Cryptozoology and Cute Fuzzy Critters

No, this isn’t about the cat. This time. Although she’s pretty crypto – I never can figure out why she goes from cuddly to homicidal with no warning, and she is cute and fuzzy. Even when she is trying to tear you limb-from-limb.

We stopped at the North Fork Survivors Gift Shop at the Buried A-Frame on our way to Mount St. Helens. This is practically a requirement. First off, A-frame house buried by a lahar – tell me that doesn’t attract every geologist on the planet. Secondly, Bigfoot statues.

And, this being the Pacific Northwest, Bigfoot’s gotta have an espresso.

Coffee and an apparent salmon – looks like he’s set.

I have a particular fondness for Bigfoot. When I was a kid, I dreamt I was home alone, and people were trying to break in. Then came a rather loud pounding at the door. When I looked through the window, a big hairy face greeted my terrified eyes. Sasquatch! ZOMG. I let it in so it wouldn’t break down the door. It kindly led me over to our enormous oak dining table, turned it on its side, sheltered me behind that makeshift barricade, and proceeded to scare the living daylights out of our erstwhile burglars. After that dream, I kinda hoped my parents would leave me home alone for an evening so Bigfoot would show up.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled reality.

The gift shop is great – you can get lots of loot for cheap. I walked away with a set of five spectacular posters of the volcano for $5. You can’t beat that. They also had a cube of ash collected from various distances, showing nicely how finer particles travel further, and lots of Mount St. Helens Emerald jewelry for cheap. They’ve got a ton more stuff, too, all of it fun and some informative. They’ve got actual geological signs, too. This little spot has all you can ask for: kitsch to keep the non-geologist occupied while you get on with the geology.

You can get down to the Toutle River from here. And that’s where we found some utterly adorable caterpillars.

These, as far as I can tell, are Lophocampa maculata. The orange one on the left is a late instar, and the one on the right an early instar.

I could, of course, be completely wrong about the species, but I defend my assessment of their adorableness. They’re rather lovely.

Steamforged and I spent quite a bit of time snapping photos of them. Perfect lighting, perfect subjects, delightful.

On the way back, I nearly stepped on this gentleman:

I have utterly no idea what species he is, and he’s not as colorful, but still wonderful, what with all that hair. Loves me some hairy caterpillars!

Dragonfly in Action

I meant to post something really nice and substantial tonight, but my darling Aunty Flow is being wretchedly evil this month. We’ll have to make do with a dragonfly instead. But whatta dragonfly! I shot this at Silver Lake, where a lovely visitor’s center and a nice walk on a nature trail built along and on the lake make for a good introduction to Mount St. Helens.

Dragonflies swooped round us, too active to easily photograph, but I got a fantastic action shot of one of the little buggers.

This is why I love my camera: that little dragonfly was several feet away in a riot of vegetation, and it still managed to capture him. Check out the crop:

Not bad for a little point-and-shoot, eh?

I love this shot, because it shows the weird contortions of a dragonfly’s body as it gets ready to launch. They’re such interesting little critters. Someday, I plan to park myself along Silver Lake for an hour or two and catch more of these guys – in addition to the blues, there were some delicious reds I didn’t get a chance to shoot, although Steamforged got a few and might be kind enough to put them up for us soon.

My Volcano Phobia is Officially Pining for the Fjords

We would have ended the summer adventuring season with a bang if Mount St. Helens had been so kind as to erupt.

