One life ended, another was beginning, and the best way to start it was with a roadtrip. So one Sunday in January, We drove East on Arizona Hwy 60, past the Superstitions, toward Globe and Miami. We couldn't see the Superstitions very clearly, because the morning mist obscured them like Shangri-La, but once we got near Superior we entered some of the most interesting highway scenery I’ve ever seen. We zoomed past the Boyce Thompson Arboretum before I could think about it -- otherwise we would have stopped there. But it’s so close to Phoenix, we made a mental note to visit it soon, and often.
The road cuts and terrain near Hwy 60 reveal the same fascinating and complicated geologic history you can observe in the Superstitions: millions of years of ocean, lake, river and stream, and/or swamp sediment, volcanic activity (including pyroclastic flows and clouds of ash), magma that cooled slowly underground before it was exposed, magma that cooled quickly while it still had gas bubbles in it. Many of these layers have been pushed vertical by magma chambers that formed beneath them as our part of the continent moved slowly over a super-hot spot in the mantle. As the older stuff fractured and faulted, more molten stuff was forced up into the cracks, forming the veins, rich with copper, that attracted the mining companies in the first place.
Erosion from snow, rain, sun, running water, and wind-blown sand have eroded fractured columns along that highway into a fantastical, mad-tea-party sort of landscape. Hwy 60 winds straight into a hoodoo-paradise called Devil’s Canyon. There are no scenic pullouts on that stretch of the road, or I would have taken at least 100 pictures of that canyon (I promise, ultimately I WILL find a way, hopefully one that doesn’t get me splattered like a bug on the grill of a big rig).
The gorgeous display continues until you suddenly see the gigantic open pit mine on the North side of the Hwy, near Globe/Miami. My husband Ernie says it's like driving through Middle Earth and suddenly finding Mordor. The mine isn’t pretty, but it is fascinating -- I'd love to tour it some day. You can definitely see the decline of the mining industry when you enter Miami and Globe -- they’re boom towns gone bust, though they still have some interesting corners. I contemplated renting a place in Globe, possibly even settling there some day -- though it might be like settling at the edge of the world the day before Armageddon. (Armageddon would be a great name for a ghost town . . .)
From Globe, Hwy 60 turns North and merges with Hwy 77, continuing to wind through spectacular geological terrain. I give the roadcuts on this leg of the journey an A+, and I became a bit of a hazard. Geologists are notoriously distracted when roads wind through interesting cuts. It’s a very good thing the speed limit declines to 35mph, or we might have gone over a cliff. The highway descends into the beautiful Salt River Canyon, called the “Little Grand Canyon” because the salt river has eroded it 2000 feet down, exposing layers that formed millions of years ago. This area of the highway has plenty of scenic pullouts, and I used just about every one of them. We crossed the salt river and began to climb again. At one point we encountered a roadcut that exposed a huge, thick layer of limestone. All of these layers have been bent and twisted, and the roadcuts reveal just how much valley fill has settled over the deeper spots.
Eventually our highway climbed up onto the Mogollon Rim at Show Low, a nifty little town that, happily, featured a JB’s coffee shop that served a good omelette with smokey tabasco sauce. In Show Low, Hwy 60 continues East toward New Mexico, Hwy 77 marches North, through geologically unspectacular terrain (except for the roadcuts, which reveal that wonderful stuff is hiding beneath the surface). North was our destination. This is a short drive, through Taylor and Snowflake, to Holbrook, where we checked into the BEST WESTERN ADOBE INN, a comfortable, inexpensive motel. Our room was big and attractive, and the hotel sits next door to a great restaurant, The Butterfield Stage Company. The food is good and the decor gets an A+. We also visited Jim Gray’s Petrified Wood Co., a big rock shop that also sells fossils. It’s a treasure house on the inside, and is surrounded by a giant yard where rocks of all kind are sold by the pound.
Holbrook seems to have a rock shop on every corner -- and they all feature dinosaurs. Why not? Up the road is the Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona's postcard from the Triassic.
MONDAY we headed to Petrified Forest from the South, HWY 180. We stopped at the Park Gift shop and watched the informational video, which quickly traces the history of the park from the Triassic Period to the present.
The impact of early tourists makes me wince -- it was a free-for-all, with rockhounds doing terrible damage. Rockhounds are still doing damage. Hard to believe people can call themselves good, honest, will stand up in church and sing with the choir, but they steal rocks from the park, in staggering numbers. One thing I didn’t know -- Park personnel receive numerous packages from remorseful bandits, stolen rocks enclosed, with letters of apology.
While eavesdropping in the gift shop I learned that Jim Gray, whose spectacular rock shop sits on the corners of Hwy 77 and Hwy 180, is not beloved to the park rangers. He has plundered adjoining lands with a backhoe, rendering them useless as natural settings. The Petrified Forest National Park recently acquired new lands, but declined to buy the ones he has stripped. It occurs to me that scientists require the same “chain of custody” for artifacts and samples that police investigators do. If an object’s context can’t be reliably documented, it becomes irrelevant.
I hate to think about the damage that has been done. But I love the park without reservation. Tons of petrified wood have “migrated,” but a lot of specimens are still buried in the mudstone and sandstone. And, despite its beauty, the petrified wood is just a part of the attraction. I love the melting mounds of mudstone, sandstone, siltstone, clay, and conglomerate, colored by iron, manganese, and carbon. You can also see chunks of basalt in the mix. The vistas seem to go on forever, and it’s almost completely silent.
We couldn’t do the Blue Mesa hike because of ice on the trail, but we’ll try to come back in the spring or fall to try it again. I REALLY want to walk down there.
We were lucky to have photo-gray lenses on our glasses -- the sunlight on the snow was dazzlingly bright, more blinding than the brightest light in summer. This is something warm-climate people can’t know until they experience it.
We saw more wildlife than I’ve ever seen before, friendly ravens (as big as cats) who seemed to be at every turnout, a fearless bunny who was determined to finish breakfast, despite the presence of tourists, and some deer with really big ears. Ernie is the one who spotted the four-footed creatures -- he’s got an eye for that kind of thing.
It’s actually pretty easy to believe this area was a giant swamp/floodplain at one time. It’s a bit harder to imagine the giant conifers that grew to 200 feet in height, and the tropical climate that created them. Bought cool, nerdy t-shirts at the gift shops and posters depicting geology, petroglyphs, and the Geologic Timeline.
We stopped at every site, then returned to the hotel at 4:00p.m. and ate once again at the Butterfield Stage Company restaurant, this time trying the steaks, which were perfect.
Sometimes, you just need to wallow in an experience. Ernie is the guy I can do that with. That’s why I married him.
Two days into our trip -- and it just got better from there . . .