I woke up this morning to find that snowfall that had been predicted overnight in Flagstaff had occurred. It wasn’t much by American standards (around six inches) but was much worse on the road up the the Grand Canyon, to such an extent that the road had been closed for the morning until it could be cleared. This scupper end my plans to head up there in time for sunrise and meant I had to carry out a hasty re-planning exercise over breakfast. I decided that I’d head straight to Albuquerque and spend the afternoon looking round the city. Apart from the obvious Breaking Bad links, I wasn’t that familiar with the city but was sure there’d be enough to keep me occupied. I would return to the Grand Canyon later in the week, on the way back round the loop.
I headed outside. It was still snowing and I was greeted with this:
There were a good few inches of semi-frozen snow all over the car and I had nothing in the way of ice scrapers, brushes or the usual winter paraphernalia (this snow was not forecast a few days ago). Struggling for inspiration I had to resort to the tried and tested emergency de-icing method that we’ve all put into practice at some point in our lives. On this occasion, the sacrificial credit card was an expired Costco one:
Twenty minutes later, and with hands frozen solid (no gloves either) I was quite pleased with the results:
I headed out onto the interstate in the direction of Albuquerque. The sat-nav spat out its best direction of the week so far: “Continue on I-40 East for three-hundred and eighteen miles”. The interstate was quite empty (it was just after 7am) so I settled into the usual routine (straight, straight, straight, truck, straight, straight, straight, truck, straight, straight, straight, slight curve, straight, truck, straight etc) and sought out ‘targets of opportunity’.
Targets of opportunity are attractions or monuments / museums that are advertised from the interstate and can be worth a ten or twenty mile divert to visit. You do have to roll the dice with them a bit though as sometimes you can drive down a dirt road for thirty miles and end up at something that does not in any sense of the word live up to how it was advertised on the interstate. Worst-case scenario is that the particular attraction you’re visiting actually went out of business in 1997 and it’s just that nobody’s got round to taking down the sign on the interstate yet. That said, you can find some absolute gems. In the past I’ve been to some really fascinating national monuments, museums and ‘scenic views’ courtesy of heading down a byway from the interstate under the direction of a brown or blue sign. (Brown signs are like the UK brown signs – something of cultural importance – whereas blue signs are jugs ‘stuff at the junction’ signs).
As a general bit of guidance, if something has ‘national’ in front of it it’s definitely worth a look (National Monument, National Park, National Historic Site). As examples: Devils Tower in Wyoming (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) is a National Monument and Yellowstone is a National Park. If an attraction has ‘state’ in front of it then again, it’s probably worth a look, but this depend on what state you’re in (for example the ‘state botanic gardens’ are probably better in New Hampshire than they are in New Mexico). If an attraction only has ‘county’ or ‘district’ in front of it then it’s probably not worth the effort. Counties in the US can be vast in geographic size but relatively small in population. Chances are if you visit a ‘County Museum’ you’re going to end up in someone’s living room for a few hours looking at civil war artefacts.
I’d been travelling for a reasonable amount of time on the interstate this morning when I saw a blue sign proclaiming ‘Rest Area: 42 Miles’. This was notable as, so far on this journey, I had not seen any rest areas. They are usually situated along the interstates at relatively regular intervals and consist of toilets and vending machines surrounded by a small, locally themed, park. They are often maintained/sponsored by an appropriate local voluntary group and, if they’re the first one after you enter a state, they’ll often have a manned tourist information building too. I decided to stop at this rest area and pick up something from the vending machines. That was, until, I got two miles further down the interstate. A sign proclaimed:
“Meteor Crater Road: 38 Miles”
This caught my attention. Why was a road being advertised this far in advance? There must be something significant on it, and by its name it could be something quite interesting. I mulled over this for a number of minutes until:
“Meteor Crater: 34 Miles”
Now this was an interesting development. It sounded as if there might be an actual meteor crater to go and have a look at. By my calculations the exit for it would be about two miles before the Rest Area. I eagerly kept an eye out for any additional information. Six miles later:
“Meteor Crater – One of the Most Extraordinary Places on Earth: 28 Miles”
That was quite a big claim. Not only the best place in the county, or state, or nation but on Earth. This had to be worth a look. I started wondering about how far off the main interstate it could be. A few minutes later:
“Meteor Crater – Visitor Centre Open 8am – 5pm: 20 Miles”
Very exciting! A visitor centre! That suggested quite a big attraction and one that would be more than someone’s living room (at the very least it would be a living room and a diner).
