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to the story's beginning            back to Billings

We chose Billings for an overnight stop because of our plans for the next morning. The elevation is reasonable and the runway is long. And it's close to the Rocky Mountains, which we'll cross early in the day, before the rising heat makes turbulence and reduces the airplane's performance.

In this part of the country, many water features are temporary. A few miles west of Billings, we see that Canyon Creek is all but dry, and Big Lake is headed in the same direction. These are shown with dots on the sectional chart to alert the navigator. In a few minutes, we'll start climbing as the ground rises to meet us. Turn left at Livingston, and we're about to fly over the mountains.

Mount Washburn is in the center of this shot, with the snow-capped Absaroka Range in the background. We're now over Yellowstone National Park.

This is the Norris Geyser Basin, the park's hottest, most active area. While I was busy staying away from the edges of the air (that's where you hit things), Barbara got a good look at the Grand Prismatic Spring. The colors are made by bacteria in the water. Different animals all have their own favorite temperatures, so what you see here is effectively a thermal image of this beautiful hot spring.

Old Faithful is very close to these last scenes, but we weren't clever enough to schedule our overflight to coincide with one of its eruptions.

It took about 45 minutes to negotiate the Rockies, and then it was back downhill to Idaho Falls. A few minutes before landing there, we flew over Rigby. They put a huge R on the hill overlooking the Snake River, so nobody will mistake it for some other place.

The Oregon Trail followed the south shore of the Snake River through much of Idaho. In 1852, John Jeffrey promoted an alternate trail that followed traditional Shoshone routes. This route required travellers to cross the river, providing business for his ferry. The road was very rough going because of the lava flows that dominate the Snake River basin. These features look bad enough from an airplane two thousand feet above them, but from the ground they're positively forbidding. This route didn't get much use for several years.

By 1862, the combined desires for a faster route to Salmon River gold, and to avoid Indian attacks, revived interest in the route. Tim Goodale led a large party over Jeffrey's route along the northern edge of the lava fields.

This time, the route became popular. It was used heavily for the next fifty years, and became known as Goodale's Cutoff. Encouraged by having seen tracks of the Santa Fe Trail on a previous trip, we tried to find parts of Goodale's Cutoff while we were in the area. This one was more elusive; we never saw it. If you'd like to try, the National Park Service provides directions.

This lump of basalt sits under a sign at a roadside marker about halfway from Idaho Falls to Arco. It's the stuff that makes up this landscape. It looks like a big chunk of asphalt, but it's much tougher than that.

This is an Oliver Three Disc Gang Plow from about 1909 that was found on government land near Goodale's Cutoff. This plow was made to stand up to hard use and was known for its ability to penetrate hard, rocky soil. Unfortunately, there was not enough water for plants to grow in the land turned by this plow. Homesteaders in the region eventually lost their land for lack of water.

The signs at the roadside marker just mentioned explain how these three geological landmarks were formed.

East Butte flowed up and cooled quickly about 600,000 years ago. Although East Butte and Middle Butte look similar, but they were formed in different ways. A dome of melted rhyolite that rose up through a volcanic fissure became East Butte. Rhyolite is an acidic rock formed when magma melts the earth's crust. Middle Butte is a block of hard lava, or basalt. Basalt is made of material from the earth's mantle, pushed up by volcanic activity. Usually, the crust is disturbed before an eruption, so rhyolite is older than basalt. Towering 2500 feet high, two overlapping rock domes form Big Southern Butte, a 300,000 year old butte that dominates this lava plain.
After a hot flow of rhyolite boiled up through older lava, a second rhyolite dome pushed up a block of earlier basalt on its northwest side. They took thousands of years to reach their present shape, but geologically they are very recent structures.

Almost no settlers were enticed to stay in southern Idaho; this was always just a place on the way to somewhere better. For some, the isolation was desirable. So desirable, that the government even prints a note on the sectional chart, "requesting" pilots to keep their distance. We're interested in an Idaho outpost that now tolerates visitors.

