Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Abandoned Lands...A Journey Through the Colorado Plateau: Twitter and Facebook, circa 1605; exploring El Morro National Monument

How thirsty have you ever been? It's easy to go to the faucet and get a drink these days. But what was it like to wander through a desert landscape in an unfamiliar region, with empty waterskins and thirsty animals 400 years ago? It's hot and it's been a day or more with nothing to drink. You seriously wonder if you are going to make it any farther. And then, at the base of a white cliff, you find a pool of water. Talk about a time when one would appreciate a drink of water, no matter how dirty, no matter how many organisms are swimming about! That is a moment that would imprint itself on your memory for a long time.
The pool is what made El Morro National Monument a memorable place. For hundreds of years, storm waters have poured off the cliff face into a deep plunge pool. And for hundreds of years, humans have been attracted to this one small oasis in the middle of a barren landscape otherwise devoid of dependable water sources.
El Morro (Spanish for bluff or headland) is a high cliff of the Zuni Sandstone, a middle or late Jurassic sandstone that was deposited in a sand dune "sea".  It readily forms cliffs and did so here as the  Zuni Uplift was pushed skyward in Cretaceous and early Cenozoic time and subjected to erosion.
The Ancestral Pueblo people certainly knew of this place. In the late 1200s they constructed a huge village on top of the mesa, with enough rooms (875!) to house 1,000-1,500 people. They abandoned the site after only 75 years or so. As they did in many other places, they left inscriptions in the rock. The sand is only loosely cemented (by clay), so the petroglyphs show in greater relief than in many other places.
 Twitter and Facebook in the title? Sure...what is Twitter and/or Facebook anyway but a way of saying "I was here"? They are ways of sending messages, and That's what happened at El Morro, too, but in more of a permanent fashion. The Spaniards established a presence in New Mexico in the late 1500s, and in 1605, the first inscription went onto the rock:

"Passed by here the Governor Don Juan De Oñate, from the discovery of the Sea of the South on the 16th of April, 1605."

The next oldest inscription is what made me think of was made by Governor Don Juan de Eulate in 1620 (below):

"I am the captain general of the provinces of New Mexico for the King, our lord, passed by here, returning from the Zuni pueblos on July 29, 1620; he left them in peace, at their request; asking his favor as vassals of his majesty, they again rendered their obedience, he did all this with attention, zeal, and prudence, as such a particularly Christian (gentleman) and gallant soldier of unending, praiseworthy memory."

Why Facebook? First, he's bragging. And then someone added a comment putting him in his place. Note how the word "gentleman" is scraped out. No one knows who did it (an anonymous hacker?). I like to imagine a servant or foot soldier rolling his eyes at the vanity of the governor. During the night before they left, the guy snuck up to the cliff and scratched out the offending word...
 Another inscription hints at the tragedy of the times; in 1692, General Don Diego de Vargas wrote:

"Here was the General Don Diego de Vargas, who conquered to our Holy Faith and to the Royal Crown all of the New Mexico at his own expense, year of 1692."

A bit of bragging again ("at his own expense"?), but this was a terrible time for the people of the Pueblos. Twelve years earlier, in 1680, they had had enough of the Spanish overlords, and they violently expelled them from New Mexico. After a dozen years the Spaniards reconquered the pueblos, and there would be centuries of domination ahead.
The last Spanish inscription dates from 1774. The Americans arrived in 1849 on the heels of victory in the Mexican-American war, and hundreds of inscriptions followed. By the time the cliff became a national monument in 1906, more than 2,000 "modern" petroglyphs had been recorded.
It took some time to get the idea of "preservation" of history. At some point in the early years of the park, some "comments were removed by the system administrator". They were judged not "historical" enough. After many decades one has to wonder which was worse: the original late graffiti, or the scraped and smoothed surfaces (below)?
El Morro National Monument is on Highway 53 between the Zuni Pueblo and Grants, New Mexico. The hike to see the pool and Inscription Rock is paved and accessible. An exploration of the Atsinna Pueblo requires a bit more of a hike to the top of the cliffs. And for the record, there are flush toilets at the visitor center. And a drinking fountain. How life has changed.

Well, mostly changed. I just spent a long time telling you "I was here", but I suspect my version will not last as long as Oñate's or Eulate's.

The Abandoned Lands...A Journey Through the Colorado Plateau: There is at least one forest in the Southwest that won't burn this year...

