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Are you ready for the lamest excuse for not keeping up with a travel blog?? We were traveling…sorry…

It’s been a busy start to February as Lauren found herself in Albuquerque, Phoenix and Savannah in the opening week of the month. I was lame, only DC and Phoenix. My parents live on the north side of the Valley of the Sun and we try to make it out there once or twice a year.

About 50,000 years ago a wayward rock smashed into another wayward rock with just enough force to knock the second rock from of its odd orbit around the sun. This rock managed to pass through the orbital field of Mars without being swept into its gravitational wake. Later it would manage to miss the great asteroid magnet we now call the moon. The rock, now enjoying its re-designation as meteor, super-heated as it plunged into the atmosphere. Frictional forces slowed the wayward rock to 28,000 miles an hour as it streaked across the sky over places that would be called New York, St. Louis and Denver. A wooly mammoth looked up at the mesmerizing line of fire in the sky just in time to be vaporized. The meteor punched into the earth’s surface under several layers of rock left by seas and deserts of greater antiquity. Instantly, it exploded with the force of a 10 megaton nuclear weapon. The 1 mile across, 550 feet deep the crater is but a pock-mark…but today it’s a pock-mark worth visiting.

A wide-angle look at Meteor Crater
A wide-angle look at Meteor Crater

It’s not hard to get to Meteor Crater, it’s just about a half-dozen miles off I-40. The admission is $16…it’s a fair price for the world’s best preserved impact crater. The visitor center offers a good introductory movie that I’d recommend watching before looking at the crater, I’m a sucker for dramatic entries though. We watched the film with a tour bus full of Canadians, they clapped at the end…that’s exactly what I expected from the nicest nationality on the planet. The visitor center also has a pretty decent museum showcasing other impact craters around the world and going more in-depth on the science behind an impact. I’m sure kids love this place (I know I did as a kid).

The rim of the crater is well above the surrounding landscape, so much so that it looks as though you’re driving towards a hill instead of a hole. There are three or four different vista points built into the crater adjacent to the visitor center. From the highest perch you get a nice view of the crater, but also Mt. Humphreys in the distance. I love the landscape on the plateau…it’s so expansive but I always feel this irresistible urge to wrap my arms around it. The air is clear enough that you can see for hundreds of miles. All in all we spent about an hour and a half snapping pictures and walking around. Once you get through the movie, museum and crater there’s not much else to do. I’d hike to the bottom, but that’s not allowed…for understandable reasons.

It's more than a song lyric
It’s more than a song lyric

We headed west on our next stop of the day…we decided to take historic Route 66 where we could, partially out of a sense of exploration and partially a sense of hunger (spurred I’m sure by the visitor center that smelled like Subway). I-40 parallels what was the original route of the Mother Road basically from Barstow, California to Oklahoma City. Little bits of the original path remain, mainly through the centers of the towns that group up along this classic piece of highway.

It was driving through Winslow that we had a collective blond moment of a proportion that I’m afraid to admit. Towards the historic center of town there were signs pointing toward a place called Standin’ on the Corner. This being a stone’s throw from the Navajo rez I assumed it was some sort of old crossroads of American Indian tribes.

It wasn’t.

Lauren investigated, she came back saying it’s from that song…you know, “Standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona…” although her singing made it sound like a children’s sing-a-long song. I got it. And I felt (and still feel) like an idiot. It’s the lyrics from Take it Easy by the Eagles, a song I’ve heard a trillion times in my life.

The town of Winslow is clearly very proud of the classic rock shout-out. There’s a square devoted to the lyrics, complete with a statue and a mural. It’s a worthwhile detour if you’re zipping along I-40. Otherwise the town was dead…in Winslow’s defense it isn’t exactly peak season. Still though, passing through these dusty outposts I can only imagine what these little towns must have been like in Route 66’s hey-day.

We headed over to Holbrook, grabbed a quick burger and then drove south to the entrance of Petrified Forest National Park off of US-180. It’s probably better to head into the park this way for a few reasons. One, I’d bet it’s less crowded than the circuit coming down from the I-40 entrance. And two, if you time things right this will put you in the Painted Desert in time for sunset…and you want to be in the Painted Desert for sunset.