I used to have a bit of a volcano phobia. I’d have nightmares of majestic mountains suddenly exploding, threatening me with pyroclastic flows and hot red lava. I remember those dreams: tense, terrified sequences that sometimes began with the first jets of steam and ash from an unexpected eruption, sometimes picking up in mid-drama as I tried to gather cat and loved ones and flee. There was a dream where I lived in my childhood home again: the Peaks were putting on a spectacular show outside the sliding glass doors, lava bombs and ash falling all round, hot bits of volcanic ejecta setting off massive forest fires. Lava flows once chased me all the way from Flagstaff to Phoenix, melting the car’s tires and cutting off escape routes. I’d wake up exhausted, heart pounding, eyeballing the nearest mountain for the slightest sign of unrest. I’d run through evacuation plans in my mind and check the news (at the time, rumor had it the ground around Flagstaff was rising by an inch a year, and I believed there was a magma chamber filling up below the mountains). I’d watch teevee shows about eruptions and consider that the oldest volcanics nearby were less than 1,000 years old. The volcanoes were sleeping, not dead, and I was ready: if they so much as twitched, I’d be outta there like a shot.

I never ever in my entire life wanted to see a volcano erupt live. Not even the tame little Hawaiian ones. Nossir. I’d take my eruptions on teevee from a safe distance of several hundred miles, thanks ever so much.

So what did I do? Moved to a subduction zone, where things regularly go boom. My stepmother laughed at me. But as I told her, they monitor these things intensively, and the moment one of them woke, I’d be on her doorstep with cat and suitcase in hand.

I never would have gone to Mount Saint Helens the first time if I’d known she was, actually, erupting. And I would have fled if I’d realized the pretty wisps of steam emerging from the dome weren’t merely residual heat, but active dome-building. The parking lot was filled with scorch marks from hot rocks falling from the sky. And I was damned glad we’d brought the fast car – if it looked to be an eruption, we’d be so outta there.

And we got home after a hell of an experience, and I looked some things up, and realized I’d stared into the heart of an erupting volcano, one that had violent tendencies, and nothing bad had happened.

Still, I’d run, wouldn’t I? If I saw her start to blow, I’d surely scream and run away.

Then I started studying geology.

And then I went back.

And found myself disappointed St. Helens is sleeping.

The scorch marks in the parking lot are faded now. The dome isn’t steaming. The seismometers on her slopes are quiet. And I wished she’d wake up. I wished she was busy dome-building again. I wished I could stand on the viewing platform at Johnston Ridge and watch her put on a show. Not a big one, mind, but just a little something for the kids. Cujo and Steamforged had never seen her in person before. I had the new camera. C’mon, girl, just a little plume for your old buddy Dana. I wrote you a get-well card when you blew apart in ’80, remember?

No such luck. But it doesn’t matter if she’s erupting or not – she’s still spectacular. The blast zone is still a virtual moonscape, despite all the wildflowers and alders. You just don’t get to see bald slopes and deep, wild erosion in western Washington. There’s nothing like a VEI-5 eruption to clear away all that pesky biology.

We took the long climb from the parking lot to Johnston Ridge Observatory. At first, the ridge hides the mountain. She peeks at you, gradually comes into view, and you almost don’t notice because you’re goggling at the downed trees and nearly-naked slopes of the blast zone.

Note the biology starting to get all uppity. I think we need another VEI-5 to teach it a lesson. Yes, it’s pretty; yes, that’s how western Washington’s supposed to be, but damn it, it’s beginning to block the geology views.

And yes, that’s a bit of the crater rim rising above the bushes. Stick with me. A few more feet of climbing, and you’ll see views.

Reach the top, stand on the shoulder of the ridge, and gaze into the amphitheater left by the 1980 eruption. After you’ve managed to unstick your awestruck feet, walk toward the Observatory. There’s another rise, and nestled at the base of that rise, facing the mountain, a monument.

The names of the dead are chiseled in black against the gray stone. Mount St. Helens killed, because we didn’t understand her. We didn’t know quite what to expect of her, or where the safe places were, or took risks for science, or adventure. Harry Truman stayed in his cabin with his cats, too old and too stubborn to flee his beloved mountain.

David A. Johnston died on this ridge. He had time for one last radio transmission: “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” I don’t know how much time he had to realize he wasn’t getting out. Two miles to the north, also directly in the path of the blast, ham radio operator Jerry Martin knew what was coming: he’d just seen David Johnston die. “Gentlemen, the uh, camper and the car sitting over to the south of me is covered,” he said in his last transmission. “It’s gonna get me, too. I can’t get out of here.”

