Meteor Crater

High on my sketch list is a landform 30 miles east on Highway 40 from Flagstaff, Arizona. This is, as writer Bill Bryson says, “the most famous impact site on Earth and a popular tourist attraction”. It is known simply as Meteor Crater.

I left my digs in West Sedona at a quarter to eight for the 90 minute journey to the big depression in the middle of nowhere.

As I headed up Highway 17, from Sedona at 4,350 feet to Flagstaff, at 7,000 feet, the temperature dropped. As I neared Flagstaff the temps hovered just above freezing. This journey was the reason I packed my puffy jacket, gloves, and beanie. It was cold up here with plenty of snow and ice on the ground.

I grazed the outskirts of Flagstaff and then turned east on Highway 40 toward Winslow and New Mexico. Within half an hour I turned south, towards the Meteor Crater.

As you approach the crater, the road is lined with witty signs. Others say, “Four Miles Until Impact”.

Once at the crater I had to find the crater through a maze of admissions, stairs, a gift shop, two theaters, a museum, more stairs, and a corridor or two. But finally I found the observation deck on the rim of the 4,000 foot in diameter crater. It was breathtaking (or maybe just out of breath with all the exertion finding the crater).

What caused this massive 560 foot deep crater? Well scientists surmise that about 50,000 years ago in the Pleistocene Epoch, the Earth was struck by a meteor traveling at about 26,000 miles an hour! The iron-nickel meteorite was about 150 feet wide and weighed several thousand tons. The impact generated a force greater than 20 million tons of TNT. That’s 20,000 kilotons. As a comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was about 15 kilotons of TNT. Most of the meteorite vaporized during the impact, but a few pieces of the meteor have been recovered.

It’s not everyday that you get to touch a meteor!

At the museum it is noted on the crater’s vastness and size: “The Crater is large enough for 20 football games to be played simultaneously on its floor, while more than 2 million people could watch from the side slopes.” If there were sporting events occurring in the crater, you would need some good optics to see what was happening down below. And I found some:

Reading about the crater in Bill Bryson’s excellent book, “A Short History of Nearly Everything” was the impetus for my Spring Break Arizona trip and it rekindled my interest in Astronomy.

A pen brush sketch from the upper observation deck.

The Search for the Bendire’s at the Thrasher Spot

The Trasher Spot in Arizona is famous in the birding world as the location to see four thrashers: sage, crissal, Bendire’s, and Le Conte’s. It is also known as one of the best spots in it’s range to see the notoriously sulky and ghost-like Le Conte’s thrasher.

I had seen the Le Conte’s thrasher, after many, many attempts, just west of the dump in Borrego Springs, California in January of 2019 so this illusive thrasher was not my target bird for this visit, but the Bendire’s thrasher was.

Spring flowers and a tire at the Trasher Spot.

I wandered around the spot and I found no thrasher. A few horned larks and western meadowlarks lifted away as a red-tail circled above. In the taller trees I spotted a bird perched up but as I got a better look it was just a mockingbird. Well that was looking and sounding like a good omen.

Off to my left a bird was perched up on some sagebrush. Could this be the Bendire’s? I needed to get closer to get a positive identification. As I got closer, the bird flew farther away to another sagebrush perch. I circled round to get the bird in some better light. This was a thrasher alright, not a Bendire’s but a sage thrasher.

After searching for just over an hour and only seeing one thrasher species, the sage thrasher, I decided to pack it in for the day and return again in the morning, my last full day in Phoenix, to add Bendire’s to my life list and I hoped it was not going to be as hard and laborious as the Le Conte’s thrasher.

I headed west on West Salome Highway, making my way back to Highway 10. When I slowed near the intersection of the impossibly named 339th Avenue, I saw a mimid-type bird perched on the roadside announcing the intersection of 339th Avenue.

I immediately pulled over and cursed myself for packing my bins and camera in the trunk. As I stepped out of the car, the bird dropped down and disappeared from sight before I could identify it. I was not going to give up now!

Now I was armed with the instruments of a birder. The mystery mimid flew across the highway and landed in a tree of sticks. The hunt was on!

I managed to scuttle across the highway without becoming a grill ornament on a pick up truck (the state vehicle of Arizona) and bushwhacked ( they were short bushes) and made my siege on the tree-bush.

All I needed was a brief glimpse. Give me the shorter beak with a pale base, the yellow eye, or the arrow shaped markings on the breast. Then I would close out all the North American thrashers! Oh and a photo would be nice.

In typical thrasher fashion the bird put a load of branches between itself and myself. But I did get enough pieces of the puzzle that added up to Bendire’s Thrasher. Lifer and the final thrasher on my list! We played a game of hide and seek as I tried to get a photo, the Bendire’s not giving a fig about me and my selfish wants.

This Bendire’s looked a bit odd. It was something about it’s bill. When I put bins on the bird, I noticed it was carrying a butterfly. Was this a snack or a gift?


Lowell Observatory

The Lowell Observatory is legendary in the history of astronomy.

