The Twelve Junipers of Wapi
Look but Don’t Move
By Will Peterson
Photos by Roger Boe
Twenty years ago, the Craters of the Moon National Monument, so long confined to forty-five thousand acres, was extended by executive order to 750,000. It was the Big Lonely: elk, deer, pronghorn. A wolf or two. Wild birds from all over North America. And if you went in May and June, the wildflowers were going crazy. Bitterroot bloomed like a prom girl’s orchid. Rivers of scarlet monkey flowers flowed between the cinder cones.
In 2005, when the Great Rift Science Symposium was held at the Idaho Museum of Natural History, I convinced historian Tom Blanchard, who had helped organize it, and photographers Tim Frazier and Roger Boe, who had contributed photographs to it, that it was a positive loss if they had not seen the Old Junipers. The Rocky Mountain juniper that grows under Old Juniper Kipuka (a Hawaiian word related to “tabu,” so I use that spelling instead of “kapuka”) in the very heart of the intimidating Wapi Lava Flow is the oldest and tallest in the known universe.
On the day we went, meteorologists forecasted light wind for the Snake River Plain, but that’s a variable concept, like forecasting waves in the North Atlantic. When we rendezvoused at the southeast entrance, the wind was blowing tumbleweeds past us. The information kiosk advised water, food, a full tank of gas, and high-clearance vehicles with 4WD. It didn’t mention steel-belted radials but should have: lava rock along the road into Wapi Park can shred tires. A two-track veered south towards Wapi Volcano. We climbed over three-foot-tall lava tubes only to dive into alkali washouts. Like riding a mechanical bull. I glanced in the mirror to see a pickup pitching and yawing behind me, as if at sea. I cracked the pull-tab on an India pale ale and the jeep staggered up another lava tube. The wild brush danced around me. After an hour, the cinder cones of Wapi Park loomed ahead. The road got worse.
It rose between two rock knolls and then descended on the other side, where aspen lined the surrounding lava flow. The aspen were applauding, because they were happy to see us. They hadn’t seen anybody this year. I knew that, because knee-high grass and wildflowers flourished in the two-track. I led my faithful followers to the end of the cul-de-sac, where the Wapi Flow towered around us on three sides with the ancient cinder cones of Wapi Park at our backs. The wind wasn’t blowing that hard now. It kept playfully trying to take our tents to Wyoming—me doing the Marx Brothers routine where you put a rod in one side of the tent only to have the wind tear out the stakes on the other—when I heard Tom’s wife shout.
I went over.
Never pitch a tent next to the rocks, Florence.
She snarled, You’re a little late.
Where is it?
She pointed at a flat, lichen-mottled lava rock.
There. I was pounding a stake when it was right at my wrist.
Where did you say it was?
There. Are you blind?
I bent over, staring at the rock. I am, Florence. Half, actually.
Suddenly, out of the pattern of lichen, a coiled Great Basin rattlesnake took shape and dimension. I jumped back, doing the Rattlesnake Two-step. There were no more around that I could see. Roger, Tim, and then-girlfriend Kathy drifted over. The little rattlesnake coiled sullenly on the rock, eyes half shut.
Tim said, The warm days must’ve drawn them out. They’re too cold to even rattle.
A comforting thought.
I said, You might want to keep the tent flaps zippered.
Florence was pulling up stakes. Thank you for your counsel.
Tim glanced at Kathy. I think we’ll sleep in the truck.
Florence turned to me. So you’re half blind and you’re our guide?
I said, You wanted a leader that knows where he’s going, Florence?
The wind took her answer away, but it went down as the sun swung low. The photographers got out their cameras. We climbed into the towering lava. Oh, it was nice out there. As nice as you’d ever see a place with the sun scarlet on the flows. Wildflowers blazed amid the coiling lava: scarlet paintbrush, scorpion flowers, dwarf buckwheat with their pink-and-white tumbrels. To our left, the volcanic sequence called Pillar Butte turned reddish black. Magma had poured down its slopes in a hundred fiery rivers, plunging and rising and eddying in whirlpools. We jumped a crevasse or two and then returned to camp. Built a fire that would’ve gotten us arrested up north. I seem to recall, too, a fifth of single malt that Tim brought from Scotland. The stories and genealogies got better. Stars came out bigtime. Song dogs began singing on their return to the Wapi.
