John Jannuzzi

A Southwest Road Trip Goes Extraterrestrial

John Jannuzzi
A Southwest Road Trip Goes Extraterrestrial

By Verena von Pfetten

We were about 50 miles west of Flagstaff, Arizona on Interstate 40 when we first heard it: a tinny, dramatic tenor that sounded as though it was being transmitted from light-years away.

“Like a blinding light, boundless, blazing to the core…”

My boyfriend and I were six hours into a 10-day road trip through America’s great Southwest. The itinerary was loose: kick things off with a friend’s wedding in Phoenix and then make our way in a slow circle through Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and back through Arizona for our flight out just under two weeks later.

“550 feet deep, nearly two-and-a-half miles around, and more than 4,000 feet across, 4,000 feet across—!”

We had somehow tuned our radio to 1610 AM, a little known and often empty frequency that, at this particular location, is home to a three-minute long looping infomercial extolling the virtues of Meteor Crater™.

Meteor Crater™, the show informed us, is the world’s largest and best-preserved meteor crater. (It is also, presumably, the only Meteor Crater to have trademarked the name Meteor Crater™.)

And so, we took a hard right at exit 233 onto Meteor Crater Road and hoped for the best. Six miles and a brief debate over the seemingly steep $18-per-person entrance fee later, we’d entered through the gift shop and made our way up to the first of several designated viewpoints overlooking the crater.

To be sure, Meteor Crater™ is breathtaking — perhaps even more so if you’re taking it in on the front end of a trip, when your eyes are still fresh and not yet inured to the striated vistas and soaring pillars of arid rock peppered like chess pieces throughout the four corners. But to drive through the national parks of the southwestern United States at a certain time of day with a certain type of light is to feel as though you’ve accidentally wandered on to the set of a $250 million budget sci-fi western. The landscapes and earth-made monuments are otherworldly in the extreme, so foreign as to seem fake.

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And yet the people behind Meteor Crater™ (a single-family owned operation) seem uniquely aware of this phenomenon. The lookouts here are smartly outfitted with observation binoculars permanently pointed at a handful of specific targets in the hopes of giving the viewer some semblance of scale: a white-suited “six-foot-tall” wooden astronaut planting a flag at the bottom of the basin, a mine shaft, and my personal favorite, House-Size Rock — a ... house-sized rock situated a little under 4,100 feet away (or a 1.25 mile walk) atop the crater’s opposite edge.

The effect is striking: you realize, suddenly and acutely, that you are a tiny and markedly unimportant human standing on the edge of a 560-foot-deep chasm in the Earth’s surface — the remnant of 150-foot-wide lump of nickel and iron that hurtled its way through the galaxy, our atmosphere and, eventually, into the desert at 26,000 miles an hour more than 50,000 years ago.

Meteor Crater™ would be but a drop in the gargantuan terrestrial bucket that is the Grand Canyon. It has none of Monument Valley’s obelisks or Zion’s hanging gardens. You won’t find any glossy stumps of prehistoric wood, gravity-defying arches, or undulating stripes of rainbow-hued sand. You will, however, find a fraction of the annual visitors (250,000 to the Petrified Forest’s 650,000 or, worse yet, the Canyon’s six million) and a sea-turtle-sized hunk of space rock just out, in the open, for you, alone, to touch.

Don’t get me wrong. You’d be certifiably insane to take a Southwest road trip without hitting any of the former. They’re an all-star lineup for good reason. (My first glimpse of the Grand Canyon — the last stop on our trip — brought me, truly, to tears.) But if one of the reasons we travel is to expand our horizons, to break out of what can often feel like a claustrophobically small world made up our desks, our cars, and the increasingly tiny computers we have glued to our hands, then Meteor Crater™ and its miraculously preserved point of impact might just be the closest we get to actually leaving it.

Verena von Pfetten is the co-founder of Gossamer, a lifestyle publication for the modern cannabis consumer. She lives in Brooklyn and is long overdue for a vacation.