The View Looking Down
The San Francisco Peaks loom a mile above my home in northern Arizona. The peaks have silently witnessed a long parade of nearby human history — a Pueblo man praying to the spirit of mountain-dwelling Kachinas for rain a thousand years ago, an Irish immigrant building a railroad across the territory one hundred years ago, a Navajo woman in her blue velvet skirt herding sheep at the foot of these mountains she still calls Dook'o'oslííd. If only the San Francisco Peaks could share all the images that they have seen.
Mountains do have stories to tell. They could be about our human presence measured in centuries or a few millennia. Or they could describe the rich life of forests that have carpeted their slopes for millions of years. But the stories could also be about the earth itself, extending so far back into the past that their origins commingle with the very beginnings of time. The language of mountains is spoken with the throaty rumble of an erupting volcano; the words are whispered on winds that slowly abrade ridges of ancient granite. To hear these stories, we have to learn a new language called geology, one spoken by rocks and interpreted by science. We have to look at a landscape and learn to read its actions and antecedents.
The stories all start with a few basic questions: Why are there mountains? When were they made? Are some being created right now? What are they made of? Why are some mountains steep and peaked, while others are broad and rounded? Why are mountains bunched into batches or clustered into chains, present in some places and not in others? The answers to these questions reveal many of the earth's innermost mysteries.
Mountain ranges offer clear and compelling glimpses into the origin of North America. The spiky Bugaboo Range of British Columbia and the hoary old Sierra Madre of Mexico both reflect the crumpling of this continent. The soft rounded slopes of Nevada's volcanic cinder cones and the angular ridges of its Basin and Range Province tell of times when the continent was being stretched apart. There are so many different types of mountains — the chaotic Pacific Coast Range and the stately Rocky Mountains. The venerable Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and the worn-down Ouachitas in Arkansas. All of these mountains tell tales that rise through time from deep within the earth.
Geology concerns itself with features that range from microscopic crystals to satellite views of the entire planet. It's not inconceivable that geologists would discuss subatomic particle physics one day and cosmology of the solar system the next. But usually these scientists just talk about rocks: their mineral constituents, the layers in which rocks occur, and the deformation of these layers. And then they try to put this knowledge into a larger context: what do these rocks tell us about the history of our planet?
The earth is so large and we're so small. How can you keep both minerals and mountains in perspective? One could spend a lifetime hiking and exploring, and only just begin to understand how mountains fit into the rest of the world. On the ground, like mites on an elephant, you don't know if you're sitting on the elephant's tooth or its toenail. But a view from the sky adds another dimension. Rise above and you can see the earth from trunk to tail.
From the air, the fabric of a landscape becomes visible — mountains arching here, valleys plummeting there; volcanoes erupting, lakes drowning, landslides collapsing. With an aerial panorama, we see how large features are quilted together: granite peaks giving way to graceful sedimentary slopes, canyons seamlessly stitched into wider valleys. A sense of time is the geologist's best hand-lens, the open window of a small plane his best perch.
I learned to fly in 1975 while studying geology, five years after beginning a career in photography. The three disciplines nested well, each exciting and challenging, each complimenting the other. My instructor, Chris Condit, was also a geologist. We spent weeks on end wandering the West, marveling at how clearly we could discern classic features we'd seen in textbooks — Mount St. Helens, the San Andreas Fault, the sublime Sierra Nevada. Along the way, while earning degrees in structural geology, I stumbled into being a pilot.
Thirty years later, after five thousand hours aloft, I've never regretted the paths I followed. With this book, I'd like to share that aerial perspective on mountains. I'd like to show geologic feature of America's high country that illuminate the theories by which scientists have come to understand our continent. Mostly I'd like to impart a sense of wonder, a tangible sense of the earth, that springs from an intimate knowledge of the land.
I once flew north toward Denali (our Mount McKinley as it's still officially known). Departing Anchorage under a low ceiling, I was forced to skim the treetops. Approaching Cantwell an hour later, the clouds parted and the Alaska Range reared up, hooves raking the sky. My plane, fifty years old, knows how to do one thing very well — fly, and then fly some more. Forest and foothills fell behind as we climbed... six thousand feet, nine, twelve, fifteen thousand. At fifteen and a half, the altimeter barely advanced. Clouds like prayer flags streamed over Mt. Foraker. Denali — The Great One, the roof of North America — was still a mile above. I was awestruck by this other universe — this soaring white world where the ridges reveal little rock and a lot of snow. I could fly forever in this sky full of mountains.