The Impact Crater that I Almost Missed

Vredefort Impact Crater
The Encyclopedia of Alabama
simply said:

“Bald Knob, the highest point on the rim, and other parts of the crater remnant are clearly visible to travelers entering Wetumpka on US Highway 231 and Alabama Highway 14,”
as if everyone had always known they had been driving on remnants of an impact crater.

Bald Knob in Cinematic Scenes

It is true. If you happen to be in the area of Wetumpka, you can see Bald Knob without too much trouble. You can also drive to the top of it if you want. I have, in fact, a vague memory of once being driven along its narrow tree-lined road almost reaching the top before a chilling fear gripped my mind and drove me back down again. The fear arose partly from the misty light that the full moon makes when it shines through Alabama’s humidity and makes the air look like luminescent potato soup, minus the chunks of potatoes, and partly from a modified horror-movie scene playing in my head.

In the original scene, a car breaks down on a deserted, tree-lined road. A teenaged girl is left, stranded, in the car. Out of the misty darkness, the girl is startled by a noise. A horrifying creature, hiding on top of the car, pounds the car windows. Glass smashes and the creature reaches his bloody, boney hands in for some piece of girly flesh to hold on to as sounds of a rapid heartbeat and the wriggling girl’s terrified screams explode the eerie silence. The screams are squelched. The car door opens and the creature drags the girl’s lifeless, limp body into the woods that line the road before the stillness that must come after such violence settles in.

The difference in that cinematic scene and the one in my head was that the girl in the car was me. The hairy bloody hands of the creature on top of the car reaching through broken glass belonged to the infamous Goatman who, folklore said, roamed Bald Knob looking for warm-blooded creatures to devour and who, most certainly, was clinging to who knows what atop the car carrying me to the top of Bald Knob.

A Star Wound

In 1976 a geologist suspected that Bald Knob was part of the rim of an impact crater. It was a point on the edge of a star wound, he theorized. The words, “star wound,” made me think about Bald Knob as a bump, like the ones you feel when you run your fingers over a scar newly forming over skin smashed and slashed by a hard fall on a protruding knobby root covered by dirt or a grainy sharp-edged rock.

The Rest Area

When I was a little girl in the psychedelic seventy’s, there was a rest area along Highway 231, where you could stop and eat a sandwich on rough concrete picnic tables. You could also walk behind the bathroom building, whose bricks looked like red Legos pasted together with white glue, and let your mind wander down through the rolling, rivery floodplain that spread out below. If you looked the other direction, across Highway 231, you could pick out the top of Bald Knob and, if you wanted a chilling thrill that made your shoulders shutter, you could think about the Goatman that roamed through its forest.

Sometime in 2002, on one of my trips back home, I noticed gates barring the rest area. In front of the gates, but closer to the road, a stately sign had been erected. The sign had the official Alabama seal, a white flag with a simple red “X.” The title, “Wetumpka Impact Crater” was carved in tall font. Smaller strings of words followed and formed a paragraph that you couldn’t read without stopping. These tiny words, despite being built on theories with proofs so fragile that a slight error in one could cause all of them to topple at any moment, begin to read as a string of sure, strong, undeniable, forged-in-metal facts:

“The ridges located here are the remnants of a six-mile diameter circular feature created some 85 million years ago by an estimated 1,000-foot diameter asteroid. The area at the time of impact was a shallow sea. …”

The Kalevala

This of course is an interpretive statement – words written by someone that are meant to help you understand how what you see now is connected to the past. The Kalevala, a Finnish epic built on legends, is an interpretive statement too. Some of its songs, called runes, are thought to describe a time when a meteor broke apart and scarred the Estonian isle of Saaremaa nine times at once when people were alive to see it.

