Vintage Verdad week continues with a retrospective explaining how I ended up obsessed by geology.
Where was your profile photo taken? Those are some rocks I would classify as Om Nom Nom.
That was pretty much my response when I first saw ’em. That’s the South Bluff at Discovery Park.
I still remember standing before it the first time. It looks like nothing but compacted sand from a distance, but up close, you find it’s actually sandstone. I stood there tracing its bedding planes with my hands. It surprised me with its cool, slightly damp, almost smooth but a touch gritty feel. I’m used to rocks in the sun being hot. The waves that carved our stones stopped breaking millions of years ago, in most cases. Here, water’s still busy sculpting. Dear old South Bluff is probably just a brief blip on the radar, a mayfly in geological terms. The waves will wear it away in time. Most people think of stone as somehow permanent, just like I used to. But the vast majority of it is ephemeral, destined to be worn away to sand and soil again, perhaps buried and melted. Some of it will end up stuffed into a subduction zone, some will end up metamorphosed and barely recognizable. But that first moment, coming upon this, is for me eternal.
Folks sometimes ask how I ended up in Seattle. It’s because of geology. I came up here on a research mission for my magnum opus in 2000, and when I first saw the snow-capped Olympics embracing our plane as it landed, I knew I was home. Only took seven years before I came home for good.
Seattle denizens look at me like I’m insane when I tell them I left sunny Arizona for the near-perpetual rain of the Northwest. They’ll probably never understand the pull of this place, unless they’re Lord of the Rings fans, and remember what Bilbo said:
I want to see mountains again, mountains, Gandalf! And then settle down somewhere quiet where I can finish my book.
That’s why I’m here. But the yearning for mountains began long, long ago in a state very far away.
That glacier-carved stratovolcano dominated my childhood. So much so that when my grandmother stood with me admiring the view on one of her visits from Indiana, I turned to her and asked, “Grandma, how can you live in a place without mountains?” She laughed, and she and my mother tried to explain that people who’d lived in flat country all their lives got used to it, but I didn’t understand. No more than I understood why people called the Ozarks mountains. We crossed them once, driving to Indiana, and I remember seeing a sign saying something like, “Ozark Mountains, elevation 600 ft.” I burst out laughing. Where I come from, anything under 2000 feet is a hill. Well, parts of them qualify, but not the bits we were crossing.
My childhood was rocky, and I mean that in the best possible way. Everywhere I went, there were rocks: old rocks, young rocks, dark rocks, light rocks. In my literal back yard, you could find limestone from ancient seas, basalt from young volcanoes, and pumice blown out by the Peaks, among a great many other varieties. The rock collection we plucked from our yard and the national forest backing it won me first prize at the Coconino County Fair one year. To be brutally honest, the competition must not have been fierce, and no one was more shocked than I was to see that blue ribbon pinned to the collection, but it was nice.
Within easy driving distance of my house, sometime within walking distance, geologic wonders abounded. We used to catch tadpoles in Wildcat Canyon, a large gully cut in Kaibab limestone, just a short hike through the pinon forest. None of us kids realized we were chasing amphibians while 250 million year-old seabeds loomed over us.
Just a short drive away, we could see something that was obviously awesome: an actual impact crater, 50,000 years old but looking as if it got gouged out just last year:
Someday, really truly, I’m going to do a post all about it. I have the research done and everything.
This is where I found my first-ever fossil all by my lonesome:
Look, it was impressive to me, all right? But if you want really impressive, here’s just one piece of the meteor that struck the high desert plain and left this gargantuan hole:
That is one enormous chunk of iron-nickel, that is. And it’s only one of many enormous chunks scattered about – there’s another equally as large at Lowell Observatory, and doubtless plenty of others in various places. I’m not sure where they all ended up. It’s appropriate they’re scattered now, as they were strewn all over the place when it struck.
You can’t help but be impressed with astronomy after viewing this. Appreciation for its geological significance came a great many years after I first visited. For a while, though, I was under the spell of our neighbor, an astronomer at Lowell, and I was all about being an astronomer. Wasn’t long, though, before the rocks started drawing me back.
It is very, very hard not to be impressed by the majesty of geology when you have this practically in your back yard:
Now, mind you, we ferried various out-of-town relatives to the Canyon that it got to be a chore. “Aw, do we have to go see that great big hole in the ground again?” But that was before I started getting interested in its geology. Look down into the Canyon, and you’re peering into nearly 2 billion years of history.
And of course, it’s a great place to get your rocks on, especially if you like limestone:
But appreciation for deep time had to wait many years. First, I’d live a life dominated by sandstone. We moved to Sedona when I was 12, and for the next two years, you’d usually find me scrambling about on the red rocks, climbing Sugarloaf, staining my white socks red in the deep red sandy soils. In the summer, we’d head for Oak Creek Canyon for the blackberry picking; in winter, for the icefalls. It was fantastically beautiful, a red-splashed green oasis in dry country:
I had no idea of the eons of desert and sea that went in to the making of those rock formations, of course. All I knew was that it was pretty, but I missed my mountains. I pined for them. And then came the happy day that my parents announced we were moving – to Page.
More desert. No mountain. Argh. I spent my high school years scrambling over ancient lithified sand dunes, running along slick rock ledges a few inches wide with a sheer drop of hundreds of feet one misstep away. But that old sandstone never let me down. We called it slick rock because of what happened when it rained. In the dry season (which was most of the time), the sandstone gripped my soles tight, and never let me fall.
