Thursday, 8 September 2011

The Wild West

New Mexico and Arizona feel in many ways like America’s backyard. The backyard of an eccentric amateur scientist whose half cooked experiments lie scattered around in the false hope of one day finishing them. The endless voids that make up most of this area are perfect for cordoning off and creating proving grounds for weapons testing or building giant interstellar radio-telescope facilities. Nestling between all of this is the greatest collection of natural phenomena that I can think of; we see just a snapshot of a constantly evolving landscape blistered and cut up by the processes of nature.

We spent the first night in Las Cruces, which, despite being New Mexico’s second City, was more just a collection of strip malls with fast food drive-thrus and Motels. Next-door is the White Sands Missile Range, which sits between two mountain spans and takes up a large central portion of New Mexico. As well as being the location of the first nuclear explosion, it also contains the White Sands National Monument, a small desert area of pure white sand dunes, set off by the deep blue skies.

We made a detour east so we could check out some of the oil fields near the town of Artesia. More impressive from Google Earth than from the ground, the autonomous oil pumpjacks majestically rock back and forth, gradually bringing oil to the surface whilst gas flares ignite and extinguish in the distant background. Driving through darkness further north and past the town of Roswell we came to the city of Albuquerque where we stayed for one night before we set off west again the next day.

Out in a large plateau in central western New Mexico sits the Very Large Array; a series of giant radio telescope dishes that crawl across the landscape and photograph distant celestial formations. When we visited the dishes had been deployed across a 9km stretch and so the impressive scale of the facility was somewhat diminished as they merged into the horizon. However, it was still fascinating that these structures can rip out ancient strands of radio waves from the ether and construct them into images of the universe.

We drove across the Apache Mountain range at sunset, not daring to take the dirt path up to the ghost town of Mogollon, and down toward the next stop, the incredible Pima Air & Space Museum over in Tucson, Arizona. An enormous collection of aircraft of all varieties is laid out from the SR 71 Blackbird to the Super Guppy. But if that isn’t enough, across the road is AMARG or as it’s more commonly known, the Boneyard. Billions of dollars worth of out of date military aircraft sit across thousands of acres of desert, held on to for safe keeping as a hoarder may keep newspapers that he knows he’ll never read. The highlight of the Boneyard is the 300 B-52s currently being broken up and cannibalised for parts to maintain those still in commission. The AMARG is a testament to the USA’s pioneering aviation legacy and serves as a relic to the excessive arms race fuelled by the Cold War.

Along the freeway sits Phoenix, the 6th largest city in the states, which spills out in every direction until it hits the mountains that surround it. The temperature hit a balmy 112 whilst we were there, enough to burn a hole in my iPod screen as it sat in the car. With little time to spend here, I spent most of it finding a Canon 70-200mm f4.0 USM Non-IS L Lens in preparation for the unique collection of natural wonders that sat to the north of us. As we drove up through Arizona the terrain quickly changed from a cactus strewn desert into canyons of fiery red rock. The old highway 89 winds up through the valleys, passing the ghost town of Jerome and up into the town of Sedona, a tourist resort city nestling in sunburnt red mesas. Further up the road is Grasshopper point, a freezing cold swimming hole that sits just near the Slide Rock state park.

Bypassing Flagstaff, the road led us to Meteor Crater, the site of a giant impact event that has been the source of much of our understanding about the collisions between planets and meteors. However, the extortionate entry price, lack lustre museum and lack of access to the actual crater somewhat detracted from the experience. Further north, we crossed the giant mesas of the Hopi reservation up into the Navajo Nation near Four Corners and over into Utah.

The entire Colorado plateau has been worn down by the gradual trickling of water and the effects of weathering until the landscape is strewn with unique formations of rock, sand and water. The sun picks out every hue in the dirt; blood reds, crimsons, deep oranges and scarlet; we’re basically on Mars. There is Ship Rock, a giant towering structure surrounded by nothing but plains. Valley of the Gods, a basin with a dirt loop you can drive around, allows you to become completely surrounded by giant cliffs and sit in an undulating surface of mesas and canyons.

Scenic Route 163 winds its way south before straightening out and off into the distance, beyond that stand the towering buttes of Monument valley. The image of the giant stacks of rock that shoot up from the desert floor is perhaps the most iconic of the Western American landscape. It’s strange to think that for millions of years this city of stone towers was just another part of the world’s surface, it’s exceptional nature ignored until the Native Americans first discovered it and settled here. Heading west once more there was just enough time to catch the sunset at a place called the Grand Canyon; it defines the act of being left speechless. After spending the best part of the next day looking around the Grand Canyon, one of the greatest natural phenomena in the world, we eventually left for Nevada, where perhaps one of the greatest man-made phenomena sits.

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