Day 34: El Malpais – Not So Mal


The morning arrived clouded and cool, thank goodness, after the cooker which was yesterday.

My brain was slow to unfog this morning, the thick, dark, sky drowse-inducing, as we dutifully followed cairns through slash piles for fire management. A gash opened in the ground, and Prana stuck his head and lamp down in. “Stalactites!” he announced. I leaned in too. Stalactites!

A few miles in GT passed us, and a couple of miles later we saw him taking a break. Prana had told me in their previous chat GT had revealed memorizing poems on trails, and when I asked him about The Ballad of Sam McGee, he offered to recite it. We plopped down next to him- what a treat! At the last stanza the rain began to fall, and Prana and I donned rain layers as GT opened his bright red umbrella. On a wide, quiet dirt road, we walked three abreast and talked, the mist swirling around us.

At a strategic break before joining the noisy highway, we gathered under the protection of a ponderosa and GT recited the Ballad of Blasphemous Bill as we snacked. Another poem I knew, the familiar favorite lines twice as delightful.

The rain and clouds made the greens of the plants pop, saturating the jewel tones against the black and maroon world. The world became exotic, jungle-y, the cinder cone craters rising mythically out of the forest around them.

Rough edged lava piled upon itself like a wave forever about to break upon the road, and a freshly cindered crater rose at the far end of the field – freshly in the geologic sense. Most of the lava field seemed barely weathered, and the flanks of the cone were black and red cinders with little vegetation. The Bandera Volcano, said the map; last erupted 10,000 years ago, later said Google.

We turned onto the highway, the rain increased. 3 miles to a closed bookstore that left their water tap on for hikers. Signs beckoned to tour the privately owned Bandera Volcano and Ice Cave, a detour we’d considered earlier since it included ice cream for a dollar; but the seeping drizzle and the hope for a porch at the bookstore quashed any urge that added miles. Next time, when we come back to go caving in the Big Tubes.

The 3 miles were long, cold, wet, and heavily trafficked. But a glimpse of the bookstore showed our wish was granted: a fabulous, wide, deep porch. We posted up against the back wall, pulled on puffies and warm hats, fired up stoves. A hot lunch was in order today! Hot cheesy Boursin potatoes and a big pot of lemon ginger tea with cookies lit a cozy fire in my belly. I stretched and kneaded the cork ball into my knee and calf, hoping to keep it on the upswing, as Prana moved through some yoga. The rain petered out.

Eventually the watery sun filtered through the clouds, and we packed up. The first stretch south of the book store (which, yes, was northbound for us) was on a strange raised berm, that Prana guessed was dug in the past to hold a pond on each side. Very large, very square ponds.

Red sandstone intermixed with the black and dark maroon volcanic rock and cinders, and the path led easily through the pines, where singular wildflowers fluttered their bright banner petals.

A parking area, an NPS info sign, a wide, manicured gravel pathway which was not the CDT. The star attraction lava tube caves were closed due to Covid, but a small cavern at the nature walk entrance tempted us down to investigate. Oh, I can not wait to come back when this place is open!

We followed 3 foot high cairns from the picnic area adjacent to the loop for 10 minutes before realizing that 1) we hadn’t seen a CDT marker and 2) this trail was a bit wide and plush for standard CDT. Also, the ground was charred. “Oh, that’s right,” said Prana, “I did read they were closing the trail and doing a prescribed burn on the 16th and the 17th.”

From the picnic area we found a faint slender path which matched our GPS tracks- this was more standard fare. It dropped into a lava trench- basically a lava tube without a ceiling- and flowed along the bottom. A few curves along the ground again blackened, and the strong smell of char closed in. “You’re sure this was reopened?” I asked. “Oh yeah,” Prana replied as a drift of smoke wafted behind him.

Most of the smoke was coming from stump holes, puffing from roots still burning underground. Although it would have been much nicer to camp pre-burn, the charcoal and ash wasteland did add an undeniable, apropos ambiance.

No cairns remained that we could find, or anything to signify the CDT, so we worked from our GPS and slowly picked our way through lava land rubble. The ground was a mess of cinder, wrinkles, rocks, and bowed up plates of all different sizes. Huge gaping holes lay open, roofs of lava tubes collapsed into skylights. Some of the holes seemed more like a gigantic bubble had burst, and the bottom was grassy and treed. Considering we needed to investigate each one on top of the convoluted navigating and the crazy footing, our pace was about 3/4 of a mile an hour.

It was not that late, but I was exhausted, and happy for a chance to go to bed early. The wind, of course, had worked itself into a frenzy in the afternoon, and it was impossible to find a place both out of the wind and with flat enough ground. We searched and searched, working our way up the trail, hoping a crater may offer a grassy bottom, or the lee side of a pine may block the wind. A scattering of raindrops landed. I despaired.

“Don’t worry,” said Prana, “the trail will provide.” I doubted it heartily.

We finally found a spot at the base of a split pine where the rubble was flat enough we’d be able to sleep on it. It hardly blocked the wind, but I was to the point I’d take what I could get. “I guess if it rains we can burrito roll ourselves in the tent,” I conceded.

The wind picked up, whipping though, and with its last gale, swept the clouds to the north, the sky in its wake perfectly clear. By the time Prana finished cooking, it had blown itself out. The immense relief that always follows its departure settled over me.

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