Meadowlarks began whistling at four. One was perched atop my tent. I gave up the fight and crawled out to make coffee. Roger, already up, grinned at me.
He said, I should get my camera.
I growled, And what would be the theme?
He said, An allegorical composition. Death at the Campfire.
I said, No coffee for you, Roger.
The fire brought the others out, the women brushing their hair, the men staggering somewhat. The songs of local birds and neo-tropical birds became general: meadowlarks, homed larks, Brewer’s blackbirds. sparrows of all kinds had pinned their hopes on the safety of the flows. As I poured coffee, Florence looked at the campfire.
She said, I thought you were going to make breakfast.
I said, No. Dinner when we get back.
That did not make her happy. I sympathized: there was nothing like a hearty breakfast before a death march. If you did not camp at Old Juniper, you had eight hours to get in and out. Because there are no trails. Nor landforms like creeks or ridges. Nor water. The lava rock you put your hand against to get your balance has the texture of broken glass—something invented to shred flesh. Blister ridges rise up as long and tall as city blocks, the summits of which are cut by a jagged crevasse maybe four feet wide and twelve deep that you could jump but really, why? Your average speed is one-quarter m.p.h. People have died out here not knowing that. The horizon you head for gets no closer. I knew a falconer who lost a bird here. One of those high-altitude guys who used a telemeter and just let the falcon fly. One day, she chased something out on the Wapi. He went after her. Tripped and twisted a knee. Crawled out on his hands and knees. He’d bought a house in Pingree to be near the Big Desert, but he never went back.
I gave my leadership speech: If you want to look at something, do not move your feet, okay? It’s a rule. Plant those boots if you want to look around.
And stay together, said Tom. We stay together all the time.
Absolutely, I agreed.
When the wind blows out here, you could be in an alley and not hear somebody hollering ten yards away. It’s spooky. And no fun.
So we were a nice little troupe climbing single-file into the flow. The beauty took your breath away. The wildflowers all lit up, the pinnacles and bridges, the stairways and sunken tidepools flowing with the sinuousness of water. Lava shields upraised, covered with yellow-orange lichen as if with honor. Having cooled atop rivers of fire, they were shoved up like slabs of ice. Beauty everywhere, I walk in beauty. The sun slowly made its way past Pillar Butte. Now in silhouette, it crouched like a lioness with head raised, looking at her domain. The morning passed by. But the horizon—a wide low curve of tumbled rock and ravine—seemed to get no closer. We would top one crest just to look at another. With each view, we went deeper into wilderness. It was hard hiking but even with a hangover, I was exultant. The birds that startled up from a grove of curl-leaf mahogany had not seen people here. There was no other side. We were the other side.
Florence said, So where is it, Will?
Old Juniper Kipuka.
I looked at the dark mile of Pillar Butte on my left.
I said, Once we get about halfway along Pillar Butte, we’ll have crested the Axial Volcanic Zone. Then we’ll see it.
Tim said, But the Axial Volcanic Zone is north of us.
I said, It’s analogical, Tim.
He laughed. We kept hiking. The six of us now scattered here and there among the pressure ridges, each finding his way. The path of least resistance. Up, down, back, and around. In the lava flows you had the instinct to find the flattest route even if it meant retracing steps. As if conserving energy could mean life instead of death. It didn’t in our situation—our trucks were waiting for us at Wapi Park—but the flows did that to you. You became primitive. Studious. And at every turn a wildflower display bloomed spectacularly. So everyone was in their dreamworld—half aesthetic, half deadly serious—when Kathy shouted, Snake! We looked over. Looked around us.
In a matter of minutes, we were a neat little troop again, filing single-file toward the horizon. Finally, imperceptibly, we crossed the divide: the southern Wapi opened up beyond us, with the Snake River gleaming like a sword at the far boundary.
