Long, 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!”
At 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.
Here 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.
Human 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.
This 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.
Those 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.