Sailing A Different Sea

Kansas: an ocean of grass

To undertake a westward journey on any early American trail — to begin life on the Oregon or Santa Fe, the Mormon or Gila — necessarily demanded the acceptance of difficulties.

From accounts in pioneer diaries, scientific notebooks, and letters written to family and friends, it seems that Indian raids, horse rustling, gunfights, and buffalo stampedes were the least of it. More often, quotidian challenges became the undoing of even the strongest traveler. Mired wagons; swarming insects; meal after meal of crackers and tea; the combination of overpowering thirst and stagnant, disease-ridden water; all these demanded remarkable levels of commitment and persistence.

Still, the diaries and letters contain more than complaints about inevitable annoyances and disasters. Verdant hills, unfamiliar flowers, cottonwood, walnut, and ash trees lining the rivers and filling their bottoms all served — to one degree or another — to compensate for pioneer trials.

As they sailed toward the horizon, images of life on a metaphorical sea permeated their descriptions: the rising and falling of wagons on the gently undulating land; the grasses opening, then closing behind them as they passed through prairie swells; wave upon wave of dragonfly and bird, and the unpredictable flotsam of blossoms. The prairie schooner became their ship, the rock promontory their lighthouse, and the starlit sky above a confirmation of their course.

Even as they sailed across the grasslands, remnants of another vast, primordial sea lay stretched beneath their feet. Geologists and paleontologists had not yet described in detail the remarkable Western Interior Seaway that formed and dissipated millennia before the prairies and plains were born, but they knew of its existence.

During the Cretaceous Period (a span of geologic time extending from about 144 to 66 million years ago, defined in 1822 and named for the chalk which formed from shells of marine invertebrates), Kansas was under water. Unlike the relatively shallow seas of the Pennsylvanian and Permian periods, the waters that advanced and retreated during the Cretaceous were deeper and more widespread.

Western Interior Seaway ~  Middle Campanian State, Upper Cretaceous Period

The Kansas Geological Survey, an affiliate of the University of Kansas, describes conditions in that sea:

The seawater was relatively deep, slightly less salty than normal, and had a temperature characteristic of mild-temperate to subtropical climates. The sea floor was almost perfectly flat, and the materials being deposited on it were soft and watery. The deposition of this material took place at a rate of approximately 0.036 mm per year.
Bottom currents were weak and bottom waters were poor in oxygen. The scene at the bottom of the ocean was dark, monotonous, and hostile to many groups of marine organisms.

Today, traces of that sea have been preserved in three types of rock found in an area of Kansas known as the Smoky Hills: Dakota Formation sandstone, Greenhorn Formation limestone, and Niobrara chalk.

Niobrara chalk resembles the White Cliffs of Dover, a similar soft and porous  limestone formed during the Cretaceous period. As marine organisms living near the surface died and fell into the depths of the sea, their shells dissolved into a thick, soup-like mixture that surrounded and preserved the remains of other prehistoric creatures as it solidified.

Along with the fish, sharks, and turtles we easily recognize, there also were mosasaurs (a swimming, meat-eating lizard), plesiosaurs (another swimming reptile), and pterosaurs (flying reptiles sometimes called pterodactyls).

The calm, stable waters also allowed for the preservation of giant clams (Inoceramus) and small oysters from the genus Ostrea, as well as other lesser creatures who attached themselves to the clams. Museums around the world contain examples of these Niobrara Chalk fossils; their abundance helped to bring about the designation of the area as one of our first National Natural Landmarks.

After tectonic forces lifted the Smoky Hills region and exposed the seabed, wind and rain began eroding the sandstone and chalk.

Because harder layers within the chalk offered some protection from erosion, distinctive formations — the pillars, cliffs, and pyramids we know today as Castle Rock, Monument Rocks, and the Kansas Badlands — began to emerge.

After my first visit to Kansas, a friend who roams the state on a regular basis said, “Next time, you’ll have to go west, to Monument Rocks. They’re in the middle of nowhere, and if it rains the roads’ll be a mess. But you’ll probably have them to yourself, and you won’t believe you’re in Kansas.”

He was right on three of four counts. In the absence of rain, the roads were passable, but Monument Rocks certainly was isolated and tourist-free. I had them to myself, and I couldn’t believe I was in Kansas.

Some say the Smoky Hills region and its river are named for the early morning haze that forms in the area.  As the day wears on, the haze can become almost smoke-like, obscuring the horizon and washing out the colors of the landscape.

Mid-day Monument Rocks ~ Gove County, Kansas

But at sunrise, grasses and rocks alike glow golden in the light.

As the sun rises farther above the horizon, the natural grays, yellows, and whites of the chalk became more evident.

Wandering through the old seabed, I found myself entranced by its details, and amused by the fanciful shapes erosion had created.

In some formations, the various layers are obvious.

In others, a single moment in the process of erosion is suspended in time.

It was hard not to see the Sphinx stretched at ease across the land.

Or to imagine the rock offering a doorway to the past.

Patches of red scattered across the surface of the rocks probably are iron sulfide. Concretions caused by the precipitation of sulfides within the chalky ooze before it solidified are fairly common, and the role of iron sulfides in fossil preservation is well documented.

Since the chalk formations are composed primarily of fossils, even an inexperienced searcher can find a few. Here, oyster shells near the top of the photo are obvious. The smooth, linear objects beneath are the edges of giant clam shells.

Of all the remarkable things I’ve learned about the Niobrara chalk, one of the most interesting is that the earliest good description of the formations was provided by Henry Engelmann¹, youngest sibling of famed botanist George Engelmann.

Before becoming Assistant State Geologist in Illinois, and later overseeing the ore department for Matthiesen and Hegeler Zinc Company, Henry joined General James Harvey Simpson’s 1858 Expedition to the Southwest. It was during those travels that he described the chalk beds along the Kansas-Nebraska border.

