Night 10: To the Moon, Alice!

Trip Start Jun 20, 2012
Trip End Jul 18, 2012

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Craters of the Moon National Monument

Flag of United States  , Idaho
Friday, June 29, 2012

Today we drove about 200 miles. Weather was dry and warm, with temps topping off at about 91 in the lowlands. There were dust devils and short powerful gusts in the afternoon. Night has been cool and calm.

Tonight we are camping in one of my favorite places to sleep: Craters of the Moon Nat'l Monument, about 20 miles west of Arco, Idaho. This spot was part of the Oregon Trail and is a natural wonderland for those like me interested in natural history.

2100 years ago the spot where I am writing this was the north end of a 50 mile seam in the earth's crust that spewed out lava for a very long time. The constant eruption left quite a mark on the land. The ground is made of pumice, sharp glassy rock that, from experience, can destroy an air matress. Large pumice stones lay about that only weigh a few pounds. Dried lava left black charred tubes and caves and cones across the plain. In some places lava wrapped around ancient trees and dried, leaving an impression. It is amazing to see the power of nature and to ponder the eons that are mere moments in natural history.

Trees have a hard time here. It is dry. Soil is scarce. The sun and wind rule the black landscape. Sage is the most common plant and there is not much room for even that hardy plant. Lichen on the igneous rock reminds me that we are still in the North. Other than that, it is a barren place at first glance.

Camping here is readily available most days and cheap. In fact, on this our tenth night we have slept 9 nights in our tent for a total of $122. That is an average of $13.50 per night. The sites are big and bordered by pumice hills. The nights are usually comfortable and dry. And bears, while not entirely out of the question, are very, very unlikely pests here. That means after four nights in grizzly country, I can get some sleep. I do have bear spray in the tent, but it is mainly to entertain any human intruders.

This morning, we woke up alive in Grand Teton's Gros Ventre campground and broke camp without breakfast. We were running late. We decided to look for moose in an area we had much success with before. As we drove, we did spot one moose two miles south of our camp.

Our intended hunting ground was Moose-Wilson Road, a meandering half-paved little road connecting the parklands with Teton Village, the ski Mecca. The road runs along creeks and we have seen moose here in the ponds. Today, though, we saw no moose here. I even turned into a hot bear area at Death Canyon, but there was no sign of life in Death. We did see a party of horseriders in the woods and some great scenery.
The road ends a few miles west of Jackson so we turned back to Jackson to get prepared food from Albertson's for brunch. Lucky for me there was a local purveyor of bison meat selling samples out the side of a food car. It was the best bison I have ever tasted. We also got hard  
boiled eggs, tamales, chicken, a Boar's Head reuben... This was much better than a restaurant. It is strange to see a big box chain deli take such pride in their food.

We ate and then set off to conquer Teton Pass with its 10% grades. Being from the "Prairie State," I hate mountain passes and try to avoid them, but it was unavoidable. I took it easy going uphill, especially when I saw the engine heating up a tad. I shifted to low gear for the steep descent. Both hands gripped the wheel. Teton Pass is always a challenge.

The other side is Victor, Idaho. It sits in a valley almost completely surrounded by mountains, which meant that I had to do one more pass. This required a stop for a short rest. The next pass was formidable, but not when done the same day as Teton Pass. The other side of this second pass had us meeting up again with the Snake River. The river here sits in a deep canyon patrolled by Bonaparte Gulls.

Idaho is mostly nothing. It is rolling green hills and struggling potato farms. Idaho is Mormons.

Soon we were at the holy LDS city of Idaho Falls, where I turned off to find the Arco area and Craters of the Moon. On the way through the plain, along the Oregon Trail, you pass boack volcanic rock fields and national lab active in energy testing. (As we know from Iran, this is  
code for "nuclear testing.") Down the road is the speed trap known as Arco and just past Arco is Craters of the Moon NM.

I already explained the beauty and specialness of this place. We arrived and set up camp very early so we could relax in the park. We had to see a ranger to get a permit to enter the lava tube caves. The reason us they don't want anyone transmitting the devastating white nosed syndrome to their healthy bat population. This disease has virtually destroyed swaths of bat populations in America since it was introduced by a European in 2005. The disease does not affect European bats who probably have been selected for survival centuries ago. It seems the Columbian Exchange begun in 1492 has yet to conclude.

We were screened and permitted to spelunk in Craters. Andrew was very eager to try this out so we hurried right to the most accessible cave area. These caves were carved out by underground flowages of lava during an eruption 21 centuries ago. Most of the caves we saw had been destroyed when roofs caved in. The first intact cave we encountered was Boy Scout Cave. It was very dark, had a floor of ice, and a 6 foot drop to enter and exit. I decided this was above our level, which caused the boy to have an absolute fit.

I opted for Indian Cave since I had been  in it once before and survived. It is a bit of a climb down a rock pile (caused by roof collapse) to get down since it is about 30 feet deep. At the bottom of the cave the floor is bumpy but mostly intact. It is not a dark cave due to the various roof collapses which caused skylights. There are rock piles that may have been left by Shoshone passers-by, according NPS signage. The cave was home to rock doves... Well, pigeons. But in their natural habitat, they are much more impressive and deserve to be called by their mire genteel name. Andrew was amazed and enjoyed shining his flashlight at the stalagmites and lichen covered rocks. As you exit the cool caves, the heat of the desert hits you a bit.

We also went to take a look at the splatter cones, including one so deep that it is constantly filled with snow. After this, we returned to camp only if we promised Andrew that we would go "mountain climbing" in the morning. He was a very crabby boy with severely chapped lips and way past his Central Time Zone bedtime. He was eventually calmed by a board game based on national parks and the ranger's evening program at the campground: a lesson on raptors. I learned that owls cannot move their eyes. Who would've guessed.

I made soup, wrote a bit, and enjoyed the kind of worryless sleep one can only enjoy at Craters, where the biggest invader possible at your campsite is a chipmunk. 
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