Quick the fire-ball fell from ether,
From the red rims of the cloudlets,
From the plains of the Creator,
Through the ever-moving heavens,
Through the purple ether-spaces, … The Kalevala, Rune XLVII, (J.M. Crawford, trans., 1888)

When B.C. and people existed together, after the period of this and that, and before it rolled into A.D., an invisible hand pulled a trigger. The energy of the meteor bullet that created the nine Kaali craters of Estonia, burst the heavens asunder and dropped down into the perimeter, where man’s eyes rove, revealing a fire child. Like a red rubber ball, flaming fast as lightning, it shot across heaven’s blue arch and hissed its way through the startled clouds before it broke apart like fireworks on the fourth of July. Ten, nine, …. two, one – no time to count. Impact! What was left? Four miles of burned forest? Ravaged maidens, whose charred skin had just moments earlier been blushing? The singed beards of men and heroes who had watched frozen, mouths wide open, on the line dividing safety from peril? Darkness? Coldness?

Light has disappeared from Northland;
Have been sitting long in darkness,
Cold and darkness our companions;
Now we journey to discover
What the fire that fell from heaven,
Falling from the cloud’s red lining,
To the deeps of earth and ocean. The Kalevala, Rune XLVII

Theories and Interpretation

Theories suggest that the meteorite must have vaporized on impact, but perhaps the Hiroshima-like event had etched its signature onto grains of sand yet to be discovered. The presence of microscopic parallel lines etched onto tiny pieces of quartz tell the meteorologist that the ice-cream scoop indentions in the earth’s crust are made by celestial fires hurled down rather than by dissolving rock or by fires that erupt from earth’s hell hearths. Like a fire scar on a tree, or a like a long and faded surgical scar, pink and thick across the abdomen of a child now grown, the lines on shocked quartz particles give evidence to the story of an event so spectacular that it shocked, and irreversibly changed, the world.

The event that left the Wetumpka impact crater is thought to have been one-hundred, seventy-five thousand times more spectacular if you measure it against the drama of the Kaali craters or Hiroshima. The shocked quartz was there far beyond the crater’s surface. Bald Knob was there, reigning less than majestic, on the northwest edge of the crater’s crescent shaped rim, but who knew why before now?

Who living in the seventy’s could have known that a meteor, perhaps with a diameter of almost a quarter of a mile, had blazed into earth, landing with enough power to scatter every kind of light wave you can think of, so that earth and water moved with a violence that far exceeds that of Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Magabe, and Kim Jong-Il combined. Who would know about the fires that burned and burned or about the millions of dust particles flung back into space where they stayed for such a long time that a survivor might shiver and wonder where in the potato-soup sky the sun was hiding? Who in Wetumpka, Alabama would have known this greater story, if a few insightful men hadn’t dug it up it’s delicate proofs and told us about it?

The Epic of Epics

Sometimes a greater story, an ever-lasting thrill, lies quiet and valley-like beside a lesser, but more obvious, one. I, stupid and dense, too often choose the lesser and miss the greater glory. I choose the cheap, temporary thrill of the Goatman legend on the highest point I can see over the monumental, overarching story of the One who created heaven and earth, light and darkness. I loose the awe of God, who walked and died on earth – whose impact made stars move, the ground quake, rocks split, tombs burst asunder, and stony hearts melt into flesh. I miss the story of the Light of the World whose magnificent burst of light gave people, who had chosen to live in a land of darkness and couldn’t find their way back to him, the hope of dawn and a new day. I miss the wonder of God who exploded from a grave with the promise of a new kind of life, and a new kind of world, and the immeasurable life-giving power of love to bring it all into being.

I miss tiny clues scattered on small things like grains of sand around me that point to this heroic epic that still stands strong and tall on the words of millennia-aged men who saw and heard magnificent things. This epic of epics transforms unintelligible bits flung this way and that by catastrophes that leave ridged, gaping heart holes into a stately form of beauty, meaning, and grandeur. This epic, with it’s astounding facts, splendid poetry, peerless prose, and intriguing narrative offers a true, holistic and miracle-laden interpretation of the world I see, and, through that interpretation, the world is transformed into the world I want to live in.


Additional Resources

King, David T., Jr., Wetumpka crater impact page, accessed February 22, 2017.

Virtual Field Trips, vft.asu.edu, “Shocked Quartz,” June 2, 2014, accessed February 22, 2017.

Wetumpka Crater Commission, “The Alabama Impact Crater & Science Center Masterplan Study,” Wetumpka, Alabama, September 2008, accessed February 22, 2017.

Wondermondo.com, Kaali Crater, accessed February 22, 2017.

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