Friday, September 17, 2021

The Land That Swallows Trains: Part 3


Eastbound BNSF stacks beneath Sierra de San Francisco.

[Herein begins Part III of The Land that Swallows Trains.  You should read Part One ( and Part Two ( before beginning this section, which presupposes knowledge of names, places and actions described in those earlier parts.]

Westbound stacks across the Colorado Plateau of northeastern Arizona.

Beyond the Canyon of the Rio Puerco of the West, the Colorado Plateau unrolls across a desert barren and empty as an abandoned farmhouse, a place that by all appearances cannot support life of any significance beyond insects, a few small mammals and a fewer, smaller lizards.  The land stretches in monotony to a horizon of small, wart-like mesas, the view unbroken by vegetation, and one attempting to cross here, even in the 21st century when Interstate 40 presents an uninterrupted line of madly scrambling trucks and vacationers, has the feeling that disaster, or something very close to it, may lie just beyond the line of site.

Sunset on the Colorado Plateau.

Another sunset.

Eastbound in the land of the Navajo.

To the Whipple survey party, however, reaching this high desert brought relief after navigating the lava fields of New Mexico.  Here the wagons rolled smoothly.  Here the nights were cold but dry.  Here, everyone agreed, was perfect terrain for the construction of a railroad.

But smallpox was following them.  One of the teamsters was stricken, his face covered with the ulcers that mark the disease, and the remainder of the party feared for their own health.  Sherburne’s diary indicates that “nearly all of the party have been newly vaccinated so as to prevent it [the pox] if possible.” 

Smallpox vaccine was the first to be developed against a contagious disease. In 1796, the British doctor Edward Jenner demonstrated that an infection with the mild cowpox virus conferred immunity against deadly smallpox.  Cowpox served as a natural vaccine until the modern smallpox vaccine emerged in the 20th century.  So the Whipple party knew in advance that smallpox was raging throughout the Southwest and brought vaccine with them.  None of the diaries and reports indicates that vaccine was shared with the Natives. 

The Whipple party crossed over 100 miles of this territory.


On November 30, 1853, the survey team descended almost 300 feet into a broad canyon of water bubbling through dark sand – the Navajo Springs, where in 1863 federal officials commenced the government of Arizona Territory.  Sherburne was beginning to see petrified wood scattered across the desert, as the party approached what would become Petrified Forest National Park, perhaps the most isolated in the lower 48 states.  In the clear western sky rose a straight column of smoke, a signal from one Navajo to another, through whose territory the survey team traveled.

That evening at dusk, two Navajo appeared on horses on a ridge about 500 yards from the team’s campsite.  They carried long lances, like medieval jousters, and did not approach further, hovering silently in the growing darkness of a moonless night.  A few of the survey team rode out to meet them, but the Navajo, justifiably frightened after learning that one of the teamsters had contracted smallpox, would not ride into camp, nor would they take anything to eat, drink or smoke.  The survey team remained unmolested by the Navajo throughout the crossing of Arizona, almost certainly because of the pox. 

Europeans and their American descendants have never understood the Navajo, and the Whipple party was no exception.  Following a tradition that goes as far back as Genesis, Europeans and their brethren have believed that the earth was created for their benefit – to use, mold, sculpt, improve – to take whatever the land had to offer in furtherance of material well-being.  The Navajo, on the other hand, try to live in harmony with the land, adapting to climate, plants and animals.  As the discussion below demonstrates, Native Americans have not always successfully reached this goal -- do no harm and leave no tracks – but they at least make the effort.  The Whipple party saw only the material side of the culture, blind to the spiritual virtues, and what they saw depressed them.

Möllhausen’s comments are representative:

In the judgment of all travelers who have come into contact with the Pueblo-Indians, they well deserve the help of the missionary, since they show already such a tendency to civilization.  They are peaceable, industrious and domestic in their habits, but remote as they are from any center of civilization, they can proceed no further to provide for their own maintenance, and some few of the conveniences of life.  Yet they might be made skillful mechanics, and even trained to become conscientious teachers of the young. 

