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On the road between Palm Springs, CA, and Springdale, UT, yesterday, Venue stopped off at Nevada's Valley of Fire State Park, whose spectacular red sandstone formations both inspired its name and have also made it a popular film set (for instance, standing in for Mars in Total Recall).


One of the Park's "beehives," in which the geologic cross-bedding reflects shifts in the angle of the wind and water when the silt was originally laid down. Park photographs by Nicola Twilley and Geoff Manaugh.

Wind and water have sculpted the striated red rock into an array of photogenic shapes, named for their resemblance to elephants, ducks, and beehives.




Meanwhile, humans have added their own decorative flourishes, in the form of 3,000-year-old petroglyphs and the prosthetic-pink set of steps you have to climb to get to them.



The staircase leads directly to a viewing platform from which you can see Anasazi drawings, including several springy bighorn sheep, scraped into the desert varnish.



Microscope cross-section of desert varnish via Caltech's Mineral Spectroscopy site. Desert varnish is a curious coating found on exposed rocks in arid landscapes, composed of clay, trace elements, and microbes. Photographs of Martian rocks seem to show a similar coating, leading to speculation that if life exists on the red planet, it will be found in this kind of microbial patina.

This particular rock is called Atlatl, because of the atlatl and dart etched right at the top. An atlatl is like a ball-thrower for a spear — it acts as an arm extension to add speed and expand the weapon's range.



The World Atlatl Championships are actually held in Valley of Fire State Park each spring. In a 2008 report, The Economist describes the event as "delightfully eccentric," but adds that the atlatl is not only "a formidable long-range weapon system," but a significant gender equalizer:

According to John Whittaker, an anthropologist at Grinnell College, Iowa, [the atlatl] means that dextrous women and children can wield a spear as well as muscular men. Warfare, particularly in hunter-gatherer societies, is often a hunt with women as the prize. Women who could hurl missiles would thus be at a significant advantage.



Meanwhile, the carefully painted stairs, with a touch of salmon added to the standard parkitecture beige, are a lovely example of landscape viewing infrastructure — the carefully constructed, subtly camouflaged pull-outs, overlooks, and interpretive platforms from which we are encouraged to experience America's natural wonders.



Finally, down at the bottom of the rock, next to the picnic area, we came across a live desert bighorn. We looked at each other for a while, and then moved on — Venue toward Zion National Park, and the sheep to who knows where.

 
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