A Morning Walk Through Time

The old railbed, 100 miles from Boston

At the start on Lecount Hollow Rd.

Peter Brannen’s Rambling Through Time is one of those attempts to make the universe comprehensible, which is fun to try but ultimately fails for me. It’s just too big for my brain.

Brannen uses geologist Robert Hazen’s model for a walk, in which each step represents a century back in time. Starting on NY’s Upper West Side, he can’t even get out of the building (the Hayden Planetarium) before he’s passed all of human history. So much for those who think 10,000 BC to the present is a long time! The walk continues at this pace to the Pacific Ocean, but still doesn’t reach the early Cambrian period, when multicellular life as we know it began. And doing that would still represent only 10% of the earth’s history.

At the start on Lecount Hollow Rd.

The old railbed, 100 miles from Boston

For our annual Imbolc walk (a few days late, on Feb 6), Daniel and I decided to pick up the pace. At Hazen’s speed we’d reach the appearance of grass by the end of the Cape Cod Rail Trail, but would not see the first large mammals, much less the dinosaurs, or anything else of interest. To get reptiles, fish, insects, trilobites, and so on, we need to go much faster. See [trail map].

The extended trail runs 25.7 miles, so we used that distance as the benchmark. We increased the pace by 100 times. That means that each step is a century of centuries (10,000 years) and each mile is 21 million years.

Frozen ephemeral pool

Frozen ephemeral pool

We’d need 50,000 steps to reach the early Cambrian. Maybe 60,000, or more if our stride flags near the end. But at this pace it would take just one step to cover all of human history (the wheel, agriculture, writing, pyramids, Buddhism, geology, the Beatles, etc.). The first humans show up at 1/4 mile, about 4 minutes into our 7 hour walk.

A view along the trail

A view along the trail

Starting the walk at LeCount Hollow Rd, 3 miles gets us to the Eastham border, which matches the KT extinction that wiped out most of the dinosaurs who didn’t have feathers or know how to fly. Somewhere in Orleans, Pangaea split up. It had formed 7 miles earlier in Harwich, before the great Permian extinction. Seymour Pond in Brewster/Harwich takes us to the first large reptiles and sharks. The South Dennis trailhead on Rt 134 gets us to the first vertebrates. At the new start of the trail in Yarmouth we see the first multicellular life of the types we know today. (There are earlier multicellular skeletons in our closet.)

Beautiful lichen

Beautiful lichen

If we had the time, Stamford, CT would take us back to the beginning of the earth. I suppose that we could adjust the pace so that the endpoint would be the Hayden Planetarium, but the arithmetic for that hurts my head.

  1. We started the walk this year a little after 7 on the morning of Tuesday, February 6 and finished 6.5 hours later. Our pace was around 3.5 mph. This was to the South Dennis trailhead at the start of the Silurian period

    Now we need to think about attempting the extended trail next year!

      1. 21 mya: Quartenary (1.6 mya), humans [Seashore HQ, Marconi area]
      2. 42 mya: Grande Coupure, Mongolian Remodeling [Fresh Brook]
      3. 63 mya: Tertiary (65 mya), large mammals, angiosperms, grass [Eastham border]
      4. 84 mya: late dinosaurs [Brackett Rd]
      5. 105 mya: similar to today, except with dinosaurs instead of people [Minister Pond, before Rt 6 crossing]
      6. 126 mya: [Samoset Rd, near Salt Pond]
      7. 147 mya: Cretaceous (144 mya), flowering plants [Gov. Prence Rd]
      8. 168 mya: [Orleans Rotary]
      9. 189 mya: Pangaea splits up [Orleans Center]
      10. 210 mya: Jurassic (208 mya), birds, dinosaurs are dominant, conifers [Namskaket Creek]
      11. 231 mya: [before Nickerson State Park, ℗]
      12. 252 mya: Triassic (245 mya), reptiles dominant, mammals, cycads [Linnell Rd]
      13. 273 mya:
      14. 294 mya: Permian (286 mya) [Long Pond Rd, Rt 137, ℗]
      15. 315 mya: [Sheep Pond]
      16. 336 mya: Pangaea forms [Seymour Pond, Black’s Pond]
      17. 357 mya: Carboniferous (360 mya), tree ferns, gymnosperms, large cartilaginous fish, reptiles [Hinckley’s Pond, ℗]
      18. 378 mya: [Katie’s Pond, after Rt 6]
      19. 399 mya: [Great Western Rd, after Bike Rotary]
      20. 420 mya: Devonian (408 mya), amphibians, land animals [Sand Pond, West Reservoir][/caption]
      21. 441 mya: insects, jawed fish, land plants
      22. 462 mya: Silurian (438 mya), terrestrial plants [South Dennis Trailhead, ℗]
      23. 483 mya:
      24. 504 mya:
      25. 525 mya: Ordovician (505 mya), vertebrates, algae flourish, bivalves
      26. 536 mya: Cambrian explosion (541 mya); first multicellular modern phyla, trilobites, fungi [Yarmouth trailhead, ℗]
      27. In the times of the old ones: Ediacaran life forms, green algae, cyanobacteria, bacteria, eukaryotes (2-3 bya), amino acids

