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Post Road Magazine #34

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Beth Peterson


I.

“It was Sunday the 24thof May, 1863, that my uncle, Professor Lidenbrock came rushing suddenly back to his little house in the old part of Hamburg, No. 19, Königstrasse.  Our good Martha could not but think we was very much behind-hand with the dinner for the pot was scarcely beginning to simmer.” And so began the Frenchman, Jules Verne’s Extraordinary Voyage, Journey to the Center of the Earth.  The first English version of the story took some liberties in the translation.  That version begins, “Looking back at all that has occurred to me since that eventful day, I am scarcely able to believe in the reality of my adventures.  They were truly so wonderful that even now I am bewildered when I think of them.”  The persona of the narrator changes with this shift from a simple relayer of information to interpreter of it.  A note of disbelief is added and an identification with the reader.  It’s the word “truly” my eyes rest on, though, when I read this for the first time.  “Truly,” implies room for lack of truth, I remember a professor once telling me, suggests that facts here can’t speak for themselves.

The facts of the story are that Verne’s protagonists, Axel—a young German student—and his uncle, Otto Lidenbrock—a professor, scientist and savant—uncover a hidden runic manuscript that falls out of a book.  Once decoded, the runic manuscript takes them to journey across the snowy wilderness of Iceland, glaciers all around, to an extinct volcano that the writer of the rune, Arne Saknussemm, assures them will lead to the very center of the earth.  “Descend the crater of the Jokul of Snäfell,” the ancient rune reads, “that the shadow of Scartaris softly touches before the Kalends of July, bold traveler, and thou wilt reach the center of the earth, which I have done.” Axel and Lidenbrock and their trusted Icelandic guide, Hans, do descend the crater and, after a series of adventures and misadventures, find themselves at the center of the earth. 

II.

I first listen to Journey to the Center of the Earthon a ten-hour drive to Wyoming. I’m planning to teach an intermediate British literature course themed around science and empire a few months later and have decided we’ll read Verne alongside Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe,and The Voyage of the Beagle.  I download the entire book—unabridged—and burn it onto a set of six or seven silver CDs. As my car crosses the low highway through Kansas farm fields beside combines and four or five foot high stalks of corn, I listen to Axel narrate his trip from Germany to Copenhagen to Iceland, from making it to the edge of the volcano, to descending with the help of ropes, strange acoustic phenomenon, good conjectures,and the ever-faithful Hans, into its heart. 

Is the Master out of his mind?” the housekeeper asks Axel while Professor Lidenbrock frantically scurries about, making preparations for their journey.

Axel nods.

And he’s taking you with him?” she asks.

He nods again.

Where?” she asks.

I pointed towards the center of the earth,” Axel recalls.

Into the cellar?” exclaimed the old servant.

No,” Axel said, “further still.”

After some time, the tractors and silos and eventually even fields outside the window subside.  There’s arid ground and boarded-up sheds.  Towns and villages and filling stations come less and less often until they almost disappear altogether.  When I open my window, heat surges in, weighs on my leather steering wheel and the backs of my hands.  My car moves steadily still, the engine pulsating warm, the road outside a blur of similar lines against the moving interior.

And then, hours later, there are mountains, in the distance at first and then closer and closer still.  I pull over on the side of the road when I can first see them.  I shut off my car and walk down a dirt road beside the highway for a little ways.  A pickup truck flies by; a dog barks somewhere barely within earshot. Otherwise, it’s me and the dusty stones and an empty field and the mountains in the distance, hanging over the edge of the horizon like a precipice.

V.

I walked and walked the only summer I lived in Wyoming. I was staying in a professor’s house in town: tan stucco with terracotta tiles and a built-in wooden table in the kitchen and skylights in the upstairs bedroom, but no working lock on the front door. There was a bicycle out in the garage, the professor had told me before she left town for the summer,and I put most of my own things in storage and moved in.  I can’t remember now whether I ever even opened the garage door.