You can hear David’s last words, in a film at the Observatory named for him. And after the movie, the screen goes up, the curtain rises, and there she is.

 Stand there for a moment of silence, then go on.

Inside the Observatory, they have some pretty outstanding displays. They’ve got a huge scale model that lights up, illustrating various phases of the eruption as a narrator speaks.

This one, I think, was showing the pyroclastic flows.

And some of the lahars:

I have a terrible feeling lots of folks have walked away thinking St. Helens spewed rivers of molten lava, but oh well. I wasn’t paying that much attention to it, aside from ooing at the sparkles. No, there was another thing there that demanded attention: a display that you could put your hands on to “feel” earthquakes and other seismic events, with a screen showing you what the seismometers had picked up (running elk, helicopter landing, rock breaking, landslide, various earthquakes) and the thing would shake and shake. This, I have to tell you, could keep a person occupied for hours. Wish I had thought to take a picture, but I was too busy playing with it.

Outside in the Plaza, there’s one of those USGS markers I love so much:

We stayed for the ranger talk, which I’ll be writing up, and then headed out. One last look back:

And then on down to a viewpoint overlooking Castle Lake, where the late evening light and several enthralled people compliment the mountain perfectly.

And with that, the summer adventuring season is well and truly at an end. Good thing, too. I’ve got so much geology to write up I’ll probably still haven’t have gotten it all by the time next summer rolls round.

Ending it here, with the mountain that introduced me to the splendid power of volcanic eruptions at the tender age of 5, seems fitting. Mount St. Helens has been part of my consciousness for nearly the entire span of my memory. She was the most spectacular event of my childhood. She’s become a part of me, she and the people who were caught up in that day of catastrophic destruction.

She’ll likely put on another eruptive display before I die, and unlike me, she won’t grow old. She’ll constantly be tearing herself down and building herself back up, long after we are gone. There’s something very nearly timeless in that, although she’s not eternal. She’s a moment in geological time. But what a moment she is!

"Adorers of the Good Science of Rock-breaking"

“Make them like me adorers of the good science of rock-breaking,” Charles Darwin told Charles Lyell once, long ago. This, from a man who also once said of Robert Jameson’s lectures on geology and zoology, “The sole effect they produced on me was the determination never as long as I lived to read a book on Geology.” That, of course, was before Adam Sedgwick lectured him in geology and took him out for field work, which seems to have done the trick. He did read another book on geology, Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which became his constant companion on his voyage with the Beagle. The concepts of geology prepared him to think in deep time. Without his passion for geology, without deep time sinking deep in his mind, the theory of evolution that changed the world might not be Darwin’s.

Outcrop on Doherty Ridge. Photo by Cujo.

I have become, like Darwin, an adorer of the good science of rock-breaking.

It’s a love that bloomed late. It’s always been there, since I was little and wondered at the mountains rising in my back window; at the vast chasm in the ground that revealed billions of years; at the sea that had become fields of stone. But just a bud, tucked away, unopened. I thought I knew what I wanted and needed from life: a degree in some sort of writerly discipline, like English or maybe History, until I decided the additional debt I’d have to take on wouldn’t teach me any more than I could teach myself, and I left academia for the world of daytime wage-slavery and nighttime scribbling. I set geology aside, because what a fantasy writer needed couldn’t be found in earth and stone. So I thought. I searched the stars, delved into physics, waved fondly to geology on my way to geography. I knew the basics: plates moved, mountains rose where they crashed. Enough to determine the shape of an imaginary world, wasn’t that?


