September 01, 2018

Is This the Geology and Geometry Of... The Devil?

Ansel Adams may have gained international repute for his black-and-white photos of Yosemite National Park (and its Half Dome), but there's another monolith that also inspired the photographer and wilderness conservationist: Devils Postpile.

Located at the confluence of National Parks land and the Inyo National Forest, abutting and overlapping with the Ansel Adams Wilderness (formerly known as the Minarets Wilderness, until Congress renamed it after Adams's death in 1984)...

...Devils Postpile National Monument (and the formation it was named after in 1911 upon its creation) is easy to, just by taking the Reds Meadow/Devils Postpile shuttle bus.

A park ranger even greets the shuttle passengers and points them in the right direction.

And it doesn't take much of a hike to get there, either (though, at 7500 feet of elevation, my legs were lead-heavy and my lungs were squeezed tight).

But it's important to get the timing right, because the shuttle only operates during the summertime—which, at this elevation, is really just mid-June through mid-September.

The rest of the warm season, the parking lots fill up quickly. And once it starts to snow, the roads are closed—and the only way to visit Devils Postpile is via cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, and at your own risk.

But even when you're allowed to visit—when it's easy to visit—there's something that feels forbidding, foreboding, and maybe even verboten about these columns of basalt that were formed during a volcanic period less than 100,000 years ago.

Something so bizarre must have been the work of demonic beings, no?

Of course, there's a perfectly secular, scientific explanation for how Devils Postpile was formed: While there was no volcanic explosion per se, a fissure vent spewed molten rock, which flowed downhill from somewhere in the vicinity of the Upper Soda Springs Campground at the north end of Pumice Flat to its current location in The Buttresses. As the fiery lava cooled, it cracked into the pattern you see today.

Subsequently, glaciers that were slowly floating down the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River excavated the mass of volcanic rock and the bottom of the lava flow, exposing posts that are mostly five- and six-sided. shapes that other parks have referred to in more secular descriptive terms (e.g. "organ pipes").

The result is so uniform that the cross-section view from the top could easily pass for tile flooring, were it not for the striations and polish left behind by the glaciers.

But surely such extreme conditions can only have arisen out of hellfire! Certainly, these pentagonal and hexagonal columns are too perfect and monumental to be anything but sinister geometry!

Or, maybe not. Maybe the "Devil" designation simply warns visitors how easily the pile of posts can take a life. Falls from just 60 feet above the base can be fatal, after all.

It's all so easily explained by what we know about the Ice Age and how rocks are formed. And yet, seeing it firsthand, it still seems incomprehensible. It's no wonder that this was one of the Sierra Nevada sites that fascinated Adams.

But we so often attribute what confuses or challenges us to the devil—whether it's Devil's GateDevil's BackboneDevil's SlideDevil's Punchbowl, or Devil Canyon. (And let's not forget the Devil Winds!)

To Adams, photographing Devils Postpile—and other areas of the Sierra mountains—was something of a sacred pursuit.

But even holy places can be tainted with evil.

At the base of the monolith, for instance, some columnar basalt ominously juts out of the side of the formation. Clearly, pieces break off from time to time.

To make sure you're not standing underneath them when it happens, maybe don't walk right on top of the pile of rubble (a.k.a. the talus pile) below.

But do go when you can. The devil's work is changing as we speak. And although no glaciers are bound downstream along the San Joaquin anytime soon, you never know what wildfires, rain, lightning, snow, or earthquakes will do to a place like this

It could all crumble by next summer.

Or it could shift ever-so-slightly and become just unstable enough to close it to the public all year, and for good.

Mother Nature waits for no one. And presumably, neither does the Devil himself.

The earth can open and swallow us up into its molten core at any time, without warning.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: A Summer Visit to a Gold-Mining Ghost Town Destroyed By Winter
Photo Essay: Castle Rock, Overlooking Big Bear Lake

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