Route 66 Series: See You Later, Crater

There’s something very unsettling to me about meteors. While most of them are harmless, burning up into crumbs when they pass through earth’s atmosphere, a rare few of them are not. A rare few of them, you could say, pack a knock-out punch. I think most experts agree now that a meteor and its ensuing chaos was largely responsible for wiping out the dinosaurs and most life on earth at that time. I won’t go into the gruesome details here, but let’s just say I’m glad I wasn’t around to witness the impact or the aftermath.

I’m unable to do a ton of research on it either, because frankly, it gives me the creeps. I imagine it would give a lot of people the creeps, but on the contrary, people seem more fascinated with the concept than anything. Especially Hollywood. They made millions of dollars by handing Bruce Willis a drill and having him save the world from a “global killer” asteroid in the movie “Armageddeon,” released in 1998. Tinsel Town also did pretty well with Deep Impact (1998), another story of a global-killer meteor hurdling towards earth, only (SPOILER ALERT) things don’t work out as well as they did when Bruce Willis was involved. The lesson there being to always go with Bruce Willis.

As for the meteor that did the dinos in, there have been scores of books written on the subject. Podcasts go over the impact and its results in grim detail. New scientific articles are still coming out, some with surprising information on what it must have been like to be around at the time of the blast. And Chicxulub Crater holds a stunning allure with people all over the world. While 66 million years of shifting plates and moving ground means it’s not as simple as walking up to a giant hole in the ground and looking in, the impact shaped the Yucatan Peninsula in myriads of ways that are still visible today. As such, the area draws its fair share of tourists every year. The site is so famous that even Google pays homage to it in its gown Google-y way (google “Chicxulub Crater” to see what I’m talking about).

Even I have to admit that it might be kind of cool to see something like that. So, imagine my pleasure (or pain?) when I learned that there is actually quite a large meteor crater right here in the United States that anyone can visit at any time. A giant hole in the earth, sitting quietly in the desert outside of Winslow, Arizona. At 55,000 years old, it’s a baby compared to its Chicxulub counterpart, so the marks it left on the surrounding landscape are all still clearly visible. The site is called Meteor Crater Natural Landmark, or to the people who run the place – Barringer Crater.

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The meteor that made this crater is quite a bit smaller than the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. Scientists guess it was only about 160 feet across as opposed to over six miles wide. But it seems that size does not always matter when it comes to meteors. This one still managed to strike the earth with the force of about 20 million tons of TNT. An impact that was a bit rough on the ears for any animals or prehistoric people hanging about. There was also the proverbial blinding flash of light, a blast so hot that the meteor itself vaporized, and shock waves that caused disruption and devastation in a radius spanning several miles in each direction.

Fast forward tens of thousands of years to the nineteenth century, when people were migrating all across the country from the east. Now picture this, if you will. Crossing the country in a covered wagon, or on foot, or on horseback. Neither of which would make for easy travel, especially when compared to the smooth highways and air-conditioned cars of today. The countryside is open and desolate, very desert-y with little water, yet things are going well until you’re standing at the rim of a giant hole in the ground. And I mean giant – similar in width and depth to the great grooves of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. Going through it falls somewhere in the “aw hell no” territory. Yet going around it is going to cause a considerable detour because dang, that’s one big hole.

Despite the somewhat limited communications of the era, word quickly spread about the giant hole in the desert that was causing major disruptions with local travelers and would-be settlers. Enough people complained that it eventually came to the attention of the scientific community. The first scientific paper on the anomaly was published in 1891 by a scientist named Albert E. Foote. After analyzing some iron samples pulled from within the crater, along with microscopic diamond samples (oooh diamonds are forever), he deemed the hole a meteor crater. He also hyped a great deal on the crater’s mining potential, since he theorized several mineral deposits were hiding within that big hole.

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Yet he faced some opposition from other members of the science world. Like Grove Karl Gilbert, then chief geologist of the US Geological Survey. After his own investigations inside the crater and the surrounding area, he deemed the hole was the result of some ancient volcanic steam explosion. According to Gilbert, since there were only fragmentary samples of minerals deep inside the crater, and no major signs of a giant piece of space rock lingering about, the crater simply couldn’t have been caused by a meteor. No way, no how.

So it sparked a bit of a debate, as many scientific subjects tend to do these days. The back and forth was so intense that it continued for the next decade, all while settlers kept poking their way around the giant hole and finding places to settle down and start communities. That’s when Daniel M. Barringer enters the story.