And there was the small matter of a subduction zone, now: I’d moved away from the fossil seas. I didn’t understand this terrible and beautiful new place. It wasn’t a landscape I’d grown up with. So I explored it a bit, and the more I explored, the more I needed to understand, the more I realized a story world should be so much more than an ocean with a few haphazard continents sketched in. I wanted to understand this world so that I could understand that. So I delved, deep, into deep time, into continental crust and ocean floor. I turned to books on geology. They weren’t enough. I found a few geobloggers. They were more, still not enough. I began writing geology in order to understand it, because there’s no better way to learn than by teaching someone else. And it still wasn’t enough.

The more I learned, the more I realized I didn’t know.

And that isn’t precisely the problem. If it was, I could decide that knowing a little more than most is quite enough to be going on with, and settle down, content with my little gems of knowledge. If I’d just stayed a bit more ignorant, it would have been okay.

There’s a metaphor that explains why those few shining gems, no matter how many more I acquire, will never be enough. It’s in the story I’m writing right now, in which Nahash, the Serpent of the Elder Tree, is tasked with giving knowledge and wisdom to a young girl. And this is what he does, the first time they meet:

He led her round the tree, to the spring that bubbled out from between the roots, clear and deep. Another branch hung low there, and there was fruit on it, so heavy and ripe it was ready to fall. He plucked one of the fruits and turned back to her. “This fruit is knowledge. Do you see? It’s probably sweet. Could be sour. You won’t know until you’ve tasted it.” He held it out. She reached for it, but he pulled it back. “There’s something else. Once you’ve tasted it, no matter whether it’s sour or sweet, you’ll always be hungry. You’ll starve. And that water, there-” He waved at the spring. “Sweetest water in the world, maybe the whole universe, but once you’ve had a drink from it you’ll always be thirsty. Starving and parched. Is that how you want to spend your life? There are other ways of living, you know, and some of them are no less worthy. Some of them are even fun. Or so I’ve heard.”

She held out her hand, but didn’t speak.

“Are you quite sure? Because there’s no going back, you know. Not ever.”

Should I ever become a famous speculative fiction author, people will accuse me of being autobiographical. And, aside from the fact that I was an adult when I ate that fruit and drank that spring water, and didn’t actually munch unidentified fruit and drink from the spring of an actual World Tree Serpent, they’ll be quite correct. This is completely autobiographical. Since taking a bigger bite and a deeper drink from the fruit and springs of science, especially geology, I’ve been starving and parched. I’m desperate enough for more that I’ve considered going deep into debt for a degree I may never earn a living from. I’d beggar myself to get a full meal, and I know I’d walk away with a $30,000+ tab, and I’d still be starving. Add several fistfuls of dollars for grad school, and I’d still feel I hadn’t had more than a bite to eat and a drop to drink.

There’s no going back, now I’m an adorer of the good science of rock-breaking. There’s no end to it, you see. It’s a vast old Earth, and there’s no way for any of us to know everything about it. And even if we could, have a look out in space – lots more planets out there, all unknown, all fascinating, all with incredible rocks to break.

On Doherty Ridge, with George’s rock hammer. Photo by Cujo.

Anne Jefferson asked, “If you are a geology enthusiast but not professional… what do you wish you could get in additional formal and informal education? What would you like from geosciences students, faculty, and professionals that would make your enthusiasm more informed and more fun?”

And these are the things I’ll say to you professionals and pending professionals, you professors and students, you who have careers at surveys and for companies:

Do not withhold your passion.

If there’s a book within you, write it. Let your love pour onto the page. Put as much of your knowledge and wisdom into words as you are able, and get it into my hands. You don’t even need a publisher in this digital age: you can upload it as an ebook. I’ll take whatever you’ve got. And if you need a wordsmith’s help, well, you know where to find me.

If something fascinates you, blog it. Even if it’s complicated and you think it’s of doubtful interest to anyone outside of the geotribe, post it up there where I can see it. If you love it enough to spend time explaining it, chances are I’ll love it enough to spend time doing my best to comprehend it.

