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View from the USA: School of rock

By hinting at the inconceivable age of our planet, the Grand Canyon and Utah’s fossils teach us a poignant lesson about our fleeting presence here on earth

View from the USA: School of rock
Aaron Millar. Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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I must be the only person in the world to have fallen asleep on a helicopter flight over the Grand Canyon. Long story: I felt a bit sick so I double-dropped some Dramamine, without reading the ‘may cause drowsiness’ warning. Within exactly one minute I knew precisely three new things: Dramamine doesn’t completely cure nausea; it will knock you out; and vomiting can’t possibly have a more spectacular backdrop than this. 

Between bouts of unconsciousness, I do remember one thing our pilot said. The true wonder of the Grand Canyon, it turns out, isn’t the pretty view — red rock spires reaching up in brushed hues of gold, yellow and amber — it’s the fact that written within those canyon walls is the most complete geologic record on the planet.

That got me thinking. The Grand Canyon began forming roughly six million years ago, as the Colorado River scoured through the exposed crust of the Colorado Plateau. As it did so, it revealed layer upon layer of older rocks — from the 260-million-year-old limestone at its summit to the 1.8-billion-year-old Vishnu schist at its base. Each layer tells a story, aeons in the making. Reading between the lines, we can see mountains rise and fall, oceans ebb and swell, the formation of the first, simple life forms through to the evolution of plants, fish, amphibians and, finally, us. It’s one the best showcases we have of ‘deep time’ — the inconceivably long geological history of the planet.

But it’s not the only one. Which is how I ended up holding a couple of polished, black gizzard stones that once churned food in the belly of a dinosaur. Arizona may have the Big Ditch, but Utah has something just as astonishing: monsters. The high desert climate here has done a great job of exposing and then preserving the most complete record of prehistoric life on the planet. I came here because, as a kid, I loved dinosaurs. But I also wanted to get a sense of what came before me. I wanted to feel Deep Time. 

So, I spent the week driving the Dinosaur Diamond Scenic Byway, a 512-mile loop around the state’s Jurassic highlights. In the San Rafael Swell — home of the gizzard stones — I found fossils scattered like seashells washed up on the shore. In Red Fleet State Park, I hiked to a series of petrified sand dunes, where, 200 million years ago, giant three-toed beasts had come to drink, leaving behind dozens of footprints embedded in the mud. In the sheer cliffs of Dinosaur National Monument, I found the skeletal remains of a prehistoric dolphin, and then, a few hundred metres later, the burgundy tint of bones left over from giant land-dwellers — evidence that this desert was once an ocean whose waters receded to make way for a lush savannah.

But what truly blew my mind was the Wall of Bones in the Carnegie Quarry. Embossed into an exposed mountainside — pushed up from the bellows of the earth like a motion-sick person’s lunch on a helicopter — is an enormous slab of rock containing more than 1,500 skeletons. I trailed my hand along teeth the size of scimitars, talons like spears, leg bones as thick as trees, an eye socket the size of my head. “Don’t worry,” a nearby ranger said, as if reading my thoughts. “He’s too big for your closet and he definitely won’t fit under your bed.”

That’s when it hit me. Monsters really did walk this earth. Where you work or live or are standing now was once the home of stegosauruses, giant sauropods and Tyrannosaurus rex. What we tend to see as permanent — the mountains and oceans— are really flowing, like rivers; only too slowly for us to see as our brief lives flash by. Each footprint, each bone in the wall, or fossil on the ground, holds the resonance of that deep longevity. By touching it, our fingers can somehow grasp a concept our minds will never fully comprehend. That’s the magic of the dinosaurs and the true wonder of the Grand Canyon too. They’re reminders of our fleeting passage, the preciousness of each moment and the impermanence of all things. I’m heading back to the Grand Canyon to touch those walls, but this time I’m going on my own two feet.

Published in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)