Mountains to Ashes

One thousand years counts as recent history in a landscape where patience runs a mile deep. Yet on the southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau, human fascination with the ancient and spectacular Grand Canyon draws most of the attention while younger monuments to earth’s unsettled past stand hidden in plain sight.

This is a place rich in subtext. A volcanic field first erupted southwest of Flagstaff, breaking through the surface of the Mogollon Rim. Tbe molten turmoil migrated on a faintly northeast line, leaving behind a pock-marked trail of steam vents and caldera.

Flagstaff lies in the wake of this transformation and destruction. The scenic, sacred ring of peaks–the highest being Humphreys, Aggasiz, and Fremont–are likely united in origin. Imagine a stratovolcano rising 16,000 feet before blowing off its top half a million years ago, leaving an uneven rim of peaks and a wide caldera that descends in what are now pine-covered, weather-eroded slopes. Just beyond them, easily overlooked, lies Sunset Crater.

I was ignorant of all this upon moving here. All of my map study focused on national forests and campgrounds as I tried to learn the roads and towns of northern Arizona. My eyes scanned past Sunset Crater a hundred times without my stopping to consider its meaning and origins. Outside, I gazed at the peaks every chance I had, but never stopped to imagine a violent past.

All of this changed on a blustery day when a family drive to occupy a few Sunday afternoon hours uncovered layers of knowledge about our new home.

A display at the Sunset Crater National Monument visitors center showed the incremental advance of an active volcanic field, and suddenly I stood on a whole new understanding of a place recently transformed. Outside, at the first stop on a loop road, a piercing cold wind blew hard enough to make us stagger on pathways through cinder fields and jagged lava flows in the shadow of the cinder cone crater. From a nearby vista, a trail of vents extends northeast, with the hints of the Painted Desert lingering on the far horizon.

The exotic paths of complex lava flows, called by names such as aa or pahoehoe, awakened memories from my own experience. On May 18, 1980, I was weeks from graduation at Washington State University. The sky over Pullman had been out of sorts that day as an inky black cloud snaked its way from the west. An impending storm, I thought, until a coed ran screaming across the lawn of the apartment complex. “It’s exploded! It’s exploded!” she yelled. It took a few moments, but the dots finally connected. Mount St. Helens. The cloud. I was witnessing the distant shadow of a massive eruption. By that afternoon, it was as dark as midnight, and the ash fell like fluffy flakes of snowfall. By morning, Pullman was a moonscape, eerily gray and quiet.

I still have a jar of the powdery ash, scooped up from the sidewalk outside my apartment, and for years I’ve regarded it as merely an inert souvenir. But now that I’ve learned more about the San Francisco peaks and Sunset Crater, and felt a deeper connection to their origins and spiritual significance, I understand how the mountain in my Washington home had scattered its own ashes as it surrendered itself to fate. They mark the passing of an ancient peak. I’m going to find the ash a more special home than an old Mason jar and put it in a place that honors its significance. Maybe a shelf that faces north, toward the peaks, and toward the remnants of Mount St. Helens beyond.

About Eric Dieterle

A writer of environmental literature and a public affairs coordinator at Northern Arizona University.
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