It did not occur to Möllhausen, nor to anyone else in the survey party, that the Navajo might consider “being remote from any center of civilization” a blessing, not a curse.

DPU's on the open desert.

Eastbound to Chicago.

More desert.  The survey team must have grown tired of this after a few weeks.

A westbound Z overtakes a slower stack train.

Recently, your author was traveling through Navajo lands, photographing the BNSF Transcon.  As he stood on the side of a hill between the tracks and Interstate 40, an eastbound tractor-trailer slowed abruptly, and the trailer burst into flames – a bizarre display of fireworks and black smoke.  I do not know what was in the truck, but whatever it was, it burned spectacularly.

Eastbound traffic began to back up as vehicles stopped in the highway to avoid the conflagration.  Westbound traffic slowed to a crawl as people gawked at the disaster.

The smoke was black as the tires on the flaming truck, rising steadily in an otherwise transparent sky.  As I watched, I realized that the modern systems controlling our lives, such as limited-access highways upon which one can neither enter nor exit except at designated points, work wonderfully until something goes wrong.  Then everything just stops -- like the hundreds (thousands?) of vehicles pilling up in the eastbound lane.  The internet is the same way.  It is wonderful until it goes down.  Then you just sit there, staring at the screen, wondering what to do.

If you live long enough, you realize that much of life is counter-intuitive.  If you worry about getting sick, you depress your immune system and become ill.  Thus, people frightened of Covid 19 are the most likely to contract the disease.  If you try to save California’s giant sequoias by preventing wildfires, the trees die out, because their seed pods open in blazes.  Thus, people trying to prevent the natural fire cycle in California will kill the giant trees.  The more we try to make things better, the worse things become. 

I watched the burning truck for several minutes.  Eventually, fire personnel came roaring out of Gallup from the east along a dirt road, raising dust as high and thick as the black smoke from the burning eighteen-wheeler.  At that moment, the flames jumped the road, spreading quickly into the adjoining dry grass and brush, which looked not to have seen rain in months.  More emergency vehicles appeared, and soon firefighters were digging trenches and spraying water.

Smoke signals.

Someone said, “What’s going on?”

I turned.  Behind me stood an old man.  I say “old,” though I am 70.  I do not know if he was older in years, but he was clearly older in experience.  The lines in his face were like the answers to a quiz that I had never taken.  His skin was dark brown, and he wore a baseball cap.

“Truck caught on fire,” I said.

He looked at me for a moment as though determining if I were worth talking to.  “Used to live right where that road is,” he said, nodding at the interstate.  “Then they made us move.”  Now he nodded in the opposite direction toward sandstone cliffs that peered down at us like spectators at a boxing match.  At the base of the cliff was a small, cinder-block dwelling with two small windows on each side of an open doorway that lacked a screen.  In front of the open door was a brown pick-up, at least 30 years old.  The left rear tire looked flat, though from that distance it was difficult to tell.

My first thought was:  How can anyone live in such a shack, in such poverty, in such degradation?  I could not live that way, I thought.

“If you live far enough away,” the old man said, “it’s okay.  But you’ve got to be far enough away.”

He smiled slightly, revealing a set of decaying teeth.

At first, I thought he was talking about the highway.  Then I realized – one of those blinding flashes of the obvious – that he was talking about civilization, and that he was silently pitying me:  not a condescending pity, but a pity borne of shared humanity, as I might pity a man with a bad heart valve.

I looked back at the burning truck in the middle of the highway, the black clouds rising into the vacant sky, the line of eastbound traffic stretching to the horizon, and I thought I was looking at a smoke signal.  I could not decipher it, but I thought it might have something to do with:  “You’ve got to be far enough away.”

The San Francisco Volcano Field.

On December 1, the expedition crossed to the north side of the Rio Puerco of the West and followed the natural route toward distant, snow-capped mountains – the San Francisco Volcano Field, unlike anything these men had seen before.  The peaks were beacons guiding them west, and late in the 19th century the railroad would follow the same path through what became the present-day towns Holbrook and Winslow.

