Rough-Hewn Land

Rough-Hewn Land: A Geologic Journey from California to the Rocky Mountains

Keith Heyer Meldahl
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 320
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pn7jk
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  • Book Info
    Rough-Hewn Land
    Book Description:

    “Unfold a map of North America,” Keith Heyer Meldahl writes, “and the first thing to grab your eye is the bold shift between the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains.” In this absorbing book, Meldahl takes readers on a 1000-mile-long field trip back through more than 100 million years of deep time to explore America’s most spectacular and scientifically intriguing landscapes. He places us on the outcrops, rock hammer in hand, to examine the evidence for how these rough-hewn lands came to be. We see California and its gold assembled from pieces of old ocean floor and the relentless movements of the Earth’s tectonic plates. We witness the birth of the Rockies. And we investigate the violent earthquakes that continue to shape the region today. Into the West’s geologic story, Meldahl also weaves its human history. As we follow the adventures of John C. Frémont, Mark Twain, the Donner party, and other historic characters, we learn how geologic forces have shaped human experience in the past and how they direct the fate of the West today.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94994-2
    Subjects: Geology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. [Illustrations]
    (pp. viii-xiv)
  4. PREFACE
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. PART I: CALIFORNIA
    • 1 GOLDEN GATE
      (pp. 3-18)

      The Farallon Islands poke like rotten teeth out of the Pacific Ocean thirty miles west of San Francisco. The islands get in the way of deep currents, forcing cold, nutrient-rich waters to the surface. Like garden fertilizer, the nutrients—iron, nitrate, and phosphate mostly—trigger blooms of tiny plant-like phytoplankton. Life converges on the plankton.

      Seabirds swarm the skies. Seals and sea lions crowd the shoal waters. Hunger pulls them toward the sea, but fear keeps them near the shore. The fat sea mammals form a 24/7 snack stand for Great White sharks. Boatloads of tourists motor out from San...

    • 2 MOTHER LODE
      (pp. 19-34)

      Beginning in 1848, as the news of gold in the western Sierra Nevada foothills burst upon the world, people from all corners of the Earth began to converge on California. It was, in the words of historian H. W. Brands, “the most astonishing mass movement of peoples since the Crusades.”

      Thousands came overland from the eastern United States, following the hard wagon roads across the American West. Thousands more came by ship. As the great brigs, barks, and schooners dropped anchor in San Francisco Bay, the crews abandoned ship as fast as the passengers, all heading off to the gold...

    • 3 RIVERS OF GOLD
      (pp. 35-46)

      “Civilization exists by geological consent,” the historian Will Durant once remarked. He was right. Imagine civilization without geologic consent. You’d have no electricity. (We get most of our juice from burning coal, the remains of fossilized plants.) You’d have no fuel or lubricating oil for your vehicle. (They come from crude oil.) But that wouldn’t matter because there would be no roads to drive on. (Asphalt comes from crude oil; concrete from limestone and gypsum.) Andthatwouldn’t matter because there would be no planes, trains, or automobiles. (Steel comes from iron ore.) You’d have no clothing that you didn’t...

    • 4 A TRAVERSE ACROSS THE RANGE OF LIGHT
      (pp. 47-60)

      In the spring of 1868, a broke, grubby drifter arrived by steamer into San Francisco Bay. City ways did not set well with him, and he soon inquired about the quickest way out of town. “ ‘Where do you want to go?’ asked the man to whom I had applied. ‘To any place that is wild,’ I said.’ ”

      The man directed the wanderer to the Oakland ferry, and on April 1, 1868, he set out on foot for the Sierra Nevada. “It was the bloom time of year,” he remembered, and “the landscapes of the Santa Clara Valley were...

    • 5 WHERE IS THE EDGE OF THE NORTH AMERICAN PLATE?
      (pp. 61-76)

      Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland, sits on the edge of Faxaflói Bay, a huge cove that faces southwest to snare some warmth from the northern tendrils of the Gulf Stream. The surrounding tundra landscape is stark, dominated by dark lava beds and volcanic cones. If lush vegetation is what you seek, cross Iceland off your list. A sad collection of mosses and shriveled shrubs clings to cracks in the lava beds. Iceland is built entirely of lava, most of it less than three million years old. Magma hovers close underground nearly everywhere, making Iceland a geothermal tourist’s delight. Within an...

  6. PART II: THE BASIN AND RANGE AND THE GREAT BASIN
    • 6 WHERE RIVERS DIE
      (pp. 79-96)

      In May 1804, at the behest of President Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out for the Pacific Ocean. Jefferson hoped the explorers would find a viable river trade route to the Pacific across the new lands of the Louisiana Purchase. Ideally, a short overland portage would link the headwaters of the Missouri River with those of the Columbia River. Such a connection would enrich the young nation with Pacific trade and establish an American presence in the Pacific Northwest.