Of course, the area contains more than rocks, and George Engelmann probably would have enjoyed the expedition as well. Another George, George M. Robertson, published a survey of the flora and fauna of the Monument Rocks area in a 1939 issue of the Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science. After noting that areas some distance from the monoliths are characterized by buffalo grass and blue grama grass, he adds:

The ground lying immediately around the pyramids, however, is rough, and the mantle of black soil characteristic of the better land in this region has, in most cases, been completely eroded away, leaving only badly disintegrated fragments of limestone to support the bunchy, sparse vegetation.
In 2017, the vegetation still is bunchy and sparse
The landscape from a distance reminds one of the sagebrush farther west. Closer examination, however, reveals the shiny, bunch condition to be caused by occasional plants of four wing saltbush, (Atriplex canescens) and eriogonum (Eriogonum effusum). These bunches of xeric forbs are intermixed with individual plants of side-oats grama, hairy sporobolus, wire grass, and little bluestem.
Four-wing salt bush (bottom left) near a monolith

Many of the flowers and plants Robertson recorded are familiar: broomweed, blazing star (Liatris punctata), many-flowered aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides), yucca (Yucca glauca), narrow-leaved tetraneuris (Tetraneuris scaposa), purple prairie clover, scarlet gaura, prairie false boneset, and spiny sideranthus  (now renamed Xanthisma spinulosum).

From left to right:  faded blazing star, yucca, and little bluestem

Robertson noted an abundance of rattlesnakes — the only reptile he mentioned — as well as coyotes, skunks, ground squirrels, jack rabbits, cottontails, and kangaroo rats.

His list of birds is interesting both for the species it includes — golden and American eagles, assorted owls and hawks, the meadow and prairie horned larks, the great blue heron — and for one it fails to mention: the cliff swallow.

Today, every nook and cranny of the rocks is filled with old swallow nests. By the time I arrived, the young had fledged and the birds had flown, but it was possible to imagine them fluttering and calling among the cliffs: grateful, perhaps, to have found such suitable and safe lodgings in the midst of the interminable plains.

Had I not arrived just after sunrise, I might have lingered until sunset, to catch the fading light against the rocks. But like the birds, I had places to go, and so I flew. Perhaps next year I’ll return with the birds: seeking the solace of solidified seas.

Comments are welcome.
[1] More details about Henry Engelmann can be found in the Engineering and Mining Journal, Volume 67, April 15, 1899.

120 thoughts on “Sailing A Different Sea

    1. My mind was boggled several times as I was working on this, Kayti. Most people have at least heard of the Flint Hills, but there’s a lot more going on in Kansas geologically than I’d ever realized. One part of the country I still haven’t visited is called the post rock country. There’s a section of the state where limestone is so near the surface, of such even thickness, and so easily cut, that fence posts were made from it.

      There’s a sculptor who’s been busying himself carving some of these fence posts. Here’s an example of his work. I’m sure there are others doing the same thing. It’s something else to explore.

        1. His name is Fred Whitman, and his studio is in Ventura, California. His training in sculpture? He says his profession of dentistry is all the formal training he’s had. I found a wonderful video. I think you’ll enjoy this.

          1. Small world. He lives in Ojai near my daughter. His mother is artist Nancy Whitman. My dear old friend Beatrice Woods lived on a hilltop in Ojai as well. Of course they knew each other. Grandson also lived in Ojai so we know it well. His work is wonderful.

            1. Small world, indeed. I thought his work was extraordinary — glad to see you agree. If I manage another trip up there, I hope to see more.

    1. When so many think that history is limited to what happened last Tuesday, it’s bracing to take the (much, much) longer view of things. It’s always fun to do the research for an article like this, too. I know a good bit more about geology and paleontology — and Kansas — than I did when I started, that’s for sure. Thanks for the kind words.

    1. Sometimes people think I’m not paying a lick of attention — little do they know. Besides, I almost always take advice from people who know what they’re talking about. The only problem with the visit is that I crossed one spot off my list, and gained ten more — isn’t that just the way it goes?

  1. The photography is excellent; you caught the light like a Lantern Goddess. Your research, as always, impresses but it is the language of the “sea” that made this post flow…the ebb and tide, the surprise of rock and fossil–I would have thought I was stepping gingerly around the tide pools of the Central Coast. Lovely work, Linda. Quite macro, really.

    1. It was extraordinary, really, to walk among the formations and realize it was the surface of an old seabed fifty or seventy feet above my head. Photos from the 1800s show families picnicking on the rocks, or lined up for group portraits. It’s easy to see how much has eroded away since then. Many formation are simply piles of shell and dust at this point.

      It’s worth noting that Monument Rocks are on private land. The ranch recently sold, and there was some concern the new owners wouldn’t allow access. But they have, and there’s nothing there in terms of constraint except this single sign. I’ve read that plenty of photographers, school groups, star-gazers, and just folks make treks out there, but I don’t remember seeing a single bit of litter for miles and miles, and certainly not around the rocks. I’d say they’re getting the respect they deserve.

  2. Well done Linda, in words, information and photos. It’s a view we rarely have of Kansas. It is always fascinating when nature chooses to display her geological history, whether in Kansas or at the Grand Canyon. One of my reasons for loving the Southwest as I do is because of the exposed geology and the beauty of the rocks. You certainly caught both with your post on the monument rocks. And then there are always the fantastic forms that fire our imagination. –Curt

    1. I’ve been working on this post for a good while, and I always grinned when you started waxing rhapsodic about some of the rocks in your posts. “Ha!” I’d think. “You just wait, Curt. I’ve got some rocks, too!”

      Beyond that, I couldn’t help thinking of William Least Heat-Moon, and how his explorations of Chase County, Kansas became Prairy Erth. When I realized I had four thousand words wrapped around Monument Rocks, I had to start editing — as was proper, for a blog post — but he went the other direction, and I better understand now how a project like that can take on a life of its own.

