Flagstaff isn’t known as red rock country. But there’s one place, just a bit to the north, where the world changes in an instant. Drive past Sunset Crater, and you’ll suddenly leave the black basalts and the towering ponderosa pines; the volcanics abruptly change to sediments, the Painted Desert appears on the horizon, and low, rolling hills broken by bones of rock appear. At first, everything appears to be a subtle shade of rusty tan, nearly hidden beneath tawny bunch grasses and sage and occasional pinons and junipers. But you reach Wupatki, and sudden, vivid red-orange rocks leap from the land.
The low ridges and hills crumble in slabs, broken along bedding planes. It’s a completely different world from the ones you just left. In parts of Flagstaff, the Kaibab speaks of shallow tropical seas. Young volcanics, looking as if they erupted only recently (and, geologically, it happened just a moment ago), speak of fire. But here, in this place, you’re on a tidal flat. Rivers ran a lazy course to the western sea; worms burrowed in the mud. This is the Moenkopi Formation, an expanse of sandstones and shales that remind you that this place, once, was on the edge of the sea. You’re on a coastal plain in the high desert. It feels like a different time and place; you can’t believe you drove for only twenty minutes, that the volcano you just left is only a few miles away. But:
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There it is.
The Sinagua found the Moenkopi a very friendly formation indeed. It splits off in flat bits absolutely perfect for building a stone mansion. Enormous blocks of it that hadn’t weathered so conveniently merely got incorporated into the design, forming solid and rather artistic walls:
|Building Before Bulldozers|
I wonder if any of those ancient pueblo peoples wondered. They could see cross-bedding, where the tides stirred the sediments. They could see ripple marks and mud cracks. They probably found fossils when they split larger slabs into smaller. Did any of them pause and ponder? I’m certain they admired. The way they incorporated the monoliths into their walls doesn’t seem merely a matter of necessity, but one of aesthetics. There are places where they seem proud to show off the attributes of the stone they used to build their big house.
The sedimentary rocks here look out on the upstart young cinder cones with some indulgence.
|Wild weathering and young volcanics|
It’s almost as if the Moenkopi knows it will be there long after the cinders have eroded away. Yes, wind and water wear down those ancient tidal flats and coastal plains, but it started its life as mud and sand. What does it matter to the Moenkopi that it will become mud and sand again? Someday, conditions will change, and loose sediments will be compacted into firm stone once again. Millions of years from now, new pairs of hands may choose out pieces to put into a wall. It might be darker then, having incorporated basaltic sands. It might be formed from eolian dunes rather than fluvial processes. But it will always have the echoes of the coast in it.
This is one of the finest places in the world to just sit. Look at the ancient coastal plain lapping up against the baby volcanics. Sit here where the desert and pine country weave together. Listen to the wind blow over fantastically eroded rocks. Absorb the colors: the red and the black and the brave traces of green. Remember the people who built their stone houses here.
It’s a fine place to be.