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Entries in Mount Mazama (1)


Blue Highways: Crater Lake, Oregon

Unfolding the Map

I'm going back to a theme of volcanoes in this post.  When you read it, you'll understand how it fits in with William Leat Heat-Moon's journey of redemption, rebirth and self-discovery.  Now that we've traveled alongside him past three volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest, I'll have to visit them.  View the map to locate the almost perfectly circular Crater Lake.

Book Quote

"Mount Mazama may be the greatest nonexistent fourteen-thousand foot volcano in the country.  Actually it isn't entirely nonexistent: only the top half is.  From the upper end of the Klamath basin, you can still see a massive, symmetrically sloping uplift of the mountain base.  Some six thousand years ago, geologists conjecture, the top of Mazama blew off in a series of ruinous eruptions and the sides collapsed into the interior.

"...I got out and looked around.  A brilliant night.  Trusting more than seeing, I walked through a tunnel in a snowdrift to the craterous rim of Mazama.  There, far below in the moonlight and edged with ice, lay a two-thousand-foot-deep lake.  Klamath braves used to test their courage by climbing down the treacherous scree inside the caldera; if they survived, they bathed in the cold water of the volcano and renewed themselves.  Also to this nearly perfect circle of water came medicine men looking for secrets of the Grandfathers.  Once a holy place, now Crater Lake is only a famous Oregon tourist attraction."

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 2

Was this what William Least Heat-Moon saw from the rim of Crater Lake? Photo at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to site.

Crater Lake, Oregon

This post is back to volcanoes, but specifically, about the legends and symbolism that surround volcanoes.  You'll notice in the quote above that LHM writes about Crater Lake as a perfect circle of water, and that it drew both young Klamath men eager to test and renew themselves, and medicine men looking for secrets.  The symbolism of Crater Lake fits well into LHM's own journey, which he previously has described as circles within circles.  He is on a journey of his own renewal, so standing on the rim of the crater is very much in touch with two of the main themes of Blue Highways.

There is also the symbolism of Crater Lake's geological history.  Crater Lake is the collapsed caldera of what used to be Mount Mazama.  About seven thousand years ago, the volcano collapsed in a violent eruption that was fifty times more powerful than the explosion that obliterated the top of Mount Saint Helens in the 1980s.  Some of the accounts I've read have claimed that the ash material from such an explosion could have buried Rhode Island under 61 feet of ash, and if spread over the entire state of Oregon, would have covered it with nine inches of ash.  Volcanoes are always reshaping themselves.  The volcanoes of Hawaii do it in a slow ejection of lava which flows down the side of the volcano and builds it up during frequent eruptions and in slow motion.  However, the volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest such as Lassen, Shasta, and the now extinct Mount Mazama, do it explosively, building up pressure as a magma dome pushes toward the surface and finally explodes outward.  Sometimes, these volcanoes are the seeds of their own destruction.  In New Mexico, where I live, the sides of a volcano in the Jemez Mountains collapsed in on itself numerous times over a million years ago, creating the 12 mile wide Valles Caldera.  2 million, 1 million and 640,000 years ago, the Yellowstone Caldera formed during three supereruptions, and is 34 miles by 45 miles wide.   Similarly, the explosion of Mount Mazama created a caldera 6 miles wide when the sides of the volcano collapsed inward and upon itself.  The caldera eventually filled with water and became Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the United States at almost 2,000 feet deep.

Why is this symbolic?  I believe that everyone goes through cycles of build-up and destruction, which leads to renewal.  You might have found that themes I'm focusing on, in tandem with LHM, are those like growth and renewal.  Every cycle of growth, it seems, is preceded by some degree of destruction.  Old patterns or outdated views and thoughts need to be discarded or dismantled as the growth process works.  After all, one cannot move toward a future by desperately clinging to the past.  Volcanoes are the ultimate in this type of renewal.  No matter what, they reshape themselves by either covering over their past selves with new material, or by obliterating it.

The first humans in the area of Mount Mazama, not understanding the violent geological forces at work around and beneath them, put their own symbolic explanation upon the catastrophic events that created Crater Lake.  In their explanation, handed down through their legends, the destruction of Mount Mazama was due to a cataclysmic battle between Llao, the Lord of the Below-World and Skell, the Lord of the Above-World. Llao, on one of his frequent forays to the Above-World, saw the daughter of a Klamath chieftain and fell in love with her.  However, being from the Below-World, he was not very attractive and, well, the Below-World was not where the chieftain's daughter had planned to make her home, so she rejected him.  Angry, Llao tried to her people by fire.  They called to Skell for help.

The legend seems to indicate that at this time, both Shasta and Mazama were in eruption, because it describes a titanic battle between Llao, at the summit of Mazama and Skell, at the summit of Shasta.  Huge boulders, red-hot, were thrown by each at the other.  The earth was full of tumult - landslides, eruptions, and other phenomena raged as all the spirits of sky, water and earth joined on one side or the other.  The Klamath people, afraid of what this battle would mean for the world, sent two medicine men to the Mazama volcano and they jumped into the roiling crater hoping that their sacrifice would calm the gods.  This urged Skell on.  In a final push, he overthrew Llao and threw him into the pit of Mazama and back into the Below-World.  He then filled in the hole and covered it with water to seal Llao in for eternity.

I really love how actual geologic events transform into these types of stories by ancestral peoples who are struggling to make sense of cataclysm and catastrophe.  Besides just two gods duking it out over a woman, one can read into this myth the overcoming of dark forces by light, the redemption of a people, or a war between halves of the human whole.  And all of this runs along a chain of common human themes right up into the present day, and therefore fits with LHM's journey and his attempts to renew himself after a time of personal catastrophe.

Off in California and Oregon, two mountains still stand.  One stands high, tall, and silent and perhaps will erupt to life again in a time of upheaval and chaos.  The other stands broken, a shadow of itself, an almost perfect circle of water and a popular tourist attraction as the myths of its origins fade.  They tell a story of a dynamic and sometimes violently evolving world, but they could easily be the stories of ourselves.

Musical Interlude

In keeping with the volcano theme, this song, Cities in Dust by the 1980s band Siouxsie and the Banshees, is about the destruction of the Italian city of Pompeii by the eruption of Vesuvius in the year 79.  Volcanoes are fascinating both in their striking appearances and in their striking destructiveness.


If you want to know more about Crater Lake

Crater Lake Facts
Crater Lake National Park
Cultural History of Crater Lake
The Disappearance of Mount Mazama (from 1901)
US Geological Survey: Mount Mazama and Crater Lake
Volcano Legends
Wikipedia: Crater Lake
Wikipedia: Mount Mazama

Next up: Muir Creek and Salt Creek, Oregon