If you’ve written a paper, share it. Blog about it, maybe even offer to send me a .pdf if you can. There’s a huge, expensive double-barrier between laypeople and papers: the language is technical and hard, and the journals charge so much that even if we’re willing to put in the work, we may not have the funds. We’ve already spent our ready cash on books and rock hammers and various, y’see. But if you’re allowed to send out a copy, and you can give me an iota of understanding, I’ll read it, struggle with it, combine it with those other precious bits of knowledge until I’ve made some sense of it.

Show me what you see. Post those pictures of outcrops. If we’re in the same neighborhood with some time to spare, put those rocks in my hands. I know you’ve got a career and a family, and can’t lead many field trips, but if you can take even a few of us out, do it. We’ll happily keep you in meals, beer and gas money just for the chance to see the world through your eyes, in real time and real life.

Answer questions as time allows.

Point us at resources.

Let us eavesdrop on your conversations with other geologists and geology students.

And hell, if you want to make some spare cash, and you’re not in a position where there might be a conflict of interest, consider teaching some online classes for a fee. There’s plenty of us who can’t quite afford college, but could scrape together some bucks for the opportunity to learn something directly from the experts.We’d practically kill for that opportunity, but the days when you were allowed to break rocks in prison are pretty much over, so there’s not quite as much incentive to break the law.

In other words, mostly do what you’re doing now, with maybe a few added extras.

That’s what those of us without the cash for a college degree and not even a single community college class on offer need. We just need you to share as much as you can, challenge us as much as you can.

And you there, with the students: make them, like me, adorers of the good science of rock-breaking. Send them out into the world with passion, a hammer, and a desire to babble to the poor starving, parched enthusiasts hoping for just one more bite to eat and drop to drink.

Lockwood, Dana, rocks and rock hammer on Doherty Ridge. Photo by Cujo.

This post is dedicated to the geobloggers who adopted me, answer questions and write remarkable posts and answer my plaintive “I can haz pdf?!” cries with a grin and a quick email. Dedicated most of all to Lockwood, who taught me how to properly break a rock, and gave me such rocks to break! Thanks will never be enough, so when you’re next in the Pacific Northwest, my darlings, I shall give you a fine road cut (or several), a substantial meal, and more than one beer. And I meant what I said about being your wordsmith, should you ever need help writing a book.

Yeah, About That Lighthouse….

It was barely bloody visible. No matter. We had one of those glorious, rare, clear, and very warm days that would have led to some spectacular views. Only, those glorious, rare, clear and very warm days have led to quite a lot of forest fires, so there was a remarkable amount of smoke in the air, cutting visibility considerably.


Still. ‘Twas lovely. The sun shone, waves crashed, and I got me feet wet. Not bad as far as possibly last adventures of the summer season go. I’d been missing the Sound. Our adventures this summer involved more fire than water, and it just seems obscene to live half an hour from one of the most beautiful bodies of water on earth and not get out to see it.

We went to Alki Point. From there, you can see just about everything round Seattle that makes it so geologically interesting. Shall we take a tour? We don’t even have to walk about much.


We saw a lighthouse. Sorta. If you enlarge this photo by lots, you’ll see the lighthouse at Discovery Park standing at the very end of land, there. And you can see those wonderful bluffs I’m so enamored with.

Continuing on…

As we walked toward the sandy part of the beach, the Space Needle caught my attention, and then this set of steps with waves splashing exuberantly up against it, and the visual artist part of my soul grabbed my throat and said, “You will stand here and take five billion pictures of this until you have one you are satisfied with.”  So I did:

Splash and Space

If you look closely, just to the left of the Space Needle, you’ll notice the Cascades are visible. They’re mere shadows through the haze on the horizon, but they’re there. Seattle is a city surrounded by mountains, and sometimes you even get to see them.

