Category Archives: America (United States Of)

Photo: Upheval Dome Meteor Crater


Most of Canyonlands National Park (an hour’s drive from Moab) is filled with lovely canyon vistas as you’d expect, but there is one other major geological feature there that surprised be because I so totally did not expect it.  The feature is known as Upheval Dome, a dome of rocks surrounded by a jumble of others in a wall known as a synhline.  For decades scientists theorized that Upheval Dome was created by the world’s largest salt dome, where a bubble of salt under pressure deforms the surrounding rock, but that was back in the days when people assumed no traces of asteroids hitting the Earth really existed.  These days, however, we know better: Upheval Dome is, very very likely, a meteor crater.

The story here is that around 60 million years ago, around the time of the first primates on Earth, an asteroid about a third of a mile in diameter slammed into this area and created an unstable crater that partially collapsed (and the middle dome is from underground rocks pushing up after impact).  Erosion did the rest and washed away the meteorite debris, but shocked quartz which is created under extreme pressure (such as in a nuclear bomb blast, or a giant meteor) has been discovered on the site.  I’ve got to hand it to geologists: what they do is pretty cool!

Upheval Dome is a pretty easy hike from the parking lot, but Canyonlands was so very empty in early January that during my 20 minutes of sitting and pondering the crater I never saw a soul.  And it is quite something to sit on the edge of a giant meteor crater all alone and ponder creation.

Seaching for Petroglyphs in Utah


There is something about a stretch of the American West that is unoccupied by anything but wilderness and your rental car that must surely make even the most unromantic among us wax poetic.  Towering mountains!  A ribbon of road and classic rock on the radio!  Let’s go have an adventure!

It’s a four hour drive from Salt Lake City to Moab so I wasn’t going to get any beautiful national park sightseeing along the way, but then I heard of a very interesting place called Sego Canyon that I just had to see.  You see Sego Canyon is just off I-70 making it super easy to get to, and it contains not only pre-Columbian petroglyphs but also a ghost town abandoned in the 19th century.  Call me odd but I don’t think I could ever understand someone who would pass that up.

So after taking care to turn off I-70 at the Thompson Springs exit- hey, if you saw the “next services 110 miles” sign there you would too- I drove up Sego Canyon pictured above.  Being snowy winter I never did make it to the ghost town- I’m sure a 4wd would have made it, but wasn’t about to test the rental- but the petroglyphs were certainly worth it!


There are three main panels in Sego Canyon, all conveniently near each other and each attributed to different peoples.  The oldest above also happens to be the biggest and best preserved one- it was made by the nomadic Archaic People who lived in Utah before agriculture, meaning 8000 B.C.-100 B.C., meaning this panel may well be older than the Egyptian pyramids.  Say what?!

As you may deduce from the creative name we don’t know much about the Archaic People, but based on the art style I’d guess they had a spiritual medicine man- type side in their culture and decent access to peyote.  That or they met aliens, whichever’s more logical.


Next up was a panel from the Fremont Indians who were in the area from 600 A.D.- 1250 A.D., and were contemporaries with the more famous nearby Anasazis (though I guess these days you’re supposed to call them “Ancient Pueblo Peoples” according Wikipedia).  What was interesting to me here is you can see that over the centuries the Fremont Indians kept painting and carving over older stuff on the same panel- the top reddish figures are the oldest and still look kinda similar to me to the Archaic Peoples one (though it’s not clear the first panel’s figures are way bigger- like larger than a person- these were a foot tall max) but then later generations of the Freemont Indians carved over the paintings.  Oh, and a 19th century guy carved over that lest we forget that a lot of ancient petroglyph art is likely just old graffiti.

The third panel at Sego Canyon was from the Ute Indians but had even more contemporary graffiti on it unfortunately, so instead I’m going to share a contemporary panel I stumbled across while hiking to Delicate Arch.  It turns out at the very beginning of the hike before you even get off the flat part the trail forks with a sign telling you this way to the petroglyphs, which was such a lovely bonus as I wasn’t expecting the panel-


(Probably because the far larger numbers of tourists here there are barriers in place to keep you a healthy ~20 feet away here- thank goodness for good camera zooms!)