I walked to friends’ places; I walked downtown; I walked to coffee shops and restaurants and to the doctor’s and the local park and the Laundromat. And when I didn’t have someplace to go, I walked around the tree-lined neighborhoods by the university, trying different blocks each day, sometimes carrying a folded guide to Laramie in my front pocket, tracing on it in pencil the places where I’d been.  I walked around the wide oval-shaped pasture at the center of campus and walked every route I could to my nearly empty office with its own long wooden table, taking different footpaths there, even different staircases inside. 

I walked, nearly every day, to a vegetarian café downtown, even though I was not a vegetarian.  I would sit in a creased red booth in that café and order the same lunch, sometimes with a book or a pen and paper, sometimes just watching the people move along that broad, open street, a few glass-windowed stores and restaurants on one side, nine or ten sets of railroad tracks on the other.  Then when I was done, I’d walk twelve blocks across town, past the post office and the edge of the university campus, to the same yellow-painted coffee shop; sometimes I’d just walk by; sometimes I’d go inside and buy a drink. 

I walked in the mountains and at state parks,too. I walked along the red rocks of a high climbing park, Vedauwoo, and noticed, for the first time, all the pines browned or whitened, eaten from the inside by waves of beetles.  I saw a family of bears once on a steep walk in the mountains; another time, I turned at a fork in the trail and there, maybe three or four feet away, was an adult moose. 

I moved from one coordinate to the next, mapped the landscape with my body.

VIII.

One of the legends about Verne’s life—probably not true in whole, but maybe in part—was that when he was a young boy, tenor eleven, he was said to have sought out a spot as a cabin helper on a ship planning to sail to the Indies.  He wanted to retrieve a coral necklace, his biographer niece explained, for his cousin Caroline.  As the legend goes, Verne made it onto the boat but was caught by his father before the ship set off for the next port. 

In another story, the young Verne rowed his own small boat from the local harbor, trying to catch up with a larger ship sailing out to sea, but when caught, was made to promise that, while still a boy, he’d only travel the world in his imagination. Imagination he had; Verne had heard stories of adventurers from his teachers; whatever the cost, he wanted to find himself among them.

As an adult, Verne would spend days in the National Library, carried far off by research on geography and science and reading others’ travel narratives.  He’d meet with famous geographer Jacques Arago, would sail around Europe himself, would buy boats and name them the Michael I, the Michael II, the Michael III, would say that he wanted to invent the novel of science.

XI.

My students and I talk about context, about thinking through our and others’ lenses as we read.  We talk about Lyell and Hutton; we read about the Victorian turn from a religious young earth to an older geologic record.  We talk about imperialism, colonialism, power, the nineteenth century deists and the rise of science in the cultural discourse. 

My students and I try to decipher, to decode, why so many years after the fact, so many people still read Journey to the Center of the Earth.  One student makes an argument that it’s Verne’s reliance on classical Roman and Greek mythology.  “It’s archetypal,” she tells our class, pointing out every Greek and Roman reference in the text that she’s found, the rest of us flipping along as she calls out one page number after another, ending with her strongest evidence that this is why the travelers eventually land in Stromboli, Italy.  Another student comes to class with a huge map he’d hand drawn: the earth according to Verne’s novel.  Certain sections are colored in with colored pencils or carefully labeled. At the middle of everything, in the middle of that student’s drawing, the earth is hollow.

We talk about how Freud might read this text and Said and Marx and how it contributes to, works with,and works against the literature of exploration.  My students talk about the descent into the self, the descent into logic, the descent into science, the descent into madness, about madness, about machines, about the fossil record, about the emotional registers of the savant and the scientist and the student and the way the descent is not the end, that Verne sees it to it that the protagonists rise, that they go somewhere.

One student throws a viewing party for a movie adaptation of Journey to the Center of the Earth.  Someone rents the DVD; someone else brings popcorn and my students come back the next Monday telling me how strangely, Axel was not Lidenbrock’s nephew in this version, how there are villains added to the story,and also how Axel and all the boys at his university seemed randomly to break out into song.        

XIV.

Sometimes my friends Julie and Paula and I went walking together in the Snowy mountain range, an hour or so past town.  One time, my car barely got up to the mountain parking lot, the accelerator jumping when the car went downhill, stalling as it went up.  But we did make it there, to a trail in a quiet evergreen forest.  We took a photograph before we began, balancing someone’s camera on the roof of my car, and then running to get into the shot. Paula’s on the left, Julie’s on the right; I’m in the middle.  They’re both taller than me and dressed better for a hike, Julie with a backpack water bottle along and Paula carrying food and water in a bag on her hip.  I have a water bottle in my hand, but nothing else beyond a green cotton shirt and a single car key in the pocket of shorts that, that summer, had become much too big.

Be careful,” my doctor, Amy, had warned me earlier that week.  “You’re getting too thin.” Amy, a thin, thirty-something with plastic-framed glasses and fine blonde hair pulled back loosely, was sitting on a stool, while she said this.  I sat on her table, the same way I had nearly every week for the past four months, right next to the sign that read, “Health Care is a Right, not a privilege.”  We had both thought after a host inconclusive tests that maybe it was stress, though sometime later I would discover it was likely a deer tick, burrowing down, into my body. 

I was careful,but on this day, I was walking.

In the photograph, we’re small and distant, but set against a line of trees, tall grass and blue sky. 

The trail crossed a bridge over a small, snow-fed mountain stream almost immediately, tiny shoots of whitewater pummeling rocks and moving fast, downwards. The path beyond the stream was dry and narrow, millions of needles layering the ground and trees all around, rising upwards, beyond our view.  It was bright still—even with all those trees—spots of sun regularly making it through breaks in the branches and onto the trail or our own moving bodies.

We talked as we walked around bends and up, over fallen trees.  We continued past one long stretch of loamy mud, trampled in already by large animals sometime before.  We walked alongside uneven boulders, cut into the trail and hundreds of Aspen with their paper-white trunks, scattered Douglas Fir and thousands of Lodgepole Pine, some green with branches stretched out, others dead or dying.

We walked up and up.  There had been no one else in the parking lot and there was no one else on the trail, only us, moving deeper into the woods, further into the mountains, no map in hand.

XV.

The only thing the professor asked of me was that I keep her grass alive.  The mail had been forwarded, someone hired to mow the lawn, the answering machine turned off, her friends and colleagues notified of her travels.

It seemed like an easy task.  When she left and I moved my things into the upstairs bedroom—a suitcase, a laundry basket and a box of books—the grass was full and green, the sort of green that’s bright, unnatural almost in a high altitude plain where the sun beats heavy and the wind comes through long and slow.  The grass in her yard was soft underfoot when I moved in; I got into a habit of sitting outside in a patio chair, my feet resting in the grass, in the early mornings when I’d eat breakfast.  I’d scramble through it sometimes, too,on my way to water the flowers in the afternoons.  She had told me she had no bones about whether the rest of the plants stayed alive, “just the grass,” she’d said when she showed me the house a few weeks before the summer.  I watered the flowers anyway.

We walked that day she showed me the house, from the university to her place, so I knew where I was going.  We walked from the small entryway—coats and hats hanging on racks—to the living room with its large fireplace and piano, through the reading room, kids’ artwork all over the walls, into the kitchen, downstairs to the basement washer and dryer, upstairs to the den with its worn sofa and chaise and basketball hoop inside, to the black-tiled bathroom with national park posters hanging next to the tub, out again to the large white bedroom with its single, round window facing the front yard. 

It was different—that house—then my own single story, open-planned apartment. Those first weeks in Wyoming, I was always walking room to room, in and out, up and down.  The house was located in the very center of everything, it felt. I could walk anywhere from there: Julie’s house, Paula’s apartment, the local Episcopalian church where I’d sometimes attend services, the park where I’d often sit and read. 

XX.