Florence said, Okay, where is it?
I swung my gaze across ten miles of rumpled lava. All the way back to my right, Split Butte rose up like a turreted castle.
I can’t see it.
You said we’d be able to see it by now.
I know, but it all looks the same.
Well, what does it look like?
It looks like two green breasts.
She pointed at one-thirty with her walking stick. Suddenly, out of the unreal landscape, two faint green mounds appeared. From our vantage they were not tall enough to occlude the flows behind them.
I said, That’s it. Old Juniper Kipuka.
Old Juniper, an extremely old phreatic crater (an explosion caused by steam from groundwater), seemed to get no closer the longer you went toward it. Blame it on foreshortening. Blame it on the fact you needed lunch. Blame it on the fact that magma becomes tumultuous when it encounters a landform. But even now—as the hike turned into just-get-the-hell-where-you’re-headed—the wildflowers kept coming. Wild tribes of birds kept rising unexpectedly into the sky. The lava forms—tumuli, staircases, balustrades, perched patios—kept rising before you, decorated with wildflowers. Finally, the sun had swung west. We stood at the foot of the Old Juniper cinder cone.
Looking at it, I said, Just to let you know? The biggest rattlesnake in the country is waiting for you up there.
Did he rattle?
He didn’t have to, Kathy. Coming on him from below, as I was, we met eye to eye. It was strictly business.
The slope was covered with bunchgrass but was composed of loose red cinder that gave way under your boots. As I neared the rim, I picked a route equidistant between the two gates. No rattlesnakes. Now I saw the crater below. The others followed. Tim and Roger carried cameras and tripods.
So where are these junipers?
I said, They’re below the south rim. At the edge of the lava. I nodded at the far rim. When we get there you’ll see them.
Tim looked into the bowl of the crater. You been down there?
I shook my head. More work than I want, Tim. But you go ahead.
The ladies were looking at the seating in the spatter ramparts. I said, I’d stay away from the rocks if I were you.
We took a break on the interior rim of the crater. It was easy enough to see how it was built: igneous extrusion with phreatic deposition. Then when the water table was exhausted, spurting magma built the ramparts. Much older than the craters to the north, Old Juniper was the southernmost phreatic cone in the national monument.
I hitched on the backpack and made my way along the eastern rampart. Beautiful brick-red-and- pink ceramic clotted to a height of six feet. I could look over at it as I went: the lava flows streaming south from Wapi Butte. After a quarter hour, we stood at the rim taking in the winsome scene: the dark romantic trees with turbulent branches at the edge of the last lava flow. And over the vast plain, dark anvil clouds floated here and there. A magma flow subsequent to the cinder fall had torn out the lower slope, so I angled left down toward a little prairie of tall grass. Making my way across it, I heard Tom’s dry observation.
Snake . . . and another one there.
He was behind me, so I’d stepped right over it. Eeek. And there she was: coiled and unmoving, like the one in camp. Her chin rested on her front coil, her eyes sullen and half-closed. It was too cold for the little darlings: they wouldn’t even rattle for us.
Florence said, There’s another one.
I looked sadly at the fifty yards of tall grass I would have to cross to get to the safety of the lava at the base of the cinder cone. If you wanted antivenom, it would be four hours to the truck and two more to Harms Hospital in American Falls. Rattlesnake venom is a clever blend of neurotoxins and anti- coagulants. The neurotoxins interfere with heart function and the anti-coagulant thickens your blood. As your heart beat increases, your blood pressure goes up. Heart attack or stroke? Whichever comes first. Not to mention the primitive toxins that destroy tissue as it’s drawn to the heart. A very competent blend, especially if you try to walk out after being nipped. So you can imagine my emotion when—with what happiness, with what joy—I covered the last yard of tall grass and jumped onto naked lava.
