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Kaibab & Other Wonders: Daphne Bonds with Mother Earth


The adventure begin
"Death Valley? In the summer??" That was my reaction when I found out I would be driving through the hottest place in the United States during the hottest month of the year. I'd heard Death Valley was... well... hot. And dry. Looking at the map and seeing places called Furnace Creek Ranch, Devil's Cornfield and Stovepipe Wells Village didn't help matters one bit. Everyone seemed intent on letting me (and other tourists) know that coming to Death Valley was no walk on the beach.

No matter. Because Death Valley was going to be the first -- and therefore the most memorable -- stop on our geological tour of the great Southwest! How could it go wrong? Stephanie and I were on our way to the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley to see for ourselves what Mother Earth had to offer. So what if we were driving a 20-year old car with no air-conditioning? Death Valley beckoned and we were ready!

It was hard to imagine what to expect. I pictured a sandy desert, but not much else of interest. Well, I couldn't have been more mistaken. Death Valley was alive and kicking! All around us, the earth captivated and enticed the senses. We saw wildflowers, salmon-colored rocks and massive sand dunes. We squinted at the clear blue sky and marveled at the vast open space before us.

Interestingly enough, geologists are still arguing about how Death Valley was formed. They do agree that some pretty strong geological forces caused mountains made of limestone and sandstone to be uplifted and pulled apart, and that this in turn caused earthquakes, which distributed ash and cinders all around. This, coupled with erosion, means that in certain places the ground is made up of sediments (non-solid rock) for thousands of feet down. At Badwater, for instance (the lowest elevation in the US at -282 ft), you'd have to drill 10,000 ft down into the Earth before you hit solid rock!

We learned all of this from Charlie the Park Ranger who, believe it or not, made the history of rocks and tectonic plates seem fun (even for me)! Although the heat wasn't oppressive during our visit, Charlie told us that just 2 months ago, a German tourist died in the Valley because he ran out of water. He'd gone on a hike and thought he could hike 3 miles in an hour... all under a 100-degree sun! As he told us this, I looked around me and a shiver ran down my spine at the thought of being stranded there. Death Valley is unforgiving, as the first European American explorers found out back in 1849, and even now, 150 years later, people are still succumbing to its might.

Back in the car, Steph and I climbed 5,000 ft out of the Valley and into Nevada, high on our quest for geological knowledge and brimming with excitement about seeing what is perhaps this country's best-known natural beauty: the Grand Canyon. After studying our map, however, we decided to stop in Las Vegas. Why? Well, what better way to contrast America's oldest and grandest geological formations than by experiencing the glitziest city in America? After all, straddled between the harsh but beautiful Death Valley and the magical Grand Canyon, two of America's natural wonders, lies the best example of man-made American extravaganza and glory -- a city as awesome for its tackiness and gaudiness as the national parks it separates.

Oh look! It's the Eiffel Tower
So, armed with cameras and big hair (this was Las Vegas, after all), we made our way down the famous Strip and gawked at the bizarre and over-the-top. At the Caesar's Palace casino, we watched as an elegant woman lost $5,000 at the blackjack table in less than 10 minutes! And she didn't even bat an eyelash! Instead, she acted as though her $500 chips were nickels which, for her, perhaps they were.

Las Vegas is surrounded by a desert as defiant as the one in Death Valley. And yet, it thrives, blossoms, and grows in the midst of artificial lakes, fake backdrops and funny money. About the only thing that seemed real was the $40 I lost at the blackjack table, after I decided I too needed to gamble in Vegas and maybe, just maybe, strike gold.

Well, gold-less and wiser, I bid Vegas goodbye and pointed Blue Bertha (the affectionate name for our car) east in the direction of the mighty Grand Canyon. The next morning, however, we were distracted, if not delayed, by a group of trikers (bikers that ride three-wheeled bikes) straight out of a motorcycle convention.

We met Mike and Ed, two of the more boisterous trikers who insisted -- no, demanded -- that we each take a ride on these funky-looking machines. You can see the results for yourselves. After kicking up some dust, revving the throttle and making some noise, we watched as Mike and crew disappeared off beyond the hills that prelude the Grand Canyon.