This panel was made by the Ute Indians for whom the state of Utah is named after, who lived in the area from ~1300 A.D. until being forced onto reservations in 1880.  The signboard here pegged the date to sometime in the 1700s, which makes sense when you see the Indians now have horses to ride.

So all in all, I’d say the adventure to see some old Wild West history was a great success and I do recommend Sego Canyon to anyone passing through the area (though I hope I might do so someday again in summer to make it to the ghost town!).  We always think of American history as something “new,” but there really are traces remaining from those who wandered here hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

Dead Horse Point State Park


Taking a break from Arches to show a different kind of erosional vista in southern Utah, taken at the wonderfully named Dead Horse Point State Park.  The name comes from the fact that the point is after a very narrow neck on the canyon mesa, so the cowboys would use it as a natural corral for wild horses in the area… and some of them were abandoned there to their deaths.  Lovely!

Dead Horse Point is actually a stone’s throw from Canyonlands National Park next door, which is also very lovely for many things I’ll get into later but this was the best canyon vista in the area in my opinion (the state park is older than the national park, so my suspicion is that’s why the lowly state park that doesn’t have much else in it got this vista).  The river down there by the way is the Colorado River, which flows through Moab on its way to the Gulf of California and forms a much more Grand Canyon further downstream.  Still amazing this far up though!

Photo: Double Arch, Arches National Park


Continuing a series about the various arches in Arches National Park, Utah…

Double Arch ended up being one of my favorite arches for the simple reason that unlike many of the other ones it was very easy to climb into and was an amazing place to clamber around (once again, look carefully for people in the picture to scale).  In fact I later learned that this is where they filmed the opening scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Cruscade– the one where the Boy Scouts are wandering around- and even though the cave in the movie isn’t here it certainly has that adventurous feel to it!  Great view too…


The other interesting thing to note here if you’re a geek like me is Double Arch was formed differently than most of the other arches in the park, which were primarily created through wind and water erosion from fins of sandstone.  Instead these are what are called “pothole arches,” where a basin near a cliff face gets eroded away from the water captured within it.  Which is very clearly something you can imagine after looking at the first picture.  Go science!

Photo: Landscape Arch, Arches National Park

landscape-archIf you ask me, for reasons above I believe Landscape Arch should have its name changed to that of Delicate Arch unlike the famous one in the park because it certainly looks a lot more delicate if you ask me!  I have also further proposed that the current Delicate Arch be renamed to what the local cowboys called it- “The Schoolmarm’s Bloomers,” cause it really does look like that– but as is often the case in this tragic world no one listens to me.

But anyway, Landscape Arch is impressive because as you can see it has a span one usually associates with man-made steel bridges, but unlike those does not look very structurally sound.  And the thing is it’s not- a giant slab fell off in 1991 which one tourist caught on video, at which point the National Park Service decided you can’t hike under the arch anymore.  The idea that Landscape Arch might not be there in a few decades is a very real one, particularly when you know Wall Arch, a nearby companion that was the 12th largest in the world, collapsed just 5 years ago…

Plus honestly, if that wasn’t reason enough to check it out, the hike up is quite lovely.  The whole thing is less than two miles and there are other arches along the way in this landscape of weird sandstone, such as Tunnel Arch-


The trail continues after this point to another famous arch in particular, the “Double O Arch,” which is supposed to be quite nice but the trail isn’t as good and the lovely snow everywhere was slippery, so I abstained.  Next time!

Photo: Delicate Arch, Arches National Park


It is quite something to travel to the iconic places in the world, and discover that they are in fact larger than life and not small enough to fit on a license plate (which isn’t surprising but I never appreciated how big Delicate Arch would be- I’m on the far left to scale!).

It’s quite something else to do it in winter, when the thousands of daily visitors are replaced by a few dozen so you discover the solitude of the desert in spectacular places.  The snow is more a lovely decoration for it all.

Let the recap of my Utah desert road trip begin…

Photo: Skiing Deer Valley, Utah

Skiing Deer Valley

Because if you live in flat country you’d best escape to the mountains when possible.  And why would you climb up mountains when you can ski down them instead?

