Friday, July 20, 2012

Road Trip 2012 Part One: Exfoliation: Home to Grand Canyon

7/14/12: My vacation began at about 7:20 PM on Saturday night.  I was lined up with about 1600 other people at the start line of the Davis MOOnlight Half Marathon.  It was hot and clear; I was tired from a day of final trip preparations.  Also impatient; the race was starting late.  Finally, a countdown, and we headed out.  One hour and about 55 minutes, 13.1 miles, and many, many turns later, I crossed the finish with a good sprint.  I was satisfied with my time given the heat and crowded trails.  My running companions finished; we staggered around the rapidly cooling Davis night, hydrating, eating, stretching, and debriefing our runs.  Home and a final night in my bed. 

MOOnlight Half Marathon medal and recovery items
 7/15/12: A deep stiff sleep, enough to get Trixy packed up and get on the road.  East across the Great Valley to Manteca, then southeast towards Bakersfield.  The day heated rapidly.  The Great Valley is underlain by a thick pile of marine sedimentary rock – muds and sandy landslide deposits - shed from the volcanoes that once capped the granites of the Sierra Nevada.  Today’s Andes Mountains are a pretty good analogue.  These marine rocks are covered by a veneer of yet more sediments – largely terrestrial - shed from today’s Sierra Nevada and its associated halo of metamorphic rocks.  None of this was visible; only the road and numerous towns – Turlock, Merced, Madera, Fresno, Kingsburg, Visalia, Tulare, Earlimart, separated by numerous fields and orchards.  The air was heavy; I felt like I was at the bottom of the Great Valley when it was marine.  I kept drinking water laced with enough coffee to keep me functional.

Finally, Bakersfield; the south end of the Sierra finally looming out of the haze.  Time to turn east and over Tehachapi Pass.  Trixy climbed out of the Valley, transecting us over the southern Sierra tip.  Great Valley sediments, granodiorites (sensu lato), metamorphic rocks, and granite all in various states of deformation sped by in the outcrops.  Tehachapi was bigger than in memory; a Home Depot looming over the road.  Downhill into Cameron Canyon, and suddenly I was in the Mojave: high desert and the western margin of the Basin and Range Province.  Goodbye to the Sierra and anything resembling normal tectonics, i.e., what I’d dare explain to my classes.  Joshua trees dotted the landscape.  The road turned northeast for a while along the Garlock Fault, which offsets the south end of the Sierra Nevada., giving it a sort of geographic tail which extends out to the southwest.  I’d noticed this anomaly in college, and learned the Garlock’s origin at least twice in grad school, but forgotten it each time.  Oh well, the current interpretation is probably different anyway.

East again, past Mojave town (no sign of weird airplanes in the 100 degree heat) and Edwards Air Force Base (ditto) to Barstow, my first stop.  I was beat from the road, the heat, and the half marathon.  It was hard to think, much less pull my tired body out of Trixy.  I forced myself to indulge in a cheap motel to ensure recovery for the rest of the journey.  But gawd, I was in Barstow.  The nexus of I-15 and I-40 was necessary for tomorrow’s travel, but Main Street was full of tired people on the way to somewhere else: like me.  I could not feel a reason to be here.  Frustrating, uncomfortable, no sense of the place.  Nothing to do but sleep and move on tomorrow.

7/16/12: Awake at 6, up and off for a quick look at the Rainbow Basin, north of Barstow.  I’d come across this geological attraction in a general travel guide; it sounded photogenic.  So a good 45 minutes post sunrise, I turned onto Fossil Cliff Road, bathing Trixy in dust for the first time this summer.  This being America and a BLM-managed site, the Rainbow Basin was largely a driving loop.  Fine, I wanted to move on soon.  I stopped and hiked up a very narrow drainage that cut through deeply eroded and highly deformed muds and silts.  More ignorance.  I don’t know the origin of the Rainbow Basin strata, but they certainly predate the current extent of the Basin and Range.  The drainage was also full of sand, pebbles, and boulders of at least three kinds of granite and a black volcanic rock.  Where did they come from?  I diligently took pictures; the early light was stunning in places as it highlighted the sharply cut rocks.  But not an inspiring landscape; the pale olive, gray and pink rocks felt too washed out; not the spectrum I was expecting.  Maybe I was just tired from the road.