Our class meets in a basement room with no windows, so even when it’s not movie night, it feels subterranean, like we’re all always descending to get there, but descend we do, into the text, into the ideas, into the room.  Sometimes we descend so far, I wonder if we’ll ever come up for air.  We talk about many scenes from the book in great detail, but the scenes that most of my students are most interested in are the dream scenes, the scenes where the narrator of the story makes a descent into night, where he becomes untethered in some way from his own reality. 

I would guess that my students don’t know what it’s like to cross an icy country on foot, descend a volcano, or to ascend another, but they do understand what it’s like to wake up in a cold sweat, trapped in their own minds, in their own lives or apartments.  I’d guess they also understand,too, a little of what it’s like to see something for the first time, to realize the cellar is not the only thing below.

“If at every instant we may perish,” I quote to them from Verne one day in that basement classroom, hoping it consoles them, hoping it’s comfort, “so at every instant we may be saved.”  I try,too,to secure the class another classroom, “Something above ground,” I mention in my email to the room scheduler, “or one with windows.”  The person who replies tells me that the room across the hall—the same configuration as the room we’re in—might be open, but that everything else on that side of campus is taken. 

We stay. We walk down together sometimes, a few of us at a time, following the same path from my office, past speaker’s circle and the back of the business school, past some wooden benches and the side of the building where students often smoked before and even after cigarettes were banned, and down, into our basement classroom.  

XXXIV.

The whole fossil world lives again in my imagination.  I go back in fancy to the biblical epoch of creation, long before the advent of man, when the imperfect earth was not fitted to sustain him. Then still farther back, to the time when no life existed.  The mammifers disappeared, then the birds, then the reptiles of the secondary epoch, and then the fishes, crustaceans, molluscae, articulata.  The zoophytes of the transition period returned to oblivion. All life was concentrated in me, my heart alone beat in a depopulated world. Seasons were no more; climates were unknown; the heat of the earth increased till it neturalized that of our radiant star.

Ages seemed to pass like days! I followed step by step the transformation of the earth.  Plants disappeared; granite rocks lost their hardness; the fluid replaced the solid under the influence of growing heat; water flowed over the earth’s surface; it boiled; it volatized; gradually the globe became a gaseous mass, white hot, as large and luminous as the sun.

            In the center of the nebulous mass, 14,000 times larger than the earth it was one day to form, I felt myself carried into planetary space.  My body became ethereal in its turn mingled like an imponderable atom with the vast body of vapor which described its flaming orbit in infinite space!

            What a dream!  Where is it carrying me?”

XXXV

In the dream, I’m falling.  In the dream, I’m lying on the attic floor and then I’m not. In the dream, it’s a clear day, always, the sky a systematic shade of blue: blue like the reflection off a salt pond, blue like blood, blue like a wave impending, blue like the irises in my own eyes, in my father’s eyes, in my mother’s eyes, in my brother’s eyes, in the eyes of only one of my two nieces.

In the dream,I’m fine, always, and then, in the dream, I’m not. In the dream, I never see the lip, the cliff’s rim, the mountain’s drop, the perfectly perpendicular edge of the top of the glass-sided sixteen story building—only air, distance dissolving.

In the dream, I’m neither floating nor being carried along, just moving.  In the dream,it’s neither cool nor hot; in the dream, I don’t see the ground; I don’t see the leaves on trees or people walking along the sidewalks or street signs or rivers or valleys or anything below.  I only see sky, the sky ahead of me, all around me—but never touching me, never penetrating my skin—fading from a bright blue to a pale, unnatural, grey. I never touch down in the dream; I just fall and fall until I jerk awake and realize I’ve thrown the white cotton sheets off the bed again. 

I watch the moon through the skylight or sometimes the dim morning light flinging shadows around the bedroom floor. After awhile, I get up; I drink a glass of water.  I open the window and suck the cold air into my lungs.  I plant both of my feet firmly onto the ground. 