Wind and water carved ancient dunes into fantastical shapes. I washed windows for Michael Fatali’s gallery, and got to spend a lot of time studying the slot canyons carved from flash floods that he captured in their astounding natural light:
He risked his life for those images. Flash floods didn’t often announce themselves on the plateau, and you didn’t have much chance of escaping when one thundered down those sheer-sided slots. People died. An entire group of French tourists were drowned one year. That pretty much cured me of any desire to go playing around in the slot canyons myself, but I did end up taking a gentleman from New Zealand around to see the sights after having been volunteered for tour guide duty by our local coffee-shop owner. It might seem crazy to head for the middle of nowhere with a perfect stranger, but he wanted to see the Horseshoe, and I figured it was a long enough dive into the Colorado River if I needed to take care of any unwanted advances. The desert was friend, enemy, and convenient weapon. Fortunately for all, he turned out to be a perfect angel, and we spent a delightful day trekking all over the canyon country.
I hated Page, but I still deeply love its surroundings. The silence there is indescribable. It’s as if all those millions of years bear down, hushing noisy civilization and allowing you to sink deep into deep time.
Speaking of sinking deep, one of the prime destinations for Arizona folk was Montezuma’s Well, an enormous sinkhole close to Cottonwood.
I’d visited it as a kid, but didn’t really get to know it until I took a physical geography class from the incomparable Jim Bennett. For our field trip, he hauled us all out there, and showed me a spot I’d never before seen, where the waters of the well escape in a narrow creek. It’s quite possibly the most serene place in all of Arizona that’s accessible by car. Water in the desert is a precious and awe-inspiring thing.
For my physical geology picture project, I dragged my poor friend Janhavi all over the Flagstaff area. And you might not think sinkholes when you think Flagstaff, but it happens just to the north, where the old sea left lots of limestone, and great caves got carved into it later. There’s a great place at Wupatki that might one day end up being a sinkhole, but right now, the underground caverns have few outlets, and the blowhole at Wupatki is just an outstanding demonstration of air pressure. I re-created the demo photo with my intrepid companion when we were there:
Those were the years. I’d moved to Prescott to attend college. I could admire the Mingus Mountains (yes, technically, it’s Mingus Mountain, but the locals call the whole range by that name). There was an ancient shield volcano and an even more eroded volcanic neck (where quite a bit of necking got done), and then the Granite Dells, where we spent more than one afternoon happily scrambling about the granite boulders.
No better place to get intimate with how granite weathers, really.
But in the end, I had to go back home, back to my old stratovolcano and the young cindercones that surround it like courtiers.
Most of the cones are healthy and intact, but Red Mountain got half of itself rafted away on a lava flow, leaving a spectacular view into its interior.
I spent many happy years with my mountains, often taking the long drive up the San Francisco Peaks to the ski resort, wandering around Sunset Crater National Monument, exploring the places I’d grown up. But Flagstaff is poverty with a view, and the wonderful company I worked for was headed on a downhill slide, and it was time to leave. I’d already settled on Seattle, but couldn’t afford it alone. I ended up in Phoenix instead, surrounded by concrete, the rocks too damned hot in the summer to go play in, the mountains too low and the Valley too wide. Miserable years, until the very end, when all my friends moved down just as I was preparing to leave. So it goes. But by then, I had a friend who wanted Seattle as much as I did, and nothing was going to hold me back from those mountains.
There was only one drawback: active volcanoes. I grew up with volcanoes, but they were all dormant, y’see. I have a wee bit o’ a volcano phobia. I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to get up close and personal with an actual live, actively-erupting volcano, but we made the trek to Mount St. Helens, and I discovered that awe is a fine antidote to fear. I stood on the banks of the Toutle River, which had channeled a devastating lahar on May 18th, 1980.
I ran my hands through its gritty sand, volcanic ash mixed with eroded rock, and marveled at its texture. The volcanic soils in Flagstaff are elderly – the youngest is over 900 years old. This was younger than I was. And then we drove on up to the mountain itself, and I stood staring down into its steaming throat, without fear:
A poem by Walter Savage Landor rather captures the moment:
Death stands above me, whispering low
I know not what into my ear:
Of all his strange language all I know
Is, there is not a word of fear.
You still couldn’t pay me enough to camp there, though.
Once I’d set foot on the flanks of one active volcano, I couldn’t resist doing another:
Hiked a snowfield in late August and saw my first glacier that year, which, I can tell you, is a pretty damned astounding sight for someone who grew up in Arizona, even northern Arizona.
The geology bug bit me in dead earnest not much later. It had taken a few serious nibbles in Arizona, but Washington State has really turned me into an avid geology buff. I think it’s because it’s so young and raw here. Oh, granted, Arizona looks more raw, but its geology is all pretty much in the past. Until you know more about how those landforms formed, you don’t feel its immensity, its immediacy. It’s all just lovely scenery. Out here, though, you can’t help but to notice geology’s astounding power. And it’s not just the volcanoes, but floods so powerful they stripped the land to bare bedrock.
The fact that I now have to go searching for rocks rather than just looking down and seeing hey, there they are probably has a bit to do with it, too. One ends up taking even the most spectacular scenery for granted when its too familiar. I had to leave home before I could love it again. I had to discover yesterday’s dramatic geology before I could fall into deep time. Now, when I go back to Arizona, I can appreciate those two billion years of history. I wriggle my shoes deep into dry dirt, lay my hands on my old friends sandstone and limestone, and feel myself sinking into a past whose history is written in chapters of strata.
I’ve lived my life on the rocks, and I haven’t regretted it a bit.