Rainbow Basin, north of Barstow, CA
Rainbow Basin, north of Barstow, CA
Escape from Barstow, across the high desert northeast towards Las Vegas.  I-15: I was still in the Basin and Range, which I’ve written about before, but this southwestern part of the province unsettled me.  It wasn’t pretty.  The landscape looked shattered, worn out, abused.  The mountains here are relatively broad and low in elevation, and buried deeper in fringing sediments, creating a gentler terrain; isolated smashed-looking peaks poking up through the alluvial fans.  I speculated to myself that this reflects the bedrock geology – lots of easily weathered metamorphic and volcanic rocks – and a longer period of extension- the Basin and Range is older here.  The colors were washed out, dull greens, buffs, and grays.  The topography was erratic; there was little apparent pattern to the orientation of mountains and valleys.  Again, I speculated that this reflected weirdness in the geology.  Whatever the varied causes, I was uncomfortable here, even at 70 mph.

Disquiet was a fine introduction to entering Nevada and soon passing through Las Vegas, which has always felt very profane to me.  A quick fuel stop in the smog, and I headed further northeast towards Utah.  At about the Rt. 95 junction, the Basin and Range began to feel familiar.  Why?  I looked at the exposures – oh, the ranges were now held up by limestones, the diced up remnants of the western margin of North America: Paleozoic reefs.  Limestone erodes slowly in deserts, so this made steeper, more dramatic ranges.  They were more linear too; maybe some fundamental change in the bedrock.  All this felt more rational; I could see and track any number of sedimentary layers.  I could relax. 

Fifteen minutes through Arizona, and into Utah.  The Virgin River appeared to the right of the freeway; wow it was deep orange brown; there must have been a lot of monsoon upstream.  I-15 headed up the Virgin River Gorge; this cut transected the eastern edge of the Basin and Range, and exited onto the Colorado Plateau, where I’ll spend the next ten days or so.  Like so much of the other geology of the Western United States, the Colorado Plateau is weird; it’s a thick sequence of Phanerozoic and Precambrian sedimentary rocks which sit on an amalgamation of older metamorphic and igneous basement.  That’s not weird; this basically describes the geology of much of North America.  What’s strange is that the Plateau – encompassing the Four Corners region, has risen more or less upwards over a mile, without much faulting or folding.  The Phanerozoic stratigraphy dips gently to the north (more or less) forming the Grand Staircase – the progressively exposure of younger rocks from south to north from Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, through to Cedar Breaks.  Now this is rational geology; a layer cake on a gross scale, but a lot of interesting variety. 

The Virgin River Gorge was stunning.  Besides being narrow, it exposed the effects of the normal faults that cut the western edge of the Plateau; big slices of rock sliding off to the west, becoming Basin and Range.  I managed to stay on the road.  Also nice to say hello to the strata of the Grand Canyon.

Fatigue was setting in; the slightly cooler temperatures (I was now at about 4000 feet) helped a bit.  St. George, Utah, and a relieved adios to I-15; time to turn southeast to the North Rim of Grand Canyon.  Hurricane, Canyon City, Fredonia; the small towns of the Arizona Strip.  I passed the turn off to Toroweap, in the Western Grand Canyon.  52 miles of dirt to the Rim; a spot where recent volcanoes once dammed the ancestral Colorado.  I badly want to go to Toroweap, besides the geology, it sounds barren, unpopulated, and scenic.  But not in Trixy, who would loose vital underparts; a field vehicle would be nice. 

The road climbed the spine of the East Kaibab Monocline towards Jacob Lake.  The East Kaibab Monocline?  The Colorado Plateau is far from flat; besides the erosion generating the Grand Staircase, it’s gently warped into to a series of higher and lower areas; the East Kaibab is one of the former.