XXXVI

Axel and Lidenbrock walk and walk in Journey to the Center of the Earth.  At first, when the pair arrive in Iceland, meet their guide Hans, and begin their quest to reach the center of the earth, they ride on horses through the country, lodging with families in one small village and then another.  After awhile, though, the ground becomes too difficult for the horses to smoothly traverse and so the travelers continue on foot.  Axel and Lidenbrock and Hans walk in single file by fjords and over a bog; they walk over long stretches of balsatic rock and past massive blocks of stone. They walk all the way to the base of a mountain and then they walk to the top of that mountain, 5000 feet above the sea. Once they reach the summit, they locate the ancient volcanic crater Arne Saknussemm’s rune has led them to find.  They descend that crater, make their way to the very bottom of it and then they keep walking, into the black, down towards the center of the earth. 

Before Axel and Lidenbrock even get to Iceland, though, they practice walking. They walk through the narrow streets of Copenhagen and up to the top of the tallest steeple in the city, the Von-Frelsens Kirk.  They circle up and up the spiral staircase, around the steeple’s spire.  They walk inside first and then after 150 steps, continue outside, on the very edge.  Axel is giddy as they walk; he is sick; he exclaims, “I shall never do it!”  He climbs on his legs and then his knees and then his stomach.  He sees the city below covered in thick smoke, sees the universe spinning. 

Then finally, when he’s made it to the steeple’s furthest point, he descends each of those steps, back to the ground.  And then he tries it again, five times more in the next five days.  “My first lesson in vertigo lasted an hour,” narrates Axel, “and when at last I was allowed to descend and my feet touched the solid pavement of the street, I was lame.”

XXXIX

Gradually, that summer in Wyoming, I began to walk further and for longer.  I began to go nearly every day to Happy Jack Park and to walk the Ridge Trail, the Meadow Trail, or the Campground Loop.  I wasn’t sure what I’d find in that place, but I hiked it still, wanting to figure it out as I went along.  Sometimes there were animals—cows, birds, deer—or other runners or hikers, but often it was only me, walking quietly, through the low brush and trees and high dirt paths. 

On the best days in Wyoming, I’d walk Happy Jack with my favorite professor, Kate, and her bright black dog, Clara, or with Julie and Paula. We’d walk through a high alpine forest, tucked just far enough away from the main highway that people who were not locals did not go there.  It was a dark woods, the red of hemlocks and cones and needles from pines and spruce padding the air and the ground. There were a few hikers and animals on those days too, but mostly it was quiet, the white sky occasionally making it through breaks in the trees, stripping the shade bare.  It was cool; there were forget-me-nots, wild violets, a few small campsites and bike tracks, but otherwise, narrow footpaths and high-altitude air, away from the pressure of the city and the buildings and the relentless streets. We’d walk and talk, and if Clara was there, she’d lope ahead, a flash of black dodging in and out of trees.

One day, I went on the Summit Trail at Happy Jack and tried to make a big loop but accidentally ended up on another trail at the wrong parking area.  I turned back the way I’d come and wandered one trail,then another,until somehow I ended up off the trail entirely, looking for my way back as dusk quickly closed in on me.

It had been cold when I started hiking, rain threatening in the low clouds on the horizon but not yet touching down. The trail had been wet in places, wide patches of dark mud, packed down by livestock and bicycles and other hikers and making the route almost impassable.  The woods were even darker than usual that day and the wind seeped through the loose weave of my jacket.  I continued on anyway, shaking off the cold.  I saw only one person as I went along.  It was a runner, a thin woman dressed in a bright yellow jacket and matching shorts.  At some point in the trail, past the patch of mud and wildflowers and after I’d already turned back from the wrong parking area, we crossed paths.  I moved to the side so that she could keep her pace, hurrying past me.  She nodded at me as she ran by. 

The trail narrowed as it continued upwards and finally broke through the trees to a high plain, full of brush and grey and orange rocks, sometimes small and flat, sometimes massive boulders that looked like they’d been tossed by large machinery.