It was at this Flagstaff, Arizona observatory that a high school graduate and amateur astronomer discovered Planet X, later named Pluto, the ninth planet in our solar system.

This sign at the entrance to the visitors center holds true for looking to the heavens but it certainty is the mantra for sketching.

The former farmer and the first American to discover a planet was named Clyde Tombaugh. He built his own telescopes from discarded farming machinery parts and made astronomical drawings that he sent off to the Lowell Observatory. They were so impressed with Tombaugh’s drawings that they hired him as an observer in the search for Planet X.

Tombaugh used the 13-inch astrograph to take photographs of the night sky. An astrograph is a telescope that has a photographic plate holder where astronomers can take photographs with exposures than can last up to an hour.

The 13-inch astrograph that Tombaugh used to discover Planet X, later renamed Pluto. The boxing glove was added by a later astronomer after hitting his head on the counterweight.

The method Tombaugh used To discover the ninth planet was as follows: Tombaugh would aim the astrograph to a section of the night’s sky and make a one hour exposure onto a glass plate. Five or six days later he would make the same exposure in the same location and then he would compare the two developed plates. The stars, which are far beyond our solar system, did not move but Tombaugh found a small spec that moved from left to right. This was a planet orbiting our sun. Tombaugh had discovered Planet X!

Tombaugh later went back to school to earn his masters (Can you imagine his professor asking the class on the first day: “What is your experience with astronomy?” Tombaugh replies, “I discovered Pluto.”) He went on to a long career in astronomy and he died in 1997. He was lucky not to live long enough to see his discovery demoted from a planet to a dwarf planet; Which happened almost ten years after his dead.

In this observatory, Tombaugh discovered the planet Pluto. Err, I mean the dwarf planet Pluto.

Another historic telescope at Lowell Observatory is the 24-inch Clack Refractor. This is the telescope that Percival Lowell used to explore the planet Mars as well as starting the search for Planet X.

It was with this telescope that Lowell made many of his Mauritian observations that raised some eyebrows in the scientific community. Lowell observed “Mauritian Canals” on the surface and he surmised that these were signs of intelligent life. Lowell thought that the canals were used to carry water from the poles to the desert like equator.

While these speculative observations didn’t help Lowell or the Observatory’s reputation, his theories provided fodder for early Science Fiction writers.


Phoenix, Sedona, Flagstaff

For my one week spring break I decided to keep it close and sketch, bird, and nature loaf in the Grand Canyon State (without visiting the Grand Canyon). And also see one of the best meteor crater strikes on planet earth along with the observatory where Pluto was discovered.

The Southwest is a landscape of red-rust rocks, olive greens, and blue skies. I would need a slightly different palette to capture the landscapes around Sedona, a different palette than I use in coastal California.

I added some more paints such as quinacridone burnt orange by Daniel Smith to add to the desert colors I would be using in attempting to render the Arizona landscapes before me.

The beginning of any adventure is creating a map. I may or may not stick to the route but it provides the framework for miracles and wonder (featured sketch).

From my digs in Sedona I would be heading north to the colder climes of Flagstaff and then 37 miles east to the Meteor Crater near Winslow. I want to field sketch the crater from its rim. It will be cold, with a high of 45 so I am bringing my October Yellowstone jacket beanie, and gloves.

Once I get the meteor crater in my sketchbook I will head back to Flagstaff to the Lowell Observatory, my sketching target: the Pluto Discovery Dome where the search for Planet X ended as Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto on February 18, 1930.

I return to Phoenix and chose to stay west of downtown. The location is near Skyharbor but also about 40 minutes to the famous “Thrasher Spot”. This legendary birding destination is the best place to see the elusive Le Conte’s thrasher (and three other thrasher species). Good thing I have this desert wraith on my life list already. This nemesis bird took a lot of time and legwork to see, but I finally saw a Le Conte’s on January 4, 2019 just west of the landfill at Borrego Springs. But I do not have Bendire’s thrasher and if I see this bird, I will close out all North American thrashers!


Sketching Red Rocks

Red rocks are a big drawn for visitors to Sedona, Arizona. These are not small rocks but mammoths named Bell, Cathedral, Coffeepot, Chimney, Steamboat, and Castle. To name a few.

I wanted to sketch a few of these Sedona features with my desert watercolor palette attempting to capture the rufous rocks. The red is caused by dissolved iron that has drained through sandstone layers for millions of years.

High on my list was to sketch the Chapel of the Holy Cross, a Sedona must see since 1956. The chapel was build to fit into the red rocks like a jigsaw puzzle piece (featured sketch).

The Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona.
I sketched Bell Rock from the Chapel of the Holy Cross because all the Bell Rock parking lots were full by 8 AM.

In the afternoon I visited Red Rock State Park and had good light to sketch the iconic Arizona landmark: Cathedral Rock.

Red Rock State Park with Cathedral Rock in the background.
I sketch the iconic Cathedral Rock from the observation deck at Red Rock State Park.
At the base of Coffeepot Rock was a western movie set. Quite a few movies where filmed in and around Sedona. Now at the base is a gated community called “The Coffeepot Rock Cottages”. Cottages indeed!