Voorhies sent samples to colleagues all over the western United States asking if there was anything about it that they recognized. Several months later a geologist named Bill Bonnichsen from the Idaho Geological Survey got in touch and told him that the ash matched a volcanic deposit from a place called Bruneau-Jarbidge in southwest Idaho. The event that killed the plains animals of Nebraska was a volcanic explosion on a scale previously unimagined—but big enough to leave an ash layer ten feet deep almost a thousand miles away in eastern Nebraska. It turned out that under the western United States there was a huge cauldron of magma, a colossal volcanic hot spot, which erupted cataclysmically every 600,000 years or so. The last such eruption was just over 600,000 years ago. The hot spot is still there. These days we call it Yellowstone National Park.
We know amazingly little about what happens beneath our feet. It is fairly remarkable to think that Ford has been building cars and baseball has been playing World Series for longer than we have known that the Earth has a core. And of course the idea that the continents move about on the surface like lily pads has been common wisdom for much less than a generation. "Strange as it may seem," wrote Richard Feynman, "we understand the distribution of matter in the interior of the Sun far better than we understand the interior of the Earth."