We continue our journey through the Abandoned Lands, the empty landscapes of the Colorado Plateau. We arrived at the national park the next morning and got a look at one of finest places to study Triassic history anywhere...the Chinle formation (or Group) is a complex sedimentary sequence that preserves a record of river floodplains and lakes that spread across Arizona, Utah, and several other states at the dawn of the age of the dinosaurs. Some of the earliest dinosaurs ever discovered have been found here.

But the neat thing about the Triassic is not the little dinosaurs. They had not really reached their dominance of the terrestrial ecosystem at this point in time. There were other creatures, some of them absolutely the phytosaurs.
Can you imagine wandering lost through a swamp and running into one of these? Phytosaurs resembled crocodiles, but were different in a number of ways. Some of them were also 35 foot long in some instances.

There are lots of other creatures found in the sediments of the Chinle. The odd looking creature below is a Placerias hesternus, one of the therapsid reptiles, sometimes called the mammal-like reptiles. Huh? Since when is a reptile anything like a reptile? Well...when they have a more upright stance than reptiles, when they have differentiated teeth including fangs, and when they may even have been endothermic, i.e. warm-blooded. The therapsids were in fact the ancestors to the mammals, who appeared in latest Triassic time (they then presumably provided the dinosaurs with protein for the next 100 million years before an asteroid wiped out the reptilian overlords).

All told, the park is one of the richest Triassic fossil beds in world, with 200 kinds of plants, and dozens of therapsids, phytosaurs, amphibians, and early dinosaurs. But wait (as they say in late-night TV ads), there's more!
The floodplain and channel deposits make for some incredibly colorful badlands scenery. The bright colors result from the oxidation of metals in the clays, especially of iron. The clays are so easily eroded that soils don't develop easily, leaving behind a maze of gullies and channels.
There is a whole section of the park devoted to wilderness. No trails to speak of, but lots of interesting places to wander.
The park's riches extend to the human history as well. Abandoned lands? Yes. Few people live in the region today, but there is an 8,000 year history of human habitation. 600 archaeological sites are known within the park boundaries.
 There are some outstanding petroglyphs as well. Lots of them...
 Including this one. What do you see? Some think it is a dinosaur eating an unfortunate Puebloan, but others see a heron eating a frog. Of course, why would someone draw a bird eating a frog? Seems kind of ...ordinary to me.
Hmmm...I think I'm forgetting something. What is it? Oh yeah, I don't think I've mentioned what park we were exploring. It was actually originally established to protect some unique fossils: the petrified wood. I wonder how many parks have been missed because someone thought it was a sort of "one-note" place? Petrified Forest National Park? Why stop there? I see petrified wood in the curio shops all the time. Someone who thinks that is really missing out. The park is a fascinating place.

Most of the fossilized trees were carried from forests in surrounding highlands during floods. They were buried and the wood decayed away but was replaced by silica (quartz, in the form of agate and chalcedony). The wood is strikingly colorful; a lot of petrified wood from elsewhere occurs in pretty plain colors, but here there is a veritable rainbow in practically every sample. Entire trees, 100 feet long or more, are common in many parts of the park.

Petrified Forest is another place that suffered a lot of abuse before it became part of the national park system. Train passengers in the late 1800s stopped at the nearby station and walked off with tons of rock. A company once proposed to grind up the petrified wood to be used as an abrasive. Local citizens sought park protection as early as 1895, but it was 1906 before Teddy Roosevelt designated the site as a national monument. It became a national park in 1962.
Photo by Mrs. Geotripper
Theft is still a problem...apparently something like 12 tons of petrified wood get stolen every year. For what it is worth, stealing wood from the park carries a pretty serious curse. If you ask, the folks in the visitor center will show you the notebook filled with letters from people who had bad things happen to them while they possessed the stolen contraband. Legally collected wood can be purchased outside the park (they even give some away free; to get you inside the store, of course). If you are willing to do the legwork (mapwork?), you can find hundreds of square miles of Chinle formation on public lands (BLM) where non-commercial collecting is allowed.
In the meantime, if you are ever flying by on Interstate 40 and wonder if Petrified Forest is worth your time, well, I say yes, it is. And this is a forest that will never burn down, no matter how bad the droughts get...

Here is the explanation of my "abandonment" theme for this series:

Friday, July 27, 2012

A Break from the Drought, Sort of...Flowers on the Colorado Plateau

What a dismal year it has been...not in geology, but in the "overburden" that often hides the outcrops. The drought that is affecting so much of the country meant that wildflowers were notable for their absence in almost all my travels this spring and summer, whether in the Central Valley, the Sierra Nevada foothills, or the Colorado Plateau. It is kind of upsetting to realize that I spent two weeks in six states and took a grand total of two pictures of flowers...and both were in front of visitor centers where they had been watered. It really was that bad.

