Ground Zero

A near miss in the Craters of the Moon puts the fight for the land into perspective

  • Cave at Crates of the Moon National Monument, pahoehoe lava at the Blue Dragon flow.

    John Marshall
  • This was my world: the slab of angled rock, a bush, a few small flowers, a spider crawling by

    John Marshall
  • It was a fabulous, topsy-turvy landscape. When I dared look up from my feet, I was engulfed in an immense expanse of pure, black rubble, a wild rock ocean that threatened to rise and swallow me

    John Marshall
  • Mike Medberry


Craters of the Moon National Monument in southwestern Idaho is a forbidding landscape. The land is remote, waterless and, more often than not, baked by a relentless sun. Those few who choose to walk here are wise to bring plenty of water and a second pair of boots. The sharp rocks and endless ridges of blistered lava can shred a thick rubber sole in an afternoon.

When Robert Limbert — a flamboyant naturalist, explorer, outdoorsman and photographer, who was famous for his trick shooting — came to Craters of the Moon in 1920, he called it a place with “bubbles, rolls, folds, and twists, as if a giant’s frying pan of thick gravy furiously boiling had been frozen instantly.” For three days, he had to carry his Airedale terrier because the dog’s feet were raw and bleeding.

Limbert embraced the bleak landscape of Craters of the Moon, helped give it a name, and protected it. In 1924, with H.T. Stearns of the U.S. Geological Service, he convinced President Calvin Coolidge to make a national monument of more than 50,000 acres. Limbert said that, though the area was “almost totally unknown at present, this section is destined some day to attract tourists from all America, for its lava flows are as interesting as those of Vesuvius, Mauna Loa or Kilauea.”

Craters does bring in a few tourists today, though not as many as Limbert may have imagined. It’s a hard place for visitors. It’s a hard place for locals looking to make a living off the land — only a handful of ranchers work the grasslands around the lava.

Craters of the Moon is also a hell of a place to be stranded and left to die.

I visited Craters of the Moon — not for the first time — in April of 2000, just as President Bill Clinton was deciding whether to expand the monument’s size thirteenfold.

I was a conservationist with 20 years of fieldwork in Idaho, and a supporter of expansion. A few months earlier, I had met with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s key staff and made the case that Craters was a good place for Clinton to exercise his executive power to protect public lands. Political opposition would be small, and the landscape was grand and of particular interest to Babbitt, a geologist by trade.

The final public hearings on the expansion were imminent, and I wanted to visit a place called Laidlaw Park. Laidlaw Park is a kipuka, or large island, of grass within the lava of the Great Rift. And the Rift is a huge crack in the earth from which lava oozed thousands of years ago. Craters is charmed by rare, stunted flowers; a rugged land largely untouched by grazing. Cinder cones rise from flat terrain to afford long views of the lava and land beyond: They created the landscape, one that seems to encourage you to rise from the black landscape and take to the sky.

I headed out in the mid-morning with three friends, Miguel, Katie and Doug, for a day of exploring. Laidlaw Park was everything I remembered, and better. When we crossed into lava, we saw spindle bombs — the volcanic bubbles made of rock that flew miles from the eruption of shield volcanoes — and the Blue Dragon flow — a frozen river of deep shiny bluish lava. At King’s Canyon in the Wapi flow, the deepest part of the Great Rift fell 500 feet into a cool, narrow slot. Caves formed from lava tubes that ran in many directions under the fields.

It was a fabulous, topsy-turvy landscape. When I dared look up from my feet, I was engulfed in an immense expanse of pure, black rubble, a wild rock ocean that threatened to rise and swallow me.

Along the edges of the lava, and in hidden pockets, life held on. In the kipukas we discovered dainty, fragrant wildflowers: wire lettuce and scorpionweed, wild onion and scabland pentstemon, dwarf monkeyflower and Indian paintbrush, syringa and cinquefoil, bitterroot and blazing star. And signs of animals: kit fox, sage grouse, badger and mule deer.

