Unfolding the Map
You're not going to find any Justin Bieber jokes in this post. Nope, we're going to concentrate on volcanoes, because that's what William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) writes about in his quote. Volcanoes, as you'll learn, are another fascination of mine. So check out the map, or, if you want to see a 3D rendering of Shasta, go to the Google Earth file!
"North of Bieber, on a whim, I followed the road to Lookout. In the high valley lay marshes filled with yellow-headed blackbirds, pintails, cinnamon teals, willets, Canada geese. The highway rose again into another volcanic region. Mount Shasta, sixty miles west, isolated by its hugeness, haloed in clouds, looked like a Hokusai woodcut of Mount Fuji. Perhaps it is the immensity of space around Shasta or the abundance of high peaks in the West that diminishes a mountain of such size and perfection in the American imagination, but in almost any other country, a volcano so big and well-made as Shasta would be a national object of reverence - as in fact it once was to the first men who lived under it."
Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 1
Volcanoes. When I was growing up in northern California, I never realized how close they were to me. Volcanoes were something that I'd see in the news every so often. A South American volcano might blow its top, sending ash and steam high in the sky. Occasionally, footage on TV would show hot, viscous lava oozing from a vent in a Hawaiian volcano.
The fact was that I was living almost in the shadows of volcanoes right in my back yard, and nobody told me. Mount Lassen and Mount Shasta were both within a 2-3 hour driving distance from my home. However, because my family never drove further north or east than we had to, I never learned that these were dormant volcanoes. I thought of them as snow capped peaks somewhere to the east.
This was too bad, because in many ways I was fascinated with volcanoes, in the way that a little boy is always fascinated with things that are hot and fiery and explode. I was also fascinated with war because of the explosions, air disasters, atomic weapons and other things or events that carried a loud, destructive bang. The caveat: they had to be at a distance because, and this applies even now, I don't like loud bangs and this was worse when I was a child. As long as I could see them on TV where the volume was muted, or read about them in a book, I loved explosions.
So I read avidly about volcanoes around the world. I learned that the volcano on Krakatoa erupted in what was perhaps the loudest and largest explosion in recorded history, obliterating a good portion of the island, sending a shock wave thousands of miles, and generated a powerful tsunami. I thrilled reading about the people mummified alive in the volcanic eruption that buried Pompeii. I watched with fascination as footage on TV and in educational films showed a new island being born off the coast of Iceland. And of course, I was riveted to the television during high school, watching over and over the footage from Mount St. Helens when it blew its side out in a massive explosion that killed a number of people, sent steam and ash into the atmosphere, caused hot boiling mud to cascade down canyons and rivers, and rained ash upon Portland, Oregon and other cities over a wide area.
Years later, in Albuquerque on a vacation, I realized that the conical projections on the mesa west of the city, and which can be easily seen from where I now live, were in fact the remnants of small, dead volcanoes. They formed between 150,000 and 100,000 years ago along a fissure in the earth's crust. As we traveled on that vacation in the state's Jemez Mountains, we chanced upon the Valles Caldera, a huge collapsed-in crater of an extinct supervolcano that measures about 12 miles in diameter. This volcano erupted last about 50,000 years ago. South of Albuquerque, near Socorro, the El Malpais lava flows are so recent that the first humans in the area may have seen them still smoking. Today, the lava flows look like someone took black soft-serve ice cream and dumped it along the freeway where it congealed and hardened.
I was in San Salvador, El Salvador for a month in January 2008, and the city lived under the looming presence of a volcano. At one point during my trip, I stood on the slopes of the volcano in a coffee growing area and saw steam rising out of vents right by the trail. I never thought I'd stand on an actual working volcano, but there it was.
Volcanoes are apt metaphors for life. Our world was forged, almost as if it were a pot, through spinning forces that shaped it into a sphere. The middle of the sphere is molten, and early on that molten material spewed out and hardened into the earth's crust, which today still is shaped by forces deep within the core. The world may seem calm, placid and serene, but as the occasional earthquake erupting volcano remind us, deep within the earth is a raging maelstrom that largely supports life but occasionally brings death upon us.
We often speak of people similarly, particularly when it comes to emotions. Anger can be volcanic. I tend to be placid on the surface even as emotional storms rage within. If, like in volcanic activity, pressure builds up inside I may erupt in anger, an outburst that spews the ash and lava of my inner turmoil but which allows me to subside, pressure relieved. Love has often been described as volcanic in nature, erupting in heat and flame and subsiding again, lying dormant before raging to life again. Everything in the universe seems to have the face that is shown outwardly and conceals the raging inferno within. Volcanoes, seen in this way, just give us a glimmer of the truth of what's inside, whether it's the full face of our planet or a human volcano ready to rage, love or both.
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