225 million years ago on the southwestern edge of a place called Pangea a massive tree fell. A great flood swept it into a rushing river where it flowed into a logjam among thousands of other trees. The waters also brought sediments and volcanic ash that rained down from the atmosphere. Quickly these trees were covered in a primordial sludge of inorganic compounds that seeped into the trees, crystalizing under the pressure of the growing outflow. Pangea would separate, the Colorado Plateau would uplift and the soft rocks would recede until this ancient forest was again exposed to the atmosphere.

Petrified logs scattered along the desert floor
Petrified logs scattered along the desert floor

There are a couple souvenir shops just before the park entrance, if you feel absolutely compelled to take some petrified bark home buy it here instead of scooping it up from the park. It’s actually very illegal to take any petrified wood from the park.

Driving through the park is easy enough…for us there was hardly anyone else there, but again it’s the offseason. I’m sure traffic picks up considerably as the temperatures warm up. The best way to sum up Petrified Forest National Park is half Badlands half Land Before Time.

Colors in this part of the world are both enduring and fleeting. It’s easy, especially this time of year, to get wrapped up in the mono-tonal browns and grays that dominate the landscape. But that’s what lends true beauty to the orange and blueish striations in the worn mounds of rock, it’s what make the tie-dyed marble of a chunk of petrified wood really pop. This part of the desert is a study of contrasts between muted and voluminous.

This road leads to the tee-pees
This road leads to the tepees

The hiking in this park isn’t anything strenuous…with the exception of some back country trails everything is paved and well marked. Ancient tree stumps litter the landscape for the first third of the park’s length. The best spots to get up close to these trunks are pretty obvious: one as soon as you enter the park at the Rainbow Forest Museum, further up Crystal Forest takes you on a more isolated mile loop among logs that display more color.

The tepees were a highlight tucked away amongst mesas of retreating soil. These geological features live up to their names, and we caught them as the sun was dropping in the sky…close to that golden hour that places like this are made for. While taking some pictures a park ranger stopped to clean off a sign, he looked across the street at crow.

“You see him over there? He saw me coming, and as soon as I leave he’s just going to fly over here and poop on this sign again.”

Sure enough, not more than thirty seconds after the ranger sped off the crow flew back across the road, landed on the sign, did his business and then flew away. The universe is a weird place.

This bird is eating people...I wonder if the people tasted like chicken
This bird is eating people…I wonder if the people tasted like chicken

And it got weirder once we made it to Newspaper Rock. Etched into two house sized boulders about 50 feet below the vista is an encyclopedia of petroglyphs. I’m not trying to go all Ancient Aliens here, but one of the glyphs definitely looked like the starship Enterprise…and a few others looked decidedly non-human. Then again the drawings could have just been the pre-alphebetical ramblings of a peyote addicted outcast. Either way this is an outstanding spot to let the imagination run wild. In the distance a massive train rumbles through the park only adding to the temporally muddled moment.

We continued up to Puerco Pueblo, the foundation of an ancient village. The outlines of rooms still rise about two feet from the ground. In one spot there is a marker used to identify the summer solstice. At 9:30 on the morning of the solstice a sliver of sunlight shoots through a gash in a rock above illuminating the glyph and marking the season. And here I thought I invented Solstice-fest.

We quickened our pace in the waning moments of daylight, crossing I-40 and into the Painted Desert. It comes out of nowhere…flat desert, more flat desert then beautiful, gorgeous, colorful desert. Red is the dominant color accented by grays and blues and browns. The dropping sun adds its own influence to the mesas and spires and hills below the vistas along the park road. We stopped at Pintado Point and relished in the moment, soaking in the silence and feeling the last warm rays of sunshine. It was the perfect payoff to the park, a grand finale before exiting. We stopped at one more point before a park ranger stopped to tell us the park was officially closed. They wrap up at 5 pm in the winter…it’s odd for a national park to shutter. (although if the sequester goes through…get used to it)

A look at the painted desert floor
A look at the painted desert floor

After a few parting shots we were back on I-40, now headed west. The sun was just disappearing beyond the horizon as we drove along a set of cliffs off the shoulder of the freeway. It was a very Arizona moment. Three hours later we were back at my parents house in Phoenix, this was all just one day…one of many great days Arizona has to offer, and just one more reason I am so infatuated with the Grand Canyon State.

Tags : ArizonaImpact craterMeteor CraterPainted Desert ArizonaPetrified Forest National ParkU.S. Route 66WinslowWinslow Arizona
Kris Ankarlo

The author Kris Ankarlo

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