      It’s true that Kansas — and other states — do exist in many people’s minds as little more than place holders to keep the east and west coasts from bumping into each other. That’s fine. While they’re flying over or whizzing through on I-40, the rest of us will keep poking around and discovering new treasures.

      1. You know my weakness for rocks well, Linda. And I confess, I was impressed with what Kansas has to offer. I’ll also admit that I have hurried through Kansas a time or two. :) Next time, I’ll go looking for rocks.
        I haven’t read Prairy Erth, and I certainly like Moon. I’ll have to check it out.
        I did spend a little time in Dodge City, however. I grew up on Westerns and had to make the pilgrimage. –Curt

  3. When I had my blogs on Blogger, I characterized my location as “Adrift on the Cretaceous Seas.” We’re at the edge of the old continental shelf (Edwards Plateau, which drops off down around Post) and the mesa country there is old coral reefs. There are times when you’re outside the man-made forest of our town that you can feel you are on a waveless shallow sea. One hears apocryphal stories of sea captains being hired to navigate wagon trains across the “Sea of Grass” because they can use sextants to plot the course.

    1. Years ago, a friend who grew up in the Panhandle used to tell stories of sitting on the front steps of their farm and looking out over the crops. He imagined them to be like the sea, and was convinced that’s part of the reason he joined the Navy. He fell in love with the idea of the ocean before he ever saw a real one.

      Your mention of coral reefs brought to mind an interesting tidbit from an article on Texas geology: “Hurricanes were apparently common in Texas during the Cretaceous Period, because global climates then were significantly warmer than today. This is illustrated by the fact that during the Cretaceous Period, coral reefs formed as far north as 70° North latitude, well above the Arctic Circle. Today, reefs cannot form much above 35°, because the oceans are too cold for corals.” Amazing.

      The hiring of sea captains might well be apocryphal. What’s certain is that the surveying teams that crossed the plains in the 1800s made use of sextants to chart their course, and their use probably was more common than we realize. When I started sailing, in 1987, there still were courses in sextant use being offered, and we carried sextants with us when I sailed from Hawaii to Alaska. In just thirty years, their use has been almost eliminated, along with such things as Morse Code. After the Great EMP arrives, a sextant might come in handy.

  4. Your photos are stunning. Maybe you’ll sleep later next time, and be able to stay long enough to capture it at sunset. I can’t get enough of these photos. Love that the cliff swallows made cozy homes there. Too bad those giant clams aren’t still around. I wouldn’t mind feasting on one of those. That map reminds me that if you wait long enough, anything can happen, and then it can happen again.

    1. You’d better approach that big clam carefully. I read they’ve found some that were ten feet across. A clam that big couldn’t eat you, but it certainly could clamp down on you pretty enthusiastically.

      Me sleeping late on a trip probably isn’t going to happen. I like to get out and about, because I’m a little cautious about lingering after dark. Even with my new eyes, driving unfamiliar and unmarked gravel roads in the middle of nowhere, by myself, after dark, is something I try to avoid. But with the right planning, a wide-angle lens, and increased photographic skills, I’d love to give it a try. If nothing else, a really early morning trip would be worth the effort.

      I’m glad you like the photos. I think it would be great to be there when the swallows are nesting. Can’t you imagine the excitement of the first birds that figured out they could homestead there? I wonder whether they use old nests from season to season. Obviously, some weather away, but others seemed to be in really good shape. There certainly were a lot of spiders making use of them.

  5. Outstanding, Linda. I took plate tectonics in college and could visualize the motions as you described each development. Kansas proves to have greater evidence of its development than most!!

    1. GP, your comment that you could follow the developments makes me happy, It’s taken me some time to post about this part of my trip because I had to dig into fields I knew very little about. Every Texan (or oil and gas person) knows the phrase “Permian basin,” but I’d never spent much time visiting the Cretaceous period. Now, I’d love to visit another Niobrara chalk formation called Wildcat Canyon. It’s even farther west, almost to Colorado, but it certainly does look interesting.

    1. I’m not surprised that this landscape resonates for you, eremophila. It’s not as wild as the Outback, but it’s certainly more wild than many places in this country — and unique, as well. One reason I want to get back there sooner rather than later is that the formations are so vulnerable to natural erosion, some of them might disappear before I do! There are photos of well-known pillars and buttes that have collapsed because of rain and wind: natural processes do what they will.

  6. Your post brings to mind the beautifully written story “The Secret Place” by Richard McKenna.

    Most people know McKenna as the author of “The Sand Pebbles” but he was one of science fiction’s better writers. The Secret Place is about a geologist searching for uranium in Oregon during the 1940’s. He encounters a girl who lives in a fantasy world and over the course of the story, discovers that the landscape she describes is nothing less than the geology buried deep beneath their feet.

    1. That’s a fascinating premise — and one more plausible than I would have thought possible before this little exploration. I found the story excerpted online, but I may see if our library has the anthology that includes it. We really are sandwiched between the earth and the sky. Most of the time, it’s easier to look up and out than down and in.

      I remember The Sand Pebbles. My folks were great fans of the Book of the Month Club, which offered it as a selection. I don’t remember reading it, but I do remember that my dad liked it.

      1. It is beautiful and heart-wrenching nivek about the bumbling American involvement in China during the Nationalist movement. The novel was turned into movie and is one of the rare cases where the movie was as good as the book.

  7. The sea metaphor is one I conjured myself a few summers ago in the grasslands of South Dakota, where truly “amber waves of grain” flowed across the landscape in a light evening wind. It was one of the most spectacular natural scenes I’ve ever witnessed – much more moving than some of the famous landforms I have visited in more exotic places. The geologic details here are a fun refresher course for me; in my first career here in Texas in the oil and gas industry, the Cretaceous Period played a distant co-starring role in many of my customers’ livelihood!

