Lava Beds National Monument

At the deepest point of Heppe Ice Cave, there’s a pool of water that stays partially frozen throughout the year. When I hiked down into the cave last week, the layer of ice was visible about a foot under the water’s surface. I stood in twilight at high noon. A house finch flew down from the mouth of the cave and landed by my feet. He didn’t seem to mind me, just drank leisurely from the pool. I waited him out— watched him flutter and disappear back into the light.

Heppe Ice Cave

The Monument is 46,000 acres without a drop of surface water— only what snowmelt collects at the bottoms of lava tubes. A ranger told me that over the phone while I was planning the trip. I imagined an inhospitable landscape not capable of supporting human life, but I was terribly wrong.

Pictographs at Symbol Bridge

I didn’t take Tule Lake into consideration. Just north of the Monument, Tule Lake was massive before the Bureau of Reclamation drained most of it for irrigation in the early twentieth century. Tule Lake sustained Native populations for the last 11,000 years.

Sagebrush Mariposa Lily (Calochortus macrocarpus)

The north half of the Monument, closest to Tule Lake, was the site of the Modoc War of 1872-1873. At Captain Jack’s Stonghold, one can walk through the series of lava formations that Modoc leader Kintpuash and sixty followers used as trenches and fortification for five months. Despite their small numbers, they held off hundreds of US Army soldiers in a last-ditch attempt to protect their homeland. As a Jew, I was reminded of Masada.

Schonchin Butte Fire Lookout

Intent on catching the full moon rising, I hiked Schonchin Butte at sunset. It didn’t occur to me that it was the Fourth of July until I saw the miniature fireworks way out on the horizon. It was a terribly sad thing to see those fireworks over the battlefields, knowing that Kintpuash was ultimately hanged and the survivors were packed in cattle cars and shipped to a reservation Oklahoma.

There’s so much more to grapple with than the walls of caves.

The tenacity of life

On a trail through an aspen grove, a stranger and I stand shoulder to shoulder.  We are witness to miracle.  We are witness to exquisite mundanity. Hiking separately, we stop together to watch a doe and her fawn lap water from a mossy pool.

I have never had a church. As a child I had the old orchard at High Meadow. I met God there once and never again. God was the wind and the wind was so strong—I got scared. From that point on, I looked in at religious communities from the outside.  I was always outside.

I am from a part of the country where we don’t smile and we don’t say hello. We don’t make eye contact and we don’t strike up conversation—unless we’re on a hiking trail. The trail is the only place I’ve ever known people to come together and genuinely extol the beauty of life. The goodness of humanity overwhelms.

A Jewish mystic once told me we are walking through the consciousness of God.  On the streets of Jerusalem, it was easy to believe. Here too, eyes locked with the curious doe.

A few years ago I was working and living in Rocky Mountain National Park. On a Sunday morning, I made a little pilgrimage to the alpine tundra.  Above treeline, the wind whips relentlessly and wildflowers grow very close to the rocky ground. I noticed a woman on the side of the trail with a hand lens and knelt beside her to ask if I could see what she was looking at.  Dwarf clover and alpine forget-me-nots. “Isn’t it incredible,” she asked me, “the tenacity of life?”

In my memory now she is nameless, faceless, but her words have stuck to me like sap to skin. I think of her when I see bristlecone pines, fireweed, or scar tissue. Millipedes, pale and minuscule, crawling across a cave floor. Pronghorns in the snow. A mother surviving her own grief.  These words echo in every moment of awe.