Ephemerality in the Desert

A little while back, I drove east from Flagstaff to explore the town of Winslow, AZ. I made a stop along the way that forced me to contemplate the big picture – the really big picture, that is.

Interstate 40 traverses a long stretch of piñon-juniper forest and an equally long stretch of barren desert. Just about the time when you’re getting a bit tired of the sameness, a sign materializes to let you know that you’re approaching Meteor Crater National Landmark.

I didn’t know what a “National Landmark” was (although I correctly guessed that it was a private company’s attempt to make themselves look like a government-funded attraction), but it sounded like something I should check out. So, I left the highway at exit 233 and traveled six miles down a straight dirt road to the crater site.

Immediately after exiting the highway, I had to pull over for what may be one of the best signs ever. It appears like an informational lollipop in the otherwise empty desert hardpack, announcing: Speed Limit Vehicles: 50 mph; Speed Limit Meteors: 26,000 mph.

Meteor Crater is exactly what it sounds like – an enormous hole caused by the collision of an iron-nickel mass with the Earth’s surface over 50,000 years ago. The force of that collision – equivalent to twenty million tons of TNT – created shock waves that decimated every living creature that called the area home.

It also left behind a 700-foot deep and 4000-foot wide crater as evidence of its visit. For eighteen dollars, you can peer into this pit.

I paid my money and received an informational pamphlet and a coupon for a free cookie (with the purchase of a sandwich) at the Subway by the exit ramp. I can’t say that my look into the giant hole was worth eighteen bucks, but the existential “aha-moment” I experienced there may have been.

The woolly mammoths and ground sloths that were vaporized by the meteor weren’t warned about their imminent demise. If they had looked up four seconds before their deaths, they might have seen a brilliant flash of light moving across the sky. Four seconds is how long scientists believe it took for the meteor to travel from the outer reaches of our atmosphere to this spot eighteen miles west of Winslow. It showed up announced and wreaked havoc on the northern Arizona plain.

Meteor Crater is not the collision site on the planet, as most people know. There have been enough impacts that Wikipedia ranks them by size, age, and continent.

Meteor Crater does not even make the top forty list for size. It is number ten on the list of the youngest impact zones on the planet, however. Number one hit ground in 1800 (yes, that’s CE), in Saudi Arabia.

Meteors have hit Earth before – which means they will do so again. To me, that is a wildly mind-expanding thought. We could actually be obliterated by a flying piece of space debris at any moment. Damn.

Of course, scientists claim that we’re not scheduled to receive another meteor visit for at least thirteen thousand years. I’m a bit skeptical of their certainty, however – mostly because, according to one of the displays at the site, they’re also investing significant effort into the development of interference technologies that would enable us to destroy incoming projectiles before they hit our atmosphere – just in case.

 

I suppose the prospect of dematerialization by nickle-iron mass – or, more likely, by the reverberating shock waves created by its contact with the Earth – should scare me, but it doesn’t. It actually makes me feel more awake and more alive. It gives me perspective on what I really am in the context of our gigantic universe – an infinitesimally tiny speck. If I ever questioned whether there were forces bigger than humanity out there, the visible remnant of our planet’s encounter with a fifty-meter wide extraterrestrial mass is capable of answering me quite definitively.

On the drive home, I passed an abandoned gas station. Judging by its location, it was once the only stopping place for miles around. It must have been somewhat elaborate in its day, with its huge sun shade and spacious shop area. Now, it is a shell of what it once was – graffiti covers its walls, and plants are poking up through the asphalt. It wasn’t hit by a meteor, however; it was just hit by the passing of time.

 

Either way, there are some big forces at work out there. It’s good to remember that when you’re flying down the highway in a wheeled metal box.

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