We stayed at Arco, which has a good airport with almost all the services we needed. Parking and fuel are available, but you can't rent a car in Arco. The nearest agent is at the airport in Idaho Falls, 65 miles away. So that's where we landed, an hour short of our goal. This stung a bit when we left, as we were still headed west but had to drive an hour east before we could start flying. Sometimes our destinations work out that way. Logistics on the ground would prove challenging at two more stops on this trip, where we couldn't use the closest airport because the ground transportation we needed was unavailable.

In August 1939 Albert Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt, warning that Germany had the wherewithal to produce vast amounts of energy in a small package, by harnessing nuclear fission – "splitting the atom." Einstein explained bluntly how this technology would lead to a bomb of unstoppable force. The following month, Hitler invaded Poland, starting World War II. The race was on.

G.B. Pegram of Columbia University had arranged a conference between physicist Enrico Fermi and the Navy Department earlier that year. This eventually led to a secret project spread over several locations in New York City, under the direction of Gen. Leslie Groves. The decision was taken to investigate as many avenues to harnessing nuclear power as possible, including espionage in Germany.

Soon, the Manhattan Project was too big for Manhattan. It grew into other locations, including the Argonne National Laboratory near Fermi's base in Chicago. As the team grew closer to producing a bomb, several of them were moved to an outpost in New Mexico. Two of those principals were Fermi and Walter Zinn. Zinn's history followed the same path as the project. He was educated at Columbia, worked with Fermi at the University of Chicago, and moved with the Manhattan Project to Los Alamos.

After the War, Zinn became director of the Argonne Laboratory. He presided over the establishment of its western branch, the Idaho National Laboratory. Now that the U.S. had shown the devastation that atomic fission could bring, scientists at the INL sought to demonstrate peaceful uses for this powerful source of energy. The area had once been an ordnance proving ground for the Navy, chosen for its remoteness. That same attribute made it an ideal location for ground-breaking experiments in nuclear fission.

Not far from Big Southern Butte, a highway sign points to "EBR-1." There is no other explanation. If you don't know what that means, you'll drive on by. If you take the turn, you'll find the world's first atomic power plant, now open to the public at the end of a mile-long road. This is where Walter Zinn presided over the breeder reactor that was the prototype for nuclear power plants all over the world, both on land and at sea (and in the air, almost).

There are a few warnings, some old and some contemporary. Nobody inspects packages and briefcases these days, but neither do they explain how the contamination was broken or how it got fixed. There are lines on the floor to suggest the best route through the facility. With the aid of a brochure, this self-guided tour is pretty thorough. It begins by explaining how all power plants generate electricity by spinning turbines to rotate wires in a magnetic field – sort of an electric motor in reverse. The turbine is turned by pressure from steam, which is produced by boiling water. Conventional power plants boil the water by burning something – oil, coal, maybe even wood or government documents. EBR-1 boiled it with the enormous heat released by nuclear fission.

1940s-style blackboards are strategically located with explanations for the power plant's components. This one tells how the heat from the atomic chain reaction was carried to the steam boiler by using liquid metal. I wouldn't like to be the plumber on that job.

Every power plant has a control room. This room would look familiar to anybody who works where they burn coal to make electricity. Rather than metering coal or oil, the operators moved fuel rods to control heat production.

This model on top of the reactor shows how the fuel was handled. Uranium was placed in long, thin stainless steel tubes and lowered into the reactor core through the hole at the bottom of this picture. Fission took place in the core, producing heat and – in EBR-1 – breeding more fuel.

Some radioactive NaK (liquid metal) stuck to the fuel rods when they were removed from the core. The rods were washed in a special chamber and stored here in the rod farm, where they were tracked individually by number.

How do you fix things when they break, if they're radioactive enough to kill you? We're looking through 34 panes of inch-thick glass at the business ends of robot arms that were used to manipulate tools and the components that needed repair. The concrete walls of this hot cell are also 39 inches thick. Outside the hot cell, the operator used controls like the ones you can see on the "claw machine" at your local all-night diner. There's another of these machines nearby where the visitor can try his hand at moving things around. This visitor can tell you that it's not as easy as it looks.