Now, as from a patio, we looked across the depression where the magma had stopped when it hit the footing of the cinder cone. The junipers—twelve of them—had flourished in that hydrological opportunity. Four with wind-twisted branches towered above the others. Wind and aeolian sand had stripped the trunks, which were five feet in diameter. Others under the protection of the giants were of varying size: a slender sapling perhaps only a hundred years old. It was such a sacred place. I crossed the depression and put my arms around the Mother Tree. Stared up into her swirling upper branches. Eight hundred years ago, Beowulf was being composed in England. The Petersons of Norway were taking their first counsel from the the Lord Jesus Christ. Roger and Tim set up their tripods. Got a shot or two of the old junipers but at ten yards there was no way you could capture their magnificence.
Kathy and Florence called us over to a collapsed lava tube. In the basin below, a fern glowed bright green. It had positioned itself perfectly to receive the light of the passing sun. Depth, a little aeolian dirt: everything had to be right.
Entranced by the sacredness of the place, we were lollygagging around when a gust of wind shook the branches. It was suddenly dark. The anvil cloud we had seen to the southwest had swung north and was coming fast. The thought of traversing the lava in the rain got my size fourteens moving.
I said, I’m out of here, guys.
I started angling up the cinder cone toward the west rim.
You don’t want to go the way we came? Along the base?
I glanced over my shoulder at the grass we had come through and asked myself, did this discussion really deserve my participation? I kept climbing. Florence gave Tom a look.
Tom said, We stay together.
Up that hill, higher into the storm. Wind and rain lashed at us. You could feel the storm exchanging ions with the cinder cone that was mostly iron and, why be arbitrary, include magnetite. As I stumbled along, the landscape flickered with incandescence. I felt pulses of AC\DC current.
Kathy laughed, This is brilliant, Will! Leading us up an exposed ridge in a lightning storm.
So you say!
The storm increased in violence, the spatter rock glistening. The cinders were slippery under our boots. From above, booming came from the anvil cloud. Oh, for a photo in black-and-white of the six of us strung out in silhouette along the ridge, like the final shot in The Seventh Seal.
Kathy was now using her Emmy Lou voice: Stung by lightning! Burned by a snake!
That’s a winner, Kathy. What’s the rhyme?
She said, When I think of it, you can have the royalties. If we get out of here.
We did, stumbling and sliding down the slope to the lava flow below. Instantly it was calmer.
Neither incandescence, rain, nor wind. But when we looked back at the summit from whence we had come, it was still wreathed in roiling cloud and flashes of lightning. As if it had gathered all the energy of the storm and was going to hold it as long as we stayed.
Tim said, Something didn’t want us there.
I said, I’m a believer.
Roger said, No plans to camp overnight?
Tim said, We’ll pass.
We turned our backs on Old Juniper Kipuka and began the hike up the flow toward Wapi Park. No rain to make the foot-and-hand-holds treacherous. Nor wind to buffet us. It was easier to ascend, too, because from below you saw the structures as you would from beneath a rapid. We were a diligent little troop, winding up and around and down and up again. Wapi Park was out of sight for a long time but Pillar Butte accompanied us. You just had to stay a mile west of it to be on course. Finally, we crested the ridge. Far to the north, the jagged Pioneer Mountains stood brilliantly white behind the green hills of Wapi Park. After two hours, we arrived atop the leading edge of the flow. Our trucks waited faithfully below.
The first order of business after shucking the backpack was to hydrate with a cold Idaho ale. Light the fire and let it settle. Lay strips of bacon in the Dutch oven with potatoes, jalapenos, onions, and plenty of tomatoes. Drop on the lid. Already, you could smell the fragrance. Nothing to do now but climb up into the lava. Do the antique dance Theseus taught the Athenians when he returned from the labyrinth. The intricate steps were perilous in the lava: one step forward, two steps back. Turn away from your partner and come right back. The variations were yours to make. From below, the ladies side-eyed me. They did not appreciate how hard I had worked on the steps and how many trips I had made into the flows in order to perfect them.
Florence returned with the best poem. You also can read it engraved in a paving stone in the sidewalk at 310 West Clark in Old Pocatello:
But I just want to
taste the bitterbrush
gulp blue sky and
filter aeolian dust through my lungs
suck the lava into my bones
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