“Meteor Crater – Discovery Centre, Museum and Gift Shop: 10 Miles”
I was sold by this point. The above sign was in its own special font and had a funky logo attached. A bell started ringing somewhere in my mind. I remembered back to a GCSE. Geography textbook where there was a full page photo of one of the biggest meteor craters on the planet. For some reason I thought I recalled that this was located in Arizona.
“Meteor Crater – Gas Station and Subway at Exit: 4 Miles”
Come on come on come on come on.
“Meteor Crater – Come and Marvel at the Power of Nature: 2 Miles”
Are we there yet?
“Meteor Crater – Next Exit”
I could hardly contain my excitement. I exited the interstate and was immediately confronted with… well nothing. Nothing except a gas station and a Subway. I sighed to myself.
A small road headed off perpendicular to the interstate and, by its entrance, there was a sign that said “Meteor Crater: 6 Miles“. All was not lost! I headed down the road, which rapidly became quite narrow, and then lacking in any kind of surface. Unperturbed I pressed on and arrived at quite large parking lot at the base of a relatively sizeable hill. Some steps lead up the hill to a smart, red brick, building – the visitor centre. I entered the centre and was greeted by an attendant to whom I paid the entrance fee (apparently there was an entrance fee. It didn’t say that on the signs).
There was a cafe, and shop and a nice museum about meteors, dinosaurs and an elderly gentlemen in Utah who innocently used a radioactive meteor fragment as a paperweight for most of his life. I clambered up some more stairs and eagerly headed out to the viewing area. I was half-expecting to see a crater a few meters across with some interpretive panels. I was wrong. Very wrong:
People say that when you first see the Grand Canyon it leaves you speechless. The above had a similar effect on me. It was vast. Mind-boggingly so! And the fact that I was not expecting anything on this scale added to the impact. The hill I had walked up to get the to visitor centre was not a hill at all – it was the rim of the crater itself, into which the entire visitor centre was built!
The crater was indeed the one I remembered from my geography studies. It is in fact one of the largest and best-preserved craters in the World. It was formed over fifty-thousand years ago by a meteor (bits of which have now been found) that was about 150 feet across and travelling at a speed of around 26 000 mph. The crater is almost a mile across and deeper than The Shard in London is high. The resulting explosion when it was formed would have been equivalent to the blast from a 20 Megaton Nuclear Bomb and would have flattened everything for several hundred miles in each direction.
There were a number of walkways at differing levels so I got up as high as I could to take a panoramic picture:
For scale, the top of the three-story visitor centre can be seen on the right.
This really was one of the most impressive natural things I’ve ever seen. It’s very difficult to convey in photos the scale of the thing and more that fact that you can see the various layers of the ground torn up and scattered in all directions. The power that must have been involved to produce the crater (175 million tonnes of solid rock blown out the way) is really quite humbling. I later found out that Meteor Crater is in fact a ‘National Monument’ and ‘National Area of Special Scientific Interest’. Which kind of makes sense.
I got back in the car and made my way back to the interstate. Two miles down the road I passed the following:
“Rest Area: Next Exit”
Followed promptly by:
“Rest Area Closed. Next Rest Area: 124 Miles”
I kid you not.
(Two hours later I arrived at the above mentioned next Rest Area. It was, I’m fact, the first one in New Mexico so had a handy tourist information centre. I picked up some leaflets that gave me an idea of things to do in Albuquerque….):