Cause and effect. Steam pressure from the reactor rotated this turbine, which turned the generator to make electricity. The four 200-watt bulbs here are strung just as they were in December 1951, when this equipment demonstrated the world's first peaceful use of atomic energy. Walter Zinn and his staff left their names on a chalkboard in the room. Later, Reid Cameron, one of those scientists, added a little demon exhaling "a mighty puff of energy." The chalkboard says,

Electricity was first generated here from Atomic Energy on Dec. 20, 1951.
On Dec. 21, 1951
all of the electrical power in this building was supplied from Atomic Energy
Those present:
W.H. Zinn H.V. Lichtenberger
M. Novick L.J. Koch
E.W Pettitt G.K. Whitham
R. Cameron M.L.King
B.C. Cerutti M. Wilkey
E.J. Barrow G.H. Stonehocker
L.E. Loftin K. Johnson
C.R. Gibson F.D. McGinnis
W.E. Molen
L.H. Jolley

In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson named EBR-1 a National Historic Landmark.

As a scientific experiment, EBR-1 was a strong success: it proved Fermi's principle of breeder reactors. It was never intended for commercial application, though. The 300-kW turbine generator, which eventually produced 200 kilowatts, was much too small for that. The engineering projects followed shortly. There were three power plants called BORAX, an acronym for Boiling Reactor Experiment.

The real engineering experiment was EBR-2. Ground broke for this power plant six years after EBR-1 lit those four bulbs in 1951. Although NaK had been shown to be a good coolant, handling it was difficult; EBR-2 used liquid sodium. This diagram shows the layout of EBR-2, including the recycling facility. Not only must the power plant breed fuel, it's required to recycle the spent fuel it has already used. If you can't spend much time in the room at EBR-1 dedicated to its successor, there is a monograph on the INL web site that explains it in great detail.

Before EBR-1 ceased operation in 1964, it was converted to run on plutonium, the product of breeding fuel. This bulb was lit by the plutonium reactor on 9 May 1963.

These are prototypes from the Heat Transfer Reactor Experiment, a bland-sounding name for a program to develop a nuclear-powered engine for an airplane at the Idaho National Laboratory. A number of tests were made in the late 1940s and early 1950s, using a modified B-36 to carry the engine in its bomb bay while the crew made measurements. After the program was cancelled in 1961 (too expensive, too provocative), The Smithsonian Institution acquired the engines. It was not practical to move them to Washington for display, so they are here in the parking lot of EBR-1. The newer HTRE-3 (left) was considered very close to the final design.

One of the problems to be overcome was protecting the airplane's crew from radiation. In the prototype, this was originally accomplished by using a lead-lined cockpit that added over 12 tons to the airplane's weight.

A small room near EBR-1's exit is devoted to local wildlife.

They don't explain why this area is depressed, or if it will be feeling better any time soon.

Arco is the closest town to INL's breeder reactor experiments. On 17 July 1955, Arco's electrical power was disconnected from its power grid and attached to INL's BORAX-III power plant. For over an hour, all of the city's power was taken from BORAX-III, making it the first city in the world to be powered exclusively from atomic energy.

We were in town a few days too early for their annual summer party, but it looks like it might have been worth hanging around to join the fun.

Another roadside sign identifies the Idaho National Laboratory as the "birthplace of the nuclear navy." Arco has a couple of souvenirs to commemorate this fact. Here is the sail of USS Hawkbill, launched in 1969. Among the submarine's missions was an 87-day cruise beneath the North Polar ice cap. Because its breeder reactor could make more fuel than it consumed, endurance is listed as "unlimited." This 302-foot ship was decommissioned in 2000.

I'm not sure why this Mark-14 torpedo is on display. It was not powered by atomic energy, and it didn't carry a nuclear warhead. Its purpose seems to be to serve as Arco's memorial to more than 4000 Navy submariners "still on final patrol" since submarines became part of the U.S. Navy in 1900.