Last week we were in Arizona and Utah for a short sojourn, and we purposely headed for the handful of places where we thought wildflowers might have a chance of flourishing, even in dry times: the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (close to 9,000 feet), and Cedar Breaks National Monument (just over 10,000 feet). We were happy to see that at least in these islands of cooler weather that some flowers were blooming.
I also had a chance at long last to meet the Geogypsy, my blogging friend Gaelyn, a ranger on the North Rim. She sadly pointed out that the flower displays, while colorful, were not up to normal levels. Just the same, we enjoyed the rainbow hues of these little gifts of nature.
On the North Rim of Grand Canyon, there is a road that goes out onto the Walhalla Plateau, a mesa that extends far out into the gorge. There is a "Y" junction with roads to Point Imperial and Cape Royale. Driving through the junction, we saw a splash of color and just had to stop. We counted at least a dozen species of flowers in a few minutes.
Of course, being who I am (lazy), I barely knew the identities of the majority. I guess that means there is about to be a bit of competition to see who can name the flowers accurately and quickly (come on, I identify rocks for just about anyone who asks!).
I had not been to Cedar Breaks National Monument in many years, and the rocks were spectacular as ever. I was a bit shocked by the beetle-killed trees, though. The bugs had an earlier start at Cedar Breaks; the infestation started killing the trees in the 1990s. It was not as terrible looking as the beetle devastation in central Colorado (and apparently Wyoming and British Columbia too) where millions of acres have been wiped out. The young firs are starting to come back after a decade and a half.
But denuded trees means more sunlight on the ground, so even with drier conditions, the flowers were quite beautiful.
 I hope the drought ends...
...but I would feel better if the politicians would at least acknowledge that there is a serious problem with our climate, and that the parties could come together to lead us to solutions to the problems we have caused with our atmosphere and hydrosphere.
In the meantime, enjoy a splash of color!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Abandoned Lands...A Journey Through the Colorado Plateau: Not so much abandoned as obliterated

The Colorado Plateau is a fascinating place to explore. The scenery is beyond compare, and the geology is laid bare in the arid environment. It is an excellent place to teach because of the way the story of the region unfolds. So much of the journey involves looking at rocks and structures that formed in a sequential fashion, and are part of a coherent story.

And then there are those things that come right out of left field, features that are so out of place that they serve only to teach the uncertainty of life on planet Earth. Meteor Crater is one of those places. There's no particular reason that it should be on the Colorado Plateau and not somewhere else. But there it is, out on the plains of Arizona.
The region around Winslow and Holbrook in Arizona is desolate, flat, and basically uninviting. It's one of those stretches where the students can catch a nap because the instructor can't really think of anything to say over the CB radio as we drive through. Even the kitschy Route 66 developments seem worn out, and many are abandoned and falling apart.

But then, there is sort of an interruption in the flatness off to the south of the freeway. We know what is there, but it doesn't really look like much in the distance. We turn off the freeway and drive up the access road.

More than a century ago, this spot was called Franklin's Hole. As obvious as it seems today, the origin of this 550 foot deep hole was not clear at first. Most people figured it was some kind of volcanic feature, even after chunks of iron and nickel were discovered (not to mention a total lack of volcanic material).
Part of the problem of accepting a meteor origin of the hole was that expectation that the original chunk of rock was still intact and buried under the crater. The meteorite is thought to have been about 150 feet across, which would be quite a find, and I have a feeling that a lot of money was lost drilling holes in the bottom of the crater. As it is, the largest bit of rock weighed 1,400 pounds (it's on display in the museum-see the picture above).

It really sparks the imagination. 50,000 or so years ago, a big chunk of rock hit the Earth's atmosphere  at 26,000 miles per hour and flared brighter than the sun. It hit the ground creating a massive explosion, leaving behind a crater 4,000 feet wide and 700 feet deep. It is a bit scary to contemplate the effect of such a collision in the present day. Not an extinction-level event, but devastating to anyone unfortunate enough to be anywhere nearby (the meteorite that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs is thought to have been several miles across). The impact actually caused the layers of Kaibab Limestone and Coconino Sandstone to rise and fold over on themselves, so the stratigraphy is inverted along the crater rim.
The crater is privately held, but the owners have done a nice job of preserving the crater, and it is well worth a visit. They are very accommodating for geology field trips if you contact them in advance.
For more information about visiting the crater, check out

Look here for an explanation of my "abandonment" theme for this series:

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Abandoned Lands...A Journey Through the Colorado Plateau: Walnut Canyon...Would you have been one of them??

