El Malpais mi amigo
I had never heard of it, and had no inkling it might be worth seeing, but as I saw El Malpais (Bad Lands) on the map and stopped at the visitor center I became intrigued. As I began to see black lava outcroppings in the median of I-40, my first thought was that someone had an unusual way of decorating the freeway here in NW New Mexico.
As I talked to the Ranger at the visitor center, he tried to discourage me from hiking the Zuni-Acoma trail across the lava flow. “It is just black rock piled on top of more black rock. It is unstable and sharp, hard on your boots. It all looks so much alike you can’t tell where you are, all the scenery looks the same.” he said.
He was right, of course, and yet I’m glad I hiked at least a mile or two of this trail, which is actually a part of the Continental Divide Scenic Trail, which runs 3100 miles from Canada to Mexico along the Continental Divide. It was difficult hiking, and I was glad I had my GPS (thanks, Kevin) several times when I lost track of the trail on the endless black lava, but I had to restrain myself from leaving the trail to see what was just on the other side of each feature. You might think nothing could live in the stuff, but the cactus below was thriving. Junipers and pines grew directly out of the lava. There were wildflowers. I saw squirrels, marmots, meadowlarks, ravens, lizards as well as signs of other animals.
I also went on a 3.5 mile hike to volcano Calderon, where I saw lava tubes. These are large caves formed in the lava when the outer part of the lava solidifies and the inner, molten part continues to flow, creating a cave. I also saw both the cinder cone (the exterior of the volcano cone and the crater. This volcano was active about 115,000 years ago, although lava continued to flow from volcanoes in this area until about 3,000 years ago. Something about volcanoes has always fascinated me.
On the way down from the volcano I spotted this stand of aspins struggling to survive in the lava. I know you can’t see it, but near the left side of the picture was a red-headed woodpecker. I kept chasing him, hoping to get a better picture, but he was camera shy.
I wasn’t able to see any, but I understand that some of the lava tubes have up to 20’ of ice in them. I’m still trying to understand the thermodynamics of this. The explanations you see talk about the great insulating qualities of lava, since it is extremely porous, and about the way some are shaped just right to trap the cold air such that the temperature inside never exceeds 31 degrees. But wasn’t this molten lava? Can you really insulate yourself from hot to cold? Makes no sense to me, but I guess I’ll just mark it down as another indication that my intelligence doesn’t measure up to understanding all that I see.
Another great part of this area is the low price of accommodations. I was able to sleep in a clean comfortable room with HBO, ESPN and WI-and free breakfast for $32 per night. I saw rooms for as low as $14/night.
Anyway, the moral of today’s story- Keep your eyes peeled, there is no telling what new part of God’s creation you may have the opportunity to see today.