The backdrop to the Hawkbill sail and the torpedo is Arco's Number Hill. Seniors of the Butte County High School Class of 1920 climbed up there and painted en enormous number "20" to express their school spirit, or something like that. Since then, every class has added its number to the hill. They're painted in school colors (orange, black, and white), but the darker colors are hard to see.

The place to eat in Arco is Pickle's. The food is good, service is friendly, and you meet people. Arco is a small town, so before very long, you'll see almost everyone in town here. We met these people, who were also staying at the motel two doors down from Pickle's. They were near the beginning of a cross-country jaunt on skateboards. They have been trying to raise money to help find a cure for Alzheimer's Disease, calling their mission A Push to Remember. Their goal, which they have completed, was to attract donations as they pushed their boards from Newport, Oregon, to New York City.

This is the signature dish at Pickle's – fried pickles, what else?

We stayed two nights in Arco. After the skateboarders pushed on, our new motel neighbors were a couple on their way home from a convention of Motor Maids, the world's first women's motorcycle club. All of their equipment has specialty licensing. The lady's bike is MOTRMD and her trailer is RD TRP (road trip), but her husband's registration needed a bit of explaining. He's retired, so he explained that his bike has ONHLDY for "on holiday."

Most visitors to this part of the country know that Yellowstone National Park sits on a dormant super-volcano. 100-250 miles southwest, Idaho's Snake River Plain was also formed by the Yellowstone Hot Spot, but earlier. This diagram, from a photographic essay on the geological evolution of Yellowstone National Park, shows how the hot spot has migrated over the last sixteen million years or so.

At Craters of the Moon National Monument, this animated display in the visitor center also tracks the progress of the Yellowstone Hot Spot across the Snake River Plain. The Great Rift is in the center of this picture. This fissure, running northwest to southeast, opens between the Picabo and Heise Calderas. This is where we find Craters of the Moon. Its features are the result of volcanic eruptions and lava seeping upward through the Great Rift. The name of the Monument came from a report to the National Park Service by geologist Harold T. Stearns, who said, "the dark craters and the cold lava, nearly destitute of vegetation, [are] similar to the surface of the moon as seen through a telescope."

Several notable explorers were active in this area at the beginning of the 19th century. John Work was born in Ireland but spent most of his life exploring the West for the Hudson Bay Company. On one prospecting trip, he was looking for a shortcut from the mountains to the Snake River when he stumbled on the Great Rift, which slowed his progress considerably.

By following the Clearwater River, Lewis and Clark trekked north of here. Their party's youngest member would return to Idaho, 25 years after the Corps of Discovery Expedition.

Jean Baptiste Charbonneau is the child on the U.S. dollar coin. He was born to Sacagawea and Toussaint Charbonneau during Lewis and Clark's expedition. William Clark saw to it that the boy was very well educated in the U.S. and in Europe. Charbonneau ended up back in the Arco area in his twenties, working as a guide and trapper. He was guiding a party who sought a quicker route from the Snake River to the beaver streams in the mountains, when they also came upon the Great Rift. They ran out of water in this desert, and Charbonneau went to look for some. He stumbled on John Work's camp. Mistaking it for an Indian camp, he stole away and spent two weeks struggling through the lava, back to the Snake River. Then he got caught up in the Gold Rush, and spent much of the rest of his life prospecting.

Another famous trapper who worked in this area was Virginia-born John Day. On one of several expeditions in Oregon Territory, he got sick near the present-day town of Weiser. Ramsay Crooks stayed behind to help him. The men were robbed and left naked, surviving for a while on ground vegetation. They met some friendly Indians, who helped them get through the winter. When he got back to Astoria after that ordeal, Day understandably had a lot of mental problems. After several years of hunting in the Willamette River Valley, he joined the Snake Country Expedition. He died on this trip at a place on the Little Lost River that was known for years as "Day's Defile."

