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Left to right: Aircraft rest in silent formation at Tucson’s “boneyard”; Titan II missile, still in launch position but deactivated, at the Titan Missile Museum, in Tucson; near Winslow sits Meteor Crater, nearly a mile wide, with the San Francisco Peaks on the horizon.
Photos by Paul Chesley/Getty Images; Kerrick James/Alamy, Everett Collection

I begin to wonder: what kind of impact would a 9-megaton explosion create? The answer can be witnessed several hours from Tucson near Flagstaff at the otherworldly site of Meteor Crater. About 50,000 years ago, an earthbound meteorite some 150 feet wide and traveling 26,000 mph hit the earth. It hit with such immense power that the meteorite — primarily iron and nickel — was mostly obliterated, shooting the surviving metal fragments up to 10 miles away and leaving a hole nearly a mile across and larger than 20 football fields. One scientist calculated that 175 million tons of rock were displaced to form the resulting crater.

The crater, reached after driving across a vast desert plateau between Flagstaff and Winslow, has been a great mystery for centuries. First discovered by Native Americans, then Spaniards, mining engineer Daniel Barringer acquired the crater in 1902 in a decades-long quest to confirm its origins and to unearth any valuable metal. In 1960, geologist and astronomer Eugene Shoemaker published a paper generally credited with clinching the crater’s origin by comparing it with impacts caused by nuclear-test explosions in Nevada.

This meteorite is a far cry from the one believed to have hit the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico 65 million years ago. That was the mother of all disasters, the one estimated at 6 miles in diameter and responsible for an impact so explosive, it killed the dinosaurs, triggered fires and floods, covered the
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world in clouds of ash, blocking the sun and sending the planet into years of wintry darkness. By this measure, the Arizona meteor’s devastating effect on nearby animals and plant life is barely worth noting. But it offers one of the most recent and best-preserved examples, a lunarlike location that NASA astronauts visited in the 1960s to prepare for their coming moonwalk, a place still capable of scaring children (and their parents) and making you wonder about the skies above.

Why did the meteorite hit in what is now Arizona? Chief tour guide Eduardo Rubio doesn’t know, of course, but he feels confident that his decision to live near the crater is a smart one. Rubio, a guide and resident at Meteor Crater for 14 years, says with a smile that he doubts another meteorite would ever hit the same place. Still, he maintains a healthy respect and appreciation for the forces of nature. He gazes up to the sky, then solemnly says, “I know that the heavens are up there and the meteors are up there too.”

I look skyward, then gaze across the crater. The rocky ground below my feet suddenly seems less sure, the sky above more full of fascinating wonders. I dream about sleeping this night under the stars.

* * *

Instead, we head to a nearby destination where, night after night, scientists devote themselves to the exploration of deep space. The Lowell Observatory was founded in Flagstaff in 1894 by Percival Lowell. Among the observatory’s significant achievements is the discovery and identification of Pluto as the ninth planet in our solar system in 1930 (since reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union). Astronaut Neil Armstrong peered through its telescope to study the lunar craters before he, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins made their historic trip to the moon.

Why Flagstaff? The observatory benefits from an altitude of 7,200 feet, which is high enough to minimize atmospheric disturbance, and a town far enough away from a major population center that it has only limited light pollution. Flagstaff takes seriously its commitment to the astronomer’s craft and the heavens above, passing its first lighting ordinance restricting commercial searchlights in 1958 and eventually designated in 2001 as the world’s first International Dark Sky City. Unfortunately, while we see a demonstration of the 24-inch telescope through which astronomer Lowell searched for life on Mars, Flagstaff is experiencing one of its rare cloud-covered nights.

But perhaps no town in Arizona takes the unseen world as seriously as Sedona, known worldwide for its visually entrancing red rock formations. Sedona is a mecca for spirit-minded folks of all stripes — healers and psychics, energy and body workers, shamans and mediums, clairvoyants and channelers — some solely seeking enlightenment, others turning their spiritual interest into a business proposition for tourists and other travelers. They are aided by Sedona’s growing reputation as a center for vortexes — forces that are believed by some to emanate from the rocks and to create unusual spiritual energy.