I woke up the next morning about 7:30, checked the weather on my phone (I was learning) and decided that I needed a real jacket. Looking up Walmart, I first went across the street to have an old fashioned country breakfast. But first I stopped in the parking lot to take a look at Mt. Humphreys, the tallest peak in Arizona. And it was tall, at 12,633 feet, over five thousand feet above the high plain that Flagstaff sits on. The top was covered in snow. It looked so strange, out here by itself on the high desert. After breakfast I went to Walmart, sure that they would have a winter jacket. After all, we were just down from a ski resort. But no, all they had were work jackets, so in desperation I bought what looked like the warmest one. Then it was on the road toward Winslow, and Meteor Crater.
Mt. Humphreys through telephoto lens from Meteor Crater.
All the way there Mt. Humphreys was in my rearview mirror. I wished they had more pullovers on the highways, something I would continue to wish throughout the trip. When I got to Meteor Crater I could still see the mountain, which looked to be a couple of miles away. It was actually over twenty-seven miles distant, another example of the clear air. I also noted several river gorges along the way. Checking them out on Google Maps I saw that several of these things stretched twenty or thirty miles across the desert. So imagine that you are walking across this desert in the hot months, heading for the large mountain clearly visible, thinking it only a few miles away. You walk five miles, starting to get thirsty, and then you run into one of these gorges. If you’re lucky there is water in the river, which I’m not sure is guaranteed. And if there is water? You might have to climb down hundred foot or more cliffs to get to that water, or to get across the gorge. Something else to think about.
Meteor Crater is out in the middle of nowhere. There is a good road leading to it, but it is the only thing out there. The crater itself is hidden from the road, all you can see is the ridge that was formed by the impact. Looking down on the crater was impressive. They had a graphic showing how downtown San Francisco would fit inside the crater, and another graphic showing how four hundred mile an hour winds would have hit where the interstate sat, over ten miles away. It was hundreds of feet deep, and the meteor was said to have generated twenty megatons of energy. Those who read Exodus: Empires at War know that I hit things with much more powerful kinetics, but this gave me an idea of what the crater would look like. Only mine would be much larger. I could also see what looked like mesas off in the distance to the north, where the Painted Desert lay.
I had been planning to go through the Painted Desert on the way to the Grand Canyon. The cold changed my mind, even though it was hitting the forties by the time I was through with the crater tour. I kept thinking of getting stranded on some back road with the temperature dropping. That settled it. I headed back to Flagstaff and got on the road to the Grand Canyon. Everywhere around me were mountains. Not like the one we are used to in the east, where you mostly see trees with maybe a few rock formations here and there. These were rock, and you could see every sedimentary layer, and how they were folded and upthrust. And again, every range was unique. And in the distance you could see the cliffs of the upthrust that held the Grand Canyon, looking like some artist’s representation of the barriers to the lost world. They were over ten miles away, and clear as if they were a mile.
Little Colorado River Gorge, cut by a stream that feeds into the main river that cut Grand Canyon.
I headed through to the canyon’s east entrance. On the way I stopped at an overlook of the Little Colorado River, which feeds into the big canyon. Maybe a hundred yards wide, almost that deep, it was still very impressive, and a perfect example of geological processes that turn what was buried into what is above the ground. The National Park lay ahead, and I entered some forest before getting to it. There were a few cars in line, but it didn’t take more than a couple of minutes to get to the payment window. There was no one behind me, so I talked with the ranger operating the booth for a few minutes. Then, with great anticipation, it was off into the park. A couple of miles in was the Desert Overlook and the Watchtower, which had a large parking lot, bathrooms, and a restaurant. I got out of the car and, after hitting the restroom, walking down to the overlook. It was getting very cold out, and a wind was blowing from the canyon.
The Watcvhtower at the Desert View Overlook.
I walked onto the viewing area and got my first good look of the canyon. I was dumbfounded, thunderstruck, blown away. Like probably everyone in the world I had seen lots of pictures, even wide screen high def movies, of this canyon. Actually standing there, looking at it, realizing it was right there in front of me, was completely different than seeing pictures or film. To one side was a view over the desert that stretched to either side of the canyon. The opposite wall of the canyon looked like it was a mile away, when it was actually eight miles. The Colorado River looked small, until you realized that it was a mile down to the bottom of the canyon. And all around were rock walls of different shades of red, layers that had been laid down over a billion years in some ancient sea, then pushed up by plate tectonics, and eroded away over another billion years or so. Here were my geology studies brought to life. It was awe inspiring in the truest sense of the word. And I was here at the perfect time. Oh, it was cold, but it was also uncrowded. Talking with a woman in the restaurant, I learned that during the tourist season its bumper to bumper traffic. Still, everyone should see this thing. It makes you realize how small you really are, and how insignificant are lifespans are compared to geological time.
I was tempted to detour to the volcanic craters that populate the area behind Mt. Humphreys, but it was getting late, and I wanted to be at Hoover Dam the next morning. I drove along I-40, mountains everywhere, each range unique. It was still mostly desert, though there were some stretches of sparse woods. I pulled off at one place so I could get look at historic Route 66, a name I remember from the TV series from the black and white days of television. It’s mostly a dead highway in this day of superhighways, much as highway 90 and US 1 are in Florida. Then it was into Kingman, and a bit to eat before crashing for the night. More adventure awaited the next day, as soon I was out, images of the wonderland I had driven through that day dancing through my dreams.