Wander in the early morning through the rich ponderosa pine forests growing amid the foreboding black and red cinder landscape of Sunset Crater. The contrast of pink penstemon in full bloom growing in the stark black, non-reflective lava cinder fields were particularly striking.
Located about one-half hour northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona, USA, Sunset Crater National Monument is a small, very quiet unit of the National Park Service.
Part of the forested area on the western side of the park was torched at the downwind edge of a massive fire in 2009, caused by human negligence via an unextinguished backcountry campfire.
Yet, in the first growing season after the tragedy, grasses beneath dead and damaged trees already thrived from the additional nutrients sacrificed by the burned trees.
Life goes on.
Sunset Crater itself accents this volcanic field, punctuated by dozens of dramatic and colorful cinder cones, dormant since around 800 to 900 AD. Off-limits to hiking due to “loved to death” damage by visitors before you, the craters have a surrealistic but natural symmetry, precisely crafted slopes of broken stone lying at the angle of repose in hues of coral, pink, red amidst very fresh looking flows of broken ebony lava.
The array of cones festooned by statuesque ponderosa pines brings to mind the many domes and statues that crown Basilica San Marco in Venice, Italy.
Compare, if you will, if you can, this natural cathedral roof formed through a millenium of violent wars of volcanic eruption to the man-made cathedral roof formed through a millenium of violent wars of human ambition.
Back toward the west, the outlook through the meadows and trees is dominated – truly dominated – by the awesome San Francisco Peaks – 12,633 feet high at the ultimate summit. They rule over the landscape in every direction up to the visible curve of the earth.
These remnants of a single, massive, dormant (not extinct!) strato-volcano also announce only a millenium or so – before history, beyond memory, without respect. Be advised and…
Contour between the cinder cones toward the northeast, and emerge from the beautiful forest onto the high and very silent grassy steppe west of the Little Colorado River. When no car passes (and even in the 21st Century they are rare here), when no breeze blows through the trees, there is absolutely no sound except that of the then-revealed beating of your own heart.
Unobscured by forest, the prospect reaches into the mists or to a curved horizon over a hundred miles away…
As if across a limitless sea.
Century after century, lush spring green becomes fall golden grasslands punctuated with hardy Utah juniper trees, source of berries and fiber for the earlier inhabitants. The lofty desert environment is accented by delicate scenes of small undulating cliffs in riotous colors forming “steps down the steppe”, sheltering cinder sand dunes in their sinuous recesses.
Stand silently and listen to your heart at the edge of the pastel lands of the Painted Desert, the ancient Navaho Nation, stretched out before you to far, far beyond the limit of human history and imagination, without sign of the hand of man…
Vast, Limitless, Empty, Incomprehensible