I’ve found it increasingly hard to blog on current events these days, given that the political situation is so hopelessly in a shambles that any comments from me would be just restating the obvious. Hurricanes and other disasters likewise get more than adequate coverage: I have nothing of substance to add.
Lately, then, I’ve tried to focus on interesting things from the world of archaeology, or possibly other things that might interest a reader or two — at least those who enjoy a bit of vicarious travel.
Susan and I decided to actually take a break during Fall Break this year, so I used up some Frequent Flier miles and we flew to Sedona, Arizona. After all the rain and storms we’ve had here, we thought it would be a nice break to visit the high desert for some serious hiking.
Some desert: two days before we arrived, the area was hit with flash floods that closed some roads and trashed parts of some trails. High temperatures were in the fifties to low sixties — but our lodging at “Canyon Wren Cabins” was nice, and the trails were still calling our name, and we were ready to answer.
We tackled Sterling Pass, the most strenuous of the ones we chose, first. We could walk to the trailhead from our cabin. The trail is a five-and-a-half mile trek beginning with a steep ascent of more than 1,600 feet in elevation, then down the other side of the pass — and we threw in a side trip to Vultee Arch before doubling back. The main problem was that there were so many impressive things around that we kept stopping for pictures or to drink in the sights (as well as lots of water), so it took us the better part of a day to get over and back.
One of the most amazing things was the change in landscape when we crossed from the sunny side of the mountain to the shady side, so steep that it never sees the morning sun. The soil, the trees, the plants: virtually everything was different, as deeper and richer earth gave rise to all things green.
The second day started out to be easier, with only a little more than a thousand foot change in elevation. It began with a nice climb up and across Brins Mesa, a connection to Soldier’s Pass Trail to start back down, then a hard left on Cibola Pass trail for a nice five-point-something mile loop back to the parking lot (be sure to click the picture below for a larger version).
There was lots to see there, too — but just as we passed a huge sinkhole known as “the Devil’s Kitchen” and turned for Cibola Pass, the dark cloud we’d been watching broke loose. Lightning flared nearby and thunder rolled. We debated whether our trekking poles would attract lightning. Our jackets offered little protection for the sheets of cold rain that quickly soaked through our pants.
What’s worse, every crease in the landscape quickly became a rapidly flowing orange stream and the rain washed away any footprints that might have helped us stay on the trail, marked only by occasional cairns of stones. Every rivulet looked like a trail.
And then it started hailing, peppering us with pea-sized bits of ice.
And then my cell phone battery died, rendering my “All Trails” app useless at keeping us on the trail.
But we persevered, and despite a couple of short ventures off trail, we found our way back to the parking lot and happily settled into the car, whose windows immediately fogged up. We noticed a lone lady trying to read a map and offered her a ride back to her car at a different trailhead. It delayed our hot showers and dry clothes for half an hour, but was the right thing to do.
The next day we decided to take it easy. We still hiked six or seven miles, but the change in elevation was only a few hundred feet. We started with a loop around Courthouse Butte and Bell Rock, the rocky core of what used to be a larger mountain before wind and rain and more wind whittled it down to a giant edifice displaying ancient layers of limestone and sandstone.
From there we drove to Red Rock park, where rain had washed away all but one footbridge over Oak Creek, but we still enjoyed nice vistas of Cathedral Rock and even spied a few faded petroglyphs left by Native Americans.
Our final day took us outside of town for another five-or-so-mile loop, this time hiking along the majestic inner bowl of of Mescal Mountain before connecting with Deadman’s Pass and the Long Canyon trail. The day started out cold but turned gorgeous, allowing us to shed our jackets even before hitting the trail.
The town of Sedona is a touristy spot with horrendous traffic winding along two-lane roads and lots of roundabouts, but the surrounding area is a celebration of rocks. It’s staggering to look at majestic formations with visible layers going back more than three hundred million years, testament to advancing and retreating seas, eons of sandy winds, and a period of volcanic activity that produced basalt to punctuate the cake-like layers of limestone and sandstone. The layers vary in color based on their composition, with the predominant red rocks gaining their rusty color from, well, rust, as iron within the stone turned to iron oxide.
The psalmist was not the first nor the last to sing of God as our “rock” and our salvation. The metaphor implies that rocks are steady and sure and don’t change, but a look around places like Sedona remind us that even mountains of rock are subject to erosion that wears them down and changes them.
But, it’s also a reminder that all that wind-blown sandy sculpture has become more beautiful through the slow grind of hundreds of millions of years.
Our lives are an infinitesimal fraction of earth-time, but it is the time we have — time enough to grow old and change in ways that wear our once-smooth skin and toned muscles into craggy wrinkles that have their own kind of beauty — one that we don’t need air travel to see and appreciate.