Whipple’s report calls this the “first day of winter . . . with an elastic exhilarating air.”  The wagons rolled across a prairie of smooth ground and entered the valley of Carriso Creek, a dry stream with occasional pools.  Digging only slightly below the surface, the men found sandy water for the mules.

Sierra de San Francisco.

Looking back to the east.

Climbing toward the volcanoes.

Soon thereafter the travelers came upon an abandoned settlement built on a mound in the middle of the narrow valley such that, during flooding, the village must have been surrounded by water and accessible only by bridges connecting to the nearby flat plateau.  The town once consisted of terraced, multi-storied buildings like those at Laguna Pueblo, likely home to several hundred people.  Rough-hewn stones, once part of now crumbled masonry walls, were piled beside broken pots and stone arrow points.

Farther along, the survey team discovered other abandoned ruins of a civilization that once had thrived over a wide area.  Now everything was choked with volcanic dust.  Möllhausen believed that “a general emigration occasioned the abandonment of these numerous towns; when the valley became too narrow for their habitation, they may have been tempted by the better soil and wider space offered them further south.”

On the eastern edge of the San Francisco Volcano Field.

Compared to San Francisco Peak, these volcanoes are dwarfs.

East meets west near where the Whipple party discovered the abandoned settlement.

In the late 11th and early 12th centuries, entire regions of the Southwest were forsaken.  In what is now northeastern Arizona, 11th century population increases were followed by depopulations and then abandonment.  If one explores the area today (September 2021) on backroads or by foot, one will stumble upon abandoned structures and sometimes whole villages almost as easily as one will stumble upon basalt from the nearby volcano field.

Abandoned dwelling.

Many attribute this depopulation to prolonged drought, but careful climate studies (often involving the examination of tree rings) demonstrate that low rainfall did not begin in many cases until after people had departed.  And recurrent droughts were as much a facet of prehistoric life in the Southwest as they are today.  If droughts caused people to abandon settlements, no one would have moved to what is now Arizona in the first place.

Similarly, there is no evidence that disease caused wholesale migration.  People had suffered the same nutritional and infectious maladies for centuries.  The average male in this period lived about 25 years, a year or two longer than the average female.  Archaeologists estimate that only 5-15% of the population lived to age 50, and those who did had few if any teeth remaining.  Infant mortality was extraordinary.  None of this changed while populations were settling some villages and abandoning others.  The scale of the population movement and the similarity across broad geographic regions suggest that the two most important factors may have been civilization’s impact on climate and a general cultural practice of moving from village to village.

Mid-trains in the open desert.  This is two stack trains running as a single unit.

It is a favorite conceit of the Western world that only modern man has had the power to degrade the environment, but we now know that many Native American cultures did not live in harmony with nature.  Those who visit the abandoned cave dwellings at Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico often remark the lack of trees, though archeological studies have shown that the original inhabitants (between 900 and 1150) used juniper and pinon extensively in construction of their dwellings .  These people likely stripped the landscape for fuel and construction wood, with no thought to regenerating natural resources.  How do we know?  Packrats have solved the puzzle.

Packrats incorporate pieces of plant material, bone, and other items they habitually collect from their environment into what are called “middens” – waste piles that in some caves can grow several feet tall and last for tens of thousands of years. The packrat's sticky, viscous urine acts like a cement which binds the midden material together.  Fossil plant remains recovered from ancient middens are often perfectly preserved, can be identified to species-level and provide excellent material for radiocarbon dating.  Studies of middens in Chaco Canyon show decreasing frequencies of juniper and pinon, with particularly large reductions in the 10th and 11th centuries.  

Other evidence of environment degradation includes analyses of wood charcoal from Chaco, showing increasing use of ponderosa pine and cottonwood, both not native to the area and inferior fuel to pinon and juniper.  Additionally, clearing wood from floodplains would have destroyed the habitats of animals providing food and hides for clothing.

