A Tale of Craters of the Moon (short version)
Craters of the Moon is fabulous place for a heap of black rock. It’s a big piece of land, make no mistake, with 3/4 of a million acres of this odd lava formation that exists by Ketchum in southeast Idaho. Craters is a uniquely weird and seemingly impaired landscape. You may want to speed up when your goal is to drive to Yellowstone National Park north of Craters, because it is hot, damned hot–roll up your windows and hit the air conditioning hot–and it looks like nothing more than a patch of gray vomit out there on the countryside. However, if you stop, you’re in for a treat.
We went there—four of us all professional environmentalists Doug Schnitzspahn, Katie Fite, Miquel Fredes, and I—to support protection for the national monument. It is a very dry, desolate place that is full of broken lava and walking over the land sounds like someone walking on a clattering batch of broken teacups and saucers. We advocated protecting Craters as an enlarged national monument (from 50,000 to about 775,000 acres) to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and President Clinton. Now the four of us were out there to look around and get to know the landscape better. I had been there several times before and I had seen the beautiful Laidlaw Park Kipuka–it was 50 thousand acres of grassland surrounded by lava. There were cinder cones and shield volcanoes, spindle bombs and the Blue Dragon lava, caves running through the landscape and the Crystal Ice Cave that once held vast stalactites, and natural arches formed of lava.
We were ambitious and wanted to protect Craters of the Moon for all time. This was the seed we had planted with the aim that we could win everything if only we tried. These were the salad days, as Shakespeare said, when we were green in soul and cold at heart. And what we wanted we deserved to get, by God! In those days I was full of piss and vinegar, ego and good wine; I was one tough cookie, one tough cabajero, a don’t-mess-with-me kinda guy.
But then I had a stroke out in the wilderness of Craters of the Moon; it was as unexpected as a sneeze. As we hiked over the teacups and saucers of lava we got a little separated—it was cold and the rain came mixed with snow and sleet and everyone had their hoods over their heads. I was wandering a bit and just like that, I stumbled and fell. But it really wasn’t merely a stumble because immediately I couldn’t stand up, couldn’t speak, couldn’t walk, and I couldn’t think straight. My friends had passed on ahead of me. So I lay there, going nowhere. Thinking and not thinking. For an hour, for two, for three, for awhile anyway; but after only a minute I knew I was in terrible, terrible trouble. I cried and cried within an hour because I didn’t know what had happened to me. I thought about dying, because who would find me in this trailless, wicked place? I thought about my father who had died from brain cancer and the stroke that came from it, and I realized that maybe my father’s fate would also be mine as evening closed in on daylight.
However, my friends found me in a few hours by walking in a line and going over and over the path where we had gone before. Katie ran some miles back to the car and drove for an hour or more to find a home where some people were able to call and arrange for a helicopter to land in the rugged terrain of Craters of the Moon and get me flown to the hospital 80 miles away. Miguel and Doug watched me while Katie left and talked with me until the group of rescuers came with flashlights to save my sorry ass as a helicopter landed in a grassy place nearby. I was taken to the hospital in Pocatello.
Recovering the Land and myself
When I woke up the next morning a doctor whispered in my face: “Mike, Mike can you hear me?” I nodded, thinking, duh, of course I do. “You’ve had a stroke and you’re paralyzed.” No, I’m not; don’t be silly, doctor. At least that was what I was thinking but I couldn’t respond in words. I nodded, understood nothing. And the doctor disappeared in a poof of smoke.
Now I have to tell you that the most powerful thing in the world is laughter, the support of friends, and a place to go to find yourself when you’re lost. So I would like to tell you a couple of funny and somewhat ironic stories.
The first came when a therapist came to work with me; her beauty was a gift. I was in a hospital room recovering and she set a bag of cosmetics on the bathroom sink and asked me to pick up an item and use it. So I picked up one and began to brush my teeth with it. It was a basic thing to do, you know I was in the bathroom and at the sink and it was a pretty mundane action.
“No,” she said, “that’s for your hair. It’s a comb.”
She motioned for me to scrape it across my head and I did. “You were thinking about a toothbrush. That’s this other item.”
“Oh, yeh, a toot brush for my toots.”
“Right, its for your teeth.” I was very embarrassed and I had to learn all of life again, it seemed.
Another time, after less than a month after I returned to Boise, I had a meeting with a neurologist and I went with a friend and my mother. The neurologist asked me to tell me about myself and my family. “How many siblings do you have?” he said.
“I’ve got three kids and I’m married to a very nice woman.” Keep in mind that I couldn’t speak quite as clearly as that—I spoke in broken words—but that is what I was trying to say.
“How about the rest of your family, your mother and father?” he said.
“They’re fine.” I pointed to my mother.
My mother broke in, agast. “Mike, you have no children and no wife, unless you’re holding out on me. And your father died many years ago.”
“Oh yeh, that’s true isn’t it?”
“I’ll remember dat. No kids, no wife, and no father, got that. Doctor, will I ever get better?”
“Yes you will,” he said “but it will all be up to you.”
A third time when a woman brought me cookies to my home in Boise. There was a lull in our conversation. “Mike,” she said. “Can you, uhm. Can you get a stiffy?”
I was stunned. “Huh?”
“You know, can you still get a, a uh, you know, a stiffy?”
I coughed and tried to regain a little composure to tell her the truth. But I really didn’t know what it was. “Yeth, of course I can.”
“Oh, I was just, uhm, wondering a little bit,” she said.
“Yeth. It’s natural question.” But now I was wondering whether I could get a stiffy. And naturally, I went to the internet, after performing a little experiment on myself that went surprisingly well. The internet suggested that just about all stroke victims can have sex as long as they aren’t terribly depressed about doing so. So I learned not to be depressed….
I found a need to go back to Craters of the Moon to understand the condition of the land that I had loved and to recover from my stroke. I hiked on the route of Robert Limbert the man who, in 1924, had lobbied in Washington DC for the protection of the original 54,000 acre Craters of the Moon National Monument and that President Clinton had expanded to 737,000 acres. I was speaking, thinking, walking, and thriving just as the larger national monument was beginning to recover. Rare species were becoming more common and I found some of the secrets in Craters: the caves and arches and beautiful lava formations, animals and plant communities that are thriving there. I’ve learned to love the silence of the land and to be a bit less egotistical in my endeavors. But no less ardent for protecting the wildness of the land. This is the tale of wilderness and the lesson of earning my own wellness from its absence.