In a light, cooling mist, we came upon an archaeological site that had been looted. The dirt was turned, the shovels and sieves thrown down, as if the vandals would come back to finish the job tomorrow. We took photographs as proof that the area needed more protection.

I had a bad headache, and asked Katie for an aspirin. No, make it two. We turned around and walked, first together, then apart, to the south, in that soothing, enveloping mist. I thought about getting to my car and relaxing. I thought about a beer, a Moosehead beer, and chips with red-hot salsa. I kept walking, though, hopping from one rock to another.

Suddenly, I felt as though I was floating above the surface of the earth. For just a moment, my feet lifted off the ground. Then — a sharp pain. I stumbled. My head hit the lava.

I tried to get up, but my legs wouldn’t hold me. The pain was not from the outside, exactly. No, not at all. I tried to get up again, but it was as if giant cobwebs held me down.

What was it? A gunshot? I had heard nothing, and there was no one around to shoot a gun. It couldn’t be any sort of health affliction. I was 44 years old and in great shape. Yesterday, I had run a half-marathon, for God’s sake, and finished 88th out of 2,200 people.

The first sharp pain fell away, but was replaced by another: gravity, a great undeniable force that pulled me straight down. The next thing I knew, I was writhing with the pain in my head, or in my lungs, I couldn’t tell. I was caught within myself, speechless, flattened.

I lay semi-conscious in the black ocean of lava, drifting on my back. At first, I felt certain that I would soon be up, and on with my walk.

But then fear crept in. My friends and I had agreed to meet at the car if we didn’t see each other. They would wait for me for an hour, then two, then three. Perhaps they would worry and look for me, but I was down in the rocks, partially hidden from view. Already it was late afternoon, and the sun was getting low. I tried to call out, but what should have been hoots and hollers came out as grunts and mumbles. I was a gurgling baby.

My right eye didn’t work. My face was caked with something, either dirt or blood, probably both. My right leg wouldn’t move, and my right arm wouldn’t do what I wanted it to.

Now something was going bad with my mind. Was it my concentration or consciousness that was slipping away? Or was it my life leaking out on the lava? Time wheeled. Was it hours ago that I quit trying to do anything or just a few moments ago? I cried hard for the first time in 20 years.

I remembered when my father had a stroke. I was 12. My father, 54 and an eloquent lawyer, had been rendered speechless. He wore a white turban and a pirate’s eyepatch and pointed out the window of Tripler Hospital, a military hospital in Hawaii. It was baffling, my feeling of helplessness and his lack of understanding. But I understood this: He wanted the hell out of the hospital. In six months he died.

So now I knew a piece of his death, and his torture.

The slanted piece of lava I was lying on slowly released me, and I started to slide toward a brush-filled gully below. I caught a branch with my good hand and held on with all of my strength. If I let go, I would be totally lost from sight. That branch was life.

I called out to the earth. No answer. What good is the silent earth, the earth that I worked to protect? I was rooted here among the rocks and bushes, a captive of the elements, like Gulliver tied by a thousand Lilliputians. A rainsquall hit for a minute and chilled me. Then the sun came out and cooked me. A spider walked by my one good eye and I tried to move so it would go away, but it kept on coming, until I screamed inarticulately at it and blew it away from me. What could I do if I could barely divert the path of a spider? I could wait — wait for the sun to set, wait to die in that mild April night.

For once in my life, I became pure observer, watching the land with my one good eye. This was my world: the slab of angled rock, a bush, a few small flowers, a spider crawling by. I had chosen this beauty, or, rather, it had chosen me. I was part of this burned-out landscape. I was no more than lava and no less. I gave myself to it, to its warmth, to its brightness, to its burning rays, to its cold stillness, to just another day in the Craters.

Then, a miraculous thing happened. I had been there four hours when my friend Doug appeared out of the mist. I had to get his attention. I tried to call his name and it came out garbled: “Kah-to, Ree-ta.” Doug swerved. “Kf-tah.” He’d heard me. He turned in my direction. “Fu-fat.” Doug came to me and just stared. “Mike, are you okay?” I couldn’t answer him. “What happened?” I just looked at him blankly. He called for Katie and Miguel, and together they carried me to a flat spot.