The view from the top
Let me describe it to you; no, better yet, let me borrow from the Paiute Indians, who named the Grand Canyon kaibab, or "mountain inside out." Precisely. I could rave about its beauty for pages upon pages, but the wise Paiute capture its essence in just three words. When I first saw it, my mouth dropped, my heart stopped beating and I felt like screaming out loud, "Hurrah!" Not for the first time since the trip started, I felt really, really small. Mother Earth once again put me in my place.

The Canyon stretches out as far as the eye can see. The drop is over 1 mile long and at the bottom, depending on where you stand looking down, you can see the Colorado River snaking its way through the mountains and craters. Hard to imagine that a river that small could have created a 277-mile long Canyon with rocks as old as 2 billion years!

Well, it's true. Most geologists agree that water formed the upper two-thirds of the Canyon. How? With water-borne rocks, created from sediments of limestone, sandstone and shale between 600 and 250 million years ago. After the water-born rocks were layered on top of the heat-born rocks (rocks not made from water) of the inner gorge, the whole region was lifted thousands of feet above sea level. Basically, the Colorado Plateau (where the Grand Canyon sits) had a regional up-lift 65 million years ago - it just rose out of the Earth and stayed that way for the next 60 million years or so. Then, about 5 million years ago (which is not very long ago, geologically speaking), the Colorado River began running along these water-born rocks -- the ones that made up the top of what would become the Canyon. As it did so, it brought with it lots of erosive tools -- things like mud, silt, pebbles, cobbles and boulders -- which helped carve and slice through the water-born rocks, thus creating the Grand Canyon! Got it? If not, read this again.

Daphne dangles over the edgeN
Having conquered the Grand Canyon, geologically speaking at least, we decided to explore. After all, this is a place visited by 5.5 million people every year, and there is much to do. We headed to the West Rim via the free shuttle and prepared for an eight-mile hike -- yikes! On the shuttle, I noticed how many foreigners were visiting the Canyon. I saw a few older Indian ladies wearing saris the color of cherries. They carried cameras and maps and looked ready to hike the whole 277 miles! I overhead French, Spanish, and even Russian. Stephanie practiced her Mandarin with a family from Taiwan, while I chatted to a trucker named Raj who accompanied us wearing only flip-flops. Since this was Labor Day weekend, the Park was packed! We lost the crowds only when we started our hike and then spent the rest of the afternoon taking pictures, looking down at the crater, and dangling our feet over the abyss.

Road Runner's playground
After so much geological overload, I wasn't sure I could fully appreciate Monument Valley, Arizona's other natural wonder. But after driving for a few hours inside the Najavo Reservation, we arrived at a landscape straight out of a Road Runner cartoon. I looked around the mesas, buttes, and spires and could easily picture Wily E. Coyote running around them with crates of ACME Explosives, searching for his foe. The wind howled and the sun beat down, and I thought once again about what it would be like to be stranded in a place like this. As far as my eye could see, the landscape was simply barren, and I couldn't imagine surviving here for more than five minutes. Where would I find water? Shelter? Food?

But then, I heard the stories of an elder Navajo leader. He told us that his people had been living off this land for as long as he could remember, and that everything they needed was there for the taking -- much like in a supermarket. For the Navajo, the land is their ultimate connection to Mother Earth, and preserving Monument Valley is not only their duty, it is their right. On that day, under the hot desert sun and the howling wind, it became mine as well.


Please email me at: daphne@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Becky - Gators and brown goo can't keep the Trekkers from the swamps of the south
Neda - Twisters, cyclones, and tornadoes, oh my! Chasing wacky weather in Toto-land
Stephanie - The future looks brighter for the proud Navajo and Shoshone nations
Nick - Searching for a hint of nature at the "Bridge of God"
Teddy - Plumbing the depths of Yellowstone Park
Team - Pangaea? Isn't that some kind of weird pasta?
Team - Rockin' and rollin' down to the core!