    1. “Amber waves of grain” was one of the phrases that came to mind when I was pondering the ways that nautical imagery permeated the language of the pioneers. And when I first saw the autumn grasses of the Flint Hills, my reaction was much like yours: astonishment that something so simple could be so grand. It took me years to figure out why ocean and prairie both appeal to me so deeply. Finally, it clicked: it’s the horizon.

      Funny you should mention oil and gas. I think the first bit of Texas geology I learned — many years ago — was the phrase “Permian basin.” Where I came from, a basin was something you washed your face in. I don’t know how I would have interpreted “Cretaceous”!

      1. Haha! I think I originally thought Cretaceous had to do with ocean creatures like lobsters (obviously confused with crustaceans!). Still on the sea theme, though!

  8. This post is such a lovely combination of art & science. It’s writing like this that can get people instantly interested in geology, geography, natural science, etc.
    Excellent photos, I like your Sphinx and Portal to the Past! Despite the sparse vegetation, I can see it as a sea-bottom.
    Almost all the plants are unknown to me. I’m sorry that boneset has turned false, out there on the prairie, the true one, I’ve seen mentioned as the most useful herbal remedy for flu. When I looked up the use of “false,” there was an article by Mike Slater, in Lancaster County, quoting Gray’s Manual of Botany (for Northeastern U.S.) — it lists 35 plants labeled that way.

    1. Robertson’s scientific name for the boneset was Kuhnia glutinosa. The name apparently has been changed to Brickellia eupatorioides — botanists do that. But here’s something interesting. The USDA map doesn’t show the plant in Kansas, but the BONAP page shows it in every county in the state. Of course there’s an explanation; I just don’t know what it is.

      It’s interesting that the species is so widespread over so much of the country, but missing in the northeast and the west. I did a quick check, and it seems you do have a species or two of liatris (blazing star), but you might know that by a different name.

      Here’s one more fun connection. Asa Gray (of Gray’s Manual of Botany) was friends with George Engelmann. Their correspondence is online, and in the first letter here, on the first page, Engelmann is telling Gray of some flowers he found at Niagara. I’ll bet he would have loved your fungus photos.

  9. I imagine my geologist father would have loved reading this, Linda (though he was probably aware of many of the facts you uncovered). I, too, found it most fascinating … and educational. Our forebears were definitely a hardy bunch! I can’t see myself enjoying “primitive” travel across an unknown prairie, but I’m sure their excursion was worthwhile. Thanks for doing the research here, and I’ll be sure to read your follow-up on the swallows!

    1. I’m sure he would have known all this, and more, Debbie. I’m just glad for the introduction to this remarkable era that my trip provided. I’ve always enjoyed rocks, and I’ve known a bit about them — what makes pumice different from granite, for example — but I’ve never delved quite as deeply as I did here, and I found it fascinating, too.

      One thing is certain. Those travelers on the prairies and plains understood “landmarks” more deeply than we usually do. All of these rocks really were marks on the land: ways of marking their progress, and providing assurance they still were on the right road. I suppose that helps to explain why their observations were so sharp, even in personal diaries.

  10. The pictures are beautiful. I don’t know a lot about Kansas, so it was interesting to learn about these formations. The chalk formations remind me much about Limestone which is prevalent where I live. Do you know if they’re related somehow? Geology wise of course.

    1. They are related. Here’s a page that shows several limestone varieties. Chalk seems to be the softest. Here in Texas, there are several varieties of limestone; highways have been cut through the rock in some places, and it’s fun to stop and see what’s been exposed. I have a collection of fossils from the Texas hill country. Those come from limestone, too, although it’s a harder stone than the Kansas chalk. It still erodes, and sometimes chunks come loose, but it holds up pretty well.

      Limestone is a traditional stone for construction in the hill country, too. There’s nothing prettier than a stone house, in my opinion.

  11. Such a different and extraordinary kind of sea – or seabed as it actually is. It did take some determination and courage to be the first to cross it, didn’t it. Like any firsts crossing a sea. A fascinating read, Linda.

    1. The mountains are one kind of world, the plains another. But natural forces created them both, and it’s possible to “read” the stories that are contained there. I suppose we pay more attention to mountains and canyons because they’re so obvious, but even the prairies and plains have their stories, and they are fascinating.

  12. It seems like a miracle to me that people managed to travel so far and wide.
    The rolling hills and grasses are their own sea – how cool to transition to the old waters.
    “process of erosion is suspended in time” – one of your post’s great phrases. Geology is such a book of knowledge. How sad it seems to be little opened in schools – this stuff could enthrall students…of course being there is even better.
    Cool post

    1. They did travel. I used to think that, once a wagon train reached its destination, people got off and that was it. But the more I’ve read, the more I’ve realized that people went from east to west and back again multiple times. It got easier once the stage coach lines and trains came along, but even before that, they traveled.

      Your mention of the schools reminded me that there’s one school where geology is firmly embedded in tradition: the famous “rock chalk” chant from the University of Kansas comes directly from the state’s geological history. You can hear it in a clip here. The page explains that “rock chalk” is “a transposition of chalk rock, the name for the limestone outcropping found on Mount Oread, site of the Lawrence campus.”

    1. You want to go there? I thank you, and Monument Rocks thanks you, and the Kansas Tourist Bureau thanks you! Kansas has so much to offer, and while there certainly are attractions close by the interstate highways, there’s so much, much more. I suppose that’s true of every place, of course — even our back yards. It’s just a matter of looking.

  13. You sailed well in this post, Linda. Amazing to read and not come to the conclusion that uniqueness of this world is there for those that look.
    I know that it is Kansas but here in Australia it could be Arnhem Land or the Channel Country. A world so old and of which the geological reading is so visible too.
    A great post.

