Wednesday, July 29, 2009

On the Road Again - Post 8: Time & the River

Before the formation of the Rocky Mountains, the area that is now Montana was a gigantic inland sea, its bedrock at least 2.5 billion years old and its seabed thickly blanketed by seashells (a.k.a. the calcium carbonate that hardens into limestone). Three hundred million years ago, the Precambrian rocks of the Ancestral Rockies pushed their way up through that seabed. For the next hundred million years or so, these Ancestral Rockies eroded; the debris resulting from their erosion eventually solidified into new layers of sedimentary rock.

Fifty to 70 million years ago, the current Rockies began their rise, thanks to a colossal collision. When the Canadian Shield and Pacific tectonic plates smacked into each other, the lithosphere buckled and crunched, and molten rock from the mantle underneath pushed upward through the layers of sedimentary rock left behind by the Ancestral Rockies. (Click here if you missed Post 5 and would like definitions of these terms.)

The dinosaurs then wandering about would have felt all this buckling and pushing as earthquakes. Maybe it's a coincidence, maybe it's not, but the dinosaurs became extinct just as the granite from the mantle finally burst through the overlaying sandstone about 55-60 million years ago.

The evidence of this geology is everywhere in modern Montana, by area the fourth largest of the United States, by population the fourth smallest. Fewer than a million people live in this whole enormous state, so there's plenty of undisturbed room to take in both the spectacular vistas and the extraordinary sky. (I've written about the Montana sky before; "Big Sky Country" is a richly deserved nickname.)

On July 19, 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition found itself on a remarkable stretch of the Missouri River about 20 miles north of what is now the city of Helena. Limestone cliffs (which Meriwether Lewis incorrectly thought were granite because it was raining and the wet stone looked black) rose up 1200 feet on both sides of the river. At each bend in the waterway, the looming stone walls looked as if they would block passage altogether, but then the river would curve and each time the walls opened like gates. Observing this, Lewis wrote in his journal, "I shall call this place Gates of the Mountains."

Lewis also wrote, "The river appears to have forced its way through this immense body of solid rock." This imagery, while apt, was again based on a mistake. (Lewis was no geologist.) In fact, the river predates the uplift of the cliffs around it. The Hilger Fault has been raising the northern end of the Big Belt Mountains and lowering the Helena valley for million of years. This forced (and continues to force) the Missouri to erode downward into the hard rock and carve the canyon that cuts across the mountains.

In the 204 years and 10 days since Lewis and Clark originally beheld it, the view has remained essentially unchanged. Limestone cliffs 1200 feet tall still manifest the extraordinary pressures of their formation in sensuous twists and curves and the effects of weathering in jutting ridges, domes and outcroppings. Areas of ancient Precambrian rock still alternate with the limestone. Cave openings abound. Ospreys, eagles, and falcons dot the sky. Bighorn sheep, mountain goats, otters, deer, squirrels and all manner of other wild animals roam the cliffs and flats. Pines grow thickly and reach for the sun.

And the silty waters of the Missouri continue to flow, powerfully placid.

The pictographs in the cave pictured below were painted by Native Americans long before Lewis and Clark showed up here in 1805. The youngest of the pictographs dates to 400 years ago, the oldest to 1400 years ago.

Among the fascinating rock formations in this Missouri River passage are three famous "faces." Can you find the Canyon Monster in the first photo below, the Stony Elephant (eyes and trunk) in the second, and the Eye of the Rhino (profile) in the third? (Click on the pictures if you want to make them larger.)

Cave openings and a bald eagle in flight.

Friday, July 24, 2009

On the Road Again - Post 7: Precious Metals

The settlement of Southwest Montana is a story of mining - the excitement, the rush, the plundering, and the decline of chasing after gold and copper.

The first official U.S. visit to the territory was Lewis and Clark's 1805 expedition. In 1806, John Colter, a member of the expedition, struck out on his own, determined to make a fortune as a trapper and trader. When he returned to St. Louis four years later, he was a very rich man. Having likely been the first non-Native American to see what is now Yellowstone Park, he was also raving about boiling springs and smoke billowing from the ground. The people in St. Louis thought he was insane, but they were evidently willing to overlook insanity in the face of wealth. Companies (including John Jacob Astor's) and hundreds of freelancers lit out for the wilderness. These trappers brought back more than half a million beaver pelts annually for 30 years. By the 1840s, beavers were all but extinct in the Rockies and the Montana Territory was reliably to be found on the white man's maps.

For the next 20 years or so, people pretty much went through Montana on their way further west. But everything changed when prospectors struck gold in 1862, 1863 and 1864.