All at once, everything changed. There would be no more peace for me. Instead, what lay ahead was struggle — a fight to regain my mind and body.

Doug and Miguel stayed with me while Katie went for help: she took two hours travelling through the kipuka, made a phone call, and then came back with rescuers. In two or three more hours, a helicopter came, and I was flying to a hospital in Pocatello.

Two weeks later, it was obvious that I was going to walk again, but I still couldn’t talk — or think worth a damn. My left middle cerebral artery, the one in the body called “the artery of cerebral hemorrhage,” had been clogged with a blood clot, and that had killed a piece of my brain. The doctors gave me 325 milligram doses of aspirin, told me to take one per day, and sent me out into the world to regain my bearings. I took a year of therapy. I learned to talk again — and to live with the rough edge of existence.

During this time, Secretary Babbitt was moving ahead with plans to protect the Craters. I wanted to be part of it, so I made calls to his right-hand man, Roy Wright, who did all of the logistics and wrote the proclamation. I blubbered on to Roy’s secretary about protecting Laidlaw Park from water well drilling; letting the ranchers drill a well would allow more cattle and sheep, which would hurt the area’s unique plants and animals.

Finally, on Nov. 9, 2000, President Clinton signed the proclamation pulling an additional 692,000 acres into the Craters of the Moon National Monument — nearly 13 times the 54,400 acre monument that had been designated by President Coolidge in 1924.

But what did the designation really accomplish? The geologic wonders will be preserved: the Open Crack, Kings Bowl, the Wapi cracks, craters, cones, lava flows, caves, and fissures. Off-road vehicle travel will be prohibited in the un-roaded places. The National Park Service now oversees 441,000 acres of lava in the monument and the Bureau of Land Management retains 251,000 acres.

But the monument designation does more to retain the status quo than it does to enhance protection of the area. The BLM has responsibility for the larger kipukas, like Laidlaw Park, Padelford Flat, and Little Park, and continues to allow livestock to graze. The proclamation forbids mining claims on all 692,000 acres of the Monument, but there has never been mining in the area.

Then, in February of 2001, when, with Clinton well gone, Congress ripped open the Craters of the Moon proclamation. Hunters, wanting to ensure that they still had access to the area, convinced Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson to sponsor legislation that redesignated the 410,000 acres managed by the National Park Service as the “Craters of the Moon National Preserve.” This would allow hunting on much of the lava.

Despite my misgivings and those of other Idaho conservationists, the bill easily passed the House and Senate and was signed into law by President Bush.

Was this a defeat?

In the past, I might have thought so; I would have been pissed off. But I am no longer the same person. Now the part of me that wanted to change the way the world worked in 15 minutes — the part that insisted upon naming defeat and success — is gone. I see that everything is incremental — whether in health or politics. Incremental change is often the most we can do.

About a year ago, a man named Brian Bean bought most of the cattle in Laidlaw Park, and slowly, he is decreasing their numbers. That’s progress, and with monument protection, one hopes it will endure.

For my part, I have become mostly well. I can speak and think, even hike and run again. Six months ago, I walked alone in the original Craters of the Moon National Monument. There, I rediscovered magical geological structures that Robert Limbert had named in 1924: Amphitheater and Moss caves, the Blue Dragon Flow, and the Bridge of Tears arch.

A stroke killed Limbert when he was 48 years old. Would it also kill me, somewhere out here, amid tall sagebrush and grasses that no cow had ever tasted? Or perhaps on the top of The Watchman, a high cinder cone that I climbed for a view of an amazing desert kingdom?

No, not this time. I walked alone in the Craters, and, my God, it was good to be alive in such a blank and burnt and rugged landscape.

Mike Medberry writes from Boise, Idaho, where he’s a consultant for The Wilderness Society. He suggests taking an aspirin a day to guard against having a stoke.

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