Ice cave in Badlands National MonumentAbove ground, in the high desert of El Malpais (“The Badlands”) National Monument, daytime summer temperatures are usually in the low to mid-80s.

Not extreme, but nonetheless toasty, especially in the absence of shade. In contrast, just below these northwestern New Mexican lava fields are
miles of frigid tunnels. Fire and ice indeed.

As recently as 2,000-3,000 years ago, lava flowed across this desolate country, creating a landscape that is harsh, yet beautiful in its wildness. 

Around McCarty's Cone in particular, lava tubes were produced when magma continued to flow beneath molten surface rock that had cooled and formed a crust. Even after the lava stream had ceased, the tunnels remained, and some are now filled with a greenish ice an average of 20 feet thick.

Standing in the mouth of an ice cave is balm to a desert traveler. Hot and tired from hiking over ropey lava and shards of brittle rock, the passerby can’t help but be refreshed by the unexpected draft of freezing air.

Mercies abound for those who can live with such contradictions, who can make a space in their lives for the incongruous and the truly unexpected.