The last strike was at Last Chance Gulch in what is now Helena. This was a rich strike: in today's dollars, $3.6 billion in gold was mined from 1864-1884. To this day, the main drag of Helena's cute downtown is called Last Chance Gulch. (How great an address is 1200 Last Chance Gulch? North of downtown, it's the YMCA where I go to swim while we're here.)

Mines, railroads, ranches and lawlessness flourished in the Montana Territory from 1862 until nearly the turn of the century. But a brutal winter in 1887 dealt a harsh blow to ranchers and began the decline of the Old West. The U.S. Congress ended silver subsidies in 1893, which ruined the market and caused the collapse of silver mines throughout the Rockies. The same thing happened to the gold market in 1933.

The story of copper mining continued into the 1970s, but it, too, ends badly - a rise and fall nowhere better illustrated than in Anaconda.

We visited Anaconda, a city of 10,000 people about 50 miles northwest of Butte, on one of our side trips from Helena. In the 1880s, the Butte area became the world's largest copper producer. Over 19 billion pounds of ore were unearthed by hard-rock miners over the following decades; the copper was then extracted by smelters and shipped all over the world.

Anaconda was founded in 1883 when legendary "copper king" Marcus Daly built a copper smelter and reduction works there as part of his ongoing battle for domination of the Butte-area copper industry. From 1892-1903, the Anaconda Copper Company was the largest copper mine in the world; over its lifetime, it produced $300 billion worth of the metal. In 1899, the company was merged into Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company, in a brazen sleight-of-financial-hand deal that made a few people exceedingly rich and led, among other things, to the eventual enactment of U.S. antitrust laws.

Anaconda Copper was shut down in 1980, a casualty of the decrease in worldwide demand for copper, decline in ore grades, and rising mining costs. (The takeover in 1971 by Socialist President Allende of Anaconda's huge Chuquicamata mine in Chile didn't help much either.)

All that remains of the operation now is the Anaconda Smelter Stack, one of the tallest freestanding brick structures in the world. At 585 feet, the stack is taller than the Washington Monument; it now looms sadly over the landscape from its position atop a hill next to what appears to be a slag heap. I'm not sure exactly what to make of the fact that this giant phallic symbol is the sole remnant of years of fabulous wealth, back-breaking work, financial chicanery, environmental devastation, and worldwide domination.

Befitting its wealth and status, Anaconda was once an opulent city. By 1898, it boasted mansions (small by East Coast and Midwestern standards, but grand indeed in the Old West), fancy churches, and other grandiose buildings, including the Hearst Free Library (George Hearst, William Randolph's father, was one of Daly's investors) and the Washoe Theater (978 seats, Art Deco, and rated by the Smithsonian as one of the most beautiful interiors in the United States). Like the Anaconda Smelter Stack, this all looks sad today, run-down and/or abandoned as it is.

On Highway 1, the road to and from Anaconda, you pass the towns of Wisdom and Opportunity. I wonder if the same person named both and, if so, whether he meant the two names to be taken optimistically (the southbound Wisdom, then Opportunity) or pessimistically (the northbound Wisdom after Opportunity).

Saturday, July 18, 2009

On the Road Again - Post 6

Today was a leisurely driving day. It turns out that the only sensible way to get from Grand Teton National Park to Helena, MT (our home away from home for the next little while) is to go through Yellowstone. Perhaps not the best plan for a Saturday, we thought as we approached the Park's South Entrance. Definitely not the best plan, we worried, when the ranger at the gate declined our National Park Pass, telling us in that wholesome, cheery, enthusiastic ranger way that it was a "free weekend."

But our worries were unfounded. We've been to Yellowstone before (and didn't love it), so this time we elected to forgo the usual sights in favor of staying on US 89 and getting through the Park as quickly as possible. Probably because it bypasses the most popular tourist spots, this generally northwesterly route was uncongested even on a free weekend. It twists and turns, mostly at a nice 45mph clip, past some magnificent scenery and wildlife, including the preternaturally serene buffalo in the picture above. (Among the things that did not appear to be troubling this "so ugly he's actually sort of beautiful" creature was his extreme need for lotion and hair conditioner.)

Don't miss the fumaroles in the picture just below. (Click on the picture to see a larger version.) These steam spouts billow out of the ground more or less constantly
all over Yellowstone. Like their flashier cousins the geysers, fumaroles are an unexpected and bewitching thrill to the eye; to the mind, they somewhat sinisterly confirm that boiling away not very far underground is the same magmatic heat that powered the violent volcanic eruptions that created, shaped and reshaped Yellowstone's topography.

