Basin and Range, Great Waves of Stone

HIMG_20170604_212625ere’s how we tell our story: 6000 years ago God created Adam and Eve and the garden and the animals and plants and sky and ground and sun and moon and stars. This was the creation of the entire cosmos–everything. (The word “universe” had not yet been invented.) Adam and Eve messed up. Life became hard. But God promised to birth another Adam who would fix our world and inaugurate a Messianic age when everything will be lovely. This is how our story has been told for 2,000 years. If you had asked Jesus whether Genesis One referred to the creation on Earth or the solar system or the Milky Way Galaxy he would have stared at you blankly. If you had asked Paul if the deadly effect of Adam’s sin applied to planets circling other sun’s in other galaxies, he would not have been able to understand the question.I He knew nothing about solar system or galaxies or black holes. But we do. So we have edited our story. Now or story behind billions of years ago with the creation of galaxies and suns and our very own solar system. Our cosmos is larger than Earth and sun and Moon. In our universe, an entire galaxy can slide into a black hole and we remain untouched unchanged, not helped, not affected. We are aware it happened. Still, the obliteration of an entire galaxy does not merit a single sentence in our religious story. The death of a galaxy is irrelevant to our religion.
The grand and awful reality of a galactic death does not diminish our story. The billions of years hiding in the night sky does not diminish the art and drama and pathos of our births and romance and wat and making and creating and living and dying. Human reality and Christian reality is not made trivial by the facts of astronomy. But then neither does the intense drama and pathos of our story efface the reality of extra-galactic happenings or the reality of the geologic processes that built the ground under our feet.
A few days ago I went running in the hills east of Salt Lake City. From a splendid overlook, my eyes ran West toward the setting sun, sweeping across the 20 mile valley occupied by the city to the mountains to the west and then to the Northwest, where my eyes could run west across the water of the Great Salt Lake all the way to where the sky came down to earth. The mountain I stood on and the mountain I saw rising out of the flatland across the valley were both flat lands eons ago. This entire neighborhood–hundreds of thousands of square miles–was flat as a pancake back then, by turns it was soft oozy mud or wind-blown sand. In that world there were no humans, no dogs and cats, no bears or camels, no roses or strawberries, no dolphins or trout. All this sediment turned to rock. Mysterious forces beneath the pancake layers of mud and sand turned into brittle rock–shale, limestone, and sandstone–fractured the pancake into pieces like massive ice flows, icebergs of rock on a magma sea. The bergs tilted, dropping one edge, raising the other. The raised edges became the mountains in this neighborhood. The trailing dripping edges were buried under thousands tens of thousands of feet of former mountain sluiced off the rising edges as they rose. These heaving mountains–and they are still moving–are the stage on which our story is played. The immense valleys in this neighborhood were constructed over years beyond comprehension. These valleys are not part of our story–no more than a stage is part of the plot of a play. These mountains and valleys are no less real than the stage for a great production. But their creation is not part of our religious story. We can easily ignore the stage while attending to the story being performed. In fact, that’s intended. The director does not want you to think about the floor and backdrop and chandeliers and carpet. It is the story on stage that is supposed to engage us. The story of the building of the theater and the story on stage are different stories all together. Both worth telling, but not to be confused.

Large Space, Long Time

IMG_20180411_191013.jpgThe view west across Salt Lake City pulls my mind outward across both space and time. The sweeping miles of space are immediately obvious. This place is not called “viewpoint” for no reason. The eons of time are only slightly less obvious for a student of the rocks. The mountains here (in the region called the basin and range) are the upper edges of chunks of Earth’s crust that have tilted, raising one edge, dropping the other. The valleys are thousands–sometimes tens of thousands–of feet of sediment sluiced of the mountains as they rose. 20,000 years ago this place was so wet the entire flat land visible in the photo was under water–Lake Bonneville. That much rain ate at the mountains, biting their tops off as they rose. I see this same mountain-eating process in the wet mountains east of my house near Mt. Rainier. But even deluges take some time to eat mountains. Chewing 10K or 20K feet off a rising mountain takes some time. And lifting the edge of a piece of Earth’s crust 30K feet also takes some time. So, looking across the Salt Lake valley is looking across the time it took to lift the rocks in these mountains from their original flat to their present verticality. And there is more. The mountain Gus is standing on is made of limestone (at least the part right under his feet.) That limestone was created by accumulating lime sediment in a sea that used to exist here. After it accumulated, it needed time to turn to stone. And this accumulation and lithification had to happen before the crust on this region could be broken into pieces and tipped to form mountains that could be eroded to fill the valley before becoming a lake before drying out and turning the top of the valley into salt flats.