Most of the inspiration to protect this area followed the exploration of Robert Limbert, who hiked the entire length of the Great Rift in 1920. He made several other exploratory trips here in the 1920s. As a result of Limbert's findings and articles in the National Geographic, President Calvin Coolidge declared this place a national monument in 1924. In 2002 President Clinton expanded the protected area to a National Preserve, setting aside a parcel of land about the size of Rhode Island. Over half of this area is lava flow, the black area in the visitor center diorama.

As we drive toward the monument from Arco, there is a pulloff about 300 yards before the park entrance. The vista there is a preview of the structures we're about to visit.

There's a much wider version of this panorama here, and this collage correlates each peak to its location on a map of the Craters of the Moon. Our tour begins near North Crater, the second hill from the right of this scene. There is a short trail in the North Crater's lava flows where we can see several examples of different lava formations, and learn a bit about the ages of some features in the area.

Geologically, North Crater is young – about 2000 years old. The soil hasn't eroded much, but it can still support limber pine and antelope bitterbrush. There's a lot of bare rock, and there are still many sharp angles.

In 1924, Robert Limbert guessed that the lava here was about 150 years old, based on its appearance. More accurate measurements have since shown that this lava flowed from North Crater about 2000 years ago. The rafted blocks, or monoliths, were floated here on a river of lava. In some places, the lava river still looks like a river.

Grassy Cone is older; it was formed about 7500 years ago. Its soil is finer, supporting sagebrush and Douglas Fir. There is more vegetation in general than when the cone was younger, and its shape is rounder now.

The lava in the foreground is aa (two syllables, it's a Hawaiian word). Aa is produced in a violent, sudden eruption. A crust never hardened on its surface; chunks of already-cooled rock tumbled along the top and sides of the hardened flow.

If the lava flow is slower and more fluid, the surface hardens into a crust and leaves the wavy forms of pahoehoe (also Hawaiian). Hotter lava can still flow under the surface of pahoehoe, leaving caves or tubes behind.

← This is a squeeze up. Pressure from below broke the crust, and some lava was forced out on top.

Many things can change the pressure of lava flowing in a tube. The pressure may heave up the crust and crack it, usually along the crest. Deeper crevices in pressure ridges make good homes for pikas, ground squirrels, and chipmunks. Larger animals like weasels hunt them here.

A hundred years ago, a visiting minister declared this jumble of rocks, shrubs, and trees to be a garden "fit for the devil himself." So the Park Service has named this area, with its many dead trees, the Devil's Orchard.

Given enough water and enough time for soil to accumulate, even trees will grow in a lava field. Limber pines are hardy pioneers, so it doesn't make sense that they're all dead here.

First came dwarf mistletoe. This small, parasitic plant distorts the branches of limber pines into grotesque tangles called "witches' broom."

Then came good intentions. To save the area's pines from "disfigurement," previous park managers poisoned or cut thousands of affected trees.

These managers tried to make nature conform to their idea of what was beautiful, or "good," not considering that limber pine and mistletoe are both native plants. Witches' broom is born of a longstanding relationship between them.

To preserve park scenery, park managers had cut down park resources. A value judgment about witches' broom – that it is unsightly, ugly, or "bad" – caused the death of these trees.

"Lichens are fungi that have discovered agriculture."

– Trevor Goward, lichen biologist

Lichens are symbiotic organisms dominated by a fungus. Fungi can't make their own food; they live as parasites. Lichen fungi cultivate partners that make food by photosynthesis. Often the partners are algæ, but they may also be cyanobacteria (formerly called blue-green algæ). These fascinating organisms may be found all over the world, from the Equator to the poles, often in places where no other organisms will survive. Many people mistake them for moss.

Lichens are the first plants to grow in the "orchard," slowly dissolving rock into soil, where more advanced plants can take root.
They're tough, but lichens can still be threatened by human activity because they store airborne chemicals. Microscopic examinations show that lichens at Craters of the Moon have been damaged by polluted air. First to grow and first to be damaged, lichens warn us that the park's air suffers from polluters near and far.

