I am in northern Arizona's badlands - a surreal landscape in a world that existed before Man learned to measure time by the seasons and the constellations wheeling above him.
As I stand on the rim of a gigantic circular hollow gouged into the barren earth, a desert wind ruffles my hair and whispers secrets of an event which happened 50,000 years ago to create what lies far, far below my viewing platform: the largest meteor crater on Planet Earth. It is nearly a mile across, 550 feet deep and large enough at its base to encompass twenty football fields while two million spectators would fit comfortably along its sloping walls.
The crater was formed by what came to be known as the Canyon Diabolo meteorite. The power and speed of the meteor's impact slammed into the earth at 40,000 miles an hour (which would be like traveling from New York to Los Angeles in four minutes) and caused an explosion equivalent to a force greater than twenty million tons of TNT. The shock would have registered on every seismograph across the globe.
The wind dies away and I lean over the rails to peer at the crater, its surface pocked like a moonscape, and I'm not surprised to learn that this site was used by NASA as a training ground for Apollo's astronauts (including Neil Armstrong) back in the 1960s. A special section at the on-site museum has been dedicated to these heroes who dared, (as John Gillespie Magee puts it) to "slip the surly bonds of earth" and soar into space. Hollywood's imagination too has been fired by the Arizona crater: the 1979 movie "Meteor" starring Sean Connery and Natalie Wood was filmed here; and "Star Man" with Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen told the story of an alien who was picked up from the floor of the crater by a space ship!
The sheer unpredictability of a cosmic event of this magnitude raises the point as to whether this could happen again, and if so, are there any early warning systems in place? I find the answers to this and several other questions at the adjoining Meteor Crater Learning Centre. Meteorites as "shooting stars" frequently collide with the earth, but our atmosphere slows their velocity down, and, luckily, so far none of them have landed in densely populated areas. While we aren't immune to the possibility of another massive meteorite suddenly smashing into our planet, it is reassuring to know that scientists feel that this is unlikely to happen for another 50,000 years.
50,000 years isn't much in terms of the earth's evolutionary history, but 225 million years is a mind-boggling concept, and standing at a lookout point in the Painted Desert Park, I am left breathless at the panorama of scarlet, indigo, orange and white rocky outcrops which stretch, fold upon fold, to the far horizon-a scene which has endured since the Triassic Age. Erosion has sculpted portions of the granite into twisted shapes: here a raised fist clenched against the sky, there a staircase of gray blocks piled one over the other in defiance of gravity or, in the distance, the silhouette of some fabled castle perched on top of a mesa.
The Chinle Formation area in the adjoining Petrified Forest National Park has its own treasures also dating from the same period. I crouch down to peer closely at a petrified five-inch cross-section of wood compressed into marble-smooth whorls of royal purple, and fire engine red. Not far away lies another chunk that looks like a miniature modernist painting with splashes of bright yellow, veined by a network of thin blue capillaries.
Sedona, which lies south of Flagstaff, evokes feelings of almost mystical wonder, and it is not surprising that its monumental copper coloured canyons with their surfaces chiseled into temple-like carvings, were sacred to the Hopi, Navajo and Yavapai Indians. Nor am I surprised to learn that many still regard the area as a powerful vortex of psychic energy.
The afternoon sky is a sullen dark gray; then, magically, a shaft of sunlight breaks through, and the entire Cathedral Rock escarpment is bathed in a golden light. The buttes and spires turn to flame, their edges bright orange, their crannied shadows vermilion. In that strange dance between light and shadow, it begins to drizzle, but not for more than a moment, while far below me in the valley beyond the ridge of the escarpment, a rainbow arcs across the distant horizon.
IF YOU GO:
The Meteor Crater site and Learning Centre is 35 miles east of Flagstaff and 20 miles west of Winslow and is a short drive off the I-40 Interstate Highway. For more information regarding hours and ticket prices click on www.meteorcrater.com Plan to spend 45 minutes to an hour at the adjoining Learning Centre. Interactive exhibits appeal to visitors of all ages.
The Petrified Forest and Painted Desert may be accessed off the I-40, (north entrance) running east of Winslow, or Highway 180 (south entrance) in the southern part of the Colorado Plateau. For more information visit www.nps.gov/pefo
Sedona is 30 miles south of Flagstaff on Route 89A. It lies about 110 miles north of Phoenix and public transportation via shuttle is available from Sky Harbour airport. Check out http://www.sedona-phoenix-shuttle.com/#Top
PHOTOS: By Margaret Deefholts
1. Painted Desert
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