Lava Tube Oops
One of my life goals is to watch hot molten lava flow into the Pacific off Hawaii’s Big Island, to sizzle, to steam. But that doesn’t mean I’ve never seen hot molten lava doing its thing. I’ve had the privilege of seeing Stromboli erupt spectacularly.
Stromboli is a small island off the coast of Italy. The whole island is literally just volcano. It looks like those I drew as a kid, but rising out of the sea instead of behind dinosaurs. The north side was one smooth angled ash and lava flow to the sea. I never saw any lava make the plunge, but was still enchanted by the meeting of new earth and old sea. The breakers on the hardened ash were weirdly fascinating to watch. Our ship would linger past nightfall, so as to better see the eruption. About every three days it puts on quite a show. Lava spits and spews from the peak in geysers, many spurting forty or more feet higher than the rim.
But one need not go so far as Italy or Hawaii to see lava. Some is just a couple hours outside Los Angeles. Behold, the Mojave National Preserve. Okay okay, the name doesn’t invoke much awe. Its original name was cooler, being Cinder Cone National Natural Landmark. 40 cinder cones rise up to 560 feet above the salt pan and desert scrub. Most have erupted lava at some time in the recent past (in geologic terms, anyway) making 60 different lava beds. Some are old and decayed, buried amongst the creosote. But others are younger. The most recent is only 10,000 years old.
It was to this youngster I gravitated for a special night.
The night was New Year’s Eve 2019. Or 2020, I guess. 2019 turning into 2020. Whatever. Because my sweetie was working that night, I was alone. I didn’t want to party, especially not on the Las Vegas Strip, which is a madhouse on such nights. I opted instead to start a new tradition, one that I’ve hankered for the last few years when inundated with drunkards and noise. I wanted to greet the new year in nature, alone if need be. So I found myself going to the MNP. There, to the youngest lava flow, which is many miles long. There, to what I dub Lava Camp.
Some industrious folks found a spot where the crumbled wall of lava had formed a little cove. The entrance is a meter wide, leading into a cleared area perhaps ten feet in diameter. A fire ring sits in the middle. But around it rises a chaos of broken cinder up to thirty feet tall. Cinder, for the record, is a lightweight, chunky volcanic rock. You know: cooled lava. Its very porous and brittle, and creates an absolutely fascinating intricacy of forms when left to cool from 2,000 degrees.
The temperature currently was 60 degrees. At least, while the sun was doing its thing above. When it moved on to do its thing elsewhere, it got cold fast. So I built a nice, big fire, having brought plenty of wood. I had also brought along a cast iron pan. The plan was that, while the drunkards made their noise at my poor, poor wife 90 miles away, I’d try my hand at baking some cornbread.
I thought about the amazing experience we’d had the first time we’d come here. Not camping, but exploring a lava tube. Lava tubes are formed because the outside edges cool off first, forming a pipe inside, down which the hotter lava flows. Eventually the lava runs out and empties the pipe.
My wife and I came in March of 2014. The hike to the opening was not far, but over very rough broken black cinder. Each step was shaky, danger for ankles and impalement upon the yucca proliferating out of the decaying lava. The entrance hole was twenty feet in diameter and messy with tumbled rock. A metal ladder led to the bottom, which was about fifteen feet deep, give or take. Down we went.
The tube had collapsed on the uphill side (which made the entrance), so there was only one way to go. No way to get lost, so nothing to worry about. Right? But looking down that yawning black throat, feeling the cold air emanate from it, was a bit unnerving. It was wider than it was tall, being about twenty by ten feet. The floor was smooth, fine sand. In we went.
After hiking a while, marveling less at what we were seeing than at what we were doing, we saw a light ahead. A small hole had broken in the top, letting in a gorgeous, distinct spear of light. It hit the ground, there to blaze almost white-hot. Our footfalls kicked up dust, which rose in little poofs. It roiled in the glowing shaft like oil in water.
I took a few photos of my wife—what a rare moment to capture!—then asked her to do the same. I struck a pose, saw her take a photo over there. I struck another pose. Now a photo over yonder.
“I can’t see the view finder,” she explained. Then she added bitterly, “I can’t see anything down here.”
True, it was pitch black underground. The light right here did not extend, but was swallowed by the black lava. I was confused by her inability to take a good photo, but saw she was getting annoyed. We left, exiting to light and heat—too much of both already in March. We doffed headlamps, something clattered to the ground. Her sunglasses.
Focusing on the headlamp, she’d left on her sunglasses!
I smiled at the recall of the near-miss. We’d promised ourselves a return to do it right. That had been five years ago. Six, if midnight had passed. Funny how people ascribe meaning to such arbitrary things as switching calendars. I guess that was all right. After all, I’d chosen to ascribe meaning to it, too.
Hunkering over the fire, I watched its flicker make the old lava glow. A mouse skittered over the rocks expertly. He was most impressive. No doubt he was eager to taste my cornbread. So was I. It was time to begin.
Stepping away from the fire brought the temperature down below 40 degrees. For a Las Vegan, that’s brutal. I shivered as I mixed up the batter, spread it into the mold, warmed back up while pushing the smoldering coals into place. I set the cast-iron and watched. It was nice to not have anything to do but watch batter slowly brown into bread.
Time passed. I nipped at rum. I raised a toast to the mouse. I raised a toast to the lava. Soon I was toasting everything and everyone. Maybe even my ex-wife. I don’t remember, which says much. But I remember the cornbread. My first-ever with a proper campfire setup. I charred it.
Another near-miss at Lava Camp.
I didn’t mind at all.
This tale is a feature of Travel Mishaps. Sign up for the free monthly publication HERE.