This piece of basalt cooled very quickly, forming obsidian.

Inferno Cone is a well-named cinder cone – a pile of cinders that all fell in the same place during an eruption. Those who walk to the top are rewarded with a view of the chain of cinder cones that define the Great Rift. It was a hot day and the black surface makes it even hotter. We decided to settle for the view we'd get later from the airplane.

Picture raindrops falling into a puddle. Spatter cones are formed when chunks or blobs of lava drop onto a surface that's still molten. Three monochromes show the spatter cones near Inferno Cone. When Limbert was here in the 1920s, they looked very much like they did when they were formed about 2100 years ago.   (water photo by Michael Melgar)

Forty years later, unrestricted access had brought extensive damage. Then the Park Service imposed some limits, laid out trails and did some rehabilitation. By the 1980s, these spatter cones had started to look a little more original.

The small spatter cone in the foreground of the last two pictures is called Snow Cone. We were there on a hot July day, but there was still a little bit of snow inside.

It looks like the trail has been moved to the other side of the first spatter cone.

There's no snow inside its chimney, which now supports some lichens.

  Turning around at the top of that spatter cone, we got this view. Maybe we should have climbed Inferno Cone after all.

The hardy wildflowers growing in these cinders have names like fleabane, monkeyflower, and dwarf buckwheat. Unusually large root systems let them survive in this desert.

Smaller globs of lava solidified before they could make spatter cones. These "lava bombs" can be as large as ten feet across, but most – like these – are from baseball to basketball size.

As lava flowed through here, its surface cooled and hardened. But there was so much lava flowing that it burst through this roof, forming ponds that also crusted over, like ice forms on a lake. When the volcanic activity finally slowed down, the lava drained back into the tubes, leaving no support for the second crust. It collapsed, forming sinks like this one, which is called simply Big Sink.

Some of the lava here has titanium magnetite crystals suspended in its surface, which gives it this iridescent blue appearance.

The last few shots were taken on the Tree Mold Trail. As lava flowed here, it surrounded living trees. Of course, they didn't live long after that.

After the trees burned and the wood rotted away, impressions of their trunks remained.

All lava tubes eventually collapse. Sometimes, this forms a cave or a tunnel. Sometimes, it just leaves a pit behind.

Kids will play in those pits, no matter what the sign says.

One lava tube has not finished collapsing, so it is still a tunnel. It is known that the Shoshone took shelter in these caves and tunnels, and found water there. Because of these mysterious stone circles near its entrance, each about fifteen feet across, the Park staff called this one the Indian Tunnel.

Indian Tunnel is the largest of several tunnels in the Park. It's 800 feet long, and its cross section is as large as 30 by 50 feet. There are collapses that admit enough light to walk from one end to the other without the need for a flashlight.

This child won't remember her visit to the Indian Tunnel. Too bad, she got there the easy way. The rest of us had to walk half a mile.

Not all of the mangled trees at Craters of the Moon are in the Devil's Orchard. These are in other parts of the Park.

Near Arco, the Big Lost River flows into a depression, where it then follows an underground aquifer to feed the Snake River. If it rains enough, the aquifer can't handle all the flow, and for a little while the Lost River is "found" again.

Before leaving the Snake River Plain, we took a short drive up into the mountains for dinner in Mackay. Mackay is at the base of Borah Peak, Idaho's highest. This would have been a great fly-in visit if we weren't an hour's drive away from our airplane. Everything in this town is within walking distance of its airport.

We stopped in here, first making sure we were spurless. We were sad to learn that Bear Bottom no longer serves food, only beer and wine. The porch roof is supported by totem poles consisting entirely of bears.

We ended up at Ken's Club and Steak House around the corner, where we were closely watched as we ate another ribeye dinner. We should have known better. It was very good, but it couldn't compare with the meal we had in Sioux Falls a few days ago.

on to Mount St. Helens

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