DPU's approaching the volcanoes.

But more than environmental degradation was at work in the massive migrations.  The abandonment of settlements and regions was not partial but complete.  Villages did not simply lose population; they disappeared.  Entire communities packed up and moved away.  To current sensibility, this suggests a cataclysmic disaster such as drought.  But the people who abandoned settlements in what is now Arizona and New Mexico did not entertain modern sensibilities.  Your author does not believe that his daily actions affect the movement of the stars.  On the other hand, Native Americans today, and certainly in the past, believe and believed that culture and nature are inextricably linked. From that view, daily actions affect everything.

Tree ring dates have been studied from two cliff dwellings in Navajo country – Betatakin and Keit Siel (Navajo National Monument) – built within six miles of each other in red sandstone cliff overhangs, with well-preserved wooden supports in the standing architecture.  Betatakin has 135 rooms; Keit Siel at least 155.  Wood from the two sites (dated by a process called dendrochronology) shows that Kiet Siel initially grew slowly.  Wood from the oldest part of the village indicates that construction commenced in the late 1240s or early 1250s.  Wood in many new rooms dates between 1272 and 1275, indicating a significant population increase.  A few additional rooms were added as late as 1286, when construction ceased.  By 1300, the site was abandoned. 

Betatakin appears to have been a planned community.  Construction from 1275 to 1277 employed beams cut to regular sizes and stockpiled in 1269 and 1272.  Architecture of individual rooms was standardized, much like a contemporary motel.  It is likely that those who occupied the site originally in 1267 expected a large group to follow.  Sometime between 1286 and 1300, the site was also abandoned. 

These are some of the abandoned cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park in far southwestern Colorado.  Both Keit Siel and Betatakin are similar, though not as spectacular.  All three demonstrate that migrations often occurred very suddenly.  The people who constructed Betatakin and moved there as a group must have abandoned some other location.  The influx of settlers to Keit Siel in 1272-75 likely followed a similar pattern.  Migration to new communities and abandonment of others may have been the rule rather than the exception, may have been caused by the belief that movement ameliorated the conditions that made life so short. 

Perhaps following the same tradition, the Navajo entered the Southwest in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.  When Lieutenant Whipple and his party passed through what is now northeastern Arizona in the mid-nineteenth century, they were not trespassing on land occupied for millennia.  The plateau they crossed, the mesas, the canyons, were home to peoples for whom movement from village to village may have been a way of life.

Traffic on the Transcon across northeastern Arizona can almost be as heavy as on I-40.

Another example of heavy traffic on the Transcon.  Eastbound and westbound are stopped while a higher priority westbound runs around the stopped westbound and then changes tracks in front of the eastbound.  After the first westbound has cleared, both of the stopped trains will proceed.

DPU's on a westbound grainer.  What appears to be a mountain ridge in the background is actually a gigantic lava flow from San Francisco Peak.

December 2:  The team reached the heart of the petrified forest, where whole trees lay prostrate on the ground in shades of red, orange and white cornelian.  Sherburne broke off the limb of one tree, as did others in the party, beginning the carnage that exploded when the railroad was constructed.  Before creation of the national park in 1906, tourists would ride the train to Adamana Station, which supported a general store and hotel.  Vehicles would then take these locust-like sightseers into the heart of the ancient forest to load as much petrified wood as each could carry on the return home.  In this manner, whole trees were disassembled, leaving behind only traces of a once magnificent site.  Today, the “forest” has been reduced to a few specimens here and there that only hint at what was carried away.

December 5:  Two of the survey team went ahead to scout a Moqui village, hoping to find guides to the Rio Colorado.  Instead, they found hundreds dead from smallpox -- horses grazing without owners, corn lying loose on the ground, children spared from the disease playing among corpses.  Sherburne’s diary noted:  “The Moqui nation is extinct.”

