Lava Plains

The High Desert of Central Oregon takes many forms. There are valleys and canyons, ridges and peaks, and then there are the plains that rest on miles of once-fluid basalt. Newberry Volcano has been active for well over half a million years and its influence is easy to see in the flat expanses of juniper, sagebrush, and ponderosa that rest atop ancient igneous rocks. Outcroppings of bubbly volcanic rock break the repeating pattern of shrub, bunchgrass, and sandy soil. Lava tubes run in networks underfoot, reminders of the days when the land here was molten above and below ground. Though now frozen in time, there is much to explore here on the lava plains east of Bend.

In the mouth of a lava tube, we startle a prairie falcon. It’s been guarding its nest, but we’re too close for its comfort now. The raptor flies away, landing in the top of a lonely ponderosa to keep an eye on us. Soon, though, it decides it can’t let us trespass without a warning. Flying low over the sagebrush, it zips towards us and wheels around in a high turn directly over the cave. Its alarm calls make it very evident that we aren’t welcome here, but it’s difficult not to linger and observe this display of parental defense. We feel bad, though, putting this bird through unnecessary stress. We don our helmets, descend into darkness, and hopefully leave the falcon in peace.

Underground, we enter another world. There is no soil or vegetation to mask the volcanic history down here. There is only basalt, colored by the accumulation of minerals left by thousands of years of water percolating through the cracks in the ceiling and walls. Where we stand now was once a subterranean river of lava, a half-empty conduit that was previously filled with the molten rock that forged it long ago. As the basalt cooled, it built this passageway for itself, insulating its searing heat within this lava shell. The ceiling is high, the floor is rugged, and the whole thing leaves me astonished. I don’t know how many times I’ve been in lava tubes. They never get old.

Not all lava tubes are created equal. After more rambling across the sandy plains, we enter three more caves, each with their own character. In one, we reach a jumble of rocks that allows passage but only slowly. We decide to spend our time elsewhere and head back out to the world above, but we’re stopped at the mouth by two glowing eyes in a crack in the rocks. It’s a northern saw-whet owl, one of the smallest owls on the continent. This one has found a peaceful spot to rest, tucked away in this transition between the world above and the world below. We walked right past it on our way down. Now in sight, we try to disturb the owl as little as possible while still admiring its golden eyes and minuscule frame.

We turn our headlamps off, turn upslope, and leave the saw-whet in the dark it prefers.

One last foray underground leads us to one last grand spectacle. The roof of this final cave gave way long ago, and today a forest grows in the wide open skylight it created. Ponderosas soak up the last rays of light that reach into the opening while tree swallows and ground squirrels dart in and out of view. Soon, we will dart out of view ourselves. We’ll return to the world above and walk back through the bitterbrush and bunchgrass. We’ll cruise over cinder and gravel and pavement and head back towards the silhouetted peaks of the High Cascades to the west as day gracefully bows to night.

Now, though, we remain below the rim. Basalt surrounds us and harbors this hidden forest within its walls. What was once an inhospitable and unforgiving terrain of smoke and fire now flourishes with life adapted to this arid geography. The lava has cooled, just as the air cools with the setting sun. The wonderful land that this rock built is now alive, and I am thankful to be alive in it.

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