The young park ranger pushed back is hat. “To get an idea why Sunset Crater is a national monument you’ve got to put yourself in the year 1064. You’re an Arizona Indian, living in a pit house, trying to farm these highlands east of the San Francisco Peaks.
“You’re worried by tremors and rumbling underfoot. So you pack up your family and take off. Soon your farm blows sky-high. The earth flames. Rocks soar skyward followed by a rain of cinders. Reddish lava oozes from cracks in your cornfield. When things cool off, you come back for a look. This is what you see- a newborn mountain, jet black.”
I started with new interest at Sunset Crater, a 1,000-foot cinder cone, its cratered crest stained red and orange as though tinted by the setting sun. Around its base stretch acres of somber earth, softened only by stubborn pines that have fought through the cinder blanket.
“Sunset Crater smothered many cornfields,” the ranger continued. “But it also kicked off a land rush. Its ash, settling for miles beyond the lava, trapped rainfall. Returning Indians found new grass growing through cinders.”
Eager to stake a claim in the black bonanza, Indians headed for Sunset Crater from all corners of the Southwest. Languages and customs mingled, dwelling sand great pueblos rose-like those preserved at Walnut Canyon and Wupatki nearby. But eventually winds stripped away the fertile, moisture-retaining blanket of ash. Crop failures drove families from the again-barren land.
Sunset Crater remains, hulking above its lava field amid fumeroles and small splash craters. Bonita lava Flow curves from its base like an inky glacier. Wind-blown cinders form contoured dunes. Knife-edged squeeze-ups show where cooling lava was forced out of cracks, then froze upright.
“We don’t have any camping or picnicking facilities in the movement,” the ranger told me, “but we’re only a half-hour drive from Flagstaff, a favorite stopover for travelers. It’s my job to keep kids from breaking their necks tumbling down the cone and generally to talk their dads out of climbing it. M For every step you make you slip back two.”
I soon saw what he meant. Cinders gave way under me in rustling cascades as, short of breath because of the 8,000-foot elevation, I mounted the slope. But the crest was worth it. I circled the lip of the black, 400-foot-deep crater and examined yellow sulfurous rock and crimson-hued ash that explain the sunset coloring. To the west toward the San Francisco’s, Arizona’s highest peaks. Northeastward stretched the Painted Desert with its Navajo hogans and Hopi villages. The Hopis still look on Sunset Crater as the home on their Kana-a kachinas, friendly spirits who see to it that Indian storerooms are crammed with corn. In this other-world setting I found the legend easy to believe.