While an exaggeration, the statement did convey the severity of the illness.  In 1895, the United States designated the tribe “Hopi.”  They lived in isolated pueblos high in the mesas, far above the dry desert, but their isolation was insufficient to protect them from the European disease.

Like everyone else in the world, the Hopi now have a radio station and a website.  While driving through the desert, your author listened on the AM band to a young woman speaking first in a native tongue that I assumed to be Hopi, then in English, explaining the dangers of Covid 19, giving statistics of the number of new cases in various villages.  The comparison to smallpox in the 19th century was unavoidable.

The website provides a succinct description of a tribe even more reclusive than the Navajo:

Over the centuries we have survived as a tribe, and to this day have managed to retain our culture, language and religion despite influences from the outside world.

Your author loves the phrase “despite influences from the outside world.”  This is probably the most benign description imaginable of smallpox, the railroad, the interstate highway and other intrusions from the Europeans and their descendants swarming North America.

"Meet" where the Hopi live.

The survey team member stricken with the pox was now at his most infective.  And then another man became sick.  Both grew feverish and delirious.  One stumbled out of camp in the middle of the night, hollering and laughing like a drunkard, with a tin cup in his hand.  He was found about a half mile away, attempting to drink water from a pile of rocks.

As they climbed higher in elevation, as the days grew shorter and the weather colder, more of the party became stricken.  The diaries and reports all note the fear spreading silently through the survey team, but there was no turning back, or turning anywhere.  Civilization was months away in all directions.  Although they travelled through a land without trees, the party felt like a child lost in a forest, disoriented and alone.  Like a ship adrift in a prevailing wind, they continued westward toward the volcano field.

Möllhausen noted:

It is said that the smallpox was first introduced into this country in the time of its conquest by Ferdinand Cortez by a negro attendant of this general, and that the malady created the most fearful devastation among the Aztecs.  Alexander von Humboldt found a pictorial representation of its prevalence in Mexico as an epidemic in the year 1538, in the copy of the Aztec MSS, formerly belonging to the Archbishop of Rheims, and now in the Paris Library.

By 1980, the disease had been eradicated, but in the 19th century, especially to Native Americans, smallpox was horrifying.  It began with a sudden onset of flu-like symptoms:  fever, headache, fatigue, back pain and vomiting.  A few days later, flat, red spots appeared, first on the face, hands and forearms, later on the stomach and legs. Within a day or two, many of the lesions turned into blisters filled with clear fluid, which then turned into pus as white blood cells invaded the infections.  These sores oozed for weeks, months, and could be intensely painful. Scabs formed and eventually fell off, leaving deep, pitted scars.  The term “pockmark” developed to described those desecrated by the disease.

Most infected by the pox survived with significant disfigurement.  A few varieties of the disease were fatal and seemed especially to infect Native Americans.  Also, because smallpox was not endemic to North America, natives had developed no herd immunity; the disease spread like a great flood.  The survey team was more fortunate.  Eventually, nine men contracted the disease, most infections occurring after the party had climbed into the snows of the San Francisco Volcano Field.  Though the fever made all delirious, though all lost significant weight, though those not infected believed that they were “next in line,” none of the party died, almost certainly because they were of European descent and had been injected with the cowpox vaccine. 

Eastbound on the trail blazed by the Whipple Party.

On December 14, the survey team awoke to find the ground covered with about two inches of snow.  The sky was clear; the full moon was setting in the west.  After breakfast, the team broke camp and proceeded west over relatively flat but rocky ground toward the snow-covered volcanoes.  After about four miles, they arrived at an impediment they could not cross, a canyon with steeply sloping walls, almost vertical in places, hundreds of feet deep through limestone and about 300 feet across.  Standing on the edge, looking down, one could see a narrow stream at the bottom, like a thin line of reflective paint.  Beyond this declivity, the flat ground continued its almost imperceptible ascent to the volcano fields.

