Sunday, May 16, 2010


Start at my house. Drive straight north through the blinker. You’re on the road to Cut Bank. Keep going until the paved road makes a perpendicular left, west. Keep going on the gravel that heads straight ahead, north. Now you’re on the Rock City Road. Follow, follow, follow until you come to a two-track marked “dead end.” Don’t go farther if it’s wet. You might want a pickup to drive as the road is high in the middle.. You’re traveling between plowed fields. There are only hints of what’s ahead.

Suddenly you’re there: “Rock City.” Not a glamorous name for one of those numinous places that shock humans with their unexpectedness, their unaccountability. It’s a double curved gorge full of what appear to be buildings, but fantasy buildings with spires and domes, rather like a miniature Grand Canyon. There ought to be a better name.

It’s an erosion feature, of course, perfectly explainable. This prairie is a primal sea bed. A hard layer of sediment is on top of soft sandstone, so when water and wind abrade the particles away, the hard caps shelter pedestals. The hard caps are reddish, which suggests some kind of vegetation that accumulated iron, whether algae in the water or a plant on the land. Freeze/thaw cycles of water getting into cracks and then spalling off bits when the water turns to ice, is a strong erosive force. The reddish rock seems relatively seamless, maybe argyllite. Local people never tire of going there and, in fact, it’s a popular secluded place for a beer blast, so when you’re getting close beer cans glint in the stubble.
I went today at the urging of Paul Wheeler, who loves the place and kindly allowed me to reproduce his photos.

He says, “For me it's one of those places you mentioned as being Sacred enough to make you want to doff your shoes, except out there it might be hazardous to the health of your soles.”. . .

“Last year my seven year old granddaughter was finally ready to make a solo trip with gramps, so I introduced her to Glacier. When we were leaving the park, I explained to her that we were going to a place like she'd never seen before, where you could look forever in any direction and not see a single tree. She ruminated on that for a bit, then asked, ‘But grampa, how will we breathe?’ Huh?!? ‘You always said trees make oxygen for us to breathe, so if there's no trees, how will we breathe?’ Logical little buggers.

“She was happy to discover that when she got out of the truck she could breathe ‘pretty good’.”

Today is the second really warm day after a series of snowy cold fronts and though it’s mostly clear, there is enough moisture in the air to create a gauzy scrim towards the mountains and form cumulus sheep across the sky. I went alone. (I do everything alone by preference,) What’s stunning about this extraordinary place is not the fact of “hoodoos” which is what I call those eroded pillars -- they are in other places around here -- but the number and variety of them, all as crowded and varied as Manhattan skyscrapers, from as far upriver to as far downriver as you can see, a convincing Star Wars city, strange and yet familiar. In the cliff opposite there was only one hole that appeared inhabited: the white swash of bird excrement giving away a likely eagle nest. I’m told there are rattlesnakes and scorpions.

I would not have been surprised to see a coyote or a Wookie. In fact, if you go to this website, you’ll see that it is a location that has been scouted for several sci-fi epics already. I’d like to see a high school vid about (what else?) true love between an earthling and -- a visitor. The nearness of the hundred turbines of the wind farm and its transmission lines, which at night are lit with red flashers and strobes, already makes it likely that a lost flying saucer might mistake it for a landing field.

As it turns out, locals have been posting their own photos of the “Rock City.”

“In common usage, the difference between hoodoos and pinnacles or spires is that hoodoos have a variable thickness often described as having a "totem pole-shaped body." A spire, on the other hand, has a smoother profile or uniform thickness that tapers from the ground upward. (Geology purists do note that only a tall formation should be called a hoodoo; any other shape is called a 'hoodoo rock'.) Hoodoos range in size from that of an average human to heights exceeding a 10-story building.” (Wikipedia)

Bryce Canyon National Park is the champion hoodoo headquarters in the US. There is an exceptional collection just south of Great Falls on the Missouri River. The stone there is white limestone and the result of erosion looks like Washington, D.C. with marble monuments on every hand.

Journal of Pure and Applied Geophysics article: “A physical theory of the formation of hoodoos” by A. E. Scheidegger.

“The thesis is advanced that hoodoos (mushroom-shaped erosional features in badlands) are caused by water from cloudbursts turning the corner at the brim of the overhang, flowing for a distance upside-down on the underside. This type of upside-down flow is well known as «teapot effect» in the case of tea being poured from a pot flowing down the underside of the spout rather than straight on into the cup. The measured overhang of hoodoos is in good agreement with the theoretical values obtained from hydrodynamic stability considerations.”

This place must have been spectacular when the 1964 flood hit, but no one could have gotten out to take a look except on horseback or in a helicopter. This earth turns to slime when wet. It is ancient volcanic dust. These hoodoos may have mostly formed ten thousand years ago when global warming began the melting of the continental glaciers that is almost finished now, with some help from humans.

If you’re looking for my house, start at Rock City. Follow Rock City Road to where it joins the pavement just outside Valier, keep going straight until you come to the blinker light. Go two more blocks. I’m on the east side. I’m not sure I’ve achieved hydrodynamic stability, but I’m staying here.


Art Durkee said...

There's a very similar Rock City that's a state park just north of Deming, NM. It rises from the plain, surrounded by nothing, and is similarly spooky and otherworldly. I've stopped in there a couple of times during my travels.

There's a very good SF novella by Kate Wilhelm called "The Gorgon Field," that pivots on the magic of one of these types of formations. I've always thought it would make a good movie.

Rebecca Clayton said...

Wow. Thanks for showing us this spectacular landscape. I'm from Iowa, and when I think of you living on the prairie, something much different (and clearly incorrect) comes to mind.

Now I live on the Allegheny Front of West Virginia, just about 40 miles north of the coal fields. Coal mines and karst caverns--our spectacular geology is underground, in the dark.