Mr. Barringer was a geological scientist who also liked to dabble in mining. Especially around the Arizona desert, where a select few gold and silver mines had put some considerable coin in his pocket. In 1903, Barringer caught wind of the crater outside Winslow, and he immediately jumped on the “it’s a meteor” side of the debate. Whether he read Foote’s paper or not, he also believed there was a lot of wealth to be had in that crater, and he wanted to cash in. So he filed a mining claim on the entire site, resulting in a land grant signed by Theodore Roosevelt himself. The ink was still wet on that grant when Barringer started drawing up plans and theories on what he believed was lying under the dirt outside of Winslow. If the crater was in fact caused by an iron meteor, given its size, he estimated the offending space rock would have left an iron ore lode (“lode” meaning a large stash of mineral) worth more than a billion dollars. 1903 dollars. Which means daaaaanng.

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Over the ensuing years, Barringer sank a fortune into that crater trying to locate the iron ore load that he thought would put him over the top. But little did he know, it didn’t exist. Because you may recall that the meteor actually vaporized on impact. While you and I can easily discern that from Google, it wasn’t as apparent back then, and it’s not like the meteor left a note to explain where it went. How rude. By the late 1920s, Barringer had sunk over $500,000 dollars into geological surveys, explorations, and examinations of that crater. But his efforts yielded no iron ore, and no proof that it was even a meteor that had created the giant hole.

Needless to say, the scientific community began to throw some serious shade at Barringer. Many geologists had been converted to Gilbert’s volcano theory, bolstered on by the lack of meteor evidence from Barringer. Now some people, when everyone tells them they’re wrong, decide to back down. Daniel Barringer was not one of those people. He only “dug in” harder (mining pun), determined to prove his theory and make his fortune. So he shifted his focus to proving that the crater was caused by a meteor in the first place. But despite yet more massive efforts, which took another big bite out of his fortune and even bigger bite out of the crater (he dug almost 1500 feet down at one point), no iron ore deposit, or meteor, ever surfaced.

By 1929, Barringer was getting advanced in years, but he still wasn’t ready to give up. So he hired an astronomer named F.R. Moulton to press on with the investigation. Funded by the Barringer company, Moulton began his own studies of the crater. And it wasn’t long before he came up with the winning theory – that the impact of such a heavy mass would have caused enough heat to completely vaporize the meteor. A perfect fit, because it cleaned up those pesky questions of why there wasn’t a huge meteor at the bottom of the huge hole. While Moulton didn’t have any hard proof for his theory, he was still able to swing a large portion of the scientific community over to team Barringer, essentially giving his employer some badly needed validation. Which is priceless, isn’t it? So while Barringer never got his fortune from Meteor Crater, he did get his reputation restored. Although it came a bit too late for him to enjoy it, since he died a mere ten days after Moulton published his findings.

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By the 1930s, interest in the crater had increased tenfold, and it happened to coincide nicely with the addition of a very famous highway carving a path right through Winslow. Route 66, among its many other accomplishments, can be largely credited with putting Meteor Crater on the map. And the Barringer family, once again, started making moves to cash in. In 1953, they renamed the area “Barringer Crater Company,” and they used what little remained of their patriarch’s fortune to turn the site into a tourist attraction, even building a private science museum on the crater’s rim.

The attraction brought them enough income to continue conducting geological investigations, and in 1960, the irrefutable proof finally came that the crater had been formed by a meteor. A geologist named Eugene M. Shoemaker found traces of coesite and stishovite, two very rare kinds of rock that suggested the ground around them had been “severely shocked by an instantaneous overpressure” (Wikipedia). Since everyone knows that shocked quartz cannot be created by volcanoes (I mean, duh), the only explanation left for Meteor Crater was, in fact, a meteor. Bravo, Barringer. After all that time, you and Foote were finally proven right.

It didn’t really change much around the crater though. Tourism money continued to roll in for the Barringers, and scientists continued to flock to the area for research. Even NASA got in on it in the 1960s and 1970s, using the area to train astronauts for their upcoming Apollo adventures on the moon.

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Today, Meteor Crater National Landmark remains a popular stop on Route 66, bringing in over 270,000 visitors annually. In 2019, despite all of my creeps, one of those visitors was myself. I thought a lot of things as I looked down into that crater – one so big that these pictures simply fail to do it justice. I mean, I think anyone who sees something like that would be forced to think some things over. Because right there is the irrefutable proof that no matter how hard you work, no matter what you do, or what you bicker with other scientists about, it could all come to naught. A giant meteor could land right on your head and leave nothing but a giant, smoldering hole in the ground.