     

Time travel in west Texas

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Sunrise out of the cabin

Ever since reading The Time Machine as a teenager, I, like most people, have wondered about time travel. And despite annoying naysaying from logicians and physicists, it still seems like an intriguing idea.

Wolf spider

Wolf spider

Susan and I just spent a week in far west Texas, where we experienced something like time travel. We stayed in a cabin in a caldera near Fort Davis. Other than a barbed wire fence, a single electric line, and a narrow, rutted dirt road there were no signs of human habitation––no other buildings, no cell service, no flights overhead.

An astute rancher might have pointed out that the male cattle were steers, not bulls, and that the cattle and many turkeys around were probably being raised for market. Closer inspection would reveal that there were some planted trees, both for shade and for pecans, but on the whole the impression was of desert isolation.

In this land the people are hard to find, but we could see yucca, sotol, ocotillo, prickly pear, sagebrush, mesquite, live oak, and uncountable wildflowers. We saw buzzards, mockingbirds, huge spiders, whitetail and mule deer. These living friends were framed by gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, and unbelievable cloud formations.

(Reconstructed) Fort Davis from 1854

1854 Fort Davis (reconstructed)

This all made me think of my early days in Fort Worth. We lived then in the new suburbs on the edge of ranchland. In our childhood explorations we could find tarantulas and horned toads, tumbleweeds and cockleburs, scorpions and butterflies. The land seemed to stretch forever into remoteness and romance. When we looked up we could see the Milky Way and thousands of stars.

Fort Davis felt like that Fort Worth of long ago. The contentious Presidential race was irrelevant. The old cashier at the local market wanted to share interesting stories rather than to ring up grocery items. The buildings and houses looked like stage props for an old Western, until you realized that they were still in use, probably by the same family that settled here a century or two ago.

Rhyolite porphyry in fantastic shapes from volcanoes 35 million years ago

Rhyolite porphyry in fantastic shapes from volcanoes 35 million years ago

Fort Davis itself lies at the base of a rhyolite cliff, the south side of the caldera, or box canyon, that held our cabin. With just a few steps we could reach the path to climb the cliff shown above. Without realizing it, we zoomed even further back in time, to an era of intense volcanic activity, which created the Davis Mountains. The rhyolite columns, tuff and pumice, volcanic peaks and domes, took us entirely away from the human world.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the UT McDonald Observatory

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the UT McDonald Observatory (from mcdonaldobservatory.org)

But not long after that we learned what time travel could really be. We went to the nearby University of Texas McDonald Observatory, which takes advantage of the clear mountain air.

Among many projects at McDonald is the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX). This seeks to uncover the secrets of dark energy, using the large Hobby-Eberly Telescope and to survey the sky 10x faster than other facilities can do. It will eventually create the largest map of the Universe ever, with over a million galaxies. In doing so, HETDEX will look back in time 10 billion years.

If there is anything more amazing than the mind-stretching that Fort Davis does, it is that the area is so little visited. In addition to the sites mentioned above, there is a state park with numerous hiking trails, the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and Botanical Gardens, interesting towns such as Alpine and Marfa, and the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool, under the trees at Balmorhea State Park, which takes one back to the wonderful CCC projects of the 1930s.