Saturday, August 16, 2008

Extinction, Outlaw Country, Home

Probably because of our urban roots, we tend to assume that interstate highways will be if not ugly, then certainly less than scenic. This assumption could not be more wrong where I70 is concerned. It's gorgeous in Colorado and gorgeous in Utah. We take it today from Moab to its terminus at I15. Along the first leg of the journey, I70 climbs to the top of the San Rafael Reef, gaining 1,000 feet of elevation and losing 50 million years of geologic time in about eight minutes. Because of erosion and the shape of the land on this anticline, the rocks at Black Dragon Valley are 50 million years older than the ones on the banks of the Green River. Black Dragon Valley's rocks are the oldest we see on the trip. They date from 250 million years ago, just before the greatest mass extinction event in the history of the planet. For unknown reasons, 95% of all species on earth were wiped out. Land and sea were virtually devoid of life; the Paleozoic era had ended and the Mesozoic had begun.

This makes us wonder just how many times this whole life experiment has occurred. Does it take approximately the same number of years each time to evolve from single-celled organisms to space travel? Or are some iterations faster or slower? Does every iteration exhaust some non-renewable resource along the way? Does it cause its own extinction or do external events - plate tectonics, geothermal events, ocean venting of hydrogen sulfide gas, meteors, supernovas, marauding aliens, what have you - typically bring down the curtain? How will the next iteration fuel its transportation if it arises sooner than the 700 million years it took Mom Nature (as our geology professor liked to call natural forces) to create the petroleum we've all but used up in the last couple centuries?

Fueled ourselves by these lofty questions, we drive on - and up. The elevation climbs to over 7200 feet and we reach Ghost Rock, the so-called Outlaw Country where Butch Cassidy and others hid out from the law. It's Navajo sandstone here: buff-colored, stark, spectacular and reminiscent of the zillions of Westerns filmed in this area.

I70 ends at I15, the road from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. We've driven this road before and thought it dull, but either the dull part is north of the junction with I70 or our geology-educated eyes are better able to appreciate its beauty. It has some extravagantly spectacular segments north of St. George in Utah, in the part of Arizona that sticks its neck up into what you expect will be the Utah-Nevada border, and south of Mesquite on the way to Las Vegas. In a spectacular example of engineering short-sightededness, I15 parallels the Las Vegas Strip and creates serious gapers' delays even on the rare occasions when there is no accident. (How did the road engineers miss the obstructive impact on their high speed highway of several blocks of the most eye-popping manmade scenery in the world?) We're so happy to see the Strip - the signal that we're 20 minutes from home after over 7,000 miles - that we don't object to having to crawl along for this stretch.

And then, suddenly, we're home, with our own sandstone and shale mountains out the windows to the west, our own glittering pool of blue water, our own furniture and art, our wonderful, wonderful shower. This has been an amazing trip, full of delights, the last and not least of which is the comfortable delight of being at home.

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