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.
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 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.
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.
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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!