July 11, day four of our camping trip to Mono Lake, day 192 of One New Thing. We are once again with our new best friends. (As a special treat, my first set of pictures – just below the break – comes from Carlo. These were actually taken the day before, but I just got them, and they are too great to skip. The pictures will tell you all you need to know about why we got along so well with Michelle and Carlo.) We meet up with them for our trip into the youngest volcano in North America: Panum Crater. This little baby is only 600 years old, and though she’s napping soundly, she could wake up any time. (Panum Crater is right next door to Mono Lake – 15 slow, bumpy minutes away by van – which is one of the oldest lakes in the world.) Our whole trip has been remarkably free of other tourists (barring last night’s event at the Mobil station
) and today is no exception. The four of us head off along the dusty trail, happy to be climbing in the breezy morning rather than in the wilting heat of an afternoon.
* * *We interrupt this narrative for a few moments of pure silliness.* * *
* * *And now, back to our regularly scheduled program.* * *
Panum Crater doesn’t look like much from a distance, just a big jumble of rocks, rocks, and more rocks. And to be honest, at no point does it ever look like much more than that. I expected to be hiking a trail along the perimeter of an obvious crater, maybe with black lava walls and perhaps even a sleeping-dragon’s wisp of steam rising from the obvious, deep-down center. Um, no. I had heard about huge obsidian towers, and I imagined them shining and flashing in the sun like black glass obelisks. Again: no.
But please don’t get the impression that I was disappointed, exactly. I just needed a slight expectation adjustment. After all, it was a beautiful day, we were with wonderful companions, and there truly was lots to see and enjoy.
And the variety of rocks, pebbles, stones and boulders was incredible. Much of the rock is pumice, which is formed by minerals frothing in the volcano’s explosion, leaving the resulting rock full of teeny-tiny air pockets, making it extremely light, though it doesn’t look light. Obsidian, which is like black glass, is the same chemical composition as pumice, but very different in weight, texture, appearance. . . everything. Plus there are these things called breadcrust bombs. When the volcano exploded, wicked hot stuff shot into the air. It cooled very quickly, forming a crust around the still hot center. As the center cooled, it expanded, cracking the crust, just like what happens to a loaf of bread when it bakes.
And then there are the big pictures.
I want to express my extreme gratitude here for my amazing healing-machine of a body. Just over thirteen months ago I had a new ACL made for me out of my hamstring (the original ACL snapped clean through when I fell off a ladder), and some tidying up done on a badly torn lateral meniscus. Now I can climb rocks like a mountain goat, and, in fact, was often up ahead of my companions, seeing if there was a way through. I consider this nothing short of miraculous!
Love this skeleton of an ancient, giant tree.
Um, oh, wait, maybe it’s not so giant after all!
These look like ordinary, weigh-a-ton boulders. Truth is, they’re pumice, and are comparably very light.
It’s a crazy place, Panum Crater. Little things look big, things that should be heavy aren’t, distances are warped. . . sort of like my sense of humor. There was a lovely moment as I was walking a ways ahead of Michelle. Beth and Carlo were nowhere in sight. I saw a deep depression in the rock bed up ahead, and was suddenly seized with an uncontrollable urge. I’d be hidden from view in every direction, if I hurried. . . . Quick as thought, I raced into that private place and peed! It’s not like I even needed to! I just suddenly thought, Hey! I never peed on a volcano before! And so I did.
The morning was over, but we weren’t. None of us had gone swimming in Mono Lake, and that was definitely on our to-do lists. We were all hot and tired from our volcano hike, and a dip in the lake sounded nice and refreshing. Well, sort of. As I mentioned before, Mono Lake is 2-1/2 times saltier than the ocean, in addition to being highly alkaline. First off, shoes on or off? I opted for on, and I was glad I did. The process that built the tufa towers continues to this day under the water, and, until we got out a ways to the sandy areas, the lake bottom was sharp and crunchy-crumbly, not at all comfortable. The day was coolish and breezy, so I needed to get myself under the water and stay there or I’d be freezing. I meant to duck-walk until the water got deeper, but it was so salty that my legs kept floating up to the surface! I ended up all crunched up and walking on my hands instead of my feet, while fighting to keep my feet in the water so I wouldn’t fall over backwards. It was hilarious! No pictures, though, since we were all in the lake. Eventually I borrowed Michelle’s cap and put it over my face (I was badly sunburned already), then laid myself out on the surface of the water. I couldn’t have sunk if I’d tried! I just lay there, and the movement of the water gave me a lovely massage as I let all the tension release out of my body. Lovely! However, every time I stood up out of the water, I got very staggery, almost drunk-dizzy. I don’t understand why. But the same thing happened to Michelle. I don’t know about Carlo, but neither Michelle nor Beth really enjoyed being in the lake. I loved the floating, and I didn’t want to get out, but I was getting too cold for comfort.
We’d heard that if you put clothes in the lake, they’d come out completely clean because of the alkalinity. Naturally, I’d brought a bunch of white things with me for experimentation. But after being in the water, my hair was, well, grotesque is the word that comes to mind. It felt absolutely disgusting, dry and stiff and like straw, only really, really dry and filthy straw. So I pretty much nixed the idea of doing laundry in that water. However, I still wanted to experiment, so I pulled out the pair of socks I’d worn on my last camping trip that refused to come clean. After all, it’s not like they could get any worse. And, in fact, they didn’t. But they didn’t get any better either.
I thought we were done for the day, but not quite. Michelle pointed up the beach, to what I’d thought was a long, low faded fence of some kind. Nope, it was a new kind of tufa – sand tufa. These things look quite different from the lumpy bumpy tufa towers at South Tufa (we were east of South Tufa at Navy Beach), are much smaller, and supposedly can be so soft that they’ll crumble if you touch them (so we were very careful!).
It was a long day. Now, with my hair feeling like I’d been asleep in a desert crypt for centuries, it was time to head back to our campsite for a wash (with maybe a brief detour into town for ice cream). We hugged and hugged and hugged Michelle and Carlo; who knows if and when we may see them again? The next day we were all headed home. But we took with us great memories, and lots of pictures!
Have you done something new today?