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Keeping Time in Valley of Fire

Valley-Fire-sandstone-BTLong, long ago in a time far, far away, I used to be a geology student. I learned about the tectonic forces of our planet, of the way its seething inner core spewed out unguent minerals, of the possibilities inherent in ongoing cycles of erosion and deposition. I practiced identifying crystal structures and the atomic composition of polymerized silicates. While outdoors I would annoy friends and family by shouting, “igneous dike!” “graphite schist!” or “look at that exposed cross-bedding beauty!”

Valley-fire-color-BTAt Valley of Fire I return to those half-forgotten lessons. They don’t seem as distant when I gaze upon the one-hundred-fifty million year old solidified sand dunes undulating through the basin. These are no mere rocks to be glumly passed by while hunting for richer treasures. They have come alive, laying out past aeons for me to read. This is where an inland sea once transformed into a sandy desert before petrifying into multi-colored rock. Foundations shifted, became exposed by plate movement. Now they undergo abrasion. 

Valley-Fire-view-BTHere are the stratifications evident from centuries of weathering. Here are overturned cretaceous layers indicating the leading edge of a thrust sheet. Further along my hike are faults composed of deformation bands and sheared joints. I perceive time wrinkled in the processes — epochs squished into stratum the width of a quarter, the entire era of dinosaurs a comma in the swirl of lithological storytelling. I feel my life span slipping away, dissolving into the gradations of petrography. Instead of sensing that a handful of seconds had occurred between the counting of hours, I see centuries float by in the blink of an eye.  

Valley-Fire-petro-BTHuman history is evident at Valley of Fire too: in the Ancestral Pueblo petroglyphs, the remnants of film sets, the scrawled declaration that “Bob Was Here.” Our species is intent upon leaving a trace…somehow…anyhow. We can’t bear the thought of vanishing into the future, or a cosmos unaware of our presence, or a timeline in which we never mattered. What ‘progress’? We’re eternally in a whirlwind to be remembered…somehow…anyhow…repeatedly searching to connect, to be relevant…now and ad infinitum.

Valley-of-Fire-BT-SceneThis apparently ageless terrain is clever at hiding its metamorphoses. But, if I listen carefully, the earth’s skeleton tells me tales of our mutual inexorable looped journey. In the shimmering heat a vision appears: the rippling hills and valleys quiver at the edge of fluidity, recalling the primordial sea from which they were born while pronouncing a destiny in which they’ll return to their aquatic past. Time halts and flashes forward in sweeping luminescent waves. Amidst shifting light the variegated topography croons of time that was, of time that is, of time yet to come. 

Valley-Fire-history-BTThose long ago geology lessons echo against the fiery bedrock, reminding me of movement on a different scale to mine — of changes imperceptible yet vast. I step out of time’s bonds to gain a foothold upon the immense formation of experience.


While Valley of Fire is a feast for the eyes, it can also be an olfactory adventure. One of the oldest plants on our planet, creosote bushes carpet the desert during springtime, giving off a musky scent after rainfall. When visiting, please remember that off-trail travel causes damage to the ecosystem.

What’s the most surprising aspect of a desert environment to you? Let me know in the comments below. Also if you’ve visited any petroglyph sites I’d love to find out what the experience was like for you.

120 replies »

  1. Beautifully written article and breathtaking photos of the desert landscape. I especially liked how you described the fluidity of the shimmering heat, which recalls the sea water. It moves and slightly vibrates and also creates visual illusions.

    • Yes, those illusions peculiar to shimmering heat in the desert landscape fascinates me! Thank you so very much for letting me know about something which specifically spoke to you in this post.

  2. Aha! You having been a geology student explains some of your interest, wisdom, and focus on certain subjects on the blog. Yet, you have a way with words as well. An interesting combination! 🙂

    Valley of Fire looks like another fascinating jewel of Mother Nature. What stood out most to me in the desert last winter was how green it was! And now, the wildflowers have been pretty in certain areas of Arizona. As we traveled further north, it was chilly again, with snow remnants and no flowers.

    Petroglyphs National Park in Albuquerque is a biggie to find many petroglyphs. It’s actually where we are driving to at this very moment. But for a house sit bordering the park, not to visit again. We recently visited a grotto near Sedona, at the Palatki ruins, where three or four different Pueblo generations left different kinds of petroglyphs and pictographs. It was fascinating!

    • Haha, hard to keep my love of rocks a secret. 🤓 Many thanks for the petroglyph recommendations! Excitedly looking into both these sites for future visits. I find the southwestern U.S. to be almost too filled with geologic wonders. It’s overwhelming for me. 🙈

  3. I’d love to know more about geology and envy your ability to read rocks. I agree that they give us a real sense of how vast time is and how small we are, despite our efforts to be remembered; you’ve captured that sense of history and wanting beautifully.

    • Thank you for your encouragement! Understanding a bit of geology does give me a different perspective on landscapes, though I’m often wishing I knew more about botany on my walks!

  4. I love Valley of Fire Park and you have done it justice in words and pictures! Plus, your geology knowledge is impressive. Was this a recent trip? Are you still in the Las Vegas area? I live here.

  5. I kind of smile, I do not use my Geology knowledge from my long ago college studies, but when I get together with old classmates and we journey, there’s always one, or two, that will go like:

    ¨Look at that strata of sedimentary rock!¨


    ¨Can you see the line of the fault how it runs across the hill?¨


    ¨Look at that huge Batholith!¨

    Well, you know how it goes. 🙂

  6. Bonjour Bespoke Traveler, ton billet est magnifique, c’est de toute beauté et magique. Ce lieu de terre ocre est splendide et que de beaux souvenirs pour toi. La nature nous offre tant de merveilles. Un grand merci pour ces très belles photos et j’ai beaucoup apprécié ton texte absolument intéressant 🙂 Superbe partage.
    Belle journée avec mes amitiés.

    • Bonjour et merci d’être passé! 🤗 Je suis tellement contente que tu aies aimé mon récit. La nature est en effet pleine d’émerveillement pour moi. Je te souhaite un bon repos de la semaine.

  7. That’s so awesome that you were a geology student. I’d love to hear your observations while wandering in these otherworldly landscapes. It’s natural to want to leave evidence of our time on this Earth, Something that shows it was all for a reason. Personally, I’m looking forward to vanishing without a trace.

  8. It’s such a pleasure to read this post. Well-written and wonderful photos. Feels like I’ve witnessed all the journey from the beginning.

  9. Wow, wow, wow! This landscape makes the solidified sand dunes near Abu Dhabi pale in comparison. Walking through this otherworldly landscape, especially in spring, must be such a fantastic experience. The way the senses combine to solidify experiences in our memories are really wonderful.

    • This landscape is certainly more vibrant than the Abu Dhabi sand dunes, but I found your photos of those to be incredibly soul-stirring in their monotones. For maximum color impact, sunset is a fantastic time to visit Valley of Fire as the light really sets the rocks aflame.

  10. Wonderfully written and beautifully photographed. You have a gift for both Atreyee. “Bob was here”…. sigh….#leavenotrace. I witnessed such disrespectful behavior at Carrizo this week.
    I love your reverence and storytelling of the natural world.

  11. Some landscapes speak paragraphs. Others, like your opening shot, epic volumes. All the better when you can read the language they’re written in. Alas, for me it’s only slightly more decipherable than kanji script.

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