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Dec 07 2013

Interlude: “To Paradise With Pleasure Haunted With Fear”

A serene terror loomed outside my schoolroom windows.

Mount Elden from a classroom window at Christensen Elementary School, Flagstaff, Arizona. Image courtesy Rocky Chrysler.

Mount Elden from a classroom window at Christensen Elementary School, Flagstaff, Arizona. You have no idea how delighted I was to find someone else who enjoyed the same view. Image courtesy Rocky Chrysler.

I went to school at the foot of a mountain made of dacite, the same kind of magma that blew Mount St. Helens apart. If I’d known that then, I probably would have had to change schools. I’d seen the eruption on television and read about the destruction in Marian T. Place’s excellent book. I already spent an inordinate amount of classroom time watching Elden for the slightest sign of steam, and that was back when I thought it was a shield volcano and the school would merely be buried in streams of red flowing lava, just like unfortunate structures in Iceland or Hawaii. I’d probably have come undone if I’d thought it would explode. I had a volcano phobia.

But I adored what I feared. I might go to school believing Mount Elden would suddenly awaken and kill us all, but I loved it. When we hiked to the top of it in sixth grade, I loved touching its boulders. When we drove past its crags on the way to the mall, I’d stare into them and look for the eagles living amongst the cliffs. And I only really feared that great lump when we watched videos of erupting basaltic volcanoes; the rest of the time, it was my quiet companion, and while it might turn deadly at any second (so I believed – after Mount St. Helens, I never believed people when they said something was extinct), it wasn’t any worse than the horses we owned, who were, after all, just as lovable and threatening.

Mount Elden, Flagstaff, AZ. Image credit Cujo359.

A wee panorama of childhood volcanoes. Mount Elden dominates the picture, a large exogenous dacite dome. One of the younger cinder cones of the San Francisco Volcanic field is being quarried in the foreground. The San Francisco Peaks peek out from behind Elden at the right. Image courtesy Cujo359.

Mount Elden was a mild sort of fear; I indulged fantasies of it destroying us all more from boredom than conviction. The mountain that truly frightened me was the stratovolcano that loomed behind it.

San Francisco Peaks seen from Bonito Park, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.

San Francisco Peaks seen from Bonito Park, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.

In this view, we’re standing on lahar deposits from that very mountain. It looks like a range of peaks, with the highest, Humphreys, reaching 12,633 feet (3,851 m) into the sky. But that is a single massive mountain, one stratovolcano, which lost an enormous chunk. Glaciers? Explosion? Sector collapse? I’ve just obtained a paper that promises to answer that question. But I remember the day I stood at Bonito reading the sign that said the meadow was a lahar from the Peaks, and turning around to look into the caldera, and feeling a chill run right through me as its resemblance to Mount St. Helens became clear.

I’d been terrified of it since learning it was a stratovolcano as a child. When you first learn what a stratovolcano is by seeing one explode all over the place on teevee, you tend to look a bit askance at the one visible from your backyard. But I grew up with that vista, volcanoes framed in the sliding glass doors. I camped on those peaks (watching for imminent signs of doom all the while). I’d have repeated dreams of them erupting, of fleeing for my life as pyroclastic flows roared down the mountain, of fires started by blazing hot ejecta. Then I’d wake up and go stand in the doors, drinking them in. They were the most beautiful peaks in the world to me. When we moved away from Flagstaff, I felt relieved we wouldn’t have to evacuate due to an eruption – and bereft, horribly homesick for my peaks. When we drove into Flagstaff, I’d have my eyes fixed on the horizon, waiting for the first glimpse. “Hello, ‘Frisco,” I’d whisper. “I’ve missed you.” It’s a ritual I still repeat when I return home.

You learn to live with the fear. You learn to enjoy the beauty while you can. You can firmly believe, in the same moment, that there is no more perfect place to be than at the foot of this magnificent mountain, and that you should be anywhere but here. You make fretful plans for escape, you watch for the slightest sign of activity, you run disaster scenarios in your mind – and you drive up to the top on a day when you need peace and calm restored. You go there to renew your soul and learn to accept your inevitable meeting with Death. You tell your family that you’re so outta that city the instant the volcano wakes up. You explain to them the difference between dormant and extinct, and you describe with relish all of the terrible ways to die in an eruption. You assure everyone around you that you will never in a million billion trillion years set foot on an active volcano. This is what you do when you have a mild volcano phobia, but have grown up in the shadow of the Peaks.

Then you take it into your head to move to Seattle.

Mount Rainier, seen from near Federal Way, south of Seattle, Washington.

Mount Rainier, seen from near Federal Way, south of Seattle, Washington.

Well, sure, the city’s surrounded by active volcanoes, but hey – they’re monitored! We’ll have plenty of warning before they blow! And I’m renting, not buying, so I can flee any old time I like. I can be back in the Valley like that. Stepmom and Dad have a spare bedroom.

