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By Karoline Cullen

I carefully lower myself into the crack in the earth's crust. I can barely fit and had the guide not said this was the entrance, we would have walked right past it.

My husband Gary and I are in northern Arizona. The famous Grand Canyon is on our itinerary but first on our list are lesser known, but no less intriguing, vents and dents in the earth's crust. Meteor Crater, near Winslow, is an impact site. Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons, by Page, are cathedrals of red sandstone. The vastness of the Crater makes its size difficult to comprehend. The narrowness of the latter two canyons calls for some fancy maneuvering to navigate their sinuous corridors of stone.

As we approach Meteor Crater, walls of rocky rubble rise above the vast desert plateau. They surround a gigantic bowl shaped cavity which was created in a matter of seconds 50,000 years ago. A meteorite, about fifty meters across and weighing several hundred thousand tons, crashed into the rocky plain. The impact sent a shockwave over the desert, spread a blanket of debris for over a mile, and tossed limestone blocks the size of small houses onto the rim. It is a desolate, wind swept, big hole - almost 1.5 kilometers across and deep enough to swallow a sixty story building. I can barely see, even with a telescope, a life size cut-out of an astronaut on the crater floor. It is a nod to when NASA's Apollo astronauts trained here for their geological studies on the moon. Fortunately for ongoing scientific studies, erosion is not taking a huge toll and this crater is the best preserved impact site on Earth.

The unexpectedly large visitor centre provides interactive lessons in astronomy, geology, and history. The crater's story starts in the early 1900's, when D. Barringer thought he could mine iron here. As the meteor fragmented on contact, a lode of ore was not found. Proving a meteor impact created the crater was a long, convoluted process and finally completed in 1960. The Crater continues to be a site for multi-disciplined scientific research. That astrogeologists estimate a Meteor Crater size impact should occur about once every 50,000 years gives us pause.

In contrast to the millennia old crater, Page Arizona dates from the late 1950's when the Glen Canyon Dam was constructed. Perched above Lake Powell, that incongruous desert experience of vibrant blue water rimmed with barren red sandstone, Page makes an ideal base for visiting the Antelope Canyons. Both are on Navajo lands and can only be entered with a guide. For Upper Antelope Canyon, we board open trucks for a bouncy drive across a dusty wash to the entrance.

The Navajo name for the Upper Canyon is Tse'bighanilini, meaning "the place where water runs through rocks." What a sculptor water can be, wearing away sandstone, grain by grain, in swirling, mesmerizing patterns. It is as dim as a gothic church inside the Canyon. The forty meter walls all but block out light from the sky. At certain times, sunbeams pierce the dust filled air to spotlight the sand floor. Weaving our way along the wavy walls, each turn brings a new vista of flowing sandstone and elaborate shapes. Our guide points out the outline of an eagle or a face. I am glad I do not suffer from claustrophobia as passing people in the narrowest spots is a funny dance negotiation. The Canyon is not very long and we pop out the other end into brilliant sunshine. The orange walls contrast magnificently with the clear blue Arizona sky but we do not linger long. It is too intriguing inside.

At Lower Antelope Canyon, known as Hasdestwazi or "spiral rock arches", the guide pauses at a plaque near the entrance. Eleven people were drowned in a flash flood in August 1997 when water 15 meters deep from a thunderstorm in the hills swept through the canyon. Glad there are no flash flood warnings today, we wiggle ourselves down into a subterranean cathedral. Ladders take us further down into narrowing passages. Frozen waves of copper coloured sandstone rise straight up. It is brighter in here than in the Upper Canyon and the walls shine with more colours. Every sensual curve leads to another vista of undulating rock striations. A dry tumbleweed perches on a ledge. A sunbeam passes through a sandstone eye. No wonder the Navajo feel it is a sacred place. It is well worth the squeeze it took to get in here.

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Photos: By Cullen Photos
01 The rim of Meteor Crater.
02 Lake Powell by Page, Arizona.
03 Author at the entrance of Lower Antelope Canyon.
04 A tumbleweed in Lower Antelope Canyon.
05 Lower Antelope Canyon.
06 Narrow sandstone corridors in Lower Antelope Canyon.

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