Flagstaff, AZ –
Ken Burns' The National Parks: America's Best Idea
Vincent Randall sits at a brown picnic table under a ponderosa pine on a blessedly calm day in April. Behind him, the cinder-strewn slope of Sunset Crater sweeps up a thousand feet into the blue sky. Randall introduces himself in his native Apache language.
Today I am glad to be here at this place," he says. My given adult Apache name means "Old Man Hunter."
Randall, a Tonto Apache elder, has been coming here since the 1940s. He first came with his father in a 38 Chevy pickup.
"I was just a little boy. My dad used to bring me up here and tell me all the different stories about what had happened here I was probably four or five years old."
Now Randall is nearly seventy. Broad-shouldered and soft-spoken. He wears a plaid shirt and wraparound sunglasses and walks with the aid of two canes. His people roamed the high country of this part of northern Arizona before they were confined to a tiny piece of land in the Verde Valley. But he says Sunset Crater remains a holy place:
"This is my people's old homeland, you may have a piece of paper that gives you the deed which is a piece of paper that gives you the right to say you own this place, but in my heart, it's still my land, it's was given to us by God himself."
From his father, Vincent learned reverence for this place. For him, a visit here may be different from casual traveler's:
"One of the first things is when you enter a place like this you pray. Even today, I prayed this morning coming here."
"One of the stories his father told him involves a race that explains how this place we know as Sunset Crater came to be. For the Apache it's an origin story."
"It's basically the story of Good versus Evil, and it's a story of our hero or the person, the being shall we say that sanctified this land to be ours. His name means "Killer of Enemies."
In this case he was not a monster but actually Evil himself. Evil had . won all the people to his side and of course, "Killer of Enemies" representing good had to win back the people to insure that they lived and walk the road, the right road.
This is the place where Good and Evil decided they would settle this once and for all, who would be in control of the people. So they had a race, and this was the beginning and the end of the race that went around the world."
And who won?
"Good of course, that's why we're still alive today. Evil lost and because of that he burnt himself up and that's why it's black here."
Sunset Crater is the youngest volcano in the vast San Francisco Volcanic Field of northern Arizona. When it first erupted about a thousand years ago, the explosion must have been spectacular: Earthquakes rattled the ground. Sulfurous clouds of gas and ash blew high into the sky. Glowing-hot molten lava spilled over the ground and left jagged black basalt flows that look like they froze in place just last week.
But it was an explosion of another kind that led to Sunset's protection as a national monument. The designation was due largely to the quick actions of Harold Colton, cofounder of the Museum of Northern Arizona.
"In 1929 he got wind of a plan to dynamite a portion of Sunset Crater as part of a movie called Avalanche, which was based on a story by Zane Grey."
Robert Breunig, the current director of the museum, crunches over the cinders that blanket the ground around Sunset Crater.
"Of course Colton was just absolutely horrified at the thought that this beautiful pristine cinder cone would be blasted apart for a movie they convinced President Herbert Hoover to declare Sunset Crater a national monument... So in May of 1930, May 26, 1930 to be exact, Sunset Crater was permanently protected."
But the movie company didn't go away. Thwarted at Sunset Crater, they moved on to Cameron, Arizona. There they tried dynamiting for the film The Painted Desert.
But Brenuig says the consequences were disastrous.
"The guy in charge of doing the dynamiting was used to hard-rock mining and not soft earth up in Cameron, and so he over prepared for the blast and set off the charge and apparently boulders just flew everywhere, raining down on all the movie people that were there waiting to see this avalanche, and in fact one of the people was killed and some people were seriously injured."
Breunig says it's hard to imagine today that anybody would have seriously thought about blowing up Sunset Crater. For his part Vincent Randall is grateful the crater was protected. A place that holds deep meaning for him and his people:
"You just don't just pack up for the day and pack your lunch and come out here... it's a pilgrimage to come to a place like this...isn't an everyday thing, but it's something you come back and remember that these things happened here and that because of these things you're alive today."
Good did win here, he says. And the black cinders surrounding the Crater are all that's left of that epic victory.