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Notes on the Geography of The Western United States: Northern Arizona

This is a quick look at Flagstaff, the Coconino Plateau, and the Grand Canyon.

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The Western United States: Northern Arizona picture 1

A railroad station in Arizona with dozens of waiting passengers. And this in the 1990s, not the 1940s. Explanation: Amtrak stops here for passengers coming and going to the Grand Canyon, and a fair number still choose to do so by train. They tend to speak languages other than English and come from countries where train-riding isn't something grandmother used to do.

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Although the train is operated by Amtrak, this is the mainline of the Santa Fe railroad, running between Los Angeles and Chicago (but narrowly bypassing Santa Fe). Freight traffic is heavy, especially trains of flat cars loaded with containers.

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Case in point: a train stopped momentarily at Needles, California, just across the Colorado River. (There's an abandoned Fred Harvey hotel on the left, which explains the dead and dying palms.)

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The railroad has quit its Flagstaff depot in favor of this box with budget Mansard.

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Flagstaff's original hotel, easy walking from the original railroad station.

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Most visitors come to Flagstaff by car, arriving now mostly on Interstate 40. An earlier generation came on U.S. 66, and it was that audience to which this motel sign spoke.

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This one, too. Amazing that the places hang on.

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The affluent mostly stay in new places out by the freeway, but they're drawn to shop in the seriously retrofitted downtown.

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Perhaps there are a half-dozen blocks like this--the sort of places shown in glossy magazines like Arizona Highways.

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The most interesting structure in town is up on a hilltop to the west.

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It's the observatory-like tomb of Percival Lowell. He insisted that through the telescopes he built here he could see irrigation canals on Mars, and being a Boston Lowell he was taken seriously enough that H.G. Wells drew on Lowell's ideas to write War of the Worlds. There are still functioning telescopes on the hill, but the most patient observer lies right here, keeping an eye on things.

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North out of Flagstaff, with San Francisco Peak in the background. This is national-forest land, stretching north to the Grand Canyon National Park.

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A century ago, the Forest Service surveyed these lands. The trees were bigger then.

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The countryside still remains beautiful, perhaps mostly because it's very empty.

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A hardwood stand, commercially useless.

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The Coconino Plateau surface rises, precipitation declines, and vegetation is dwarfed.

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Nothing special, you say? Just gravel and scrub? But don't play frisbee here too energetically: the thing might sail over those little pines and then you might leap five or six feet past them. You'd regret it.

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There's no more warning than that: you're over the edge of the Grand Canyon. Sharp eyes looking at this particular picture may recognize a bit of the Bright Angel Trail as it traverses the gently inclined Hermit Shale and approaches the sheer Coconino Sandstone. That cliff is made of dunes consolidated about 280 million years ago. On top of it, there's the soft and sloping Toroweap Formation, capped by the near-vertical Kaibab Limestone, a marine formation deposited a quarter-billion years ago.

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Coconino, Toroweap, Kaibab: geology is fine but space is better.

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The result is traffic like this, which has persuaded the park service to force visitors to use buses. Good policy? Maybe, but kiss solitude goodbye once and for all.

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A South Rim ranger station from the '30s.

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For comparison: the canyon of the Little Colorado, upstream from the Grand Canyon and entering on the left bank. It's impressive but constricted, plenty dangerous but without the Grand Canyon's presentation of space in galactic volumes.

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Miles upstream from the last picture, the Little Colorado rises to the plateau surface; here, at Cameron, the canyon has almost disappeared, though the valley walls remain sheer.

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A couple of hours to the northeast, at Kayenta, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has built this housing project.

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Don't want to look at such places? Too depressing? OK. Here's the highway crossing Oak Creek and heading to Sedona, the capital of New Age Creation.

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In Sedona, even the boys from Oak Brook are very well behaved.


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