The Swell

For geologists, North America is carved up into smaller chunks of crust, which in technical-speak are called “physiographic provinces.” Each of these subdivisions is identified by its own unique topology, history, rock-types and whatnot. Imagine a really easy continental jigsaw puzzle that only has a handful of pieces, and that’s more-or-less what we’re talking about.

Back To The Colorado Plateau

The Colorado Plateau, where I’ve spent a great deal of my life, is a classic example of a physiographic province. This massive swath of land — some 130,000 square miles in extent — was uplifted thousands of feet above sea level during the Laramide Orogeny, as the subducted Farallón Plate scraped along the underside of the North American continent between 70 million and 40 millions years ago.

Characteristic features of the Colorado Plateau Province include copious sedimentary strata, bedding planes that are horizontal and undeformed, and a variety of exotic surface formations such as slot canyons, arches, mesas, fins and hoodoos. (The latter, which have resulted from a slew of weathering processes, have made the region world-famous, drawing hoards of visitors from across the globe.)    

Of course, this profile contrasts greatly with those of adjacent provinces such as the tilted Rocky Mountains, the relatively young Basin and Range, and the magma-driven Rio Grande Rift. Look at a physiographic map of the United States, and you’ll see neat and clean boundaries drawn between these vast tracts of the American West.       

Made For Breaking

But drive through any portion of the Colorado Plateau, and you’ll quickly find that the above-mentioned rules-of-thumb seem only to have been made for breaking. Not only are the boundaries of the Plateau rather fuzzy; the heart of the province is absolutely riven with anomalies.

In Moab, for instance, the dark volcanic triangles of the La Sal Mountains jut abruptly from the cinnabar cliffs of the Wingate and Entrada sandstones. Then there’s the Upheaval Dome over in Canyonlands, which is believed to be the result of subterranean salt concentrating into a sort of plume and rising upwards by dint of its low density. Never mind the hogback spine that crosscuts the Morrison White Cliffs just north of Gallup, or the whorled gneisses and schists down in the bottom of the Grand Canyon.    

You have to wonder (and then, hopefully, research in-depth…) when the lines were drawn initially? How did geologists manage to look beyond the details to see a sort of “average” Colorado Plateau? How was it they were able to zoom out, blur their eyes, and then to make out an entity that hangs together in spite of innumerable local contradictions? How did they chisel out the signal from the noise?    

The Swell   

Another of the Province’s great oddities — and this is actually what got me thinking about these questions in the first place — is the San Rafael Swell. Though certainly tiny compared to the entire Colorado Plateau (a mere 40 miles by 70 miles), The Swell is a formidable structure nevertheless. An incredible skyward swoop of bulging earth that makes cars and people alike seem like shivering pixels. It’s steeper on the east than the west, like a 2,500-foot-tall wave frozen on the cusp of breaking.  

I first laid eyes on The Swell last fall. Me and Mag were blasting east down I-70 vaguely on our way to Albuquerque from Seattle, buzzing through the open land at 85 miles an hour, enthralled by the molten scenery flowing past. Deep green juniper tracers, spectacular road-cuts seamed with dark coal and limned with what I imagined to be yellowcake, summersaulting clouds, white lines ticking like a femtosecond metronome.

At a certain point, the asphalt begins a precipitous climb, and suddenly there’s a scenic pullout every few miles clotted with motorists, each fancying themselves the next Ansel Adams, ourselves included.

The Zenith

I-70 bisects The Swell east-west such that there’s an awful lot of photogenic terrain both to the north and to the south as you wend your way through. All along you’re afforded postcard views of The Swell’s severely eroded center. Gaping canyons, muddy rivulets and ponds cradled in clay, untold leagues of many-splendored cliff faces.

It is sunset as we arrive at the zenith of the route — the inflection point at which the anticline’s curve steepens and bows downward into its own violet shadow. A final pitstop. We disembark, hike a few meters beyond the informational signage and gaze into our future.

The view below recalls a severe gravitational distortion of spacetime. Massive walls of red and white-banded stone converging on a single point, where, as it happens, the constricted capillary of highway is also going. Think Renaissance perspective around an arbitrarily chosen vanishing point, tilted layers narrowing like railroad tracks under pitch blue skies. All things pulled towards the cosmic drain. A black hole in the desert — very un-Plateau-like indeed.

Soon, that will be us. Racing like a tachyons through that plummeting coil of road as it hurtles towards pinprick darkness and shrinks ever more towards the singularity, towards the Alpha-Omega. The suspense is palpable.


Speaking of the Alpha-Omega, isn’t it odd that They should have fashioned us in this manner? That we should have been able to discern so many different orders from the selfsame chaos over time? That we should be able to draw lines in so many different ways?

Furthermore, it seems downright absurd that we should learn to deem some details superfluous and others essential, and that this should confer advantage. Why should it profit us to percolate the world through so many psycho-sensory sieves — so many cognitive biases and blindspots and egoistic gymnastics. Wouldn’t we be better off sucking up all the data we possibly could?

Alas, there seems to be a trade-off. We cannot, evidently, have the cake of limitless, unfiltered data and eat it too. In order to make lines and establish order, we must not only create divisions, but we must throw stuff out as well. Even inconsistencies as glaring as the San Rafael Swell — not to mention the tumescent dike swarm which birthed it from below — must be razed and paved over sometimes.

When we’re trying to make sense of the continent’s large-scale history, we must insist the Colorado Plateau is flat, 70 million years old and dominated by sedimentary strata. Otherwise we are paralyzed by sensory overload. 

Dizzy And Divided

Looking down over the eastern slope of The Swell, eyes sucked from their sockets in asymptotical trajectories, I feel dizzy and divided. On the one hand, in know very well that I’m smack-dab in the middle of the Colorado Plateau.

On the other hand, though, I know that if I were to strike out into the wilderness from this scenic pullout, lots of the generalizations geologists make about the region as a whole wouldn’t be of much help as I tried to navigate locally. In that situation, the exception suddenly (and magically?) becomes the rule.

In a sense, then, there is more than one world here. Discordant universes forced to occupy the same plane of existence — the same brane, as the string theorists say. We can pass readily from one to the other, but only via willful ignorance. How many more worlds will I find? How many more paradoxes can I hold in my head before it explodes?

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(Today’s featured image of I-70 slicing through the east side of the San Rafael Swell is courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.)

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