    1. I have an Australian blogger-friend who’s doing her own land cruising through the northern part of your country. Recently, she was in the Flinders ranges, and Hawker, which bills itself as the “gateway to Pichi Richi Pass, Wilpena Pound, Brachina, Bunyeroo and Parachilna Gorges.” Now, that’s a different world.

      It will be interesting to see if she gets into the areas you mentioned. She gave up a permanent dwelling and is living and traveling in a nicely outfitted van. You can find her here.
      I loved this single sentence about the Channel Country: “The area’s towns and cattle stations are serviced by a mail run that is operated by West Wing Aviation which delivers goods and passengers as well as mail.” That says as much about the area as its formal description as a “riverine desert.”

      Plenty of people don’t like areas like the Outback and the Great Plains, but for those of us who do, I suspect there’s no end of delights.

  14. Absolutely fascinating—both the photos and the text. I’ve been through Kansas many times and have never fully appreciated what I was missing.

    1. There are plenty of us who’ve shared that experience, Jean. I had relatives scattered across Kansas for years, but did I ever go beyond Kansas City? No.

      What’s really amusing is that in the past five years I’ve been to places in the state my cousins never have seen, and sometimes haven’t heard of. On the other hand, there are attractions in my home state, Iowa, that I never visited when I lived there. I had no idea that there’s a group of lakes known collectively as the Iowa Great Lakes. I’ve heard of Okoboji, but never have visited the place. We’d visit Minnesota, but I suspect it was my dad’s fishing preferences that made that decision.

  15. If we pay attention to the plains as we do the mountains, we find much. But, we have to pay attention. Reminds of the photography of Terry Evans, Salina photographer. She pointed her camera at the soil, with stunning results: Geology, history, language, the mix that makes the plains come alive.

      1. I’ve never been to Salina, but I found some interesting connections. It’s in Saline County, which contains many salt marshes, and some local history sites say that “Salina” is a variation of “saline.” It’s also on the Smoky Hill River, and has a Smoky Hill Museum dedicated to the history of the Smoky Hills. I become vertiginous just thinking about the way my list of places to see is expanding.

    1. I know Terry Evans’s work. In her portfolio, there’s a gallery devoted to Matfield Green, a town I stayed in during both of my extended visits to Kansas. You’re right that her photos of the land are exquisite. I have to admit I grinned when I saw a couple of her cloud photos, and realized how like some of mine they are. That’s nice to see, too.

      I talk about Annie Dillard and her famous Pilgrim At Tinker Creek a good bit. But another book of hers that I admire is a collection of essays: Teaching A Stone To Talk. Lately, I’ve been wondering if stones don’t already speak, and we just haven’t been listening.

  16. Beautiful photos and a fascinating voyage upon the solidified seas. Did you wonder what was still beneath you? I found some information on ‘sinks’ in the area but I wondered if you put your ear to the ground you could still hear the ocean calling? Fanciful me!

    1. No, I didn’t think one bit about what lay beneath. I was too busy looking up at the top of the seabed, or at the sides of the rocks, just to see what I could see. If I’d known about the sinks when I was there, I would have made a visit. Butler and Clark counties, which contain some of the more impressive examples, are just on the fringes of areas I passed through.

      You know who is putting an ear to the ocean’s floor, don’t you? The expedition that set sail yesterday (if all went as planned) to explore the lost continent of Zealandia. There’s been more in the news here than you might expect, because one of the U.S. scientists is Jerry Dickens, a professor at Houston’s Rice University. That is going to be a fascinating voyage. I suspect there will be a good bit about it in your news, too.

      1. There isn’t as much about the expedition as I would have expected. But it will be interesting to learn more about what is under us….. I think…..we really are such a fragile little land way out in the wide ocean. Your pioneers may have felt like dots upon the prairie ocean but sometimes I feel we (Kiwis) are a dot on the real ocean and we could go under anytime.

        1. It’s one thing to be a little dot on the ocean. Hawaii surely has that experience, too. But your placement on the ocean and the relative frequency of seismic activity no doubt adds to the feeling of vulnerability. I suppose Hawaii’s volcanic activity is a concern for them, but lava flows are a different critter. When I wondered if there are active lava flows today and went looking, I discovered this video that’s in many ways more interesting and compelling than the standard lava-flowing-into-the-ocean tv specials. Being able to prepare helps — a lot.

          Of course, it’s also true that our whole planet is a little dot floating in the ocean of space. I try not to think too much about how easily all of us could go under at any time. We don’t have the firmest hands at the helm just now.

            1. I’ve never seen that page. It’s really interesting, and informative for someone who tends not to think about volcanos in New Zealand — mostly because all the news since I’ve started paying attention to your country has been about earthquakes. I have that page bookmarked now, and tucked in with the rest of my weather links. That seems a bit of a weird place to put it, since volcanic eruptions aren’t exactly weather events, but they do affect the weather. Let’s hope I never have any reason to consult the page other than idle curiosity.

            1. I’ve not seen the documentary, but I’ve kept up a bit with the Voyagers. One of my favorite pages is this one, which has real-time odometers for both of the spacecraft, and some interactive features. The pages that show the photos that were taken are amazing, especially the more abstract ones from Jupiter.

    1. I hadn’t considered it, but it’s a good idea. As soon as I recover from researching and writing the darned thing, I’ll look into it. After all:

      An author must never propose
      that everything comes to a close.
      There’s always a chance
      that an editor’s glance
      will give rise to the thought, “I suppose…”

      1. By the way, your mention of Niobrara chalk reminded me immediately of the Niobrara River, which we encountered several times on our recent trip, most notably at the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in Nebraska. The next time you return to Kansas, perhaps you can eke out a couple of days extra to hit western Nebraska.

        1. Funny you should mention the Niobrara River. For some time now, I’ve been following the blog of Chris Helzer, the Nature Conservancy’s Director of Science for Nebraska. He posts often about the Niobrara Valley Preserve, as well as other topics, and his photos and articles are great.