Most of Yellowstone is a high volcanic plateau. But the northern portion of the Park and the chunk of south-central Montana you find yourself in immediately after you leave the Park through the North Entrance are more geologically complex.

Landslides, more erodible shales and sandstones, and glacial till deposits of a whole host of rock types make for a very different landscape in this area of the northern range. The soils here have a high clay content. Water binds tightly to clay, which results in very little water being available to sustain plants. In case that alone wasn't enough to discourage plant growth, these soils are also poorly aerated, they resist root growth, and they have high levels of sodium and salts. For all these reasons, the landscape stops looking lushly green and looks instead like this:

Sparkling streams, creeks and the impressive Yellowstone River, complete with rafters, kayakers, waders and swimmers, contrast implausibly but gorgeously with this rugged landscape.

We stop for gas in tiny Gardiner, MT, and enjoy both the cowboy boots on the residents, male and female, and the wonderfully named Hellroaring Street we pass on the way out of town. By the time we get to Livingston, it's midafternoon and we're hungry. Relying once again on Jane and Michael Stern's Roadfood book, we head for the Sport Restaurant on Main Street. But for all the trucks and SUVs, the street looks to be straight out of a Western.

After hamburgers topped with a veritable salad of incredibly fresh and delicious lettuce, tomatoes and mushrooms (where on earth could they be from, we wonder), a pile of crisp garlicky fries, and an enjoyable chat with our waiter (David, originally from St. Louis), we hop back in the car, realize that it would really be far more appropriate to unhitch horses and hop on them instead, and head for Helena.

Friday, July 17, 2009

On the Road Again - Post 5

The Grand Tetons are the youngest of the Rocky Mountains and they are considered the most photogenic. Happily, this is not further evidence of our youth-obsessed culture. It is instead because there are no foothills to obstruct the view of the craggy, snow-dotted peaks as they soar 13,000 feet above sea level and 7000 feet above the Jackson Hole valley. And while the ravishing Tetons are mere babes at 10-13 million years old (as compared to the Rockies at 50 million years old), the rocks of which these youthful beauties are made are among the oldest on earth.

The tale of why there are no foothills leading up to the Grand Tetons and how 2.5-billion-year-old Precambrian rocks ended up rising above the Wyoming plain a mere 13 million years ago is a great illustration of the impacts of three of geology's money players: tectonic plates, glaciers, and erosion. Even if you aren't agog about geology the way I am, stick with me on this. It's a great story.

The earth is comprised of layers around a solid center core. The inner core is estimated to be about 12,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The rock gets progressively cooler and more solid toward the outside. The stuff between the core and the earth's crust is called the mantle, and it comprises the bulk of the planet. The mantle is rock, but it is neither solid nor liquid. It constantly moves and flows, but super-slowly, like gooey taffy or warm plastic. The thin layer of hard rock that consists of the crust and the upper mantle is called the lithosphere. We're still talking pretty hot rock where the mantle meets the lithosphere: over 700 degrees F.

Thanks to the spinning of the planet, the flowing of the mantle under the lithosphere, and differential temperatures all over the earth, the lithosphere is and has always been under a lot of pressure. It responded by breaking up into big puzzle pieces called tectonic plates. Driven by the heat of the circulating, semi-molten mantle underneath, these plates move around, nudging, grating, grinding and occasionally crashing against one another. Sometimes they even ride up on or slide underneath each other. For example, the Pacific Plate has been crowding the North American Plate for eons; these plates meet along the coast of California at the San Andreas fault. You know what happens there.

Between 120 million and 55 million years ago, a plate called the Farallon collided with the North American Plate. The Farallon got pushed under our plate, down into the mantle, and it stuck. This is what allowed the Rockies to be formed so far inland. When the sub-plate fell down into the mantle, a lot of liquid hot magma (as Dr. Evil would say) welled up and caused severe volcanic activity. This created more mountains and it also left a lot of residual heat in the lithosphere.

The heat caused the North American Plate to stretch, spread back out and crack. Since the land was being stretched from east to west, the cracks formed north to south. Cracks are faults and they angle deep into the earth's crust. The Teton fault was thus formed, about 13 million years ago.
As the land continued to stretch, the fault pulled apart. One side (Jackson Hole) slid down along the fault, and the other side (the glorious mountain range) rose up. The side that dropped down displaced some of the underlying mantle, which further pushed up the rising side.

The differential is huge - the mountains rise about one foot for every four feet the valley drops. The current differential is about 27,000 feet from mountain top to valley floor. (Stay tuned for why the numbers don't quite seem to work.) And these forces are all still at work: whenever the two chunks of crust move along the fault, there is an earthquake. The Tetons are the product of 13 million years of earthquakes, the last huge one about 4800 years ago.

