Ancient Lands, Modern Beauty

Arizona landscapes draw millions of tourists - and their cameras - to reflect on Earth's magnificent past

QUESTION: Where do 1 million people a year go to stand in awe of a dark bacterium called metallogenium?

Answer: Canyon de Chelly in the Navajo nation in eastern Arizona.

The long dark streaks on the dramatic red canyon walls are thin layers of manganese oxide that have interacted with metallogenium enzymes activated when rain dribbles down the walls.

The result is black, waterfall-like streaks, proving that even a rock wall is alive if a little moisture comes and goes. Tourists look up at it in awe - and bring their cameras.

The landscape of Arizona always looks parched (except in a good spring), and a quick check of an almanac reveals that Phoenix, for instance, has an annual precipitation of only 7 inches.

This is no more than basic moisture, a fact that has shaped countless political and legislative initiatives to bring more water to the state.

But who visits Arizona to see water? Canyon de Chelly (pronounced ``canyon d'shay''), the Petrified Forest, the Grand Canyon, and almost all of the Navajo nation offer some of the driest places on Earth, where the red and brown shapes of the ancient past fold easily into today's sunlight.

The Anasazi once lived well in Canyon de Chelly, perhaps for 3,000 years, creating a life in a place that seems uninhabitable, except for a little, meandering river that swells and shrinks along the canyon floor.

Yet the Anasazi lived in harmony with what was there. For architecture, they built pueblos and apartments tucked in the canyon walls. Throughout the Four Corners region they built 250 miles of meticulous roads. They planted corn, squash, and beans and somehow made them grow year after year. For art, their walls offer petroglyphs and pictographs we can still see today.

Petrified Forest National Park, a little below Canyon de Chelly, is really a ``Triassic Park,'' or at least a rare landscape telling us of what happened 225 million years ago when Arizona was a flood plain.

Strange trees called Woodworthia and Schilderia once grew there, but are now stone, made so by silica-bearing water that crystallized into quartz. The park is known for having the most petrified wood anywhere.

Arizona's pride in its landscape has led to the establishment of the Arizona Trail, a 700-mile continuous foot-and-equestrian trail that traverses the state from Mexico to Utah. Some 250 miles of it are open to the public now.

Mount up, or tie your boots. And be sure to bring your camera.

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