All this is on display from the Pipeline Trail Viewpoint above Mill Creek Canyon.

Other Geology

Amargosa Mtn

In southern Utah sedimentary rocks are the stars of the geology show–sandstone, especially, and conglomerate and carbonates. Volcanics make some dramatic guest appearances–cinder cones and lava flows. Most of this geology is fairly orderly, horizontal layers of sedimentary rock, canyons carved by water, lava draped over the landscape in a way that makes sense. But not too far away to the west, the geology goes crazy. Great chunks of earth (mountains) are tilted this way and that at thirty and forty degrees. These mountains stand in 20,000 feet of gravel eroded off the mountains as they tipped and raised their edges to the sky. This is the geology of the Basin and Range geologic province. It is the geology of Death Valley and nearly all of Nevada.

Maybe next year, we can explore some of that.

 

Dinosaur Tracks

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(Dinosaur tracks in Navajo Sandstone, Moccasin Mountain Dinosaur Track Site near Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park)

On Talking Rocks Tours, we spend our days engaged with actual rocks, raw data. In the evenings around the campfire, we spin our theories, ask our questions, ponder the Great Questions. In the day time, on the outcrop, the Bible offers no helpful insights. At night, the rocks are incapable of answering questions of meaning and purpose. They do not explain our wonder and awe. We live in both worlds, together.

Rocks Asking Stories

I wanted to write, “Rocks Telling Stories.” But these rocks ask more than they tell.

The above two pictures belong together, but they were not found together. The photo on the right is a boulder I found in a landslide or gravity slide along Kolob Canyon Road. The boulder is comprised of Shinarump–a conglomerate that is spread butter thin across thousands of square miles. It is recognized by its distinctive pebbles and prevalent petrified wood (top right of the rock I’m standing on). When I first saw this boulder in the landslide rubble, I was puzzled. The Shinarump formation occurs below the Navajo and Navajo debris comprised most of the flow. And when I looked at the canyon walls nearby, all I saw was Navajo Sandstone. So I had to be ABOVE the Shinarump. How could this boulder have landed here? I reconnoitered the area and finally found the bedrock (undisturbed or in situ) deposit pictured on the right. A close look identified petrified wood pieces in this conglomerate, confirming its Shinarump identity. This was up canyon from the slide. The strata in the entire area are dipping south, so as I went up canyon to the north I was actually going lower stratigraphically. Then I realized that the entire area for several miles had been involved in a gigantic slump or mass debris flow. The area of the slide was large enough that a boulder could have been ripped from this location and mixed with the Navajo Sandstone and left where I found it. A tiny mystery solved.

These two pictures are from Kolob Terrace. I was startled to see all these chert pebbles on top of the sandstone that comprises most of Zion Park’s cliffs. Then I was even more startled to see an arrowhead among the pebbles. Note the difference between the weathered surface of the pebble and the freshly-fractured surface of the arrowhead. (Fresh, as in hundreds of years old, maybe thousands. I once found a spear point on a mountain in southern California that was many hundreds of years, if not thousands, old. It looked like it had been chipped out yesterday.) The arrowhead and pebbles raise questions.

Who made the arrowhead? When? Out of what? Did the Indians use a chert pebble?

Then there’s the question: where did the pebbles come from? They form a carpet in some areas on top the Navajo Sandstone. How was the original chert formed? How was that chert eroded or weathered into chunks which could then be transported and rounded. And how did these pebbles end up strewn across hundreds of thousands of square miles?

The next two photos feature my favorite Colorado Plateau mystery.