There are no foothills leading up to the Grand Teton range because the valley sank. The Precambrian rocks of which the young mountains are made were meandering along, minding their own business, in the mantle under the lithosphere until they got displaced by that sinking valley. These ancient rocks are gneiss and granite, metamorphic and igneous rocks (respectively) that are very hard once they cool. They erode at a much slower rate than the sedimentary rocks like shale, limestone, sandstone and siltstone that used to comprise the whole region and still comprise the bulk of Jackson Hole. The softer sedimentary rocks that originally rose up from the earth along the fault line, pushed up by the sinking valley and the harder metamorphic rocks, have eroded completely away but for the ever-shrinking top hat of sandstone Mt. Moran wears to this day.

Where did they go? This post has gotten too long, so I'll give short shrift to my favorite geologic phenomenon of all: glaciers. During the big Ice Age, which began 2 million years ago, thick ice covered the entire region (along with most of the rest of the northern parts of the world). Smaller ice ages followed, the most recent between 50,000-14,000 years ago. The Grand Tetons were buried several times under thousands of feet of ice for tens of thousands of years. Whenever the earth warmed up, the glaciers receded; their movement created the topography we see today.

Glaciers are the big kahuna of sculpting erosion. They bulldoze, carve, scour, polish and striate everything in their path. They also carry along - and then, when they melt, dump - unimaginable tons of eroded material. This is why the Jackson Hole we see is only 7000 or so feet (and not the full differential) lower than the tips of the Tetons: glacial debris filled up the other 20,000 feet.

I'm dying to go into more detail about glaciation, but I fear I might have exhausted even the patience and interest of those who've stuck with me this far. So I'll stop here and leave you with pictures.

The following picture isn't very good, but I offer it to show you the enormous scale of the place. I took the shot with 18x magnification and still the herd of enormous elk in the middle looks like nothing more than a thin, slightly bumpy brown line. The elk were in a standoff with a bear hoping to separate a tasty baby from its mother.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

On the Road Again - Post 4

Soon after we leave Montpelier, we're in Wyoming. The road quickly climbs 1300 feet and now there are brown mountains behind the green hills, some of them sporting patches of snow gleaming improbably in the summer sun.

Just as quickly, the elevation decreases back to 6200 feet and the rolling hills open out into vast pastures. The mountains ringing the pastures in every direction are still thickly carpeted in green, but the slopes of the eastern range are wearing their evergreens in north-facing Mohawks. They look like so many teenagers rebelling against their fully forested elders to the north, south and west.

Horses chew lazily on the grass in the pastures. Cows lounge in clumps under the warm sun. As everywhere, the cattle have arranged themselves as if they're attending a conference: most in the main meeting, some in breakout groups, a few engaged, apparently, in some form of independent study. Little towns (Smoot, Afton, Etna) appear and disappear without fanfare and not very often. Businesses have names like "Clip & Curl Corral" and "Bull Moose Saloon;" buildings are few and either weathered or falling down altogether. Notwithstanding these indicia of human activity, we see more bales of hay and grass than people, and the breadth, grandeur and verdancy of the vistas bespeak nothing more than undisturbed tranquility.

At Alpine, we join the Snake River (in the picture above). From Alpine to Jackson, the road follows the river as it curves, bends, widens, narrows and generally makes plain how this valley got carved. It is the job of rivers to carve the land, always with the goal of returning to sea level. The Snake still has quite a job ahead of it; its river bed is around 5500 feet above sea level.

After the town of Alpine, the topography to the west becomes less rolling and more, well, alpine. Nothing craggy or barren yet - we're still far below the timberline - but the angles are steeper than the placid angle of repose and the foliage marching up the slopes mostly hugs the ground. The tall evergreens are now in smaller squadrons, and they appear to be clinging to the mountainsides.

Jackson looks like all yuppie ski resorts. The main streets are pretty much interchangeable with those of Estes Park or Park City, Vail or Beaver Creek. Cute shops, wood-timbered Old West facades, congested streets, restaurants with big city pretensions, the obligatory microbrewery, and more people crammed into a few square yards than we've seen in hundreds of miles.

We get through it as quickly as possible, which isn't very quickly, and then the Grand Tetons, which have been hovering on the horizon to the northwest, are suddenly before us. On one side, we still have the rolling green-clad mountains that have accompanied us since northern Utah:

On the other side, we have this:

And here's the view from the balcony of the cottage that will be our home for the next couple days:

I think the Grand Tetons are going to make it possible for me to forgive Wyoming for Yellowstone.