A thought exercise: you've lost your foreclosure perhaps. The sheriff kicked you out so quickly that you had to leave most of your belongings behind. Maybe it was the family farm. Your parents and grandparents were buried there in a family plot. You've been locked out and will never able to return.

How do you feel about the new owners who take over the property? Do they have the right to dispose of your things as they see fit? Do they have the right to bulldoze the trees in the family cemetery and put a minimart on top of the graves? (Actually, I think I have an idea for a horror movie...someone call Steven Speilberg). Okay, maybe it wasn't you who lost the home, maybe it happened a hundred years ago, in Ireland, or Scotland, or in Senegal? How long do we have a right to feel like our family heritage has been molested? Is 800 years too much? Say a family castle in southern Europe that was built by your forebears in the 1200's?

Around 800 years ago, the Sinagua People felt they had to abandon their lands. We don't know why...long term drought is suspected as a cause, although that would be ironic for a people whose name means "without water". They often lived in parts of the central Colorado Plateau that did not have secure water sources, including Wupatki (see one of my previous posts), and Walnut Canyon, southeast of Flagstaff. They left behind entire villages in the cliffs at Walnut Canyon, a place that is protected today as Walnut Canyon National Monument.
I visited Walnut Canyon as a 10 year old, and I was fascinated with the place. Here were abandoned homes and villages, it seemed like hundreds of them spread on the alcoved cliffs of Kaibab Limestone. I combed over the floors of each of the small rooms like a young Indiana Jones. I wasn't interested so much in the walls that remained; I wanted to discover things. Things like pottery sherds, arrowheads, the evidence of the lives that were lived here. Somehow I knew that I would see what the hundreds of thousands of tourists who were there before me had missed, if I looked hard enough.
It occurred to me even then that maybe I needed to be looking at the dwellings that weren't on the tourist trail. You could see them off in the distance, their remoteness (and the stern signs prohibiting access) making them a magnet of my desires to search and discover what obviously must be hidden just off the trail. Oh, how I wanted to climb up into these mysterious dwellings!

I found out many years later that in the late 1800's it was a tradition for Flagstaff residents to take a wagon ride out to Walnut Canyon to search the ruins for pottery and other artifacts, and that many thousands of artifacts disappeared into local households. These former homes of the Sinagua People had been plundered of their treasures and destroyed many decades before I happened upon the scene. Sometimes the pothunters used dynamite. Now that I was an adult, the very thought infuriated me. How could they allow such a desecration to take place? It's not even justified to say that the Sinagua People no longer exist. Their descendants live in the pueblos of New Mexico and on the Hopi Reservation (To their absolute credit, it was the work of many citizens in Flagstaff that resulted in the formation of the national monument in 1915. They were horrified at the destruction that was taking place. I am not aware if the descendants of the Sinagua were ever consulted.).

I felt a similar sense of disgust and indignation when a river runner told me many years ago that he had the mummified remains of an Anasazi child in his garage. This was on the same river trip that I was told that the walls of the seemingly pristine ruins that we saw on the San Juan River had been repaired three or four times after pothunters had winched them down to get at burial sites. Pothunters are criminals, pure and simple. If you are having trouble understanding this, imagine if someone was digging up the remains of your grandmother for the purpose of stealing the jewelry she was buried with.

The exhilaration of discovery, whether it involves a gold nugget in a stream, a dinosaur bone in the desert of Utah, a perfect topaz crystal in a rhyolite tuff, or an unbroken Puebloan pot from 800 years ago is like an addictive drug. There is nothing quite like it. It is easy to condemn pothunters who are interested only in selling their finds. Can we judge the people of Flagstaff and other nearby communities for taking artifacts a century ago who were only after the thrill of discovery?

Likewise, how do you judge the little kid who collected square nails at a ghost town in a state park and was enraged when his father told him to put them back? They were just pieces of rusted iron. And what about the kid who finds a beautiful spearpoint high on a mountain ridge miles from any actual archaeological site, and keeps it? What harm could it do? I have to face the fact that the little kid was me. It took me years to outgrow the desire to possess, and I also know for a fact that if I lived in Flagstaff a hundred years ago, I would have been one of the plunderers.
I have not had the rush of finding an intact pot in a cliff dwelling. I like to think that over the years, I've developed the judgement to leave it in place and notify the authorities of the discovery, but I know that won't be my first impulse. What would you do?