          Western Nebraska would be a treat. I’d like to visit Sidney, which isn’t so far from Scott’s Bluff. I have cabinet card photos of family members that were taken in Sidney. We’ve never been sure exactly who they are, but the family name is on the back, and we know some of them lived in a soddy before moving to Sidney, and then to Burwell. If nothing else, it would be fun to return the photos to the museum in Sidney.

          1. I believe I’ve occasionally visited Chris Helzer’s blog. I see what you mean about the Niobrara Valley Preserve. I also see that he lives in Aurora. If we’d been able to travel to Nebraska through Omaha as we’d originally planned near the end of April, we’d have passed right by Aurora on our way west along I-90.

  17. you do seem to travel a lot. the sky in those pictures is so beautifully intense. never been to Kansas but when I was doing the river guide thing, we would find the occasional shell fossil in Big Bend along the Rio Grande. and I loved the cliff swallows there.

  18. I wish I traveled a lot! I usually manage to get away once a year for a longer trip, but I bring back so much material I’m still posting about this or that months later. This trip to Monument rocks was last October, but it took me that long to figure out how to write about it.

    I’ve never been to Big Bend. Everyone who’s been there sings its praises, One of these days I’ll get there. I’d love to go in spring, and see the wildflowers in that area. The photos I’ve seen are gorgeous. It’s neat that you found some fossils as souvenirs. I have a small artificial tree that I decorate with hill country fossils at Christmas time.

  19. Your splendid photographs offer a clear demonstration that the barren can be beautiful. The landscape reminds me somehow of those parts of Derbyshire we visited where rock formations stood solitary within an expanse of moorland.

    1. I went back and looked at your rockeries, and I see what you mean. I’d not considered their place in the larger landscape, but there are similarities. When I think about appealing natural scenes, the lone pine on the rocky outcrop, the barn in the blizzard-covered hills, the single shell on the tide-washed beach all come to mind. They certainly focus the eye, just as these outcroppings do.

      1. You know, I always felt that way about Iowa, too. I loved the open fields with just a tree or two off in the distance. When I moved to a place where there were dense forests, I found I didn’t know where to look.

    1. I’m really glad you enjoyed the post, and I’m glad I was able to travel there to see the rocks and share them. Thank you for reading, and for taking the time to comment.

  20. Very interesting post. My first job out of college was as a chemist at a salt company in Hutchinson. We had a mine (still there, plus a museum), an evaporation plant (long gone) and a solar operation in Utah. So I guess our industry was another legacy of that long-evaporated sea.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Bill. I’m guessing that this must be the underground mine and museum. I’d never heard of it, and the linked story’s very interesting. The description of the ride down into the mine was a little unnerving, but I had to laugh at the description of touring it being like driving around in a parking garage.

      Some months ago, I wrote about George Sibley, who led the expedition to survey the Santa Fe trail. In the process, I bumped into the story of Thomas Jefferson’s salt mountain, and Sibley’s role in discovering it wasn’t a mountain at all, but the Great Salt Plains. As I find myself so often saying, one thing leads to another.

      I really do appreciate your comment. It opened up yet another chapter in this interesting history.

  21. What a find! And how thoroughly well you set up the story and then explained everything. Geology is complicated; I think it’s hard to write about, but you made it all sound logical and straightforward. The rock formation is so cool – I guess it’s far from the nearest town? I liked the map of the inland sea, too. It looks like a harsh place to be in, so congrats for getting all those photos. I appreciate having both close-ups and the distant view. The landscapes make the surprise element obvious and show the beauty of the formation, and the close-ups allowed me to actually see those fossils!

    1. It’s not actually so far in miles from town. It’s east of highway 83 between Oakley and Scott City. It might be twenty-five miles south. But once you turn east, it’s all gravel roads with minimal signage. It’s isolated more than it’s distant, and it really isn’t rough terrain, although it’s apparently pretty tough traveling after a rain. Kansas is like that. There were a couple of places I never could have reached in bad weather, and I pressed my luck just a little as it was, although I did provide some amusement to a couple in an F-150. More about that later.

      Before I do any more traveling, I want to learn how to take better landscape photos. Even without a wide-angle lens, I think I can find ways to improve. The landscape out there deserves it.

      1. I understand what you mean about being isolated rather than distant – and gravel roads, they make a difference. They slow things down, mostly in a good way. Your photos are fine, but I also understand the inner critic, and we can always improve. I find travel photos difficult – I get overexcited and mess up, and you can’t stop for every fabulous sight you see, etc. Yes, the landscape deserves our best efforts!

  22. Stunning photos — and what a wealth of information to take in. I had no idea about Kansas! As always — you are such a gifted storyteller with information that draws the reader in. Continued safe travels!

    1. Kansas certainly has more to offer than I ever realized, and it’s been great fun learning about the state. It’s filled with amazements, and while it’s not as spectacular as some places, it’s just as beautiful. I’m glad you enjoyed seeing this little slice of the Kansas pie.

  23. I’m always struck by the detail and research you share. I would have simply stood and stared! I don’t know whether it looks more like New Mexico, Utah, or Arizona or if the resemblance is more like a moonscape but with a blue sky — either way, you are right. It sure doesn’t look lijke Kansas! It is so very striking and all the more so because it appears to be so unexpected. I’m glad you had a perfect blue-sky day for your journey. The photos are magnificent. Good eye, great camera — a fabulous combo!

    1. Believe me, Jeanie, I did a lot of standing and staring while I was there: when I wasn’t walking and staring, of course. The research always comes later, which is why it can be six months before I write about an experience like this. While I’m there is the time to look, because, after all — once I’m home again, there’s no chance to take a second look. That’s one reason I don’t blog while traveling. I don’t always know what I’ve seen!

      What’s interesting to me is that Monument so wholly itself, I can’t find anything to compare it to. And it tickles me that we all say the place “doesn’t look like Kansas.” What we mean is that it doesn’t look like the images of the state we carry around in our head — flat, sunflowery, wheat-ridden, flatter — and we don’t realize how beautifully diverse it is. I was guilty of that for decades, and I’m really glad my eyes were opened.

      I’m glad you enjoyed photos, too. Another twenty-five miles or so down the road, I found an entirely different world: fall colors, a lake, wild turkeys, and deer. It was a crazy-quilt kind of day.

  24. How many times have I traversed from SW Oklahoma to my home in SE Nebraska, and never once thought there was anything much to see in Kansas. Only a couple of years ago did I learn about the Flint Hills of Kansas. Neither is located on the route FD and I take going to and from Nebraska, but I believe taking an extra day on the trips home would be worth exploring these unusual places. I loved the narration of this post – not to mention the information was highly interesting and educational! And, your photographs are stunning.

    1. You sound like me, rolling through Oklahoma and Missouri on my way from Houston to Kansas City for years, and never knowing about — well, a lot of things. Even though I stayed off the interstates, I just didn’t pay much attention to what was around me. I still remember the day I first had a question about Oklahoma. I had driven through Porter and Wagoner, and suddenly wondered if the country singer, Porter Wagoner, had taken his name from the towns. The answer was no, but the research I did turned up all sort of interesting stories, and I started poking around a bit more on each trip.

      If you want to email your usual route to me, I’ll see if there are places nearby that you might be interested in. I still haven’t written about a couple of fine attractions, and the number of prairies and wildlife refuges that are accessible is far greater than I realized even three years ago.

      By the way — I thought of you this afternoon when I was driving past the Johnson Space Center. They have a lot of land there, do some haying, and maintain a prairie. Today, there were two of the most beautiful young bucks I’ve ever seen grazing inside the fence, along with two does. They have longhorns and bison, too, but the deer always are a treat.

  25. To read your beautiful description of the land and its history fills me with love of life and nature around me. It is a song of praise and appreciation of this world in the widest sense. I’m in a phase, it seems, where I find less time to visit the internet… less appetite to read English… but discovering a post such as this is an inspiration for me. I thank you and send you my warm regards.

    1. It is a beautiful land, with a complex history. That you can sense that, and appreciate it, makes the effort to truly see and understand it myself worthwhile. The world is more than scenery for our little dramas. To understand its life is, I think, to understand ourselves in a new and more complete way.

      It’s always a pleasure to have you stop by, Shimon. Thank you for your kind words.

  26. The formations are haunting, the sentinels that remain long after their comrades eroded away. yes, one’s imagination can run wild, and I think those formations are remnants of egyptian nomads who sailed west and kept sailing when they hit land!

    1. That’s an intriguing thought you’ve had, Lisa: Egyptian nomadic sailors? That never would have occurred to me. Very creative.

      Of course, as prone as I can be to let my imagination run wild with photos, there are times when the world’s reality so far outstrips anything I could imagine, it’s enough to simply try and understand what I see before me. To be able to reach out and touch an 80 million year old seabed? Who could have imagined that? Of course the same opportunity exists here in Texas, and in more locations than we can count around the world. Still, there was something about the setting for these remnants that brought the reality home in an especially sharp way. I suspect that’s part of the haunting you mentioned.

      1. Yes, when I pick up an artifact on the Pacific beach, I marvel at its potential age, and I wonder about the person who made it and who held it last.. But to roll back millions and millions of years and ponder what life was like back then, to be able to peer into the past – ahhhhh.. we are just hiccups on the planet’s timeline!

  27. Your beautiful post and images remind me of how, when I am discontent with the world and its superficiality and bickering, I imagine that all of what we know and see is under water… that balances things out for me.
    Some of those structures, also, make me think of salt pillars.

  28. What an interesting way to see things: to put them metaphorically out to sea. Heaven knows there’s enough superficiality and bickering to make a very large sea worth having in the neighborhood.

    It’s interesting that you thought of salt pillars, too. As I was wandering around, I thought of Lot’s wife, who made the mistake of looking back and was turned into a pillar of salt. Even though the Monument Rocks pillars aren’t salt, the shapes are similar enough to evoke the thought.

    I found there are several formations around the world that also are named “Lot’s Wife.” One is at Marsden Bay, near Newcastle Upon Tyne. I found a photo of it here. It’s a different sort of limestone, but just as beautiful.

  29. Engelmann has many plants that carry his name. I must give the man credit because he was one hard working botanist and explorer. The photos are great. I had no idea that there are unique sites such as these in Kansas. I find the cliff swallow nests intriguing. Maybe you will go back some day when the swallows are still nesting and before they have left to migrate south. The prairie photo is simply gorgeous I love a prairie. They are serene with an abundance of many grasses and blooming flowers.

    1. I hadn’t realized until I read more about the Engelmanns for this post that George was a physician as well as a botanist. Even after he gave up his formal practice, his services as a doctor still were in demand. It seems to me that Henry must have stayed with George when he first came to this country, since George was living in St. Louis at the time, and that’s where Henry first landed.

      Kansas is a state that rewards exploration. Some places, like Monument Rocks, are pretty well publicized (although I’d never heard of them until my friend mentioned them) but there are many, many other places that are just as interesting, and don’t get much publicity. It occurs to me that I’ve written now about Pawnee Rock, Point of Rocks, and Monument Rocks. Still to come is Teter Rock and the native stone byway. I suppose in a state so filled with wonderful prairies, it’s natural to notice what’s sticking up out of them.

      I would love to see the swallows nesting there. Development drove the birds from San Juan Capistrano, but they’re still in Kansas.

  30. Beautiful post and images of spectacular country, Linda! I’ve only seen Kansas from Interstate 80, just passing through.