Higher, 6000 feet, 7000 feet.  Finally the turn south and the run to the Canyon.  I had a camping spot in mind in the National Forest north of the National Park, which I’d used in 2008.  The road transited a number of meadows; scant wildflowers gave them a slight color: nice touch.  I found my turn, and went onto gravel.  Thank god the bedrock here is limestone; not much dust.  I found the campsite; empty.  I climbed out of Trixy, stretched, picked out a tent site, and then the afternoon monsoon started.  45 minutes of lightening, hail, thunder, and rain later, I climbed out of Trixy, stretched, and realized the ground was too soaked to contemplate making camp.  So I went for a long walk in the forest.

Eventually, camp, dinner, and the warmth of my sleeping bag.  I’d driven about 870 miles in two days.  This was intense and exhausting.  Hopefully it was transition time, leaving the normal behind and getting into journey mode.

7/17-19:  I camped at this spot for three nights.  Being familiar, I knew it would be a good place to transition from home and drive mode into a slower, observant frame.  At about 8000 feet, it was also right for altitude acclimation. 

If you know me you know that the Grand Canyon is as close as I have to a spiritual center anywhere on this planet.  The developmental and experiential reasons for this are many; it’s something I feel in my core.  While my connections have been deepest when I am below the Rim, I knew this trip needed to start with touching base here.  So I got up the first morning, tweaked my camp, and drove the final twenty miles to the Canyon.  I parked and walked through Grand Canyon Lodge, scoring a relatively strong cup of coffee, out to Bright Angel Point.

The Canyon was still there.  I was still here.  I sat at the point and watched the light change for an hour.  The air was very hazy; the San Francisco Peaks were visible but without much detail, 60 miles away.  I am not sure if this unclarity was from the regrettably ambient pollution from California, Mexico, copper smelters and coal power plants in Arizona or the severe drought conditions much of the Four Corners have been experiencing for the last couple years.  Oh well, I did not need pristine conditions, although it was a bit harder to sense the scale of the gorge due to the decreased contrast.  Home is home.

The Eastern Grand Canyon, from Point Imperial.  Note the haze!
The next two days passed in a succession of drives, hikes, and contemplations.  I went to Point Imperial and contemplated the eastern Canyon for an hour, then repeated at Cape Royal.  The awful light for photography freed me to simply look and see details: jointing patterns in the Coconino Sandstone and the Supai Group, the almost regular vertical ribbing below the Palisades of the Desert.  Both of these viewpoints are on the tourist route, for good reason, so at no point was I alone.  This was as expected and not annoying.  I heard the usual global spectrum of languages.  If the English speakers are any guide, most conversations fell into four categories: 1) geographic or geologic interpretations (usually wrong – reversing north and south was common), 2) efforts to cajole whiny children or adults into at least looking at the view, 3) passive aggressive spousal conversations, and 4) genuine appreciation of the Canyon.  I imply no judgment in listing these; it’s possible that the element of sublime rapture was missing as neither location was a “first viewing” and much driving on windy roads was involved in getting to them. 

Dawn patrol; I was on the trail to Cape Final well before sunrise.  I’d scouted this hike previously, and figured I could manage two miles in the predawn light on an unknown trail.  I got to the Cape, and it was – hazy.  I wasn’t surprised.  However, a new Rim view, so I sat and watched it for a long time.  Peering into the Canyon was unsatisfying, so I went to the North Kaibab Trail and descended.  The North Kaibab goes to the Colorado (5500 feet lower) in fourteen miles.  I aimed to drop to the Supai Group; two miles plus and and 2000 feet.  Getting down was good; the haze was defeated by short range photography.  Excellent; if I was seeing, I was shedding the extraneous masses of home, work, and routine.  I even talked to other hikers and a ranger. 

At Cape Final, looking towards the South Rim
Detail of Coconino Sandstone, North Kaibab Trail.

Final contemplation of a hazy sunset at Bright Angel Point; time to move on.

Brahma and Zoroaster Temples from Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon, AZ

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