Here is the explanation of my "abandonment" theme for this series:

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Abandoned Lands...A Journey Through the Colorado Plateau: The River Red, a little red goes a long way

 Today's subject is a short distance from our last post at Wupatki, but we are separated in time...I'm back on the plateau for various reasons today, and yesterday we crossed the Colorado River ("the Red River") at Navajo Bridge. The last few times I was here the river was green and clear, having just been released from Glen Canyon Dam a few miles upstream. I was shocked yesterday to see the river living up to its name! It doesn't happen as often as it used to, but there have been some heavy monsoon storms the last few days. I was aware that the main source of sediment these days is the Paria "River" that drains the Bryce Canyon region, so I realized I wanted to see a raging flash flood.
 We quickly drove to Lee's Ferry where the Paria comes into the Colorado. The Ferry was once the only river crossing for 600 miles when it was built in the 1870s. It was abandoned when the first Navajo Bridge was completed in 1929. I wasn't disappointed. At the confluence there was a striking juxtaposition of red and green river water. The red completely took over in less than a half mile of river flow. Wow...the Paria itself must be stunning!
 We drove to the bridge across the Paria (would the bridge still be there we wondered?) and beheld the mighty Paria...
Wow, indeed. It seem a little red mud goes a long way. That 10 foot wide creek completely transformed the Colorado River!

Here is the explanation of my "abandonment" theme for this series:

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Abandoned Lands...A Journey Through the Colorado Plateau: Wupatki and Sunset Crater

When our field trip last month showed up anywhere, there was no longer any sense of abandonment...we were our own traveling traffic jam. The land that we were in felt abandoned, though. The northeast edge of the San Francisco Peaks Volcanic Field is exceedingly dry, and the volcanic rocks are so fissured and jointed that whatever water does fall from the sky seeps into the ground quickly and disappears. It's hard to imagine a civilization thriving here, but the pictures on today's blog reveal that people did indeed live here, for a century or so, but then they abandoned the region, perhaps for better agricultural prospects elsewhere.  It's certainly pretty barren today...
Welcome to Wupatki National Monument north of Flagstaff, and the adjacent Sunset Crater National Monument, site of one of the youngest volcanic features of the state of Arizona. There is a connection between the two parks...many of the dwellings were constructed in the decades following the eruptions at Sunset Crater around 1065-1085 AD. Some archaeologists attribute the population growth at the time to water retention capability of the volcanic cinders that blanketed much of the region. In some models, the new surfaces of cinders enriched the soils and caused a sort of "land rush" that brought different peoples together.
There was a mixing of four different cultures in the area, the Kayenta Ancestral Pueblans, the Sinagua, the Cohonina, and the Hohokim, and they left behind some impressive ruins. Our visit included an exploration of the Citadel (above), a 50 room complex, and Wupatki Village, a 100 room village. The Citadel Pueblo is glued to the top of a lava butte, and the walls merge almost seamlessly with the basalt flow.
The peaks of the San Francisco Peaks dominate the scenery. The mountain peaks are the ragged edges of a hollowed out stratovolcano which has not been active for several hundred thousand years. The summit may have been destroyed by a giant landslide similar to the one that precipitated the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980.
The largest pueblo in the monument is Wupatki Village, which is unique both for its architecture and for its mixing of cultures. There is a "ball court" that reveals a cultural connection to the Hohokim to the south, an amphitheatre that is characteristic of the Sinagua people, and T-shaped doorways that are typical of the Ancestral Pueblans (formerly the Anasazi).
Like the Citadel, the buildings seem to grow out of the rock. The rock includes the shale and sandstone of the Triassic Moenkopi Formation which formed in mudflats and river floodplains. For building walls, they used red slabs of Moenkopi sandstone, yellowish slabs of Kaibab limestone, and chunks of basalt.
Why was the site abandoned in the late 1200's? I don't know, and neither do the archaeologists. The Native American cultures in the southwest today have their perspective, and their oral histories. The region is so marginal for agriculture that drought seems likely to have been involved, and one can imagine a series of cascading effects: food shortages, growing competition for the best growing sites, invasions from outside cultures, and so on. All one can really say is they were there, and within a few years they were somewhere else.

It isn't just an academic exercise to understand all the factors involved 800 years ago in the abandonment of the region; we are in the midst of a serious extended drought today, and there is a strong potential that the drought is related to climate change (in late June, Wupatki had only 15% of normal precipitation). The consequences of extended drought will occur whether politicians deny global warming or not. The Colorado River doesn't have enough water to meet demand in normal years. What happens when drought becomes the new normal? How will our society in the southwest cope?

Later on we stopped briefly at Sunset Crater, the possible cause of the "land rush". The cone in the background did not exist 1,000 years ago.

Here is the explanation of my "abandonment" theme for this series: