Aug. 21, 2018
Finally, after 12 years and three attempts, my climbing partner Reg and I were standing on the summit of Kit Carson Peak in southern Colorado.
It was a glorious day. Clear. No wind. One more Colorado 14er marked off the list.
All that was left was to glissade down the softening snow field we had climbed in the early morning hours, pack up, and head back to the trail head.
But first, since it was the first time in 2 days we had any cell phone reception; I decided to share the victorious moment with my lovely bride. (FYI, there is great cell phone coverage when you are standing at 14,000+ feet in Colorado).
Me: “Traci, we made the summit!”
Traci; in a tone that was at once unimpressed, irritated, and smirkingly vengeful: “Great. By the way, there’s water coming out of our foundation in the laundry room. Also, you have a new puppy.”
Now my home outside of Boerne is a long way from the airport in Amarillo, and Amarillo is a long way from the trailhead in Crestone. And from the summit of Kit Carson peak, we were a good 6 hours from the trailhead factoring in breaking high camp.
The point is, plumbing events create other events...and problems. These are events and problems that puppies can’t solve.
Which brings me to the topic of the geological history and personality of the Texas hill country.
But first let’s talk about plumbing problems and related events a bit more.
Many hill country homes, like ours, are built on concrete foundations. Water lines criss cross their way through the concrete to service kitchens, bathrooms, laundry rooms and bars...lots of water pipes snaking under foot towards their destination. Sometimes, though, the route gets disrupted. This can cause puppy-proof problems of the variety I experienced as I descended Kit Carson Peak and headed home.
Now, back to the Texas country. Imagine for a moment a very large foundation with lots of water pipes snaking through it from the northwest to the southeast. Smooth, level, fairly featureless. Somewhat stable north and west of a curving line running more or less diagonally across it. Not so stable south and east of said curving line.
By very large, I mean that it covers a general area of the Texas coast northwest towards the Pecos River. That’s a big foundation, big enough that part of the stable portion of the slab will become what we now know as the Texas hill country.
Now imagine adding some geological dynamics to this foundation which place a large amount of stress on the less stable portion. Add to this imagined foundation the aforementioned curving line that roughly describes the path now occupied by Interstate 35 as it extends from Del Rio to Dallas. Finally, imagine there is enough stress placed on the less stable portion that it fractures along this curve and bends down, like a hinge, towards what is now the Gulf of Mexico.
Fortunately, our foundation leak back home wasn’t caused by such a break or we would have really had a problem. But suppose it did, in which case some pipes would break and others would pinch thus causing outflows along the break and random leaks in other areas of the stable foundation.
However, in the case of the hinge-like break that created the Balcones Fault, the happy consequences for those of us who are blessed to call the Texas hill country home are akin to getting a new puppy...on a recurring basis.
One such happy consequence occured in the formation of the San Antonio, Comal, and San Marcos rivers along with numerous destination springs along the break such as Barton Springs and Salado Springs. Additionally, further northwest on the foundation, artesian springs popped up as their flow was impinged by the break along the Balcones Fault line.
Over time, the rivers along the fault line began eroding their way back into the stable Karst limestone foundation while the springs further west and northwest that emerged from the impinged southeast flow, bubbled to the surface, and etched their way through the softer limestone as they worked their way towards the break point along the Balcones Escarpment...springs that contributed to the formation of rivers such as the Frio, Nueces, and Guadalupe.
Which brings us to another happy consequence: the formation of the namesake hills of the region.
In fact, it’s sort of helpful to think of the Texas hill country as a landscape that has been carved out in bais relief; courtesy of the disrupted aquifer flow caused by the Balcones Fault, with Karst Limestone acting as the medium and water as the tool in the hand of the sculptor.
There are other happy consequence and related unhappy consequences related to the big break.
One such happy consequence is that the relative higher elevation of the Balcones Escarpment acts to help destabilize moisture laden air masses traveling northwest from the Gulf of Mexico, helping to create rain events. These rain events recharge the Karst Limestone and the aquifers (such as the Edwards Aquifer) that the limestone creates, and; in normal weather patterns, recharged aquifers keep the rivers and springs, of the hill country flowing.
Unhappily, these rain events can cause flash floods to occur. These can present hazards to travelers encountering low water crossings or who find themselves in a low lying area during a sudden, intense rain event.
Also, flash floods can bring a curse along with their blessings to land owners whose property is bisected by flash flood prone rivers, creeks and ravines.
The curse takes the form water gaps along fence lines that cross these channels and the ongoing need to repair and replace them following flash flood events. Of course, another unhappy side effect of this particular headache comes in the form of rounding up livestock from neighboring properties who have wandered through the open gaps in search of the proverbial greener grass.
Speaking of greener grass, the wandering livestock might be disappointed if they travel up the surrounding hills. What little topsoil we have in the hill country tends to migrate down to the ravines, creek beds and river valleys. Hardscrabble up top, fertile down low. Just one example of the extremes of the Texas hill country.
The extremes of the Texas hill country. That topic could fill a whole book.
I finally made it off the mountain, broke camp, hiked to the trailhead, found some good San Luis Valley Mexican food, drove to Amarillo, and grabbed a plane back home.
There I discovered find my foundation issue wasn’t as geologically interesting as the events that led to the formation of the Texas hill country; but in terms of catastrophic events, the puppy was a whole different story…
By the way. If you want to learn more about the geology and history of the Texas hill country and surrounding areas, please consider the resources below. Good information and great reading:
Hardscrabble: Observations on a Patch of Land
Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History
The Untold Story of the Lower Colorado River Authority