      The young captains came back two years later with good news and bad news. The expedition had crossed...

    • 7 THE GROWING PAINS OF MOUNTAINS
      (pp. 97-116)

      On a bright July afternoon some years ago, I found myself standing with dozens of other people on a peak that, in summer, is one of the most crowded in the American West. To reach Mount Whitney, you first do a lot of waiting. You wait in line for a hiking permit at the ranger station in the tiny town of Lone Pine, two vertical miles below Mount Whitney in the Owens Valley. Then you wait behind cars jockeying for limited parking at the Whitney Portal trailhead. Then you wait on the trail, as day-hikers, backpackers, and mule trains jam...

    • 8 WEALTH AND MAGMA
      (pp. 117-130)

      The Great Basin—dry, rugged, earthquake-rattled, and mostly empty of people—is nonetheless a land of staggering geologic wealth. California, the Golden State, is misnamed. Nevada, the Silver State, today produces far more gold annually than California ever did, even during the gold rush. Nevada today accounts for three-fourths of all U.S. gold production and nearly 10 percent of world gold production. And for every ounce of gold, Nevada generates nearly two ounces of silver, thirty ounces of copper, and quantities of lead, zinc, iron, molybdenum, mercury, uranium, and tungsten. You can’t go anywhere in Nevada without running into evidence...

    • 9 WATER AND SALT
      (pp. 131-146)

      Along the south bank of the Snake River in southern Idaho lies a black boulder of basalt twelve feet across. It sits in a grassy hollow several hundred yards uphill from where the river glides by in its canyon. The ground around the boulder was a favorite resting spot for pioneers on the Oregon and California trails. While their animals grazed along a nearby creek, some pioneers chiseled their names into the surface of the boulder. Weather and vandalism have obscured many of the names (a fence and roof protect the boulder today), but dozens of others are still visible....

    • 10 EVOLUTION’S BIG BANG
      (pp. 147-162)

      In western Utah, a dazzling mountain called the House Range juts nearly a vertical mile up from the sagebrush flats of the Tule Valley. Were such a spectacle to appear anywhere east of the Rockies, it would become an instant national park. Here, though, in this empty quarter of the Great Basin, not even a sign marks it. The closest pavement is twenty-five miles away, the closest gas station eighty miles. You may not see another soul for days here. If you do, the meeting is cause for extended conversation about the roads (bad), the weather (hot), guns (liberals go...

  7. PART III: THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS
    • 11 RANGE-ROVING RIVERS
      (pp. 165-182)

      As mid-ninteenth-century pioneers rolled west in their covered wagons across the Great Plains, they entered a world beyond previous imagination. Most of them had lived their whole lives in the East and the Midwest, on lands that were flat, green, and thick with humus. Now, with each passing day, the land roughened as vigorous streams from the distant Rockies cut sharp valleys into the rising plains. The air, descending from the mountains, lost its ability to condense moisture into rain. With the growing aridity, grasses withered and gave way to sagebrush. The Rockies began to peek up on the horizon....

    • 12 UP FROM THE BASEMENT
      (pp. 183-198)

      Towns in Colorado and Wyoming often post their elevations, and sometimes their populations, on signs at the outskirts. It’s a curious tradition. Is it to help arriving tourists break the ice with locals? “I see that your town is 7,362 feet above sea level—that’s some thin air!” More likely, it reflects the commanding influence of geography on the lives of Rocky Mountain residents. Colorado and Wyoming encompass some of the highest and emptiest regions in the United States, and the elevations of many towns thus far outstrip their populations. Allenspark, Colorado: 8,450 feet above sea level, population 496; Centennial,...

    • 13 AT THE FRONTIER
      (pp. 199-216)

      Nearly everywhere from Montana to New Mexico, the Rocky Mountains face the Great Plains like a mighty wall. But if you approach the mountains along the route of Interstate 80 in southeastern Wyoming, they appear much less formidable. From western Nebraska, the interstate rises like a smooth ramp all the way to the summit of the Laramie Range. It’s as if someone had laid a great plank across the landscape, with one end on the Great Plains and the other on the roofline of the mountain. When, in 1865, surveyors for the Union Pacific Railroad found this smooth route from...

  8. APPENDIX I: DEEP TIME: Fathoming the Rock Record
    (pp. 217-232)
  9. APPENDIX II: SEEING FOR YOURSELF
    (pp. 233-244)
  10. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. 245-246)
  11. NOTES
    (pp. 247-258)
  12. GLOSSARY
    (pp. 259-266)
  13. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 267-280)
  14. FIGURE SOURCES AND CREDITS
    (pp. 281-286)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 287-296)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 297-298)