big and hidden in plain sight.
I followed our route from last year across yet another lava flow to the nearest butte, which provided the promise of flat places to camp and, hidden in the shadowed aspects, snow to melt for water. The day continued perfectly clear and, remarkable for Craters, almost free of wind. I made tea and dinner as the sun set and was very happy to be there. Mental mapping could wait for the morning, I was too tired for thinking.
I’ve be re-rereading Craig Childs’ House of Rain lately, an impressive book which places personal mapping of a landscape into historical context. Childs’ uses his exceptional on the ground knowledge of the American Southwest to speculate on how the people history has called (for lack of a more coherent term) the Anasazi built the ethereal culture they did in a harsh landscape, then after a short time apparently ceased to exist. Childs’ eye is able to fly over the Colorado Plateau, Mogollan Rim, Sonora, and points south, tying features together via how they might influence human settlement. He points out that, for all the individual variation and historical subjectivity built into interaction with and documentation of wildness, the span of variation is small. He writes “Maybe there are not a thousand paths. Maybe there are only a few. Maybe only one. The earth contains inevitable confluences. We come back again and again no matter who we are or when we come.” The landscape dictates routes, perceptions, experiences, and indeed life itself in ways which we humans can only occasionally see beyond.
Maybe I’ll return to Craters next spring. Maybe I will not. It’s a small piece of the world, and I’m content that I know just enough of what I don’t know about it. There are other places waiting.