And it’s not like I’m going to actually traipse around one of them while they’re erupting, right? Not me. I’d never do that. Except, you know, we went to Mount St. Helens that one time when it was actually in the middle of an eruptive phase, only we didn’t know, and I looked into the caldera and saw steam rising from the dome. I saw the parking lot filled with little burn marks from hot ejecta. I saw ash-covered slopes.

And I wasn’t afraid.

Mount St. Helens seen from the Hummocks Trail.

Mount St. Helens seen from the Hummocks Trail. All of this lumpy terrain is from the debris avalanche: we’re standing on what used to be the top of the mountain.

Fear became fascination. I still harbor a healthy respect for what these fire mountains are capable of, and I’m still in my parents’ spare bedroom in half a heartbeat with the cat and whatever possessions I could throw in the car at five minutes’ notice if Seattle looks to be targeted for annihilation, but I’ve learned enough now not to panic. Knowing these volcanoes intimately doesn’t make them feel any safer. It just makes me feel more capable of assessing their threat, and more accepting of the fact that I might be wrong. I’m willing to take that risk now. As long as it’s not Glacier Peak waking up, I’d like to stay for the show.

I love my fire mountains too much to leave them.

Three Sisters as seen from the Lava River Trail, Dee Wright Observatory, Oregon.

Three Sisters as seen from the Lava River Trail, Dee Wright Observatory, Oregon.

I’ve walked flows five hundred years younger than the ones at Sunset Crater, which at less than a thousand years old were uncomfortably recent to my childhood mind. The stratovolcanoes visible from there are far younger and much more restless than my quiet old Peaks.

I’ve stood on the rim of a volcano that blew far more catastrophically than Mount St. Helens.

Crater Lake from the Phantom Ship Overlook, near sunset. 7,700 years ago, Mount Mazama emptied its magma chamber in a humongous eruption (that's an official scientific classification), and collapsed into itself, leaving a hole in its heart that filled with a lake that is the bluest blue you've ever seen.

Crater Lake from the Phantom Ship Overlook, near sunset. 7,700 years ago, Mount Mazama emptied its magma chamber in a humongous eruption (that’s an official scientific descpription), and collapsed into itself, leaving a hole in its heart that filled with a lake that is the bluest blue you’ve ever seen.

I’ve walked the basalt flows of a cinder cone that’s virtually the twin of the one I grew up with, although it’s six thousand years its senior.

Lava Butte, Oregon, and its associated lava flow.

Lava Butte, Oregon, and its associated lava flow.

I’ve stood at timberline on a volcano that seems made of nothing but rubble and hydrothermally altered rock.

Mount Hood from near the Timberline Lodge. It's very, very unconsolidated, and has a horrible habit of having major bits wash down and wipe out roads. But it's pretty!

Mount Hood from near the Timberline Lodge. It’s very, very unconsolidated, and has a horrible habit of having major bits wash down and wipe out roads. But it’s pretty!

I know them intimately now. I know their greatest danger doesn’t always come from their eruptions, but by bits of them failing catastrophically. Sector collapses can happen without eruptions; lahars can wash down slopes with no warning, since it’s not just eruptions that cause them. When you’re near a volcano, you’re always seconds from catastrophe.

I find them irresistibly beautiful. “Yet do I fear thy nature,” as Lady Macbeth said. My paradises have always contained that element of danger that demands respect. Maybe I love them so much because I can’t take them for granted: what they are today is not what they will be tomorrow. It’s in their nature to blow up, to fall down, to intersperse long periods of serene beauty with utter disaster. It’s wise to approach them with a measure of awe and a dash of respectful fear.

Moi atop Paulina Peak, Newberry Crater, Oregon. This is a high, craggy bit of a long and low shield volcano that contains one of the greatest obsidian flows ever. I'm also surrounded by stratovolcanoes up here. It's outstanding.

Moi atop Paulina Peak, Newberry Crater, Oregon. This is a high, craggy bit of a long and low shield volcano that contains one of the greatest obsidian flows ever. I’m also surrounded by stratovolcanoes up here. It’s outstanding.

Tell me about the geologic processes you love and fear.

Credits:

The title of this post is from the song “She is My Sin” by Nightwish. Larger versions of most of these volcanoes are available in my Flickr set; the Mount Elden schoolroom photo is here.

 

Previously published at Scientific American/Rosetta Stones.

10 comments

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  1. 1
    rq

    Mount Rainier is beautiful.

    I’ll return to speak of geologic processes that strike fear into my heart. Not that I’ve experienced any directly.

  2. 2
    Al Dente

    A couple of decades ago I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. One day I was handwriting a letter* when an earthquake struck. It wasn’t a big earthquake but it was strong enough that my pen shot across the paper, drawing a line through what I had written. It was the first time that I’d been in an earthquake and I was shocked. There I was, minding my own business, and all of a sudden, without warning, THE EARTH MOVED!

    I was so disconcerted by such uncouth geological behavior that a mere two years later I moved from the Bay Area to a place where the Earth conducted itself in a more sedate, refined manner, i.e., New England. However I’ve since learned that earthquakes don’t limit themselves to western North America. One of the most powerful earthquakes to hit this continent occurred on 16 December 1811 centered on New Madrid, Missouri. Doesn’t Missouri know it’s tornado country, not a major earthquake area? The New Madrid earthquake was felt as far away as Pittsburgh and Norfolk, Virginia. The earthquake rang church bells in Toronto, Ontario and BOSTON!