    If you ever get the time and opportunity to come west, Crater Lake with its geological and local tribal history might interest you.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed my view of Monument Rocks, Lavinia. There are a lot of states that are seen only from the interstates; it’s understandable, but certainly doesn’t give the whole picture.

      I’ve seen photos of Crater Lake, of course, and it is beautiful. There are several places I’d love to see — not specific places necessarily, but regions, like the Palouse. Maybe it will happen, maybe not. The first challenge is getting there. There’s so much to see between here and there, and I’m not sure I could stand just speeding through!

  31. Linda, another AMAZING post. I have not been to Monument but I was at Castle Rock, right off I-70 at the Quinter exit. It is the same formation as Monument. It’s such a spiritual experience!! I was not the same when I left…….
    Thank you for taking me on a journey across the prairie of the past. Often when I’m out, I stand still and just try to imagine what it would of been like, I have NO clue!
    Have you ever tried the cracker that was a staple of their diet?
    So easy to make:
    3 cups flour
    2 tsp salt
    1 cup water
    Mix, roll, cut into squares, poke a few holes in each cracker and bake. Keeps for years
    I’ve made it 1 time
    I really enjoy your blog. It’s THE BEST

    1. Castle Rock is a great spot, too, and also the Jerusalem Badlands, which have been purchased by the Nature Conservancy. They’re still in the process of preparing those for visitors, so it may be some months before they’re open to the public, but I’m looking forward to seeing that area eventually.

      I’ve never thought about it, but I suppose that hardtack is similar to what sailors carried with them. It would be fun to try, especially with kids. That was the sort of project we used to do in school. I suppose it’s not in the curriculum any more.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed this. Now — on to Teter Rock!

  32. What a marvelous post, beautifully written. What stunning landscapes, what a treasure planet Earth is. A feast for the eyes indeed. I did enjoy this. Hope you get to see the swallows next

    1. I hope I get to see the swallows, too. It’s hard to arrange trips to get everything in,particularly when some events are better seen in one season and some in another. No matter. There’s always something worth seeing — I’m so glad you enjoyed this little glimpse of a wonderful spot.

  33. Ooo, lovely. I have been to the Canadian Badlands. Driving north there is no sign on the prairie until suddenly the road dips down into a hidden magical kingdom….

    1. See there? I had no idea there were Badlands in Canada. Your description of the approach reminds me of Texas’s Palo Duro Canyon, or the Badlands in Kansas. It’s so strange to see a smooth, apparently endless prairie, and then — whoops! A wholly other world is revealed. One of my long-time blog friends lives in Calgary, and we’ve often talked about what a trip there could offer, but she’s never mentioned this. It’s just one more attraction to add to the list.

  34. Thank you for inviting us on this beautiful journey. Seeing the intricacies of the layers looking like stacked stone in the middle of a plain is amazing indeed. What a contrast in the mode of transportation and the length — you can now choose what time of day to arrive ;-)

    1. It is an amazement, isn’t it? Looking through the diaries and journals of the settlers, or of the survey crews, it’s astonishing to see what a slow, hard journey it was. Distances that we cover in an hour could take days. Of course, those same journals also are a testament to how much they saw as they traveled. Slower progress and more attentive travelers may hold some advantages!

  35. An ocean of grass, love that metaphor. And the pics are film worthy. This is a nice piece for a documentary or a National Geographic feature. Go for it.

    1. I’m not discounting myself at all when I say that I know these photos just wouldn’t make the cut for an exhibition of printed photos — let along a documentary. They’re great captures, but technically inadequate. The good news is that I know why they wouldn’t make the cut. In another year, I’ll do better, and then we’ll see.

      I like the ocean of grass, myself. Out on the prairies, especially in the areas of Kansas that were free range, with no fences, it’s possible to imagine how it was a century ago — even though much of the tallgrass prairie is gone. I must say — now that I’ve given up time on the ocean, the ocean of grass is a fine substitute.

  36. Very interesting! The pioneers had an adventurous life for sure – both in the good and the bad sense. I love your pictures, they’re amazing. Looks like an area well worth visiting.


    1. It clearly was an interesting life, although I’m sure for them it seemed more of a challenge, and perhaps even a trial at times. But they clearly loved the country they were passing through. It’s beautiful — you’d enjoy seeing it. I hope you do, one day!

      Thanks for stopping by, and for commenting. You’re always welcome here. ~ Linda

  37. The Monument Rocks reminded me a little of the hoodoos around Drumheller in Southern Alberta. These were formed by rivers associated with the retreat of the ice age, i think, and so are found alongside of a kind of remnant river. There are many stories to be told in the geology of a place, if we have guides to read the signs for us!

    1. I’d not heard of the Drumheller hoodoos, but I see they’re related to the ones I showed here. Both were initially formed during the Cretaceous period, although the deposits in Drumheller are sand and clay rather than chalk. And both have that same “cap” on top that’s allowed erosion to carve fantastic shapes beneath them. I also saw that the Drumheller formations are the most quickly-eroding in the world, thanks to all that sand that’s present. I’d better visit quickly.

      There’s a river associated with the Kansas Badlands, too. I’m beginning to learn that the similarities among many of these formations aren’t coincidence, at all. Like air moving across a sail or around an airplane wing, nature can be predictable in its effects.

      1. An unrelated, but interesting fact related to your title is relationship between the prairies and the seas. I have been told that some of the ablest seamen during WWII were young men from the prairies, who had the least trouble with sea-sickness etc, being accustomed to wide open space and such. This included my father, who grew up in southern Alberta and spent four years on the Atlantic during the war.

        1. That makes sense to me. I remember how disorienting it was to leave Salt Lake City after only a year of living surrounded by moutains; driving through West Texas for the first time was a bit vertiginous, and it took a while to not feel like something was missing. It took some time for me to stop feeling off-balance — strange that should be so, after such a short time in the mountains.

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