Know Your Geography Terms - The American Southwest

Our geography classes in school long behind us, many of us have all but forgotten basic geography terminology. Sure, we know what a river, an ocean, a mountain, are......but could you really tell me what an arroyo is, quick! without having to look it up? Read a couple of Tony Hillerman novels and unless you have been to some of these places for yourself, you have no idea what he is talking about.
A mesa is a low hill or mountain, (not as tall as the Rocky Mountains or other mountain ranges one is likely to run into) or series of low hills, that are generally wider than they are tall. Mesas can arise seemingly out of nowhere, or be intertwined with water features (rivers, creeks) that turn them into canyons or arroyos. Mesas are nearly always flat on the top, hence the name, which in Spanish means "table". A series of mesas can combine into a range of mesa mountains, and when one is traversing through them, it is like driving through low mountain ranges ( such as the Appalachians).

A butte is a similar land feature to a mesa, except that it is a hill that taller than it is wide. (Hill is really a misnomer here, as it must be pointed out this particular butte is thousands of feet tall and wide.) Most people think of buttes as flat at the top, but not always. It must be noted that Shiprock, sacred landmark on the Navajo reservation, is technically a butte, although it is pointed at the top, not flat. Many famous buttes are in Monument Valley, which was used frequently by Hollywood as a backdrop for westerns - hopefully this should all seem vaguely familiar to you. Just think of it as a refresher course.
As mentioned above, canyons are carved out of land by water features, typically rivers, over millions of years. Everyone knows about the Grand Canyon, but not many realize there are other famous canyons in N. America, as well. Many canyons in the southwest are intertwined with mesas, but they are just as likely to spring out of nowhere, as well. The one pictured above is the Royal George, part of the Rio Grand River, in northwestern New Mexico. One can be just driving along through flat land, minding one's own business on the road to Durango, when suddenly there is a bridge ahead and as you look down, you realize this river has been at work since the dawn of time, carving out the deep valley, below.
An arroyo is a sort of baby canyon, in that it is carved out of the earth by a creek. Arroyos are often formed only during the rainy season, and can by dry for most of the year. Technically, any dry creek bed is an arroyo, although those can take a variety of forms.

1 comment:

  1. Tony died a year or so ago -- I went to the library and checked out a couple of his books to re-read as my mini-memorial to him!