Not a bad way to wrap up 2012 if you ask me.  Thank you all for the lovely gift of your attention this past year (when I had time to write and a PhD wasn’t getting in the way), and wishing you all the best in 2013!  And stay tuned for more on adventures in Utah…

“Home” For the Holidays


Key West, Florida, 2012

Going back to the USA is one of those things that happens to me in gradual stages of recognition.  For me, they can be summarized as follows:

– The “Americans are really loud!” stage, which more or less happens the same time as the “everyone is talking with my accent” stage- that is, while waiting to board the plane to the USA at the airport.  Suddenly the banal conversations of how Aunt Reba is doing or your theory on why the US dollar is about to undergo hyperinflation is suddenly very loud and un-ignorable and often even bringing in surrounding strangers into the conversation.  I’m not sure if this exclusively because Americans talk very loudly together or I tune out all the Dutch I don’t understand, but suspect it’s a healthy dose of both.

– The “you expect everything to be the same but life of course goes on without you” stage, which of course happens in most places you re-visit after some time elapses but is somehow more unsettling when it’s the country you were born in.  For me this moment happened this time upon landing at the Newark airport for my connection, seeing a bunch of skyscrapers on the horizon and idly wondering what city they were, and realizing with a start it was the New York City skyline now dominated from New Jersey by the Freedom Tower.  Which yes, I knew they were working on in my absence, but it is somehow unsettling to realize you don’t immediately recognize the New York City skyline.

– Somewhere during the course of the trans-Atlantic flight, by the way, one reaches the delightful stage of realization that you can have random conversations with strangers and no one thinks strangely of you for it.  I know this isn’t a language thing because the Brits never do it either- instead all of European culture doesn’t encourage random idle conversations that I know of- but now I’m back in the land where if I don’t have a few random conversations with those around me in the course of a few hours I’m the odd one out.  It’s great!

– Reverse culture shock stage.  America is big- our buildings are big, our cars are big, a meal in a restaurant is usually lunch and dinner in other countries, and we sprawl out our cities to make them bigger and require use of our cars to manage them.  The size of the country also leaves me quietly happy because when you grow up knowing you can fly several hours and still be in the same country the Netherlands always seems a bit stifling.

The other thing I always enjoy in the USA by the way is nature- Holland is an amazing place to live for urban life and culture and all that jazz, but I’m still fairly convinced every square inch of the nation is cultivated (even the national parks have fences).  Nature is one of the things America does best, and you don’t really realize it until you don’t have easy access anymore.

– Then if you’re heading to visit parents in Florida like me, there is the “it’s December but 80 degrees out and I managed to get sunburnt” stage.  It’s frankly a little strange to arrive down there and realize all the cold and dark from northern latitudes does not apply to people’s daily lives, and it’s rather tempting until you remember that in exchange for this you must live in Florida.

– Then finally the last stage (which, if this was a stages of grief thing, would be “acceptance”) which is the odd realization that while I love the USA I have no plans to move back for a few years at least.  I wonder how much this opinion would change if I had ever lived in a New York City or San Francisco in my life instead of Pittsburgh and Cleveland, but too much familiarity strikes me as a little boring in my day-to-day life.

Put it this way, I love to roam around the USA whenever I’m here, but when I lived in Cleveland meticulous planning of multiple round the world trips seemed like a reasonable and rational thing to do.  I still do plenty of trips now, but at the end of the day they always assume my return to Amsterdam.

Until then, I’m home-but-not, enjoying a few weeks in the country of my birth.  Merry Christmas!

Udvar-Hazy National Air and Space Museum

When I was in the USA last month I spent a week in the Washington DC/ Virginia area, and when I do so I can’t resist a visit to the National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall to visit “old friends”- the Apollo 11 capsule, The Spirit of St. Louis, the moon rock you can touch… you get the idea.  The National Air and Space Museum is the most visited museum after the Louvre in Paris, and the fact that surprisingly little of the primary exhibits has changed since it opened in the 1970s is both endearing and depressing when you realize there’s been no reason to update the Apollo-era exhibits because we last went to the moon in the 1970s.  But that’s a space geek rant for later… Continue reading

Artie Aardvark’s Austin Adventures at AAS

Gather ’round partners, it’s time for Artie Aardvark’s recap of the 219th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin, Texas!

Yee-haw, I am off to the biggest astronomy conference in the whole wide world!  This year it is in Austin, Texas, which is so far from the Netherlands I have to fly hours and hours to get there.  I’m glad that gives me lots of time to look out the window! Continue reading