Speaking of Cascades, we got a rare view of Mount Baker:

Mount Baker

It’s still weird to me, living in a city with views of so many stratovolcanoes that look like nothing so much as ice cream cones. It doesn’t matter how hot the summer gets, they’re always coated in snow, and they’re so adorably round. They probably won’t look so round and innocent when they erupt, but at least they’ll put on a good show. If Baker goes boom, I’ll probably hare off to Alki to enjoy the fireworks, weather permitting.

I mentioned smoke. It clung to the horizon, and at times did some very fascinating things, like stream up islands:


And yup, the Olympics were out, too. They’re big. You don’t get a sense of how big most days, with most of them hidden by clouds, but here on a clear day, you get a sense of their enormity. And we saw a fire start up there. Observe:

No fire

No wildfire up my sleeve, ladies and gentlemen. Now I’m going to perform a distracting little gesture with, oh, say, my foot, and then poof!


We watched it grow from just a little wisp of a hint of smoke to this mushroom cloud. Here’s a better view:

Boat and Blaze

This appears to be the Big Hump fire, caused by some idiot, and busily munching along in the understory. It still amazes me that anything at all burns on this side of the state, but we haven’t had rain for a bit. Hence all the bloody fires, most of which are burning on the dry side of the state. Oregon’s got its own excitement as well. That’s what you get when all the biology dries out and things spark. So let me just say this right now, folks: no matter how damp a place seems, please be ultra-careful with any burny things. I know we geo-types joke about napalming the forest, but we don’t really mean it. Much. And we’d rather it not burn down, thanks ever so much.

Here endeth the PSA and the obsession with fire. Let’s feast our eyes on some color, shall we?


This is one of the things I love about the Sound: when it’s blue, it’s blue – but also green, all these lovely bright jewel tones that make the whole world seem just that much more brilliant.

It looks all inviting and stuff, but be careful if you can’t resist and dive in. This is northern Pacific water. That means it’s capital-C cold.

Moi getting cold feet

That’s why you’ll only catch me in it up to my ankles. I am a wuss. But a very happy wuss.

On the way back to the car, we noticed an extraordinarily fat seagull on the prowl. Do not leave bags unattended unless you want them filched by a fat bird:


I don’t know why, but I find this kind of behavior hilarious.

On the other side of the point, I caught sight of a cute little diving bird. I have no idea what it is, but did I mention cute?

Diving bird

How do I know he’s a diving bird? Because I watched him dive a few times. They stay under a rather long time, actually, and then pop back to the surface like ping pong balls.

The sun was starting to get a bit low, and you know me – I can’t resist a good glitter:


Nor a majestic mountain. Mount Rainier completes our collection of Cascades volcanoes visible from Seattle:

Mount Rainier

The views round here really are remarkable.

And, if you try hard enough, and go to the end of an alley, at last, you will see a lighthouse:

Alki Lighthouse

And with that, summer adventuring season is pretty much finished. Nice enough finale. And don’t worry – there shall be plenty more pictures – we’ve had enough adventure to keep us in write-ups all winter long.

The Long Reach of Mount Mazama

A caldera eruption is a massively violent thing. We’re not talking the quiet calderas in shield volcanoes like Mauna Loa and Kilauea, which love erupting and frequently pour burning hot stuff all over the landscape, but generally stick to easygoing lava flows that allow people to get out of the way. We’re not even talking about Fernandina Island, which had a caldera collapse in 1968 and is too dangerous for Galapagos-goers to visit. No, we’re talking about the kinds of eruptions that happen fast, big and explosively.

We’re talking about the kinds of eruptions that hurl ash and pumice so high and so far that the landscape for hundreds or thousands of miles around is blanketed in thick, choking ash. We’re talking about eruptions that bury landscapes for hundreds of square miles in pumice fields tens of feet thick.

We’re talking about the kind of eruption whose traces are still fresh and clear more than seven thousand years later.

Road cut through Mount Mazama pumice, Route 58

It’s hard to wrap your mind around this, but here we are: over thirty miles from Mount Mazama as the crow flies. Only now have we come near the northern boundary of the pumice fields, and they are still between six and eight feet thick.

