Lessons from a Lava Field

Saturdays.

It is the day to sleep in, laze around, do chores; the day to reboot and prepare.

So instead, a month ago, I took my backpack, some sandwiches, a couple of water bottles, and my trusty best friend Craig, and hiked 12 miles into a territory so rough it bears the name “Hell’s Half Acre.”

Erupted from Yellowstone’s leftovers, this lava plain sprawls across 150 square miles of barren Idaho desert. It earned its name from early explorers who regretted their attempts to cross it. The only signs of humanity there are posts marking a slight trail across the lava field to the summit. The rest of those 150 square miles are next to empty, broken only by gnarled expanses of sagebrush and juniper and the calls of coyotes and birds of prey.

This is truly wild space. Aside from the farms skirting its perimeter, it appears just as it did to the weary eyes of the trappers who named it. For a young man like myself and my friend, it oozes with the itching possibilities of adventure.

Why spend a Saturday in Hell’s Half Acre when I could watch TV in comfort?

It is empty and silent, and yet my experience opened my eyes to all sorts of strange wonders that can only be discovered by intrepid exploration.  I think I was itching for the adventure, longing to learn how to find joy in those miles of barrenness. From the lavas, I learned a few things:


If I know where I’m going and why, the journey flows on its own.

My best friend and I knew what we were going to see and what we wanted to investigate. Though the miles consisted of difficult clambering up and down over layered rubble, because we know where we were going and why, they took care of themselves.


Connection makes pain bearable

It being just the two of us, shaved of the distractions of the everyday, we spoke in depth of everything: the challenges of his new marriage and young baby, of my religious and professional journeyings, of the interesting and beautiful and strange things we were experiencing in our respective lives. We barely noticed the pain of those twelve miles.


There is beauty in all things if we have the eyes to see it

Giant caves, formed where rivers of lava flowed and then emptied, line the landscape. We watched owls fly at full speed into their collapsed mouths. They emanate from a frozen lava lake lined by 50-foot cliffs stained with guano, truncated by pits and piled with rockfalls, all different shades of black and brown stained with red and green lichen. Spatter cones rise from the ancient rift, offering large caverns at their mouths where the lava once gushed out of the ground. Gashes and chasms lined with strangely verdant ferns descend to unseen depths, taking rocks several echoing seconds to hit bottom. Even in August at the height of the heat, these bottoms can be lined with snowdrifts, insulated by the abundant basalt. Framed with the right eyes, even this barren landscape offers beauty in surprising abundance.

Despite costing me my shoes, my Saturday, and my ability to move for the rest of that evening, I do not regret my adventure to the lavas. Ruined shoes and a sore body were a small price to pay for the mentorship of the wild.

Bryce Johnson
Bryce Johnson is a wanderer. Raised in the fields and mountains of southeastern Idaho, he understands that vast and wild spaces are a metaphor for life with its unknowns. He also knows that the most unexpected of places can yield the most unexpected of riches. It’s his intention to lay claim to as much of them as he can find.

3 Comments

  • March 21, 2018

    Mike Eubank

    I enjoyed reading the story. If I were younger I would want to go on the hike to see Hells half acre.

  • March 22, 2018

    Amber

    Good stuff!

  • March 22, 2018

    Arlen Wilcock

    You have a gift!