Saturday, September 24

Dinosaurs beware!

A few months ago Garry and I were watching a TV documentary that featured Meteor Crater, located on the dry, open plains of northern Arizona. It was created about 50,000 years ago by the impact of a 50-metre wide nickel-iron meteor.  In seconds the impact created a hole 1,200 metres in diameter, 170 metres deep, enclosed by a jagged rim that rises 45 metres above the surrounding area. While meteor craters are a common sight throughout the solar system, on Earth they're relatively rare.  Unlike other planets, or even our moon, on Earth natural erosion by wind and water slowly erases the presence meteor craters.  As a result, Meteor Crater is rather unique.

On a whim I googled this landmark's exact location and discovered it was less than an hour's drive from the Painted Desert. We'd already made plans to visit the desert as part of our Southwest Road Trip, before stopping overnight in a nearby town. Regular readers will know I'm total space nut and so our travel plans were quickly modified to incorporate a visit to Meteor Crater.  This included changing our hotel to one located in Winslow, Arizona.

This change of plan proved rather fortuitous. We later learnt that the classic trans-continential highway Route 66 passed through Winslow; a highway made famous in all manner of popular culture including a hit single by the Eagles.  Their single, "Takin' it Easy", includes the lyrics, "...And take it easy. Well, I’m a standing on a corner, in Winslow, Arizona..."  The town has subsequently immortalised the song, building a small park in the centre of town. Here you can take your photo with a bronze statue of a guitar-carrying '70s rambling man, who looks across an intersection dominated by a giant Route 66 logo.

Winslow's place in American folklore actually extends back more than century.  Until the 1960s, it was the largest town in northern Arizona. It was built in the 1880s by the Santa Fe Railway Company and soon became a major stop. Today, the train still stops in town, right outside La Posada, a magnificent 1930 hacienda-style inn. The inn was once marked for demolition but was saved and restored a decade ago. We had dinner in its vast dining hall, and were lucky enough to see the last remaining passenger train service pull up outside the window as we dined. Afterwards we ventured across the hotel lawn to see the edge of the track, separated from harm by little more than a low brick wall.

The following morning dawned bright and clear.  Perfect conditions for exploring Meteor Crater.  Incredibly, the entire site is privately-owned. The land was sold in 1903 ago to Daniel Barringer, a mining entrepreneur who was planned to mine the meteor's iron and nickel deposits. Sadly, most of the meteor had vapourised on impact, leaving only a few fragments buried deep beneath the crater floor thus making its recovery totally uneconomic.  His mining venture ultimately failed.  However, his descendents have since transformed the site into a popular tourist venture that includes an impressive museum and guided rim walk.

As we wandered past fractured and pulverised rock it was easy to see why NASA once trained moon-walking astronauts here on the geological features of an impact crater. Today, in a nod to Meteor Crater's contribution to the Apollo space program, the museum has installed a life-size cut-out of an astronaut on the base of the crater.  This gives you an impressive sense of the crater's size as it took me almost an hour to locate the cut-out on the crater floor.  Only then could I truly appreciate just how big this hole is.  

In fact, Meteor Crater was so wide I couldn't fit the entire scene into a single photo.  However, all is not lost.  I found a free app called Autostitch online which let me merge three separate images into the funky panorama shot you can see above (click on the image to see it original size). As Garry sagely noted, the crater really is little more than a spectacular hole in the ground.

Still, it was fascinating to stand on its rim looking in one direction across the scarred interior, before turning to take in the vast, open plain upon which its located.  Such a stark contrast makes the staggering power and destruction of a large meteor all too real. Those poor dinosaurs. They really had no chance at all when a similar impact struck the Earth millions of year ago.

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