Category Archives: Speculative History

All the Warning We’ll Get

The Saddle Mountain Fault scenario envisions an 87-mile long failure of the fault.

The Saddle Mountain Fault scenario envisions an 87-mile long failure of the fault.

There was a small earthquake centered on Frenchman Hill one day around 1972. When an earthquake scientist from the University of Washington called Othello High School to look for a reliable  student to tend to a helicorder they were setting up at the epicenter, they ended up talking to my mother, the counselor. I was 16, and I had just gotten my driver’s license. She told them she had a perfect match for them.

So my second job off the home place (the first one was changing sprinklers for my neighbor) was visiting a tiny trailer parked next to a plowed field overlooking the Lower Crab Creek valley and the ancient massive slide on the north face of Saddle Mountain. Six seismographs fed streams of data to a series of heated needles that recorded every tremble of the earth around the trailer. I had to changed the waxed paper they burned their message onto once a day and then put in a phone call to Colorado to calibrate the clock with the National Bureau of Standards.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, this must have been a heady period for earthquake scientists in the Northwest. Endorsement of the theory of plate tectonics was in its infancy. Continue reading

The Ram’s Head

An intricate ram's head butt cap tipped me off that this was not an ordinary knife.

An intricate ram’s head butt cap tipped me off that this was not an ordinary knife.

Our cabin on the Sauk River has a functioning firwood floor, a used wood stove in one corner, resting on a pad of ceramic tiles, gaps in the logs where the light shines through, and around twenty lights of glass shattered by gunfire in a vandal’s rampage. There’s a bit more work to do to restore it to a comfortable condition, but it’s come a long way from the way it looked at this time last year. Then it was supported by rotting logs on irregular concrete shards. It had been infested by rats and bats and mice for several years.

I have to admit that I was unsure that we would ever make it habitable again, but when my wife asked me where I wanted to go in our trailer that summer, I opined that we really ought to fix up the cabin and make it our own private campground. She jumped at the opportunity.

The cabin early in the restoration process slopes on its gaping supports, aging log sections that were rotting in place.

The cabin early in the restoration process slopes on its gaping supports, aging log sections that were rotting in place.

We tore down counters, cupboards and flimsy walls. We dragged out the old rusty stove, the metal cabinets, the metal barstools bolted to the old sagging floor. We hired help to drag the old Monarch cookstove outside where we dumped out the rat’s nests that packed its interior. We hired others to cart away a huge pile of metal debris someone had dumped in the ferns across the driveway. We figured out how to support the upright log walls while we removed the rotten old foundations, if you could call them that. Continue reading

Written in the Earth

A soldier of Custer's regiment uses his Springfield carbine as a club. Source of this painting is not known.

A soldier of Custer’s regiment uses his Springfield carbine as a club. Source of this painting is not known.

When you grow up in desert heat, at least when video games and television have yet to proliferate, one of the joys of childhood is playing with the garden hose. Personally, I enjoyed digging rivers and lakes into the earth of the wire enclosure where our chickens roamed. I remember the amazement of unearthing a living frog that had burrowed into the ground for hibernation, and that had narrowly avoided the blade of my shovel.

One of my maxims about the desert landscape around Saddle Mountain is that this earth is honest. When people pass through, the traces they make remain to be read by those who come after them. As I think back on the traces we’ve discovered on our farm alone, it amazes me that so much history is written in its sand and dust.

In the early 1960s my father hooked his tractor to a battered old machine he called the rototiller. He was in the process of rooting sagebrush out of a new field, and this machine would completely destroy the plants that grew there naturally. Continue reading

Legends of the Ice Cave

Beneath this towering cliff and rubble fallen from it lie the remains of the Saddle Mountain Ice Cave.

There has been a fair amount of mystery concerning the Saddle Mountain Ice Cave. Even today you’ll find inquiries about it on internet chat sites. Over the years, locals disagreed on lots of points concerning this phenomenon. Some said it was a natural cavern, a huge chamber full of glittering perpetual ice. Others said it wasn’t really anything more than a big root cellar where people kept chunks of ice they would cut out of Crab Creek in the wintertime. Some people even doubt its existence. But it’s there.

