Monday, May 8, 2017

Cowiche Canyon

I felt like a “Stranger in a Strange Land,” a hospitable land but still foreign to me. In this case, I borrow the analogy from the 1961 sci-fi novel by Robert Heinlein.

The protagonist in that story was Valentine Michael Smith, a human who comes to Earth in early adulthood after being born on the planet Mars and raised by Martians.

There is perhaps only a few times in your life when you are plopped down in a place as alien as Valentine was. My sensibilities of Mother Earth were shaped by the 400-plus million year old Ordovician limestone, sandstone and shale that serves as the bedrock of my East Tennessee home. All are sedimentary rocks formed at the bottom of a shallow antediluvian sea.
That's old Earth, the Age of Crinoids. So I have an ancient mooring.

But here I walked through Cowiche Canyon north of Yakima, Washington, a stranger in a sunny strange land. My gracious hosts and guides were Eric and Chandra Anderson and all around us were the sagebrush slopes of a high plateau made almost exclusively of basalt and andesite; two forms of igneous rock spewed from deep within the earth only 14 to 17 million years ago; babies really in geologic time. So comparatively speaking, it’s new Earth, post Jurassic, indeed Miocene, the Age of Horses. 

Here’s the interesting closure to my Heinlein opening. That mix of basalt and andesite is very close to the composition of the Martian surface, Valentine's home. It was perhaps as close to walking on Mars-like terrain as I well ever journey except here the sky was not pink, it was azure. And there was life everywhere around us. The first blush of spring was just beginning to present itself.

Cowiche Canyon was craved by the erosive action of Cowiche Creek and the morning we were there it was carving still, heavy flow with the melting snows of last winter in that part of the “Evergreen State.” In this section of Washington the towering firs and pines of the Cascade Mountains and Gifford Pinchot National Forest to the west give away to stubborn shrub-steppe, sagebrush slopes and jagged cliffs of weathering basalt columns.

There’s a stark beauty to this part of the country;
 a vastness to the Western landscape. You get a sense of the enormity of it all, a large snapshot of the planet itself revealed. There is really no other way to describe it. You look out, far and wide. 

To look out in the Appalachians you need to climb to the top of a mountain and if the Smokies are not smokey you can look out. But most of the time you are in a hollow between two ridges and you can only look up. The Smokies are more insular, to some even claustrophobic.

Cowiche also had a subtle nuance of color, earth tones because the new earth lies naked and exposed. From the gold lichen that adorns the rock to the sprinkle of yellow vernal wildflowers just beginning to sally forth, all seemed golden as such moments often do. The gnarled shrubs that cling to the land are probably as old as the towering Douglas firs I drove through on my way into Yakima Valley.

Memories are made from such sojourns. A network of
synapses formed in my brain labeled—if they had labels—"Morning walk in Cowiche Canyon, 22 April 2017."

Thank you for the memory, Eric and Chandra

For another post from my trip, click: Yakima Valley College.

YVC anthropology professor Eric Anderson

Chandra and Eric Anderson

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