Wilderness of Stone
Back in the spring, I visited an obscure wilderness area in our local neighborhood. Small and unassuming on the map, tucked up against much larger wildlands and higher mountains, it’s an out-of-the-way place, and I wasn’t sure what I’d find. I had read in the geologic literature that the area was made mostly of granite, so I was a little surprised on the drive in to see what appeared to be heavily eroded badlands of the type usually associated with soft sedimentary rocks or volcanic ash deposits. Regardless, the badlands were very enticing, clearly an intricate mineral labyrinth lightly adorned with Joshua trees and a sparse smattering of other desert plants. I pulled over and started wandering. But my surprise was much greater to discover, when I got close enough to lay my hands directly on the rock, that this crumbled, erosive, dendritic landscape was in fact made entirely of granite, a pale granite studded with large crystals.
I’ve never seen granite behave like this, and all the nearby desert plutons weather much more conventionally into rounded boulder fields of the type seen in the Alabama Hills or Joshua Tree National Park. This patch out on the California-Nevada border was clearly marching to a different drummer. Our local geologist offered only educated speculation, but the dendritic erosion patterns made clear that some disturbance in the region’s history had allowed this particular patch of granite to be affected primarily by water erosion rather than the slow chemical weathering typical of the area.
I wandered up several canyons into the maze. At every bend of the watercourse, I was sure that the canyon could go no further, that an impassable dryfall must be around the next bend. But I was always surprised as the defiles cut deeper and deeper, further and further back into this anomolous pluton. The Joshua trees were blooming, other desert flowers contributed their splashes of color. In one hollow antechamber I surprised a pair of Great Horned Owls, quizzical and a little incredulous to see a visitor in their sanctuary; in another room a prairie falcon flew overhead, ignoring me entirely. The ancient Hebrew vision of “an habitation of dragons, and a court for owls” might have been envisioned with this very landscape in the prophet’s mind. Only the breeze and my own footsteps disturbed the silence as the sun sank and the shadows lengthened, the evening light etching the millions of fractal involutions comprising the walls of this desert cathedral.