Land of Frozen Fire

Beira is described as a one-eyed, blue-skinned crone carrying a staff which she uses to freeze everything.
The mythical queen of winter is considered the Scots’ creator goddess, mother of all their gods and goddesses, but I also surmised that she loves to surprise humans with snow storms.
We’d seen the clouds muscling across the sky the day before on our way to Grants, NM. Now, I donned my coat and gloves to walk Kenidee in the four or five inches of fresh powder. No wonder Beira was blue, I thought, as my dog sniffed at the frozen bushes.
After Ted warmed up the Jeep, we headed toward El Malpais National Monument. El Malpais means badlands or bad country, named by the Spanish conquistadors as they traveled across New Mexico’s lava fields in search of gold
They weren’t the first to explore the land. The Ancestral Puebloans lived there as long ago as 150 A.D., proving the adaptability of those early inhabitants who survived five major drought cycles.
Thirty minutes later, we pulled off the highway and started along cinder paths to look at Junction Cave and Xenolith Cave, lava tube caves. We were alone in “the land of frozen fire,” a name that seemed especially appropriate as we photographed the caves’ jagged black lava highlighted by last night’s snow.
The tubes formed after El Calderon erupted, and fiery magma cut channels into the surrounding land. When the surface lava cooled, it formed a crust, insulating the superheated interior magma which continued to flow and cut down into the earth. After the eruption ceased, the lava drained from the crusted channels, forming permanent corridors and caves.
Back in the Jeep, I warmed my toes under its heater, and we drove to the Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano located on land privately owned by the Candelaria family.
Shawn, a white-haired gentleman, stood outside the office, a log building constructed in the 1930s and still used today as a trading post.
Earlier, when the Zuni Mountain Railroad ran and lumber jacks and miners flooded the area, it also served as a saloon and dance hall.
Shawn ushered us into the trading post filled with the delectable fragrance of apples, cinnamon, and cloves simmering on the wood-burning stove.
He obviously loved the place as he showed us around and filled us in about its past, including artifacts the original owners had found in the lava, some dating back 800 to 1,200 years.
Then, on the brochure map, he showed us the loop trail to the Bandera Volcano and the Ice Cave. “You have the mountain all to yourself,” he said as he sent us on our way. “Just be careful on the steps down to the ice cave. They’re mostly cleared, and the owner spread cinders on the icy ones.”
He was right — we had the mountain to ourselves — and underneath the snow, the path was covered in cinders. The trail, lined with ponderosas, Douglas firs, pinyons, junipers, and scrub oak, wasn’t steep, but we definitely gained altitude by the time we reached the volcano, topping out at over 8,000 feet.
Twenty-nine volcanoes once erupted in the area, and with the help of the brochure, we located 15 of them, but Bandera was the largest. When it erupted, the lava’s temperature reached 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and flowed 23 miles across country.
The remaining crater was massive: 800 feet deep and 1,400 feet wide. I tried to visualize fiery magma spurting from the cone, spreading out in all directions, and killing everything in its path. I was grateful we’d missed that horrific drama.
The trail to the ice cave was narrow and a little rougher. Ted’s boots pulled up the snow, revealing cinders beneath. Most of the Bandera lava tube, which is over 17 miles long, collapsed, but around 1,100 B.C., one of the caves filled with water which subsequently froze in the lava-insulated ice machine. The ice in that cave and others was melted by Ancestral Puebloans for water.
In a Smithsonian article by Livia Gershon, Kenny Bowekaty from the Zuni Pueblo said the ancient ones “probably used the icy corridors for religious purposes, in addition to gathering water and storing animals they hunted.”
Fort Wingate soldiers and early pioneers also mined Candelaria ice, but the owners stopped its removal in 1946.
Even before we descended the 70 steps, we could see green ice, the unusual color coming from Artic algae.
“Scientists have no clue why it’s here,” Shawn had told us. “It shouldn’t live this far south.” I clung to the guardrail on the way down, grateful for the cinder-strewn steps.
Once we arrived at the viewing platform, the 20-foot-thick ice pack was surprisingly beautiful with the sun glittering on its green surface and the cave’s lava walls tinted green, rust, and rose. Awed by the ancient ice, I wondered if Biera had been there.
As we climbed the 70 steps out of the cave, I could hear children shouting and mothers scolding. Although my toes were still numb, the sun felt warm and birds sang their spring songs as we slogged through the snow back to the trading post.
In one of the myths about Beira, the blue hag seeks love from a dashing young hero. If he falls in love, she changes into a gorgeous maiden, symbolizing the renewal of the earth in spring. Despite the snow and cold, we knew that magical transformation was on its way.

San Juan Record

49 South Main St
PO Box 879
Monticello, UT 84535

Phone: 435.587.2277
Fax: 435.587.3377
Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday