Arizona is truly a dream, a region that offers incredible, almost magical images, difficult to describe. That is why any attempt to capture the impressions of a trip to the state of mythical westerns and the astonishing wonders of nature is a very challenging task.
Exploring a city, with its culture, architecture, and historical events that took place and shaped it, is easy to describe. Monuments are all creations of human thought and, subsequently, human hands. However, when dealing with the greatest artist that ever appeared in the universe, nature itself, things become very difficult. Nature is, on the one hand, so simple that it can provide answers to how and why it created what it created, as long as you ask the right question. Therefore, for nature to be understood, it is not enough for it to write its memoirs, but a methodology is needed to understand it, which we call science.
However, recounting a journey cannot and is not intended to resemble a scientific work. This is the whole difficulty of reproducing the feeling caused by contact with nature’s monuments through words. Let’s follow this route, though, as it happened; perhaps this way, these monuments can be presented, and maybe it becomes possible to describe with words things that leave weak humans speechless.
The route from about the middle of New Mexico to the corresponding middle of Arizona is a vast straight line, with many hours required if one wants to reach it by car. However, this route provides a great opportunity to traverse a large part of the legendary Route 66, a road that connects Los Angeles with Chicago and constitutes one of the most mythical creations of contemporary American history. Route 66 is essentially the road that connects the West to the East, following in the footsteps of the search for those first trailblazers who sought to find ever deeper into the American hinterland, an earthly paradise.
The landscape is desert-like, with low vegetation, and the colors of the soil include all shades of red, from pink to dark brown. Most people may not be particularly interested in how this color was created over such a vast area, but surely no one can remain unmoved by the aesthetic result produced by its combination with the colors of the Arizona sky, which constantly change from dawn to dusk, covering almost the entire visual spectrum.
The first stop, as we continued westward like those 19th-century explorers, was at Meteor Crater, which, as its name suggests, is nothing more than the crater created by the fall of a meteorite 50,000 years ago.
During the Pleistocene epoch, when the Colorado Plateau was colder and wetter, a meteorite with a diameter of nearly 50 meters and composed of iron and nickel fell to Earth, creating a crater with a diameter of 1,200 meters and a depth of about 230. At that time, this particular phenomenon might not have offered much, but the traces it left behind, with the largest being this enormous crater, played their part 50,000 years later.
As there is no record of the indigenous populations’ contact with the crater, the first historically known discovery of the natural monument concerns the arrival of European settlers in the area. The initial explanation for its formation, due to its proximity to the San Francisco volcanic field, was that it was some kind of volcanic crater.
The scientist who essentially took the major step to exploit and decode all the hidden knowledge that existed at this specific location was the geologist Albert E. Hooke, who in 1891 first published his research on the examination of meteorites found in the Northern Arizona area, with iron being their main component. Hooke was the one who recognized the role of the meteorite in the fragments found in the crater, reconstructing the narrative of its formation.
At the same time, geologist Grove Karl Gilbert argued the exact opposite, unable to comprehend the dynamics of the fragments after such a violent collision. Although he was among the first to claim that the craters on the Moon originate from meteorite fall episodes, the absence of extraterrestrial material from the interior of the crater led him to the erroneous conclusion that it must have resulted from volcanic activity.
However, although nature can be deceptive, it is generous in revealing its secrets to humanity. This was the case with engineer Daniel Barringer, who, with his dual role as an engineer and businessman, began iron mining operations in the area in 1903. The work of his company, the aptly named Standard Iron Company, provided the necessary evidence for Barringer, in collaboration with mathematician and physicist Benjamin Chew Tighman, to conclude that a large amount of iron must be hidden in the soil of the crater. Their scientific conclusions were published in 1906, but they faced skepticism from the scientific community, which held Gilbert’s opinion in high regard and the conditions were still too immature to recognize the role of meteorites in Earth’s geology (a term that in Greek may seem incorrect as a sentence, but the term geology now refers to any planetary object, not just Earth).
This skepticism persisted well into the 1950s when the new science of Planetology emerged, providing more comprehensive answers to the way planets are formed. The greatest scientific contribution was that of the eminent scientist, geologist, and one of the pioneers and forefathers of the scientific field of planetology, Eugene Merle Shoemaker. Shoemaker, with certainly many more theoretical and material tools at his disposal, was able to conclude through the identification of two minerals, coesite and stishovite, that since the formation of these requires conditions of very high instantaneous pressure, it could not have been caused by volcanic activity. In this way, Shoemaker confirmed Barringer’s theory but did not stop there. He was the one who managed to describe for the first time the similarity of the physical process of meteorite falls to nuclear explosions. Thus, he provided a significant tool to the science of planetology, which today utilizes the knowledge developed around nuclear explosions to unlock the secrets of the creation of the Solar System.
However, nature, although it can deceive, is generous in revealing its secrets to humanity. This happened in the case of engineer Daniel Barringer, who, in his dual role as engineer-entrepreneur, began iron mining operations in the area in 1903. The work of his company, the eponymous Standard Iron Company, provided the necessary indications for Barringer, in collaboration with mathematician and physicist Benjamin Chew Tighman, to conclude that a large amount of iron must be hidden in the crater’s subsoil. Their scientific conclusions were published in 1906 but faced skepticism from the scientific community, which was heavily influenced by Gilbert’s opinion and was still quite immature to recognize the role of meteorites in Earth’s geology (a term that, in Greek, might seem wrong as a sentence, but today’s term of geology refers to any planetary object, not just Earth).
This skepticism persisted well into the 1950s when the new science of Planetary Science emerged, providing more comprehensive answers to the formation of planets. The most significant scientific contribution was that of the great scientist, geologist, and one of the pioneers and forefathers of the scientific field of planetary science, Eugene Merle Shoemaker. Shoemaker, having certainly many more theoretical and material tools at his disposal, was able to conclude through the identification of two minerals, coesite and stishovite, that as the formation of these requires very high instantaneous pressure conditions, it could not have been caused by volcanic activity. In this way, Shoemaker confirmed Barringer’s theory but did not stop there. He was the first to describe the similarity of the physical process of meteorite falls to nuclear explosions. Thus, he provided a significant tool to the science of planetary science, which today utilizes the knowledge developed around nuclear explosions to unlock the secrets of the creation of the Solar System.
So, this is the great contribution of a hole in the Earth, an area of a few acres, but its presence helped human thought to be led down a path that in less than a century would already begin to provide answers, through comparative analysis, to some questions that hadn’t even been asked when the first settlers encountered this unusual sight.
The final destination of the first day and the base for the next day’s excursions was the city of Flagstaff. As its name suggests, it was founded by the placement of a flag on a pine tree on July 4, 1855, by Samuel Clark Hudson and his collaborators, who were constructing the Santa Fe railroad line that connected the states of Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. The railway line still remains one of the most characteristic features of the city today, as huge trains cut the city in half for quite some time, reminding us of its origins.
Although today it serves as a winter resort, since it is built at an altitude of 12,633 feet, Flagstaff has a distinctive architectural identity, with typical buildings from the era of American expansion to the West shaping its aesthetic. A tour of Flagstaff may not remind you of cowboy stories in the middle of the desert, as tall vegetation dominates, but it can certainly be associated with the images conveyed by American literature from the second half of the 19th century.
The Grand Canyon is a monument of nature. In reality, it is a temple, and if we were to make an abstraction and assign divine qualities to nature, something that has occurred throughout human history due to the inability to explain natural phenomena, then it is certainly a great cathedral. This is probably what Clarence Dutton, the geologist who devoted a large part of his scientific career to the detailed study of this great canyon, had in mind when he decided to give each formation he discovered a name derived from all the major religious currents of humanity. Thus, since the time of Dutton and the not-so-distant 1882, various names have remained, referring to the “Throne of Wotan,” the “Pyramid of Cheops,” the “Temple of Buddha,” the “Temple of Solomon,” the “Temple of Zeus,” and the “Tower of Ra.” Today, a geologist who wants to engage with all the pieces revealed in this natural cathedral will start from the background of Vishnu and reach the more superficial layers, which owe their names to deities of the indigenous populations of North America.
The Grand Canyon was also considered a sacred site by the Pueblo, the Native Americans who inhabited the Arizona area before the arrival of European settlers, with the first recorded arrival being that of Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, who reached the monument with his entourage in 1540.
The Grand Canyon is part of the Colorado Plateau, which is traversed by the eponymous river and was formed 40 million years ago when two island arcs, that is, chains of volcanic islands in the middle of the ocean, collided with the proto-American continent. This collision led to a major orogeny, which raised the Rocky Mountains in the western part of present-day United States. According to relatively recent studies, the canyon is believed to have begun forming about 17 million years ago, with earlier studies placing the beginning of its creation at 5 to 6 million years ago.
