Travel Journal No. 14: Lava Beds National Monument

“Hello, is anybody down there?” I shouted into the darkness. But only my voice echoed back, the familiar sound reverberating off the stony walls of the cave’s entrance. I waited, cupping my hand to my ear and hoping to hear voices or footsteps emanating from somewhere down in the dark depths of Skull Cave. The eerie silence remained as thick and heavy as its companion darkness, both seemingly ravenous, with little light and only the occasional sound of a drip of water or a fading echo making it beyond their grips.

Above me hundreds of steps twisted back to an arc of light, which was now only the size of a tennis ball in the distance. My hope was that I might see some other visitors beginning their descent.

The rock walls surrounding me were jagged and sharp-edged and looked more like the inside of a geode than the smooth tube I had expected would have been made from an ancient lava flow. Nothing seemed alive down there, instead the space felt almost sterile.

Above me, beyond the mouth of the cave, lay a sage-brush desert wilderness that was full of life. Although the harsh landscape is strewn with clusters of glassy sharp–edged, porous black stones, within those intimidating fields brave manzanitas and gnarled western junipers grow, as do tufts of meadow grass and the occasional but brilliantly colorful wildflowers and rabbitbushes. When I hiked quietly I found mule deer shifting between grazing lazily and standing alert, listening, when they noticed my approach. During my drive in the night before I had to slow my truck to a crawl in order to dodge thousands of daredevil kangaroo rats as they darted back and forth across the road. 

Above, the sky at Lava Beds National Monument seemed bigger somehow — unconstrained by a valley of mountain walls or towering trees, able to stretch out toward the horizon on all sides, full of heavy cotton-ball clouds against an azure backdrop during the day and a velvet-black background scattered with shining sequins at night. Up there, out of the cave, was alive. But down where I stood it seemed the opposite, a world collapsing in on itself, vehemently expelling anything from the upper world of light. But looks can be deceiving. 

I crouched on the metal stairs. A few feet ahead lay a line of darkness where the fading evening sunlight from above abruptly ended as if a curtain had been pulled across the path. I strained to hear something familiar. And that’s when I heard it. Soft at first, growing louder as I listened. The sound was like that of lightly crumpled paper with a few clicks and high squeaks. At first I thought it might be coming from somewhere above, but as the noise grew closer it also grew in intensity. “Bats,” I thought and flicked on my headlamp before starting down the stairs into darkness. 

I’d never been to Lava Beds National Monument, which is located in the northeastern hinterlands of California, but I had learned some of its history when I studied geology and Native American history. 

The Medicine Lake shield volcano, 30 miles northeast of Mount Shasta, actively spat out eruption after eruption some 500,000 years ago, resulting in one of the finest examples of a “recent” lava flow that exists on America’s mainland. Strewn about the 46,000-acre park are – more than 700 lava-tube caves (dozens of which are accessible to hikers), fumaroles, conical cinder-cone hills, spiky spatter cones, pit craters, hornets, maars, streaming lava flows and expansive, nearly unnavigable volcanic fields. Reading about this place in books or viewing pictures pales in comparison with touching and feeling the earth’s transformative powers encapsulated in molten stone. 

Driving to the park I took Interstate 5 north, almost to Oregon, and then turned east on state Highway 161 through the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges. As I drove through the reedy, marshy wetlands the air erupted with swarms of butterflies and moths, awakened early by the year’s shorter-than-normal winter. The air, smelling of sweet hay and wet earth, enveloped me as the marshes opened onto an enormous lake where the clouds of flying Lepidoptera headed. Unbeknownst to those flying kaleidoscopic insects, waiting for their arrival were uncountable birds that represented an unbelievable diversity of species. 

Stopping my truck, I stood in awe at the lake's edge as waterfowl flocked in the air, floated on the water or gathered on the shore. The navy-blue surface of the water was only partially visible, scattered with dense clusters of shimmering green-winged teal that created a multicolored checkerboard-quilt pattern with groups of blue-gray cranes, white snow geese, and the earth tones of a dozen duck species, including wood, canvasback, goldeneye, mallard, bufflehead and others. There were coots, pelicans and even swans. In the sky, hawks, eagles and songbirds twisted and darted, feeding. Standing there I understood why the Modoc tribe, who had lived in this paradise for thousands of years, had fought so furiously to stay. 

In November 1872 a six-month war broke out between the settlers and the Modoc, who were increasingly being displaced. The Modocs’ war leader, Kientpoos — or Captain Jack as he was known by the settlers — gathered 50 warriors and 100 women and children within a natural lava fortress of deep trenches and small caves. At first the settlers and local authorities believed that sending a few hundred soldiers with guns would be enough to dislodge the group, but when they returned back to town bloodied and beaten, up to 1,000 more troops were commissioned and sent. In the end, 53 U.S. soldiers, 17 settlers, 15 Modoc warriors and five Modoc women and children had perished. The Modoc were overwhelmed by sheer numbers and the lack of supplies. Captain Jack surrendered and was hanged, while his people were sent as prisoners of war to the Quapaw Agency in Oklahoma, where nearly half soon perished of tuberculosis. In 1978 the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma was federally recognized, and eight years later so was the Klamath Tribe. 

“I am but one man. I am the voice of my people. Whatever their hearts are, that I talk. I want no more war. I want to be a man. You deny me the right of a white man. My skin is red; my heart is a white man's heart; but I am a Modoc. I am not afraid to die. I will not fall on the rocks. When I die, my enemies will be under me.” — Captain Jack, Modoc Tribe

As I plunged deeper into the earth the temperature decreased steadily and the sound of the bats’ wings increased. What had been stagnant, near-odorless air now stirred, bringing with it a musty, woolen aroma. I paused and took a deep breath. Reluctantly reaching up, I turned off my headlamp and braced myself. My feet stood firm, hands steady, palms dry. When I felt the first brush of wind near my face I kept my eyes open in the darkness, not wanting to miss anything.

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Originally published in the Napa Register, February 2018