I walked for an hour or two before I realized the path I was on had tapered, from a wide lane, almost to a trickle, barely enough room both of my feet to pass.  As I looked around, I didn’t remember the scattering of rocks or the knee-high bushes or even the tops of the trees blanketing the view; it all looked like something I might see in Wyoming, but not like something I had seen this day or other days on the same trail. 

I walked around for a few minutes, circled the path to see if there was something wider in the distance or if I could find my way back to the place from where I’d come, but one narrow trail just led to another.  After awhile, I sat down on a large flat rock and tried to remember where I’d seen that runner, what the route was that I’d taken since that last clear spot.  The sky was already darkening and I worried—on that rock—what I’d do if I had to spend the night out in the park, with only light clothing and half a bottle of water, my phone and wallet locked in my car at the first parking lot where I’d ventured from. 

Reasoning that the park wasn’t that large, that if I just wandered, I might find a road, I finally got up and started walking.  After a few minutes, I heard the heavy steps of a herd of cows and then bells, likely strapped to their necks.  I walked on, followed the sound and as I turned a bend, there was a patch of wildflowers that looked strangely familiar.  Just past them was a single cow standing next to a wide, stony trail.  

XL

I did not keep the professor’s grass alive.  It started small: a few patches of brown in the side yard, between the professor’s house and the neighbor’s.  I hadn’t walked into that part of the yard for a few days when I noticed a six-or-seven inch section of grass that was a lighter color than the rest, the individual blades of grass spiky and dry.  This was the phase before the end, though I didn’t realize it at the time, before the grass would lose its ability to stand at all, would lie flax-like on the hard ground.

I sprayed the spot first with a hose—hoping for a quick resuscitation—and then I set up a long metal sprinkler on that part of the lawn.  It watered all around, clicked several times, changed directions and watered again.  I got up each morning, turned on the sprinkler and moved it from one position in that side yard to another.  I placed the same sprinkler around the yard once in the afternoon, and for good measure, right after dinner, or whenever I returned home in the evening. 

After the sprinkler came fertilizer, at the suggestion of a guy working at the local hardware store a few blocks away.  “Catch it before the rest of the grass wilts,” he told me, “before things get out of hand.”  Wanting anything but the grass to wilt, out of hand, I hauled the ten pound bag of fertilizer that he’d recommended back to the house and borrowed a friend’s spreader to add it evenly to the lawn.  I walked in carefully overlapping rows from one side of the yard to the other, the small green spreader rolling along, casting a steady spray of tiny grey pellets across everything. 

Still, the spots spread from the side yard to the sunniest corner of the backyard and then even to patches out front, under the large spindly evergreen near the living room window.  By the time the professor finally moved back into her house, most of the yard had changed color, no longer a bright green, instead a faded and fading one. 

XLII

“Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.  How shall I say what wood that was!  I never saw so drear, so rank, so arduous a wilderness! Its very memory gives a shape to fear. Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!   But since it came to good, I will recount all that I found revealed there by God’s grace.” 

I read these lines to my students one class as we talk about the way the center of the world is not entirely what Axel and Lidenbrock expect.  I think about them as I walk after class to the small Bavarian-styled Episcopalian church in the middle of downtown, as I kneel on the kneeler, pray with the eight or nine other people attending that Wednesday service for the peace of the world, as the priest anoints my head with oil for healing, in the name of the Father, of the Son,and of the Holy Ghost. 

It’s archetypal, the finding one’s self alone in a dark wood, the finding one’s way back out.  “Here’s a secret,” I will read around this same time in another book, “Everyone if they live long enough will lose their way at some point.  You will lose your way, you will wake up one morning and find yourself lost.”  The writer continues, though, his reflection not ending just with losing one’s way, “If you’re lucky, you’ll remember a story you heard as a child, the trick of leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, the idea being that after whatever is going to happen in those woods has happened, you can then trace your steps, find your way back out.  But no one said you wouldn’t be changed by the hours, the years spent wandering.”

