Route 66: Arizona, Part 2

This entry is part 12 of 17 in the series GDB & Route 66

We ran west again from Winslow to pick up Meteor Crater, which was closed the night before and also was closed the last time I’d been through the area. (“Meteor Crater is closed.” Like they roll a mile-wide tarp across it at night, or maybe one of those motorized pool covers.)

sign: Meteor Crater is closed. Opens at 8 am.
A really, really big tarp, I’m telling you.

But I am (as astute readers might have noticed) a bit of a nerd, so we ran back the next morning to arrive just as they were unlocking the doors and presumably rolling up the tarp.

Meteor Crater

Meteor Crater is the site of the first crater impact to be recognized as such, and where impact science was basically re-invented. It’s an impressive hole in the ground. Best calculations by modern science suppose a 150-foot wide chunk of space rubble came screaming through our hundred miles of atmosphere in just 10 seconds before plowing into a pulverizing a sizable part of Arizona. Fragments scattered up to 7 miles around the site. The crater is three-quarters of a mile wide, and they think parts of a meteor sank as deep as 3,000 feet. Wow.

wide angle of enormous crater in desert
panoramic view of Meteor Crater

A favorite story related to Meteor Crater is the theft and return of the Basket Meteorite. This is a fragment of the original meteor which was on display at Meteor Crater long ago and was stolen in 1968. (Seriously, people?) It was never heard of again until about 2006, when a man named Tom Lynch found an odd-shaped hunk of metal at an estate sale and picked it up, thinking it would be worth the $10 price tag in scrap if bronze or copper. In the meantime, it made excellent ballast for his grandson’s basketball hoop stand. Meteorites are heavy, after all.

Then in 2009 Tom was watching television and a show came on about meteorites, and he started to get suspicious about the way his piece looked pocked and weighed more than it seemed it should. He contacted a museum. Eventually, the Basket Meteorite was identified via comparison with a vintage picture postcard.

a silvery-gray pocked meteorite
Holsinger Meteorite

The Basket Meteorite is now on display at Meteor Crater once more, securely housed in a case because bad people make it hard for us to have nice things. The Holsinger Meteorite is however still out for visitors to touch, because it’s too big and too heavy to conveniently pocket.

In the 1960s, astronauts trained in Meteor Crater to prepare for visiting the moon. It was here that a space suit tore open on some jagged rock — a crisis far better to experience in Earth’s atmosphere than the moon’s. The suits were redesigned for better durability and safety.

dirt road running into interstate overpass bank
Interstate killed the Route 66 star.

Then we headed back to Winslow for breakfast in the Turquoise Room at La Posada, which was delicious. And we followed another fragment of 66 until it was cut off by the interstate. They say a picture is worth a thousand words….


The Jackrabbit is a ridiculously iconic trading post/tourist trap/gift shop/thing, and you’ve probably seen its sign parodied even if you didn’t know it. We got our obligatory photos on the giant rabbit (how many tens of thousands of such photos have been taken?) and went inside. It wasn’t as well-stocked as I remember, but that might change seasonally.

The Petrified Forest

vintage cars and a maid cart at the Wigwam Motel
Who knew the Plains Indians had maid service?

We went on through Holbruck, passing the Wigwam Motel, one of only two left (the other is in San Bernadino, CA). The owners have a number of vintage cars parked near the teepees, which not only makes the place look busy at a glance but gives it a nice era vibe.

And then we headed for the Petrified Forest, which meant of course I got more of those ugly concrete prehistoric creatures that I love along the way.

petrified wood litters the ground

We detoured from 66 to drive through the Petrified Forest park, stopping a couple of times to hike through short trails, and then to drive through the Painted Desert. The science behind the stone trees is pretty interesting. “Why are they only here?” I asked Jon. “We find fossils all over the world, so why are these found only here?”

“Maybe they are other places and they just haven’t been uncovered yet,” he said. “A lot of land here was washed away to reveal these. Maybe more are buried under Indiana.”

“Ooh, Indiana used to be swamp! Even recently! Maybe we do have buried petrified trees!”

petrified wood litters the ground

Meanwhile, I overheard a conversation from an annoyed tourist with her back to a rather impressive petrified log. “Over there? It’s just a tree. I don’t understand what the big deal is. I mean, I guess it’s interesting if you like history, because it’s an old tree, but it’s just a tree.”

Huh. I still don’t know if she didn’t understand that the trees had literally turned to stone, or if she just didn’t care that she was looking at ancient stone trees. Dunno.

Growth rings are clearly visible in the rock.
Growth rings are clearly visible in the rock.

Some of those trees really look like trees, still. You’d swear they were still wood. I started thinking about being the first white explorers traveling west and coming upon this desert plain littered with what appeared to be fallen logs, miles from any living tree, and how mind-boggling that would be. Then I started imagining rookie pranks to play on the newest scout. “Your job to collect firewood tonight! There’s a bunch just to the south of us!” I’m such a jerk.

long distance shot up a log to a tiny human silhouette
Jon stands at the far end of a single petrified log.

I heard a lot of comments from park visitors on the size of the trees. That’s sad, because it’s only fairly recently that we’ve considered a 12″ trunk to be a big tree. Until the turn of the last century, we had enormous trees across the country. (See my recent post on the California Redwoods and the American Chestnut.)

Jon looking over desert vista

The Painted Desert is a landscape of muted colors, rocks worn by the wind and sand into weird shapes marked by the varied tones of different rock composites.

mesas and muted tones of brown, red, orange, pink
panoramic view of a Painted Desert scene