But it made me think some other, more pleasant thoughts as well. Like… how kind of neat it was that Barringer didn’t give up no matter how many people made fun of him. Oh sure, he didn’t get his fortune, but he proved his point. He found something to believe in and he stuck with it, no matter what anyone else had to say about it. To me, that’s kind of impressive. Because you see, I’m not that rock solid in a lot of things (whoops – meteor pun). I’m… well, I waver. I back down. If someone gets in my face and wants to argue a certain point with me, especially politically, I’m pretty quick to put my hands in my pockets and shuffle my feet. “Well gee,” I’m likely to say in a barely audible mumble. “I guess I never thought of it that way.” Then that’s it. Conversation over.

Sometimes, I truly believe that has its merits, especially in today’s world. I will always think it’s a good thing to be empathetic to others, to try and see the world through their lens, to try and soul search and admit to some areas where I might have been wrong. But there are times when it’s important to stand your ground too, and to tell you the truth, I’m not always sure when it’s time to speak out and time to just listen. In other words, I don’t always know how to stand up for myself. So, perhaps I can take a page from Barringer’s book. Because as important as it is to have empathy, it’s equally important to stand up for yourself and others when needed. In fact, people standing firm in the face of adversity has brought about some of the biggest and most miraculous changes in this world.

Through all my shy, introverted layers, I do have a voice in there. A voice with mountains of education in certain areas to back it up, and that can be a very powerful thing. Once I really learn how to use it, I could make my own kind of meteor impact. And that’s kind of neat! So if you need me, I’ll be in my room, looking in the mirror, flexing my Barringer muscles, and teaching myself to stand up.

All while hopefully avoiding any major asteroids or meteors.

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SOURCES

 Route 66 Road Trip & Meteor Crater Visit – 2019

The Illustrated Route 66 Historical Atlas – J. Hinckley

Route 66 Road Trip – Moon & C. Taylor

Meteor Crater: A Brief History – Meteor Crater Visitor’s Pamphlet

Wikipedia

 

All photos by M.B. Henry. For more from our Route 66 adventures, click here

To peruse more of my writing and published works – click here

And finally – to plan your own visit to Meteor Crater National Landmark/Barringer Crater – click here

50 Comments on “Route 66 Series: See You Later, Crater

  1. Such an interesting, informative post, MB. Humorous, too — including those Bruce Willis and diamond quips. 😂

    • Very glad you enjoyed it! 🙂 Especially the little jokes I like to work in 🙂 Makes history more fun!

    • Thanks! It was a pretty cool stop! As were most of the quirky places along that route 🙂

  2. In all my drives across Arizona, I have yet to stop to see it. Next time! I love learning about all the back and forth in the cause. I hear you on standing up for something, no matter what. I hate confrontation and also tend to just shut my mouth.
    Fun post!

    • Oooh yes, do stop! I think you would very much enjoy it. It’s funny to know how much the scientific community always has, and still does bicker back and forth about things! And yes – standing up is quite hard, hopefully I can find a way to get better at it.

  3. Nothing better than good crater story but I was almost switched off when you mentioned, what I first read – the ChicksClub Crater, thinking I was going into a read about Hollywood Blockbusters 😂😂
    Good fun and informative read MB 🙂

    • Ha! Well a couple blockbuster films do get a mention in here! 🙂 ChicksClub crater haha that’s funny!

    • My dad is super into the last days of the dinosaurs, I’ll have to ask him if he’s watched this. He probably has! I might check some of it out, at least as much as I can before I inevitably get creeped out! 🙂

  4. Great post! So informative! And quite humorous as well!
    I have been there since we live in Arizona… it’s a few hours away from the Valley. The crater is quite large! I was amazed. I will share your post with my husband… he will enjoy all your information as well.
    I hope you got to stand on the corner of Winslow Arizona as well. 🙂

    • How cool that you’ve been there too! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I know we were “blown away” (pun alert) by how big the crater is. Imagine how big the crater must have been for the dinosaur meteor! 🙂

  5. Nicely researched and related MB. And there’s me thinking Winslow was only famous for being in an Eagles song. Also, I’d always thought that the dinosaur/meteor theory was only a ‘best guess’ but it seems to be the theory favoured by the professionals who study these things.

