Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A mile high in the sky

Leaving the depths of Florida's springs many miles to the east and over a mile below, mid-March's adventure brought me significantly up in altitude from the low-lying Floridan peninsula. The journey began with a sleepy 6 am takeoff, although I was happily awakened immediately upon seeing that my first mode of transportation was a hot pink propellor plane. We noisily buzzed just above the treetops, headed briefly south to Tampa on Leg 1 of 3 of a day-long journey from Gainesville to Albuquerque, New Mexico to watch my sister run in the NCAA D1 Indoor Track and Field Nationals (and explore some state parks/hot springs!). With my notebook and iPhone camera for some quick snapshots out the window, I documented the trip west…
Florida Gulf coast wetlands and winding rivers.
Swirls of sediments in the Gulf.

Sadly, the pretty pink propellor plane was only nice to look at - riding on it was another (quite bumpy) story, but nonetheless part of the adventure. Not too far below, the land was characterized by relatively nondescript topography, namely miles of empty but fully- lit parking lots and deserted roads. The glowing lights of sleepy streets illuminated the neighborhoods while others dotted the highways, ready for the onset of morning commuter craziness. When we flew somewhere near Orlando, one development was even shaped like a Mickey Mouse head - perhaps it was my sleepy morning imagination, but it was fashioned in the exact shape of the familiar mouse's perfectly round head with 2 symmetrical black ears. The beaches, far in the distance and out of focus through the blurry, small windows, were lined with twinkling lights as far as my eyes could strain to see in the darkness.

Leg 2 of 3 (Tampa to Dallas) - Gulf coast wetlands transitioned briefly to a muddy ocean, with massive deltas and swirls of what appeared to be artistically crafted sediments, spat out by rivers as they meet the sea. Wetlands in the panhandle transitioned to Alabama and Mississippi, then Louisiana farmland and dramatically winding rivers. Countless oxbows cause several river miles to be crammed into very short straight-line distances as they meander towards the gulf. Finally a brown wandering mass of water appeared, dwarfing all other rivers and almost blending in with the surrounding land: it had to be the great Mississippi River. Barges looked like ants below and appeared to be making no headway as they trudged through the muddy waters.

Texas seemed to be mostly farmlands and rivers as well, but only for a limited time. As we moved closer to the city, incomprehensible numbers of houses expanded in fractal-like patterns covering every inch of visible terrain. Everything seemed to be paved over, brown, or industrial, besides of course the plentiful sky-blue swimming pools dotting the back yards of far too many homes.
Fractal landscape of endless homes in Texas.
Leg 3 of 3 (Dallas to Albuquerque) - But not long after takeoff from Dallas, everything suddenly disappeared. Dendritic rivers wove through bright red clay and a landscape as flat as Florida, while reddish agricultural fields covered land in the distance like a hand-woven quilt.
Agricultural fields reminiscent of a hand-stitched quilt.
Soon this pattern took over the entire landscape - pivot irrigation turned the expansive fields into a giant game of Connect 4. Some plots even resembled peace signs...
A giant game of Connect 4 and some peace signs interspersed throughout.
I was definitely envisioning a more dramatic flight over Grand Canyon-esque features… apparently not this far south in the Great Plains. But just as I was beginning to think I would see no mountains and the pilot announced that we had only 20 more minutes until landing, the flat topography of the midwest gave way to marvelous mountains piled high in the sky. White-topped larger-than-Mt. Washington-sized giants appeared far to the north, deeply contrasting the brown, flat terrain below. Peering as far forward as I could manage through the little porthole window, I saw the dark outlines of some of the biggest mountains I've ever seen.
Dark outlines of massive mountains appearing amidst an arid southwestern landscape.
A closeup view of the distant mountains in the top photo.
This whole trip gave me a new appreciation for the diversity of landscapes and ecosystems represented in the small slice of the US visible from my airplane window. Even from one minute to the next, the landscape would drastically change, giving way to new and interesting features below. With the blink of an eye, rivers, patterned arid landscapes, and agricultural fields, cities and mountains came and went with the miles. People always say that they want to go travel abroad (and I am definitely one of them!), but I have a newfound desire to explore the state parks and surprising / off-the-beaten-path landscapes of the vast majority of the US that I have not yet seen. While borders are arbitrary lines we use to divide states and countries, it quickly became clear that New Mexico and this part of the Southwest was very different from Florida or the Northeast, feeling much like a foreign country while still being within the US - it is a place that is definitely fit for adventures… time for some exploring!!
Transition from desert to mountain range.
I was fascinated by these water-filled depressions visible in Eastern New Mexico/Western Texas on the flight home. After consulting with Dr. Brenner and doing a bit of reading, we're pretty sure they are "playa" lakes - ephemeral water-filled basins of varying size that provide some of the only surface water/wetlands in the High Plains region. These particular lakes seem to have a bit more relief than those in some other photos, but most other examples shown are in more of an agricultural setting (you can actually see a few in one of my agricultural photos above as well). Playa lakes are similar to Florida's springs in many ways: they are most likely connected to the Ogallala Aquifer (they are the only known source of recharge to the Ogallala under certain conditions - see link above to the Texas Wildlife Department page), and they are being polluted and altered due to farming, large animal operations, and the building of roads (some of the same issues we have with springs and water in Florida). They serve as important habitats for migrating birds and are unique wetland habitats, allowing a wide array of endemic species and amphibians to survive in an otherwise arid landscape. For more information on playa lakes, see the EPA website.
Dr. Seuss-esque landscapes, the Rio "not so Grande," prickly pear cactus-filled hikes, hot springs adventures (and more!) up next - stay tuned!


  1. Beautiful photos and writings, Jenny! Love your "camera eye". Thanks for the adventure. You will definitely have to come visit me in CO some

  2. Thank you so much, Marty! I was pleasantly surprised by the diverse beauty of the SE US as seen from my airplane window - and I didn't realize we were so close to CO while in Albuquerque - I would love to come visit some time, your photos from hikes/adventures are always amazing!