XLIII

I remember telling a friend when I first visited Laramie that the place had a foreboding sense about it, that it felt, when you drove in—and even when you stayed the night—like an abandoned ghost town that you stumbled into and then realized, “Hey!  There are other people here, and those other people are just as surprised to see you.”

It was the wide streets that made me feel this way at the time, I think, the occasional tumbleweeds actually blowing through them and perhaps also that everything that had been buried in several feet of snow shortly before I’d gotten there, and so people were mostly inside, or perhaps out in the mountains, skiing and snowshoeing and making the most of it.  Some of the neighborhoods around campus—especially the neighborhood where the professor’s house was—were actually quite similar to the rows of Craftsman and Victorian houses in the neighborhood I’d lived in before coming to Laramie, even the white house with two-story porch that held my apartment. I didn’t see that on my first day in Laramie, though. 

I took a photograph my first day driving into town.  I’d passed the old cement plant, where arsenic dust would be found sometime later and then remedied by being covered in plastic tarps. I’d driven by the Albany County Fairgrounds and the red and white block lettered sign for Bart’s Flea Market. I’d driven up 3rdStreet, past a cigarette stand, two pawn shops; I’d just made it to Grand Avenue, one of the two main thoroughfares between downtown and the rest of the city.  To get to the sandstone buildings and pine-tree-lined paths of the university, you turn right at the intersection, but I’d accidentally turned left, towards downtown and West Laramie.  As I made that left-hand turn, for some reason, I pulled out my phone and pressed the small camera button on it, taking a picture of what was straight in front of me. 

The corners of that photograph include the curved edge of my car’s hood. There are white flecks covering the glass and the view and a single black windshield wiper, just off center on the inside right of the frame. 

XLIV

Some years after my summer in Wyoming, I will read an article headline titled, “Supervolcano?  The Big One in Wyoming?”  The article details a rift that opened up somewhere near Yellowstone National Park, the size of several football fields.  It caused scientists to examine again the 70-kilometer caldera that is the impetus for the park’s geysers and hot springs. 

The rift, the writer notes, is evidence that perhaps the volcano lying some miles under the park’s surface may break through.  If that volcano blew, the writer of that article, or maybe another, explained, it could be a magnitude eight explosion; its cloud would cover an area 500 miles wide with ash, perhaps, four inches thick. 

I look at a map as I read, think about the fact that 500 miles means that volcano would coat all of the park, and the surrounding counties and states; it would make its way to Casper and Gilette and even to the city of Laramie, to the tree-lined neighborhoods and the stucco house, and Prexy’s Pasture on campus and maybe the Snowy Mountains.

Would it have mattered, I will wonder as I read: knowing about the volcano, knowing about the deer tick, knowing that no matter how hard I tried I could not keep the professor’s grass green?

XLVI

On one of my last nights in Wyoming, my friends and I pulled over the car on the side of the road on the way home from the mountains. We’d stopped in a small town at the foot of the Medicine Bow National Forest called Centennial, talked about getting pie at the cedar-lined Bear Tree Tavern and maybe we did, but then we drove on, past the handful of trailers and cabins, past the land one of our friends would soon buy.  We drove down Snowy Range Road towards Laramie talking and laughing and listening to music on the car radio, watching the green lights from the dials and the dashboard spill onto the floor, until someone in the backseat said, “Stop” or “Look.” I can’t remember; what I do remember whichever thing they did say, we stopped and looked.

My friend pulled over the car, parked in the uncut grass on the side of the empty road and we all climbed out of the car.  It was silent, and while our eyes adjusted, it was dark—totally dark—no streetlights or lit windows or city haze in the distance, no oncoming headlights or neon bar signs, no glare from the snow and no reflection of the moon off water.  It was just black, the sort of black that might have been pure, that might have been annihilating, that meant it took several seconds before we could make out the faces of our friends or the lines of the road or follow the outlines of our own hands. 

But then, as we waited there in the middle of the road, our eyes still open, we could see just above the black.  Even in that great unknown, there were stars, a canopy.



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