Whipple named this landmark Canyon Diablo, the name it has borne to the present.  If you stand on its edge, it looks as though a very large person has transported to northeastern Arizona a very large trencher manufactured by DitchWitch to dig a very large trough through hundreds of feet of limestone – the skeletal deposits of marine life that lived and died over millions of years in a very large inland sea.  The walls really are that steep.  The canyon really does appear out of nowhere.  

This image gives some idea of the sheerness of the canyon walls.  Canyon Diablo lies between the photographer and the eastbound train.  The canyon is over 100 yards wide at this point.

Eastbound on the edge of Canyon Diablo.

Today an extremely primitive road (a trail, really) leads off the interstate across the flat and rocky terrain.  As you are driving along, bouncing along, you see the BNSF Transcon in the distance, a small westbound strung across the horizon like an army worm.  You drive for several miles until the trail stops beside the railroad’s ballast.  About one hundred yards to the west are railings on each side of the double-track mainline, the sort of railings you see on an open-span bridge, but you don’t see the bridge, nor do you see any river.  You walk beside the tracks, and you still don’t see a bridge or river.  Then all at once you almost fall into a huge vertical chasm unlike anything you have ever seen before -- a straight drop hundreds of feet to the floor below, the same view one sees from the top of an office tower.  

BNSF's bridge over Canyon Diablo -- at the canyon's narrowest point.

When the Whipple party reached this spot, there was water at the bottom.  No so when these images were taken.

The canyon has carved its route through solid limestone.

The survey team could not possibly cross this impediment.  In what is now eastern Oklahoma, they had lowered wagons and mules by ropes down the what Whipple called “those terrible hills,” but those grades were nothing like this canyon – Canyon Diablo.

The first bridge across the canyon was wooden.  If you look closely, you can see on the far canyon wall some of the masonry pillars -- each about three feet tall -- that supported the original structure.

The team turned northwest along the canyon’s rim until reaching the confluence with the Little Colorado River (Rio Colorado Chiquito) in about 25 miles (which took two days to travel) where the land opened to a broad valley that wagons could cross in shallow water.  The surveyors then turned west again towards the snow-covered peaks, passing several mesas and a small valley with dolomite on the east and basalt on the west.  Whipple noted in his report that “we traversed a sort of tufa, sometimes nearly knee-deep to the mules.”  Tufa is a form of limestone created when carbonate minerals precipitate out of water – in other words, a rock.  Thus, it is difficult to know what Whipple meant by “knee-keep to the mules.”  Still the presence of limestone indicates that the area was once covered with water for millions of years.

West of Canyon Diablo lies another, much smaller declivity -- Padre Canyon.  Whipple's wagons might possibly have crossed this impediment, with the help of ropes and brute force, but the route to the north avoided this headache.  The railroad took a "straight line" approach.

Soon the party reached pure basalt, wave upon wave of volcanic rock, as though molasses had rolled across country and then hardened, bracketed by multiple conical peaks, one after another, like lumpy snow cones.  The crest of one peak was broken; lava pouring from it had cooled and hardened in a tall serpentine course down the side of the hill.  All diaries and reports note that a few gnarled mountain cedars were beginning to appear.  After day upon day of travelling across open desert, with no vegetation taller than a few inches, the men thought they might be hallucinating.  But these were legitimate trees, though stunted.  And as they looked westward, the survey party saw green vegetation, the first sign that as the land steadily rose in elevation, average rainfall might be increasing.

One of the many lava fields surrounding Sierra de San Francisco.  Not surprisingly, the railroad bypassed such terrain.


One of the volcanic mounds was circumnavigated by a well-traveled path which a small group of the survey team climbed to find water gathered in a depression at the top.  Plus, now standing above the low clouds of a frosty morning, the men could see westward for miles to the tallest volcano, called San Francisco Peak, over 12,000 feet, and beyond it to another volcano that would ultimately be called Bill Williams Mountain.  This view showed a gap between the peaks that looked suitable for wagons, so the survey party turned southwest.