The photo on the left was taken in the Paria river a short distance above its confluence with Buckskin Gulch. Coming down Buckskin from Wire Grass Flat trailhead, the rock in Buckskin Canyon is one hundred percent sandstone or carbonate or mud. When you reach the junction with the Paria and head upstream, almost immediately, you notice a change in the rock in the riverbed. That is not surprising, the respective streams drain different territory. But what was surprising were the cobbles of banded quartzite. I knew of no source in the area for these rocks. Everything I knew about was either sedimentary–sandstone, shale, conglomerate, limestone–or volcanic. But the quartzite is metamorphic rock. As if finding these rocks in the Paria streambed wasn’t mystery enough, I found a single fragment of the same kind of rock at the top of Hog Canyon Butte north of Kanab. I have found a large pavement of this kind of rock on a prominence out toward Toroweap in Grand Canyon National Park. But there is no known provenance for these rocks. Quartzite (a metamorphic rock) is formed when sand/sandstone is buried kilometers underground (where there is sufficient heat and pressure). If it is going to be eroded, the formation must subsequently be lifted by tectonic activity and raised above sea level so water and gravity can do their work. Where was the original sand before it became stone? How was the original sand buried deep enough to transform into quartzite? If it was lifted, shouldn’t there be some piece of that uplift still standing somewhere? Why is all that is left of this massive activity, just these distinctive cobbles and pebbles?

We’ll ask that question on Talking Rocks 2018. Unless there has been some major scientific breakthrough, we won’t get a decent the answer.

Buckskin Gulch

Some pictures from Buckskin Gulch 2017.

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The water was cold. The muck sometimes wanted to keep our shoes. It reached our shorts but not all the way up to our butts.

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A curious little sedimentary study: Walls are Navajo Sandstone which have been incised by the intermittent creek/river. In the bottom of the canyon is evidence of continued cutting along with examples of more recent deposition and even more recent cutting. The light colored layers are slack water deposits, placed and cut away in turn. The reddish “powder” is Navajo Sandstone which was eroded back into sand grains up on the high ground outside this canyon. This sand was then rolled, skipped, and lifted by wind and dropped into the canyon when the leap across the top was too far. It filtered down the hundred fifty feet and landed on the “windward” side of the canyon.

What to Bring

Several people have asked me what to bring on the Talking Rocks Tour. I’ll give a list below, but consider it tentative and provisional. These are camping trips. I presume those who come on our tours have some prior experience camping. If you do not, please call me. I want to make sure your first camping experience is pleasant as well as inspirational and informative.

Talking Rocks Camping List

Sleeping bag and pad.

Tent. Some of us sleep under the stars–no tent. If you are not bringing a tent, I need to know so I can have a spare in case of rain.

Food: It is all provided. The menus will be be lacto-ovo vegetarian. Let me know of any special dietary needs.

Dinner ware: provided. However, if you would like to bring your own personal cup and fork and spoon, you can help reduce the waste of disposables.

Coffee and tea: provided.

Lunches and snacks: provided.

Alcohol: none provided.

Water bottles: First one provided. You will need to carry a liter for ordinary hikes.

Sun protection: Bring it. Use it. Hat, long sleeves, long pants, sun screen. If you are inexperienced in desert sun, go overboard with protection. It is easy to uncover. It is hard to reverse sunburn.

Day pack. In addition to a jacket/shell/outer layer, it would be good to include a couple of band-aids, tissue, lip balm,

Hiking footwear: Some wear boots. I wear running shoes. We often hike in sandy washes. Sand is a bigger challenge than angular rocks. You might even want gaiters.

Warm jacket, knit hat, gloves. Nights can be cool. I even take overpants, just to be extra sure.

Trekking poles. Might be useful.

Shorts/swim suit: If we find water, we’ll get into it.

Toiletries/Towel: There will be opportunities to shower every day.

Flipflops or camp shoes.

Headlamp and batteries. Hopefully, this will only be needed in the evening in camp. However, it is required on long hikes, just in case.

 

If you are driving:

Camp chair. A really valuable item. The tour will provide as many as we can.

A cot. Especially if you enjoy sleeping under the stars.