The uplift of the Colorado Plateau, which began 70 million years ago, led to the formation of a drainage system that today constitutes the network of the Colorado River and its tributaries. This network, which eventually took shape 17 million years ago, began to erode the rock formations of the land it traversed, resulting in the carving of the great canyon. Today, the canyon reaches a depth of about 1 mile (approximately 1,600 meters) at specific points, has a total length of 446 kilometers, and a width of about 30. The great importance of the Grand Canyon lies in the fact that approximately 40 major sedimentary formations are exposed by this watery excavation, making it the most significant natural geological museum on our planet.
However, apart from its importance to scientists and its contribution to the development of the geosciences, the Grand Canyon, due to its imposing aesthetics, attracts tourists from all over the world. It is nature’s mark to explain that its greatest works are not created simply to impress those who can decipher them, but essentially to draw human curiosity by shaping this unparalleled beauty, which to this day no human-made structure can approach.
The route along the South Rim, from east to west, with the aim of following the path of the sun so that it illuminates the points within the canyon during the day, starts from the Desert View Watchtower, which is also the best point to first behold this fascinating natural structure. The grandeur of the intricate natural edifice is revealed just a few meters from the first precipice, and there, words come to a halt. Looking east and west, only images can describe what every painter would have wanted to imagine and capture in their artwork, what every sculptor or architect would have wanted to carve or design, but nature, the greatest of all painters, sculptors, and architects, was ahead of them all.
Although the spectacle revealed from each point of the South Rim, that is, the southern side of the canyon, may be considered not much different, the change of viewing angle creates a thrilling tour with the main feeling of awe, impossible to be captured in words. The alternation of viewing angles is further enhanced by a descent, which, however, requires a good deal of confidence in one’s physical endurance for whoever attempts it, as well as the necessary time for such an endeavor.
If the Grand Canyon is a monumental cathedral of colossal dimensions in sculpture and architecture, then Antelope Canyon is a jewel, much smaller in size, but with stunning details, shades, and plays of light that no human mind has managed to create thus far.
Antelope Canyon is located within the territory that today belongs to the Navajo tribe, and a visit to it is only possible with the help of these descendants of the native populations of the area. In the midst of a vast desert expanse, which the tribes of the Native Americans have learned to traverse over the centuries, reconciled with natural phenomena, this small canyon, not crossed by any river, is one of the most interesting results of natural disasters!
What happens in the area, near the borders of Arizona and Utah states, is a massive flood that recurs, not periodically, but every few years. The water crosses the desert, gaining ever greater speed and mass as it passes, flowing through a formation of harder rocks. This violent passage of water, instead of slowly digging deep, passes through a small opening that it created itself to continue its path.
Water is perhaps the only thing on Earth that nothing can stop, at least not completely halt. Human-made dams are essentially constructions that rely on this property of water and exploit its tremendous natural momentum for energy production. However, woe to the water if it did not continue its journey; whenever humans attempted to do so, the results were catastrophic for human societies and not for nature.
Imagine then a passionate sculptor, carving fervently his future creation, and uncovering it every so often to change its shape, making it increasingly more perfect. This sculptor is the water that created Antelope Canyon, a monument that today attracts not only visitors but also professional photographers, who flock to capture the colors that no painter’s canvas can offer.
The last stop on the tour is perhaps the most iconic of Arizona. Photographed countless times, adorning legendary commercials that have become part of global western culture in the second half of the 20th century, illustrated in comics and animated films, and serving as the backdrop for legendary movies, its name is a monument of nature itself.
Monument Valley is essentially a series of sandstone formations, whose surfaces are dominated by oxidized iron, giving them their intensely reddish color. In the middle of the desert, a 28-kilometer route through the protected park, also located in the Navajo region, is something that cannot be forgotten by anyone who visits.
There, the blue sky of Arizona, which turns into a mixture of orange and pink as the sun sets, covers the reddish sculptures, composing a scene that leads to emotional turmoil. It was certainly the best way to say goodbye to Arizona, traveling along the Four Corners borders towards New Mexico, on a route that American movies made famous or became famous thanks to it.
Arizona is a gift from nature to man. It does not have a sea nor tall mountains, but the imaginary hands of nature, water and air, have crafted on the canvas of the vast desert some of the most beautiful natural wonders of our planet, magnificent temples, and elegant jewels. Words will always fall short to describe the synthesis of the senses of another masterpiece of nature, the human being, the moment it comes into contact with these eternal imposing monuments.