Onto the Sunset

My boots dig into the snowy slope as I descend to

Tough Life
Tough Life

the knobby rocks. They are black with holes in them as if bubbles had formed and then popped, leaving prickly surfaces. Their surface is irregular, with passages, large and small, disappearing into a darkness like that of a moonless night. The rocks grab my glove as I steady a hand on them and 

would shred my boot’s sole if I walked very far out there. Black pebbles and gravel that look like they could have been unmelted hail are spread everywhere. This is malpais territory.

Flowed Rock
Flowed Rock
Rugged imports from another place, the rocks are material taken down from some distant location, pulled toward the earth’s core, melted, and then pushed back through the crust in molten columns, destined to reach the surface and then flow like warm molasses across this place or be blown into the air and solidified into cinders. This is magma, basaltic lava, igneous, born of fire.

Poking up from the rocks and the cinders are trees, Ponderosa Pines and Aspens, some regal and some stunted, wispy strands of Apache Plume, and other shorter survivors. In Bonito Park Yellow Sunflowers adorn the meadows. Near here the bright petals of the unique Sunset Crater Penstemon defy the cinders. Birds flit among the rocks and plants.

Behind me is a large cone, Sunset Crater, rising a thousand feet. Unlike the lava flow, its surface is smoother, like a giant pebbly dune. Its nearly symmetrical shape looks like an upside-down funnel. It is a cinder cone, the result of a hole in the earth’s crust and the source of the prickly surface in front of me. To my side I see a smaller layered version of the cone, tipping yet holding its shape because the layers seem glued to each other. 

This rugged landscape looks inert. But the bold wind flowing through the trees reminds me that it not so. And seeing all this material, basalt, cinders, snow, trees, plants, that emerged to blanket the scene shows the dynamic beauty that our earth gifts to us when we really look. It is boldly wearing its game face.

What is all of this otherworldly stuff? Welcome to the San Francisco Volcanic Field, an 1,800 sq mi area with at least 600 cinder cones and at least two volcanoes within its bounds, ranging in age from six million years to nine hundred years. Sunset Crater, named because of the red, pink, and yellow shades seen at its crest, the colors of the sunset, rises up to 8,300 ft just 15 miles northeast of Flagstaff. It is in the shadow of its older and larger sibling, the San Francisco stratovolcano, once cresting at over 15,000 ft, and, having erupted like Mt. St. Helens, is now seen as the San Francisco Peaks, the highest point of Arizona at 12,600 ft. 

These peaks are named by at least ten Native American peoples, including Navajo, Apache, Acoma, 

Sacred Peaks
Sacred Peaks

Southern Paiute, Havasupai, Hualapai, Yavapai, Zuni and Hopi, who will appear again later in this post. These names arise from the power the peaks provide to bring life-giving moisture. 

Sunset Crater is a part of this field, the result of a complex eruption occurring about 900 years ago and


lasting about a century. It started with a six mile fissure oriented northeast that spewed magma, eventually covering 800 sq mi with magma and cinders. Sunset Crater is at the northeast terminus, standing 1,000 ft above its surroundings with a base a mile wide. It is one of ten cinder cones and numerous other surface structures along the fissure. This country is crowded.

If we could leave the ground and fly with the ravens that flourish here, we would see the bigger story. We would know that Sunset Crater is more than beautiful cinder cones. It has also produced two flows, one to the northwest, the Bonito Lava Flow, where I’ve been standing, and one to the east, the Kana-a, that flows toward the land of Hopi. The Bonito Flow had at least three stages. In each one the lava flowed and the cone was altered, the top perhaps slipping intact into the lava and being rafted away. But then cinders re-emerged and the cone was repaired. These cinders are found in each of the Bonito flows. Nearly one billion tons of material emerged from this eruption sequence.

Sunset Crater is now quiet and seems ancient and stable. Stable it is, but ancient it is not. The eruptions took place about 900 years ago. But the platform on which this magma flowed and cinders landed was formed in a large ocean 250 million years ago. And less than 100 road miles away is the bottom of the Inner gorge of the Grand Canyon, formed 1.4 billion years ago. Old, yes, but certainly not ancient, not by earth standards. It is one of the newest landscapes on the Colorado Plateau.

This pattern of eruption is still happening. In Mexico, in the 1940s, a similar cinder cone and associated lava 

flow appeared, as the “volcano in the cornfield”. A farmer, Dionisio Pulido, was preparing his fields for spring 


sowing outside his Michoacán village of Paracutin when he noticed large crack, over six feet wide and 150 feet long. As he continued to work, he heard thunder and felt an earthquake. 

Cornfield Volcano
Cornfield Volcano

He was terrified for himself and his family. He was concerned about the safety of his family. As he searched for and found them, the crack became a six foot hill and the Paracutin volcano was born. In nine years the cone rose to nearly 1.400 feet above the original field and destroy the town. It was the first time that scientists have been able to observe a volcano from birth through extinction. See the details

That’s how a modern witness reacted and saw. Now let’s leave the present and go back to the origins of Sunset Crater. There were humans who witnessed these events. Surveys have found pit houses buried by cinders and lava flows as well as magma molded around corn cobs. Sunset Crater was another volcano in a cornfield, but to the Sinagua and the Hopi peoples. And there is some evidence that the appearance of Sunset Crater made the population around the time of the eruption increase. Fascination with power? Fertility?

We don’t have any contact with the Sinagua people. But we do have contact with the Hopi, a group that traded and shared space with them.  Remember the Kana-a flow to the east? Following it takes us along its six mile flow and toward a legend still alive in the Hopi village of Mishongnovi, just 65 miles away. This village was present during the events of Sunset Crater and it is the subject of a legend of the “earth fire” that tells of a direct connection between eruption and the village. It is a morality tale of bounty, treachery, defiance, punishment, forgiveness, and reward. 

There was a time when a young man, Ka’naskatsina, came from the San Francisco Peaks, the home of the Katsinas, and took a wife from Mishongnovi. Things went well until some villagers became cranky and tricked the wife to betray her husband. He then left the village, returned to his village and sought a just punishment.

His elders suggested that he build a large fire to show his anger, a fire that could be seen from Mishongpovi and cause them to seek forgiveness. He did so, but the fire pit he dug was too deep and his fire brought up more fire, from below. Then the situation worsened and magma started erupting and heading east. This was the Kana-a flow. It got so bad that it threatened the safety of Mishongpovi. He didn’t want the village destroyed, just chastised, so he summoned the wind that lived in a cavern within the Bonito flow and asked that the fire be prevented from reaching the village. Mishongpovi was saved.

The villagers felt bad but the betrayers were still defiant. So the Katsinas denied rain to the village for several years. Hardship and death followed. All of the betrayers eventually died. The Katsina then took pity and forgave the remaining villagers, returning their abundance. 

Then and now Sunset Crater is a place of wonder and refreshment. The rocks, plants, wildlife and wind remind us how powerful and vibrant the earth can be, even in places that seem hostile. The stories remind us that this landscape is a homeplace. The earth is still more than a resource to be used and discarded. It is our home. If we misuse it or the life it provides to us, will pay a steep price. We can only push around for so long before it pushes back, much harder.

Please enjoy this place and these images.

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