Crater Lake

By Eve Hallock

To be distant and vast is to be blue

Screenshot 2020-07-20 20.02.50
The bluest place in the United States – Crater Lake, Oregon

Just like sadness and distance, there are infinite shades of blue, and they can change in an instant in relation to surrounding factors. Clouds, rain, steps forward or backward, time, light, emotion, and connection all affect your perception of blue. 

When I first read Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, it felt like something I had lost coming back home to me again. Every other chapter is titled “The Blue of Distance,” which she explains can be found in spaces between the hills, mountains, plains, forests, as well as in our hearts. To be distant is to be blue; it is in the very workings of vision and light. “The blue is the light that got lost,” Solnit says, and it is also what “gives us the beauty of the world.” I am not so sure if I believe in getting lost or getting found, but I certainly believe in being blue and losing yourself, too. 

There is much to let ourselves romanticize about the beauty and sadness of blue, and of how it connects to love, landscape, and loss. Longing is the bluest feeling there is, full of endless distance and places you never quite reach. While we’re at it, yearning and gazing are pretty darn blue, too. Gazing out across a landscape that gets bluer with distance can feel like dreaming a dream that dreams right back at you. It’s what those old blue country songs are talking about: the aftermath and the failure of no longer being able to go on. And who among us has not sighed listening to Joni Mitchell sing Blue

If behind every love there is a landscape, Crater Lake must be the landscape for the love of blue itself, when it is at its deepest and vastest. While we’re here, stuck, wherever we all are, let us explore some of this place’s history: 

Screenshot 2020-07-20 20.04.06
Art by Eve Hallock

Southern Oregon is mostly dusty rock, adorned here and there by vast blue lakes and green forests. Around 7,700 years ago, Tum-sum-ne—called Mount Mazama in English—erupted and collapsed, leaving behind a caldera 655 meters deep. Rhyodacite lava spewed for miles. Rain and snow filled the space over time, creating giiwas, or Crater Lake in English, as we know it today, a 594 meter deep lake famous for its blueness, the tourist favorite cinder cone called Wizard Island (pictured above), and the andesite Phantom Ship Island. The Klamaths, Molalas, Takelmas, Modocs, Yahooskin Paiutes, and Upper Umpqua peoples all have long histories here and many reside nearby. 

The legend of Llao & Skell relays the story of giiwas’ origins. Llao was the god of the underworld from underneath Mount Mazama and Skell was the god of the sky from the southern marshes of Mount Shasta. Together with their followers, Deer, Fox, and Dove, they played on the rocks along the rim. Llao fell in love with a Klamath chief’s daughter who rejected him. He cursed the tribe in anger, and they in turn called on Skell for help. The war began, and Llao killed Skell, his followers carrying the heart to Llao Rock in victory. Later, Skell’s followers stole the heart back. Once resurrected, Skell resumed the fight, further inspired by two medicine men sacrificing themselves to the underworld to restore spiritual balance. Skell destroyed Llao, cut his body up, and secretly fed it to his followers. Llao’s head was thrown into the lake to the horror of his followers, who then left it there to become Wizard Island. Llao was known to be the chief of the animals of the area, and his spirit resides in Llao Rock, a dacite cliff to the north forming the highest point on the caldera rim.  

In the 1920s, many Klamath people reported to outsiders that Tum-sum-ne (Mountain with the Top Cut Off) was not formerly a place for ordinary people to visit regularly. Its power and significance was respected, and only to be seen by those powerful enough in times of spiritual need. Solitary quests of vision, power, or crisis were performed there. Psychological and physical purification practices were required before embarking on a quest for direction and help. Only those with years of spiritual training were considered suitable to approach the lake and face goganas, which are spirits in animal or human form. After its eruption, chiefs and shamans of five tribes traveled for many days to seek its guidance in its time of particular power and potency. The lake was a unique place of healing and harm, as sacred as it was dangerous. In 1904, two years after its establishment as a U.S. National Park, 1,500 people visited and last year, 704,512 tourists walked its dusty and snowy paths. 

The Klamath tribe has called the creation of the park “strange,” “inappropriate,” and a landscape “taken illegally.” Individuals from the 1880s to 1930s are quoted saying they had to sneak out to hunt or travel up the mountain for religious purposes. The only place relatively safe was Huckleberry Mountain, before white families started retreats and overextended the berry sources. The Park Service’s implementation of a highway park fee marked the end of many Klamath people’s access to the area in the late twentieth century. Although tribal members opposed it, the park built structures, performed archaeological digs, and still arrests people for hunting. Vision quests do take place today, although not without contention. 

What is the color of unholiness? Just like some art is not meant to be seen, I’ve learned that some places are not meant to be so blindly consumed either. Is forgiveness blue, too?

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