The Monument Rocks

Ghosts of Arizona, in Kansas

Kansas is flat. It is not the flattest American state – that would be Florida – but it is a strong contender for the honor. To drive across it on the Interstate is to spend hours seeing nothing but level horizons in all directions. Its principal topography is in the sky. Towering cirrocumulus. Wall clouds that stretch for a hundred miles across the plains. Tornadoes. The Kansas sky can be fascinating. The Kansas landscape is about as exciting as watching paint dry.

Or so it appears. But appearances can deceive. Visitors are often surprised to find, for example, that western Kansas is 3000 feet higher than eastern Kansas. It turns out that the state is tilted. The tilt is so slight – a steady 20 feet per mile – that it is next to impossible to observe. But it adds up. Rivers take advantage of it, flowing from west to east across the state. Even the largest of these, the Arkansas – pronounced Ar-kan-saw elsewhere, pronounced ar-Kan-sas here – is not very large. But geological time is long. Small rivers, flowing slowly, can create marvelous things.

Begin in Oakley, a town of just over 2,000 people that spreads out beside Interstate 70 in the western part of the state, so close to the corner of Logan County that – although it is the Logan County Seat – parts of it lie in two other counties. Head south out of town on U.S. 83, which hews close to the Logan-Gove county line. 20 miles out of town, turn east onto gravel Jayhawk Road. The intersection is well marked. Five ramrod-straight miles due east, turn south onto Gove County 14. Exactly one mile later, County 14 executes a sharp left, heads east for half a mile, and turns sharply back to the right, becoming County 16. By this time, you will have caught sight of the Monument Rocks. And you are likely to find yourself muttering that famous line from The Wizard of Oz: Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.

Melody and I visited the Monument Rocks on April 18, 2003, in the middle of research for my book on the Ogallala Aquifer (Ogallala Blue, Norton, 2006). It was a very April day, a day of blue sky and little puffy clouds. The air was balmy. We were the only humans present. The Rocks don’t get many visitors: they are a designated National Natural Landmark, but they lie on private land, so have not been developed. Public access is allowed but not strongly encouraged. Which is probably a good thing. The Monument Rocks are made of chalk – the same material as the White Cliffs of Dover – and popularity could easily harm them irrevocably. But oh, what the hordes who don’t show up there are missing!

We wandered through these white ghosts of Arizona’s Monument Valley for the better part of two hours, entranced and silent. Eons ago, a broad but shallow sea covered this part of the world. Diatoms in the sea lived, died, and rained to the bottom in billions, their tiny shells slowly compacting into rock. Mere millions of years ago, rubble eroding from the ancestral Rocky Mountains spread across the floor of the now-dry sea, burying it under the hundreds of feet of gravel and sediment that make up the Ogallala. A geological eyeblink ago, the ancestral Smoky Hill River, engorged by meltwater from Ice Age glaciers, cut all the way through the aquifer and into the ancient sea floor, carving the compacted diatoms into buttes and arches and pinnacles. When the river shrank away, wind continued the job. These flat-topped, haunting, seven-story monuments are what remain.

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