Perspective time. I’m standing in a place where, if I’d been able to stand still during the fallout from the eruption, I’d have been over my head in pumice. Over thirty miles away, not in the path of any lahars or pyroclastic flows or any such excitements, and if I’d had a one-story house, it would have been buried to the eaves. And, people, these aren’t itty-bitty bits of pumice. Stuff landing here reached up to nearly two inches long.

Mount Mazama Pumice, collected at the road cut on 58

Now, pumice is light, I grant you that. But it’s not exactly aerodynamic. Toss it up in the air, and it doesn’t take very long to come back down. So just imagine the force needed to hurl one and two inch chunks of it over thirty miles to land in blankets that would have buried even basketball players standing on their tip-toes.

It’s difficult to imagine. We just haven’t had many events like that in our living memory. In fact, when my intrepid companion and I got to talking about caldera eruptions the other day, I had to ask Erik Klemetti when the last one was. Mount Pinatubo fits the bill: maclargehuge eruption with worldwide consequences that left a caldera nearly two miles across. Note that Erik called that a “small” caldera collapse! It’s the closest to Mount Mazama we’ve come in the information age.

Then there was the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. Krakatau. Tambora. That last was the largest eruption in recorded history. I mention this because Pinatubo was a measly VEI 6. A piddly little colossal eruption. Mount Mazama, on the other hand, rated up there with Tambora: a VEI 7. Super-colossal.

And it has left its mark, so far away.

Pumice Flats

 In the background, there are mountains, yes. In the foreground, flat or gently-rolling land. When Mount Mazama spewed its guts all over the landscape, it filled in valleys and leveled things out. The pumice-filled ash doesn’t hold moisture well, so the scrappy Ponderosas, already in the rain shadow of the Cascades, are even more starved for water. This isn’t a land that supports riots of vegetation. The only things that survive here are those used to doing without.

Mount Mazama Pumice mixed with cinders. I should get a centimeter scale tattooed on my thumb, shouldn’t I?

Close to the road, you’ll notice all these lovely red and black bits mixed in with the yellow-white pumice. Those are cinders, trucked in and scattered on the road for traction on snowy winter days. I have to admit something to you: my heart did a little bound of joy, because that’s what the roadsides in Flagstaff look like (usually minus the large pieces of pumice, but not always – we’ve got a stratovolcano that liked coating the area in pyroclastics, too). Things weren’t so colorful before people came along and started spreading cinders on the roads. Just tough green plants, tan ash, and pale pumice as far as the eye could see.

Mount Mazama Pumice and cinders at top of cut

I scrambled to the top of the cut to try to get away from contaminating cinders. No such luck. But I got to see scenes that could have come from my childhood: Ponderosa pines doing their best to make a living, scrubby little bushes with water-miser leaves, and plenty of dead wood, all fighting to hold on to loose, ashy, easily-drained ground. It’s a small hill, not much taller than I am, but a hell of a climb in all that loose stuff. Little clouds of ash puffed up and coated my shoes. Moisture seemed sucked instantly from my skin. It smelled of volcanic earth and pine resin, and if you’ve never smelled that before, you’re in for a treat. It’s one of the most beautiful scents on earth.

And as you stand there, you ponder the force it takes to create a landscape like this, and your poor brain boggles. Thing is, this is only the beginning. By journey’s end, you may just feel you’ve experienced a caldera eruption inside your own skull.

Ye olde indispensable references:

Roadside Geology of Oregon: Especially the marginalia, oddly enough.

Erik Klemetti: My go-to man for all things volcano, even on a Sunday, even on a holiday weekend.

Anne Jefferson: Who is not just a master of floods, it turns out, but knows some kick-ass volcanoes such as Fernandina.

Lockwood DeWitt: Tour guide of Oregon geology extraordinaire, and without whom I wouldn’t have known what the hell I was seeing.

