Fleeing the Flow

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People are moving away from the San Francisco Bay Area they used to love, some moving out of California altogether. There’s a sense of weariness around here.

People are tired of the region’s usual problems. The rampant homelessness and petty crime, the ugliness of many of the streets, the increasing traffic and traffic jams aggravating any sort of trip. They are tired of the yearly season of smoke from the nearby forest fires, smoke that is getting worse with each year, and the cover-your-ass power company, PG&E, now revealed as the source of many of these fires, shutting down power for hours and sometimes days at a time in the interest of safety.

People are also tired of the area’s new problems. The virus has almost eliminated cultural entertainment and dining out, great attractions in the area, and has trapped people more or less in their expensive homes with not much to do. The homeless are either increasing in number or have moved into more visible locations, making the city look abandoned in places. The fires are more widespread, the smoke is thicker, a rare lightning storm the culprit, and now PG&E is turning off the power in rolling shutdowns not because of fear of starting new fires but because they claim not to have the capacity to supply the power in the first place.

It could be worse. A few thousand years ago lava splashed and bubbled up out of the ground in what is now Idaho and spread out over six hundred and eighteen square miles, one single lava flow running about thirty miles long.

If that happened today there would be absolutely nothing to stop it. And imagine the forest fires and the smoke from both the fires and the lava itself, not to mention whatever other nasty gases were released. Imagine if a sizable town or a city was in the way. My god.

We used to think that improbable things weren’t worth worrying about. Then came the forest fires, the power outages, the virus. You start to see things differently, start to think out what is coming, about what is inevitably coming, to wonder about it, worry about it.

The lava in Idaho is a sort of leftover from the hotspot that is moving under the Earth’s crust and is currently below Yellowstone National Park, the same heat that is now causing its thermal activity. The hotspot moved away long before the lava came up but there was still enough heat, and the crust damaged enough and cracked enough from swelling and shrinking, for the flow to start.

First at about 15,000 years ago and up to about 2000 years ago molten rock poured out of the ground, spreading. This isn’t that long ago. When the first of the lava burst out onto the surface there might have been a person there to witness it. When the most recent flow flowed there was most certainly a person there to witness it.

The Great Rift, as the cracks in the Earth there are known, will likely send lava to the surface again. They are dormant, not extinct, and volcanologists estimate they will come alive before the next one thousand years passes. Or sooner.

Think of the smoke then, as the lava flows into a forest. The trees nearest the opening are hit with the hottest, most liquid lava and are incinerated quite quickly. As the flow continues it incinerates more trees in a widening circle, or perhaps channeled, stream-like, down a valley. Eventually, many miles from the source, the lava cools enough, becomes thick enough, so that when it meets the trees they burn, but only burn. They burn as they do in a forest fire today, standing as they burn as the lava flows around them or toppling over onto the surface of the hot muck, resting there as they cook.

These last trees are the final ones directly touched by the lava although no doubt others beyond the periphery are killed from the radiant heat, probably in a forest fire that extends well beyond the range of the lava flow. But these last trees have a special fate, the impression of their trunks, the impression of their charring bark, remaining in the cooled lava, like some mold for future trees.


This post is from a series of articles chronicling a 2020 cross-country trip with my wife and two daughters and a boyfriend, from California to Ohio (to visit family) and Pennsylvania (to drop off my oldest daughter at grad school), and then back. We spent over five weeks on the road during the pandemic.

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