Old Ocean

There are a handful of places in the world that feel like home at first sight. Like love at first sight, who knows how it works? It’s a feeling of recognition that can’t be explained; a familiarity even though you’ve never been to this place before. Maybe it’s chemistry; pheromones or isotopes making all the right connections, lighting up the network. Or it could be spiritual; a higher power or nature or whatever you like to call it, telling you THIS is it. THIS is the place.

However it works, there is no doubt that some places make your soul sing.

I never in a hundred years would have thought I’d find a place like that in Texas.

Yes, I am guilty of having some preconceived notions about the Lone Star state. I’ve been to 47 other states (Hawaii and Alabama are the only ones left now), but have long avoided Texas. A friend and I actually made a conscious effort to skip Texas once on a road trip. Instead, we threaded that needle of the Oklahoma panhandle through Black Mesa. It was the mid-nineties, so we quoted lines from Thelma and Louise to each other:

Thelma: Wait. What? You want to go to Mexico from Oklahoma and you don’t want to go through Texas?

Louise: You know how I feel about Texas. We’re not going that way.

Thelma: I know, Louise, but we’re running for our lives! Don’t you think you could make an exception just this once? I mean, look at the map. The only thing between Oklahoma and Mexico is Texas!


So, I entered Texas, a bit unwillingly, for the first time a week ago, driving from Las Cruces, New Mexico, south through El Paso. I wanted to go to Carlsbad Caverns and this was the most direct way. All my prejudices were borne out: horrendous air quality, aggressive guys driving monster trucks, a vicious headwind throwing desert grit at my windshield, billboards, ugly military sprawl, signs of the oil and gas industry everywhere. I knew it! And I couldn’t wait to “see this place in my rear view mirror,” as my friend Joe says.

Forty-five miles east of El Paso, it got better. The country emptied out, calmed down, and the air cleared. And then I saw this:


Guadalupe Mountains National Park, sunset, with storms a-brewing.

The highest peaks in Texas, the Guadalupe Mountains are formed of fossils from the Permian period. Marine plants and animals built up a limestone reef along the edge of an ancient inland sea, 250 million years ago. Later, geologic forces pushed the fossil reef upward, shaping them into mountains.


National Park Service interpretive sign. The Delaware Basin was an ancient inland sea.

It’s a familiar story. I have always lived by the sea (Massachusetts, Scotland, Alaska), or by an inland sea (Michigan). I’ve walked along shell-strewn beaches in all those places. And in Michigan there is a similar ancient reef, the Niagaran Escarpment. It forms an arc that follows Door County, Wisconsin; then all along the northern shores of Lakes Michigan and Huron; through southern Ontario; and, of course, it is the cliff over which the Niagara Falls plunge.

I know the Niagaran Escarpment best where it lies along the rocky beaches of northern Lake Huron. The calcium-rich (calcareous) limestone soils host a wonderful assemblage of specially-adapted calcium-loving plants. These calciphiles, including butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris), Kalm’s lobelia (Lobelia kalmii), and Michigan monkey flower (Mimulus michiganensis) are some favorite flowers from my old stomping grounds.

I don’t know enough about the flora of the Chihuahuan Desert to tell you whether there are any calciphiles here in the Guadalupe Mountains, too. But perhaps on some future visit I will learn more. It’s easy to see in the higher elevations that this is a savanna landscape, shaped by wind, drought, and fire. Junipers, pines, oaks, and maples mingle with cacti and yucca. It’s strange and wonderful country for a maritime girl.

Checking out the north side of Guadalupe National Park, I found the landscape looks familiar in yet another way. Those ridges look like great Peregrine Falcon habitat, just like the bluffs along the Yukon River in Alaska.


A ridge in the Guadalupe Mountains, Texas.


Nation Reef, along the Yukon River, Alaska.

Even the same kinds of fossils are found in both the Texan and Alaskan reefs. No wonder the Yukon River felt so much like home!


Brachiopod fossils.

This is what I love about traveling: it allows you to make connections, first hand, through your own observations. Northwest Texas, interior Alaska, northern Michigan. Who would have guessed they all have something in common?

Although these mountains are in the middle of a Texas desert, I imagine it is the shore of the ancient sea that resonates with me. (Maybe I’m a calciphile, just like those plants.) There’s not much water here now, but evidence of the old ocean is all around.

This entry was posted in Alaska, Flora, Michigan, Southwest, Travel, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Old Ocean

  1. Scot Siegel says:

    Thank you for this journey through time and across latitudes and geologic strata.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Just like your old letters, you manage to bring the first-hand to us and make the connections. Wish these blogs could be hand-written! Can’t wait to read about Carlsbad. Drive, Louise, Driiive!!

    Liked by 1 person

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