    At approximately 2000** 16 May 1791 there was an earthquake in East Haddam, Connecticut.

    Stone walls were shaken down, tops of chimneys were knocked off, and latched doors were thrown open. A fissure several meters long formed in the ground.

    I drove through East Haddam six months ago, some 222 years after the earthquake. What if I’d been caught in an aftershock?

    *Handwriting is an antique method of making messages, now superseded in civilized countries by emails and texting.

    **For those who have trouble subtracting 12s, 2000 is 8 PM.

  3. 3
    Lithified Detritus

    Beautiful pictures – I’ve visited several of those places and would like to get back.

    I have lived my entire life in an extremely stable part of the continent, where meteorological hazards are much more of a concern than geologic ones. As Al Dente points out @2, however, the craton is not completely immune.

    Regarding my geologic fears, I remember reading as a child about a young man who was exploring a cave and got stuck in one of the crawlways. Rescue efforts were unsuccessful,and he eventually died. I remember being horrified by this – the fear & helplessness he must have felt over the couple of days that he survived.

    This was brought home to me a few years back when I was in a copper mine in Upper Michigan. We were making some measurements in one of the stopes. (The horizontal access tunnel is called an adit, the stopes follow the ore-bearig strata.) In Michigan, the copper-bearing strata follow the Lake Superior syncline, so the stope angled upward at about 45°. I was pulling a tape measure up the stope, and the ceiling got lower as I climbed. About 10 meters up, the ceiling was just a foot or so above me as I crawled upward, and I was overtaken with a completely irrational panic. Light-headed, heart pounding, etc. I was in no danger of being trapped – the greatest danger came from the unstable rubble I was crawling over, but I wasted no time getting the hell out of there. Once in the adit, I was fine.

    I am not afraid of going underground, and I don’t normally think of myself as claustrophobic, but the combination apparently does me in.

    1. 3.1
      jane

      LD – Just reading your post gave me the heebie jeebies! I experienced something similar when hiking through a narrow slot canyon in southern Utah. It got narrower and narrower to where I was literally squeezing my body through the planes of rock. To continue I was either going to have to crawl through a small hole upwards to get out or reverse directions. Suddenly I simply felt panic and reversed my direction, getting all scraped up in my haste to get out, heart pounding like crazy. That was the day that I learned I tended toward the claustrophobic.

      I’d choose hiking on the wide open flanks of a Cascade volcano like Mount Rainier any day!

  4. 4
    Trebuchet

    Glacier Peak is frustrating because it’s so hard to see from sea-level Puget Sound regions. There are a few places along I-5 where it peaks out from the intervening Cascades. I’m glad I live 50 miles west of it rather than east!

    I have a niece, living in Boise, who doesn’t even like to visit out here because she’s terrified of Mt. Rainier.

    And now I’m going to spend a good portion of the rest of the day reading about Arizona volcanoes and following links!

  5. 5
    rq

    I have a vague claustrophobia, but I’ve never been in a situation where it might rear its head.
    I do, however, have a consciously unconscious fear of karsts, since Latvia is full of limestones of various types, and a few areas are quite well-known for sudden and rather large sinkholes. Right up to being national parks. And earlier in the year, Dana had a post about sinkholes – and suddenly I started studying the cracks in the walls of our house. Those, however, seem to be the product of improper support for the second floor rather than indicators that the house may disappear under our feet at any moment. You never know, however…

    I grew up on the Canadian shield, however, and while there were rumours of earthquakes in the Ottawa Valley (ok, ok, they were actual earthquakes!), we never actually felt them (I may have heard one, once, similar to the distant rumble of transport trailers late in the night). And by ‘we’ I mean my family especially, because our house happens to be built upon a rock (there’s a parable there somewhere…), on a real outcrop of actual shield rock, which does quite a bit to dampen any earthquake vibrations.

    1. 5.1
      rq

      Oh, and the fear of karsts was somewhat reinforced when we went to a friend’s wedding a couple of years ago, and also visited a brand new sinkhole that had appeared within the previous three days – just a five minute walk from where the reception was taking place. It was a brand new sandstone cave, and we went inside for a bit, but it was definitely an eerie feeling.

  6. 6
    Lou Jost

    I understand your fascination with these. I built my house on the slope of an active 5000m volcano in South America. I’m close enough to the crater that when it erupts, I can hear (and feel) the flying red-hot rocks as big as cars crashing into the volcano’s flanks. Check out these pictures taken from my kitchen window:
    http://ecomingafoundation.wordpress.com/2013/05/13/earth-shaking/

  7. 7
    jane

    Great story with incredible photographs, Lou. I sure would like to visit Ecuador. Thanks for sharing that!

    1. 7.1
      Lou Jost

      Thanks Jane. Ecuador is definitely worth a visit, both for its geology and for its biodiversity.

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