Virtually all that’s left of the Ice Cave is a pile of old timbers and the remains of the massive wooden doorframe.

The Ice Cave is about four miles west of the end of the paving on the old Corfu Highway after you leave Smyrna, around eight miles from Beverly. It’s difficult to spot the remains from the roadway, so look for a large alkali clearing in front of it and a huge slope of tumbled rock flanking its other three sides. Continue reading

Gloom and Doom Report

When I considered doing this article I had a flashback to doing book reports in what we called Junior High, when I was a teenager. I remember in particular the seventh-grade English teacher with a mangled middle finger who started off the year telling each class his chilling tale. It seems that Mr. B had a terrible problem with anger. He carried sixteen penny nails with him to chew on when he got really upset, which was his anger management technique…it kept him from physically destroying the human object of his anger. Evidently, a student made him angry one day when he had run out of nails. To avoid bloody homicide, Mr. B claims, he shoved his own finger into his teeth. It left him with this mangled finger that he used every year to convince his students to treat him nicely.

So, on with the book report. Mr. B would want me to compare and contrast these books on a similar theme. The books I recently finished reading are two that deal with ways in which humankind deals with natural disasters and the natural rhythms of our world. In the order in which I read them, the first is Cascadia’s Fault, by Canadian journalist Jerry Thompson, and the second, Brian Fagan’s The Long Summer. What links the two books in my mind must be their common theme of the role that forces of nature play in determining human history. Continue reading

To The Cliffs and Beyond

My grandfather first climbed to the cliffs on Saddle Mountain in the 1920s. He was not the first visitor to a high ledge where soft sandstone is sandwiched between layers of black basalt. Names were carved into the soft rock, dated, gouged deeper on subsequent visits. My father, whose first visit to the cliffs must have been when he was a youngster in the 1920s, introduced the site to his children. Our first visits were made by motor vehicles. Rough trails still exist that can be followed by a truck with high suspension…not that I recommend the method of access. You miss so much when you’re trapped in metal.

My favorite route to the cliffs followed the Milwaukee Road tracks for a mile or so, then veered up the fenceline separating private cultivated land from the BLM sections. After you leave the railroad tracks you start a relentless climb, like going on foot up a mile-long stairway. First you traverse massive slopes of yellow clay, silt that precipitated out of the flood when the waters struck the mountain, slowed and diverted to the east and the west. These banks are composed of countless thin layers. In some places you can find petrified bones, usually blackened vertebrae of fish or small animals. We also found turtle shells and I keep a broken bison bone in my classroom, orange and yellow and imperfectly petrified. Continue reading

The Five Mile Slide

Smyrna Canyon from the old shoreline on Saddle Mountain

Imagine, if you will (to paraphrase Rod Serling), standing on the peak of this range one day nearly twelve thousand years ago. Below, you look out over a grassy plain with a gentle creek flowing between ancient canyon walls. The events that are about to take place have occurred repeatedly dozens of times, but for you, those canyons hold no evidence of the disaster that is about to strike. On this day, the sun feels pleasantly warm. You have left the other members of your band camped on the edge of the creek while you climb the peaks looking for small prey.

You begin to notice a steady rumbling sound, something that began almost imperceptibly, but that persists and even grows. Wondering what it is, you look to the northeast. There is a strange haze in the distance. Perhaps it is something to do with the tremendous fields of ice that rim that edge of your world. But as you watch it seems to grow, to convulse as it consumes the horizon.

Then the earth begins to quiver. A blast of air strikes you, driving dust that blinds you as you struggle to watch. The shuddering intensifies, and you fall to the ground in fear. A rumble fills your ears, growing into a roar as you clap your hands over them to quell the pain of the noise. In a few moments your view of the peaceful waterways to the north are effaced by a cloud of dust kicked up by the sudden ferocious wind. You cover your ears to protect them from the roar, but the sound is nearly unbearable.

It is the sound of disaster: the crash of sudden rivers striking against the mountain you are clinging to. Beneath you, nothing but murk. The sky itself has turned brown with clouds of dust driven by the wind that precedes the flood. It is a flood unlike anything you could ever have imagined. Continue reading