Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

DAYS 21 – 23 Lava Beds National Monument, CA


October 19-21, 2012

One of the best things about staying here was our campsite. It was on a small bluff that opened to a sweeping view across desert and sky. Sagebrush, junipers, and dried bunchgrass speckled the landscape. Piles of dark volcanic rubble are everywhere, showing where ancient lava has seeped through the desert floor, flowed from a vent or landed from an explosion. Numerous large volcanic cinder cones interrupt the flat plain of the lava flows. The light, colors and clouds were endlessly, harmoniously, shifting. Late afternoons before sunset provided the best shows. I also knew that this increasing cloud cover was heralding a change in the weather pattern.

There wasn’t as much obvious wildlife here unlike other places we’ve been. But there were a variety of songbirds in the trees scattered throughout the campground. Our neighbors in the next campsite – a couple – were clearly enthusiastic birders. I asked the man, as he wandered the campground with binoculars, whether he saw anything “special”. He paused a moment and then said he saw Townsend’s Solitaires there. It was a name I had heard but I knew nothing of the bird it belonged to. Later that day, a rather nondescript gray bird was calling from the top of the large juniper in our campsite with a clockwork regular “beep . . .beep . . .beep.” I had heard that same call at dawn while still in bed and I truly wasn’t sure, at that time, whether it was a bird or the electronic beeping of an unplanned alarm or a battery gone bad. I wondered if this bird could be the mysterious Townsend’s Solitaire. Playing the recording of its call on my iBird app, I found that Indeed, it was.

Two days later I was casually chatting with the woman next door and discovered that the couple lived in Ben Lomond, the same small community in the Santa Cruz Mountains that Chris and I are from! We probably had passed each other before and likely had shared acquaintances.

The beauty of the spot and the promise of falling stars, made me want to stay several days. The first evening was mild and we sat outside watching the stars and Milky Way emerge from the blackening sky. It was the weekend of the October Orionid Meteors. They appear to emanate from the Orion constellation but Orion would not rise for many hours. Still it was possible that we might see a stray meteorite. We both played with our Pocket Universe apps trying to improve our identification of stars beyond The Big Dipper, Polaris and Casseopeia. (I have learned to name a lot of constellations over the years and I have forgotten just as many.) Much of the time was actually spent trying to master the app and not the stars. I went to bed without seeing one falling star.

The next night we made a campfire, the first of this trip. I soon saw a blaze across the sky . . . the first Orionid! Later, when returning on the short walk from the restroom, I saw two more. I considered getting up at 4:00 AM to improve the chances of still more sightings. But when a brief rain fell in the middle of the night, any determination to rise disappeared. Our last night was very cold with more rain, ending in a light dusting of snow.

So my search for falling stars ended similarly to my search for tarantulas, seeing three of each, even though I was hoping for more of both.

I love the soothing warmth of body and heart as well as the quieting of the mind that come from a campfire. I love the fragrance of wood smoke even when it persists on clothing and hair. Everybody has their own approach to the rituals of making a fire. The collecting of the wood, how it is built, getting it started and its periodic feeding, poking and rearranging.

Chris complains about campfires, too much work, a waste of money (often firewood must be purchased.) He calls me The Pyromaniac because of my enthusiasm for campfires. But I observe that he will readily build and start a fire when asked and that he seems happy in front of the flames.

I think the attraction to the musical crackling and pops of the burning wood, the rich smells, the flickering tongues of red and yellow fire is now part of our DNA. This draw to fire began infiltrating our genes when that first human, long ago, discovered the magic of sparking fire.

For our first lava tube foray we visited ones with ancient pictographs, Big Painted and Symbol Bridge Caves. As it turns out, they are not so much tubes but yawning openings in the earth, strewn with small to large pebbles and boulders of frozen lava. We had brought flashlights but didn’t need them there. The pictographs were faint and we had to wait patiently to see them, gazing at the rocks until they quietly emerged into perception. Most were geometric patterns and painted with black pigment. The explanatory signs said these two caves were sacred sites where ceremony and vision quests were likely held. Since Chris and I had done extended wilderness solos, we played with the idea of  spending sacred time there alone.

There are many caves at Lava Beds to explore, ranging from easy to difficult. We chose the easier variety, since we were not excited about crawling on knees through small spaces. Sentinel Cave was spacious and long and an enjoyable adventure through the earth. Lava tubes are what is leftover after underground streams of lava empty out. They leave behind the pipes and drains of their own plumbing systems. These tubes reminded me of the tunnels in ant farms where we got to be the ants.

Alone in the caves we took the opportunity to turn out our flashlights and sit in silence in total darkness. I felt a little apprehensive, not knowing what the loss of any orienting light might be like. But I found it to be a pleasant experience. Still, silent, empty, peaceful. The smallest sounds – of breath or shifting position – become clear, amplified.

This short experience encouraged me that doing a dark retreat might be possible. A dark retreat – available through some Tibetan Buddhists centers – is a solo retreat in complete darkness. They can last from a few days to a month or longer. Food is delivered through a light lock – acting similarly as an air lock. It is a lightless chamber that can be accessed from the lighted outside world and also from the dark sanctum of the retreat space. I assume this practice began in caves like the ones we were in.

My fear of the dark retreat is not knowing the psychological effects of being alone in a world void of light. But that is partly why they exist, to bring you to your edge of fear, helping you see that the imaginings and visions of the mind are only that. This reduction of stimulation and the renunciation of light and sight, helps direct ones attention to the deepest source of seeing, the source of consciousness itself.

2 thoughts on “DAYS 21 – 23 Lava Beds National Monument, CA

  1. Hi, Carla! Catching up with you through your blog, enjoying your accounts of wildlife and scenery! Am captivated by the thought of a retreat in the dark. It sounds incredibly relaxing! Whether angels or devils emerge from the mind, bring them on! Thank you for taking the time to share.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s