I’ve been to the Grand Canyon before.
I know someone was going to ask how I could travel through northern Arizona and not visit the Grand Canyon. That’s my answer. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon before. Been from the top to the bottom and back, on a mule no less. Spent the night there, inside the canyon.
Not that I am opposed to visiting the Grand Canyon more than once. I would like to go there again someday. But, this trip is primarily about seeing places I have never been (or can barely remember). Plus, I knew that if I went back to the Grand Canyon, I would want to spend a few days there and do some hiking. I had a general idea of when I wanted to get back to Dallas, and didn’t have a few days to spare.
Instead, I visited Arizona’s other big hole in the ground: Meteor Crater.
Meteor Crater is the decidedly generic name used for the officially titled Barringer Meteorite Crater. It lies a few miles south of I-40, east of Flagstaff.
Thousands of years ago, before most of us were even born, a chunk of interplanetary scrap iron weighing 300,000 tons crashed into the Arizona desert at 28,500 miles per hour. Alcohol is suspected.
As usually happens when you exceed the speed limit by 28,445 mph and are 299,960 tons over the legal limit, the crash caused quite a mess. The mess is well visible today, in the form of a big bowl-shaped hole in the ground. It is about 4/5 of a mile across and 570 feet deep, with 150 feet of displaced rock piled up on the rim by the explosion.
Surprisingly, the crater is not a national park, national monument, or national anything. It is privately owned, but the privates have put together a nice visitor center and observation deck, for which they charge the expected admission fee.
Unfortunately, the crater does not look quite as big as it actually is. It is huge, but distances to the crater floor or to the opposite rim are hard to judge. The visitor center tries to remedy this by pointing telescopes at objects in the crater, like a house-sized rock on the crater rim and a 6-foot-tall cut-out of an astronaut on the crater floor. This does help: the astronaut in the center of the crater is so far away that it is almost impossible to see without looking through the telescope.
The visitor center offers walking tours of a trail that goes partway around the rim. The tours leave only once an hour, and last about an hour, even though the distance covered is not that great. Most of the time is spent at several stops along the trail, where the guide tells the history of the crater.
Much of that history revolves around Daniel Barringer and his efforts to prove that the crater was the result of a meteorite crashing into the earth, and not a volcanic explosion or sinkhole or any other such phenomenon. The story is fairly long, so here is a short version of it:
In 1891, a very smart, respected, high-ranking, and generally likeable geologist named Gilbert was head of the U.S. Geological Survey. He visited the Arizona crater to determine whether it was created by a volcanic explosion, which was the most common known source for craters at the time, or if it might have been caused by a meteorite. Using an unbiased scientific approach, Gilbert decided that it was caused by a volcanic explosion.
A decade later, Barringer heard about the existence of the crater. Barringer was a mining engineer, and was also very intelligent and successful, though he was not nearly as well-liked as Gilbert. This was probably due to his tendency to call out scientists and professors as “childish”, “blind”, or “demented” and references to their scientific work as “hyfalutin theories”. Barringer was thoroughly convinced that the crater was the result of a meteorite, and tried to prove that he was in the right. He had very little success in changing the mind of the scientific community, mostly because scientists dislike being called stupid.
To prove his theory, Barringer secured the mineral rights to the crater and started a mining operation there, in hopes of digging up the iron meteorite. He dug mine shafts for 20 years, spending his own fortune and anybody else’s fortune he could get his hands on, and never did find the meteorite (which had likely vaporized on impact).
Eventually, Barringer was proven right. Scientists were able to prove that the crater had been caused by a meteorite. But this happened only after Barringer had spent everything he owned and his very life trying to prove his theory. He had a heart attack and died, likely due to the stress of going broke and constantly arguing that he was right, and everyone else was wrong.
Barringer was a classic know-it-all. He believed that he was right and everyone else was wrong—and by golly, it was true. He had been right. The rest of the world was wrong. But it did him absolutely no good, except for acknowledgement in history books after he was dead.
The lesson? Life’s not fair, and be careful calling people “stupid”—even if they are.
There was one other, older, theory for how the meteor crater came into existence. Our tour guide explained how the nearby Navajo Indians believed the crater was formed.
The Anasazi are the ancient tribe that built the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde and throughout the four corners. They had a relatively advanced culture before disappearing suddenly about 800 years ago. The Navajo are not fond of the Anasazi.
“In fact,” the guide told us, “the name ‘Anasazi’ is a Navajo word meaning ‘evil ones’. It is not what you would call ‘politically correct’, which is why we are supposed to stop calling them by that name.”
“Why,” I asked, “because we are worried about offending a group of people who have been dead for hundreds of years?”
“Well, the Hopi people are descended from the Anasazi,” she replied. “The Navajo don’t really like the Hopi that much, either.”
“The Navajo say that the reason there is a crater here, and the reason the Anasazi disappeared, is because all of the Anasazi gathered together at this one spot for a meeting.”
“And they exploded.”
Well, I’m a-standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona…
– The Eagles, “Take it Easy”
I made a swing through Winslow, Arizona, and figured I should stop and take a picture of myself standing on a corner somewhere. Thought it might be cute, though the photo might require some explanation.
Turns out the idea was not nearly as original as I had thought. Winslow is a small town, and being mentioned in the second verse of an Eagles song is the biggest thing that has ever happened to the city. The town has therefore built a “Standin’ on the Corner Park” downtown, complete with a statue of a musician (one of the Eagles, I presume) standing on the corner, and a large mural that includes a painting of a girl driving a Ford pickup. Two of the other corners at the intersection are homes to tourist shops selling “souviners” and souvenirs, as a speaker somewhere pipes Eagles tunes into the street.
I stood on the corner and waited for “a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford” to drive by. It didn’t happen. Winslow doesn’t have much traffic, period. I did see one flatbed Ford; in fact, it was parked right there at Standin’ in the Corner Park. Instead of a girl, the pickup was carrying a large—like, 7-foot-tall large—bulldog. It wasn’t even a girl bulldog. I checked.
I tried to utilize my Southwestern contacts again to find a place to stay in Phoenix. One married person I contacted, Laura, said that she could not let me stay on their couch that night, but that she would email all her “very cute ex-bookgirl girlfriends” to find me a place.
Oh. Well, I really hadn’t intended it as a dating service.
The “very cute ex-bookgirl” who let me stay in a spare bedroom was Moira, a transplant from the upper Midwest. Business school people always tout the importance of “networking”, sort of a six-degrees-of-separation concept whereby I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy. Here is my personal experience of how networking works:
During college in Oklahoma, I am “recruited” to work with Southwestern by a girl named Amanda.
A Southwestern alumnus sets up a website where other Southwestern alumni can get in touch with each other.
I utilize that website to contact someone I don’t know in Phoenix about a place to stay the night.
That person contacts her Southwestern friends, and one of them kindly agrees to let me stay at her place.
We talk about our bookfield days, and Moira says that she knows Amanda. In fact, they worked on the same team during Moira’s first summer with Southwestern.
So, by meeting someone 7 years ago in Oklahoma, I was able to find and contact someone I had never met, who in turn contacted someone from Minnesota I had also never met, who let me stay at her place in Phoenix and who just so happened to be an old friend of the original person from 7 years ago.
It’s a small world, after all.