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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. Ha! I know what it is like to tap into those beloved studies in earlier years when inspired by the beauty like that of The Valley of Fire. Long ago, in a place far, far away, I was Sociology student. Every time I happen across a new culture on my travels as magnificent as your Valley of Fire, I am taken right back to those hallowed halls of learning where I only dreamed of meeting such wonderful people.

    Mother nature is my favorite artist and she has created something truly magnificent here at the Valley of Fire. Your images showcasing that beauty and words promising a musky scent are beckoning me to visit here.

    • Your sociology background explains so much about how you see the world as you sail from community to community. For a long time I wondered if I’d wasted my education since I never professionally practiced geology outside of school, but I’ve come to appreciate the insight it gives me in my travels. And, I completely agree with you…nature is so very inspiring to me in every way!

  2. I smiled when I read your first line. 🙂 As a Physics major, I wondered how could anyone like Geology (or biology). More recently, after visiting some stunning locations around the world, I’ve been wondering why didn’t I take Geology as a minor. I’ve clearly missed out on a lot. 😦 Your visuals are haunting and your words mirror the complex beauty of these locations. Thank you for taking me along and peppering your post with technical jargon. I enjoyed it!

    • 😁 Since physics is one of the building blocks of geology, you’re only a hop, skip, and jump away from mastering the study of rocks. Happy to hear you enjoyed the jargon despite your previous dislike of geology (and biology). 🙃 Cheers to our previous lives as science students!

  3. It looks other worldly. Isn’t it nice that you can truly appreciate what you are seeing compared to the untrained eye of most of us.

  4. Mesmerizing! It’s fascinating to know how things looked before we destroyed the natural beauty of Mother Earth. I would love to roam the sedimentary rock with bare feet…even the air looks pristine.

    • Ah, your suggestion of feeling that textured rock under bare feet would be lovely. I think about how little time I spend compared to our ancestors really touching dirt and stone and sand and water.

  5. How stunning! I can only imagine how such vast and ancient landscape puts a lot of things in perspective, the least of which is the impermanence of we mere mortals. As always, thought inspiring and beautiful.

  6. I frequently read your posts and think that if our circumstances were different, we would be wonderful friends.

    When I was a child I used to find geology interesting and considered it as a vocation. Although I’m not a geologist, I found this post fascinating and shared it with my colleagues who are. They loved your imagery and use of words and laughed because they too frequently point to rocks proclaiming what they are and their origins.

    Keep up the amazing work. 🌷

    • Your support and encouragement mean so much to me. 🙏 Thank you for sharing this with your geologist friends. It’s been heart-warming to discover fellow rock-lovers among my readers. 😊 I’m so thankful that the digital world has allowed us to find one another. Despite circumstance, it’s been pure pleasure getting to know you as a kindred spirit! ❤️

  7. These images are so awe-inspiring and timeless. Along with your soothing and contemplative musings, they really put a spin on time, as we know it. I guess we, humans, are nothing but mere, wandering grains of sand in the grand scheme of things.

    • “humans are…wandering grains of sand…” Yes! I love how you phrase that! Places like this remind that everything, not only our species, is fleeting. Even the planet many eras ago wasn’t the way it is today. Thanks so much for your lovely comment!

  8. Your photos are wonderful! I am totally in awe and yet enchanted by your photos.
    They tell their own story of the grandeur of this planet and how it constantly evolves.
    We humans are quite small compared but I guess so is each particle of those enormous mountains.
    Your article gives us so much understanding of how these golden rocks were formed.
    Thank you.


  9. Your geology knowledge, philosophical approach and beautiful words and photos paint an intoxicating image of the Valley of Fire. This place reminds me a bit of Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona. Put it on your list; it’s amazing.

    • Thanks for the recommendation. Just finished reading it. Incredible story and I hugely enjoyed the various details described of a paleontological dig, never having been in one. Also, wanted to let you know that I really like your “The Tower for Women with Frail Bones,” (black and white version).

      • Bespoke—
        So glad you read. Stumbled upon myself by accident, kind of the way those geologists must stumble on a find. Though keen trained eye great part of it I’m sure, and a long list of failures keeping your hopes in check.
        Thanks for liking the drawing of The Tower. Accompanies an essay I have written called OLD WOMEN, still unpublished; drawing waits to be published with it in a journal of some type whenever it is published. If it ever is I’ll try to remember and let you know.

          • Hi Bespoke Traveler.
            My essay “Old Women” now published in a journal called Muse/A Journal, out of Atlanta; but drawing could not be published with, as their artist for that issue provided them with wonderful photographs which included herself in each and artpiece-masks. One of these photos worked well with my essay…and others worked well with poetry and stories…

          • Beautiful. Thank you for letting me know. So many poetic lines, but I was especially caught by this one: “Envy, she knows, might have been the beginning of the weakening of her bones;”

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