Interlude With Dragonfly

I wish I could promise you drama. However, aside from some very nice scenery, Highway 58’s about the least-dramatic road through the Cascades. When you reach Willamette Pass and stop by Odell Lake, you don’t really feel as though you’ve just reached the mid-point through some of the most dramatic mountains in the United States. Sure, they explode occasionally, but they haven’t exploded round here just lately. You haven’t even climbed very much – you’re at a mere 5,000 feet. There’s some nice pointy peaks surrounding you, but it’s not like you’ve been on a steep climb with hairpin turns through them. You don’t feel like you’ve really worked for it.

Which is fine, because that’s left you nice and relaxed and in a mood to amble round photographing pretty things. There’s even a helpful sign that tells you what you’re photographing:

Hard to be sure, but that could be Diamond Peak there in the distance

Rather not what one expects in a shield volcano, is it? But that’s what it is – a great big shield volcano composed of fifteen cubic kilometers worth of basaltic andesite. That’s lots. And it’s thought to be fairly young – around 100,000 years or so, which in geologic terms means it’s barely out of diapers.

I know, I know. You’re looking at its jaggedy profile and saying, “Dana, my dear, that looks more like a stratovolcano.” Well, yes, of course it does. It stopped erupting before the last ice age ended, and the ice did a number on it. Ice is quite the artist (not Vanilla Ice, but actual ice, mind). It sculpted and carved and removed bits until this nice, sharp diamond shape was left.

And it left a rather nice lake, as well.

A bit of Odell Lake

The glacier that covered this area carved out a nice basin, then closed it off with a terminal moraine, and left the lake behind. The Cascades are riddled with these high mountain lakes, and they’re all quite lovely. Not warm. But pretty.

I’d have quite a few more pictures of mountains and so forth, only I came across this wonderful wee beastie as I was pottering about:

An unexpected dragonfly

Well, you know I’m mad for these things. And this poor bloke was dying. When I saw him, he was a bit pathetically crumpled up, on his back, and just looking miserable lying there on the bare shoulder pavement. I didn’t want him to finish the last moments of his life by being squished under a tire, so I scooped him up. He spent a comfortable few moments on my knee:

A fine fellow

And he didn’t seem much fussed by the whole thing. He just rested there calmly, and I thought, I’ll never have a better opportunity to photograph a dragonfly’s eyes. Only I’m a softhearted silly person who won’t reposition a dying dragonfly for her own gain, so I bunged the camera in front of him and hoped for the best, although I couldn’t see where we were aiming:

Dragonfly eyes

Looks a bit insouciant, doesn’t he just? Rather like he’s bellying up with an elbow on a bar, about to order a cold one. I liked him very much, and wished there was some reasonable way to prevent nature taking its course, but of course there’s not. You can’t rush an elderly dragonfly to the hospital and demand emergency resuscitation. So after a bit, I just eased him off into the weeds, where nature could finish taking its course without intervention from half a ton of passenger vehicle. I took one last photo, with my hand for scale, so you can have an idea of how very large he was:

Goodbye, dragonfly

My index finger is about 3 1/2 inches from knuckle to tip, for those who like precision. That translates into a seriously large dragonfly. I’m very nearly sure he’s one of the darners, but they all look so similar I’m not sure exactly which he might be.

Strangely, these skinny creatures with their transparent wings don’t feel delicate. Their little legs are sturdy, and their bodies hard and smooth. Even though this one had one pair of feet over the Styx, he seemed quite tough. They’re even quite tough after hitting the hood of a Honda Civic at 60 miles per hour – we ended up with one plastered to the front during the trip, and while everything else had spattered, it was still a whole, recognizable dragonfly, although a bit crispy and very, very deceased. I have even more respect for these guys after seeing that. They’re certainly not as dainty as they look.

After savoring my closest encounter with a dragonfly yet, we drove on. Hang on, my darlings, because it’s about to get a wee bit explosive.