    • I think there are other theories still floating around out there, but I agree this one seems to be the most widely accepted. If you ever find yourself near Winslow, I highly recommend stopping by this crater. It’s pretty cool!

  6. I really loved your take on this and your wonderful narrative. “Always go with Bruce Willis.” Who can argue with that? I was there in 2021, and like you, that giant hike prompted a lot of thinking. It makes me feel small.

    But, I sure do love your historical take. Thanks a bunch! Oh, always wear a hat; who knows when it might help. 😉

    • So glad you enjoyed reading it! And yes -ALWAYS go with Bruce Willis 🙂 🙂 I might take you up on the hat advice. It couldn’t hurt!

  7. I was not familiar with this big hole, so thanks for putting it on my radar. I like the closing theme about standing your ground. It’s even better when the main example actually involves ground you can stand on (or in).

    • So glad you enjoyed it! And I never thought of the standing on/in ground relation. That does kind of make it neater! 🙂

  8. Great story, MB. Was the astronaut monument in the bottom when you were there? I have photos somewhere. I even have a post. 🙂 it’s a fascinating place in itself, plus it is close to the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert and Petrified Forest!

  9. My first thought was, “When you got to Winslow, Arizona, did you stand on a corner?” If nothing else, that proves the power of a song to embed itself in our psyches! Then, when I got to your last musings, I thought about my own quickness to crater in the face of opposition: an interesting sidelight. And finally, there’s the growing human belief that we can control everything in the world. We can’t. We’re human, which is to say we’re finite, limited, and embedded in time. I suspect that’s why natural disasters of every sort are both horrifying and compelling; they offer a look into the true nature of things.

    All that aside, this was a fascinating read. Somehow I’ve missed knowing about this crater, except in the most general terms: i.e., “There’s some sort of crater in Arizona.” I think some other people have blogged about it in the course of their travels, but it just didn’t stick. Your addition of Barringer’s history made it come alive in a new way. If I ever make it to Arizona, this just joined my list of ‘must-sees.’

    By the way: here’s another bit of testimony to the power of the written word. I can’t walk past an M&M display in a store now without thinking of your post!

    • It put a big smile on my face, knowing that my writing makes a difference – even if it’s just a new way of looking at M&Ms 🙂 🙂 Thanks as always for reading and sharing your thoughts. You are right, there is a lot out there that we cannot control, and I think that’s what meteors remind me of! Keep those pretty pictures coming, those always help! 🙂

  10. Great pun and photos, MB! By contrast, I love anything about meteors and would love to see that one. Now I am wondering what I would think it was if I was born in past times – Thor’s punch?

    • If you love meteors, you would definitely enjoy a stop at this place! Thor’s punch definitely would too! 🙂

  11. Another great post, M. B. and rather scary to think of the damage that these meteors can do. Spinning through space is all rather like a game of chance and, it seems, money to be made on the outcome.

    • Very true! Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  12. Wow – that crater looks massive. It’s impressive and terrifying, as you pointed out. I’d never heard of this crater, or the history surrounding it, so once again you’ve given me info to feel like a real Smarty Pants.

  13. Lulu: “Our Dada says that at first he thought this might be a story about Amboy Crater, which actually IS a volcano along Route 66. But this crater is much bigger!”

  14. Once again, an amazing story of something I knew nothing about! This site is now on my bucket list! It’s a must see! Loved your puns! 😉

  15. Very interesting MB. The plate tectonics and atmospheric ozone layers are all contributing factors to our shifting and changing world. We, ourselves are the blame. Regards!

    • We all must work harder to take MUCH better care of our fragile planet! Thanks so much for stopping by!

  16. Very interesting M.B. I’m always interested in the terrain in other countries , my daughters took me to a meteor strike sight not long ago near us, I never knew it was there, but it certainly wasn’t as big as this one you have shown us.

    • It seems there are quite a few crater-shaped reminders of the meteors lurking around out there! Hope you enjoyed the visit to the one you saw!

  17. I love your story and the photos. This one takes me back a few years. Back in 1989 my family decided to take a cross country trip. My son was a senior in high school and we figured it might be our last chance for this kind of thing. We Camped at Flagstaff over night and heard about the Mile-Wide Meteor Crator at Winslow, so we decided to take a side trip to see it. It was a most amazing experience looking down into the crater and seeing tiny miniature houses in the bottom that looked like toys! It was well worth the side trip to see this in real life!
    A great post!

    • It is an astonishing place isn’t it? I found it impossible to capture the sheer size of it with the camera, you just have to experience it in person!

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