Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Adventure through the Millennia

Tanner Hamann

For something so massive it can be seen from space, the Grand Canyon has a way of sneaking up on you. My first sight was hazy blue visible through a gap in the bushes, which took a moment for me to recognize as rocks. We kept walking and almost in a flash, the Canyon was laid out before us. Looking at all the rocks and cliffs distorted by shear distance, I had trouble believing what I was seeing. It seemed unreal, impossible that I was looking across a gulf miles wide. The blazing sun lit the canyon walls, making it even harder to distinguish the intricacies of the terrain. What I did believe was just as suddenly as the Canyon appeared, the ground ahead of us abruptly ended in a near vertical cliff. To put it mildly, heights are not my thing. My uncertainty was replaced by awe as our guides started rattling off facts about the Canyon and then delved into a lecture on the various layers forming the Canyon walls. So much history encapsulated in layers upon layer of sediment. I never could have appreciated the age and change represented by this place had there not been someone how understood this science, who spoke the language of chemistry and rock.

The Grand Canyon was definitely the largest natural formation we saw and explored, but it was only one place. As part of observing Earth analogues to Martian features, we went to multiple craters and many other sites of geological interest. I especially liked the trek to Colton Crater, since it was the first cinder volcano that I climbed to the top. An ancient explosion made that easier by pretty much reducing the steep north face to a moderate hill. It also blew away the top of the volcano, so there was an impressive crater left behind. The crater was so deep that the few people who ventured to the bottom looked barely larger than specks. Standing at the rim, I did not expect the gusts of wind that rolled over the crater’s edge. One of them actually sent me scrambling after Cynthia’s and my hats, desperately trying to grab them before they could fly away. I was not caught unawares a second time, so my focus fell more on the terrain, the striations in the crater walls, and the remnants of a miniature cinder volcano at the crater floor. Fascinating is too mild a word for this place.

I came to Arizona not sure what to expect besides sun, hours of field work, and this “dry heat” everyone keep touting as a good thing. I found all those things, but I also found an adventure that took me though millennia of history and across a variety of landscapes. I learned a lot, walked a lot, and got a glimpse into perspective of geologists, a.k.a. rock people. I doubt I will get as excited about basalt and limestone as they did, but I can appreciate the intricate story such things contain and the art of reading that story. The trip is an experience I will always remember, one of many since the summer began, and I thank Cynthia Cheung and the Lunar and Planetary Science Academy for making it all possible.

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