They continued gaining elevation, and mountain cedars became more abundant.  In places, the survey party was required to cut trees to allow wagon passage.  Sometime during the day of December 17, they entered a clearing of hard basalt upon which only bunch grass could grow.  In front of them, San Francisco Mountain towered like a thunderstorm.

The first appearance of mountain cedars.

In the shadow of Sierra de San Francisco.

Mountain cedars and lava flows.

Mountain cedars.

Sierra de San Francisco.

If you have not seen this peak before, your first glimpse will be mesmerizing.  It soars above the surrounding plateau in majestic solemnity like a federal judge staring down from the bench at a young lawyer.  The mountain was many feet deep in snow, extending northwest to southeast about ten miles, terminating on each end at gigantic masses of basalt and granite.  Above the snow, ponderosa pines stretched toward a severely blue sky, trees climbing to a timberline of around 10,000 feet, above which lay undisturbed snow covering the remains of what must have been a cataclysmic eruption.

A light snowfall.  When the Whipple party came through, the entire countryside was snow-covered.

More snow.

The volcano field, of which Sierra de San Francisco is most prominent, rises above a Colorado Plateau that covers the northern half of Arizona, the northwestern quadrant of New Mexico, the western third of Colorado and the eastern two-thirds of Utah – approximately 130,000 square miles.  Except for the line of volcanoes running northwest to southeast, the area is high desert broken by immense gorges, the most notable of which is the Grand Canyon.  The volcanoes rise out of nothing, straight out of the ground, with no foothills or fault lines or alluvial fans that generally mark mountain ranges – because these are not mountains created by moving faults.  These are volcanoes, vents in the earth’s crust where molted lava has poured forth violently and systematically.  The field is still active.  The most recent eruption was about 1064.  During its approximately 6,000,000 year history, the field has produced more than 600 volcanoes – one about every 10,000 years.  So another one is due.

No one knows why these volcanoes have chosen northeastern Arizona for home.  Some geologists speculate that there is a gigantic “hot spot” of molten lava below the surface.  As the North American plate moves from southeast to northwest, the lava rises to the surface from time to time, blowing in the crust holes that we call volcanoes.  

The currently dominant geologic theory holds that hot spot volcanoes are created by exceptionally hot areas fixed deep below the Earth’s mantle. More recent studies suggest that these hot spots may be found at more shallow depths and may migrate slowly over geologic time rather than stay fixed in the same spot.

Not all geologists, however, agree with hotspot theory.  If volcanoes are formed as the North American plate moves, then there should be a systematic age progression along hotspot trails, but as nearly as your author can tell, no such progression has been found in northeastern Arizona.

A portion of the massive San Francisco Volcano Field.

In the hundreds of thousands of years since this ridge of lava was deposited, mountain cedars have established themselves on only a small portion, mostly in the declivities where rain collects..

The volcanoes formed what appeared to the Whipple party to be an impenetrable barrier, so they headed southwest toward what looked like a small gap near Bill Williams Mountain.

Both the survey team and later the railroad crossed at the base of this lava flow.

Lieutenant Whipple hoped that this route would skirt the worst of the terrain ahead.

This is the location where cutting some mountain cedars was necessary.

In any event, the Whipple survey party were blissfully unaware of theory.  They knew that they were looking at a gigantic volcano, nothing more.  They knew that the land they had crossed would provide easy railroad construction, save for Canyon Diablo, which would require a significant bridge, and indeed the route ultimately chosen by the Atlantic and Pacific followed almost directly in the tracks of the survey wagons to the edge of the canyon.  The first bridge was made of wood.  In the 20th century, a new steel arch bridge was constructed that stands to this day (September 2021).

Navigating between volcanoes and mountain cedars.

Ahead, the survey team could see the beginning of the largest ponderosa pine forest in North American, with trees over 100 feet tall and trunks three to five feet in diameter.  Winter was just settling in. The ground was still rising in elevation, the temperature still dropping.  Another man had come down with the pox.  As nearly as they could tell, there was nothing ahead but volcanoes, and the Pacific Ocean was still 500 miles away. 

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