Monday, April 8, 2013


I watch movies with an eye on the background geology and scenery, always asking myself--is everything up to snuff.  Was it really the correct geology for the scene?  As a native Kansan I was always interested in the TV series Gunsmoke, but even as kid with no geological training I knew those mountains and pine trees really did not exist down at Dodge City!  I had visited the southwestern plains and had not seen a tree other than a cottonwood and the highest hill had a relief of about 50 feet. At about that time I begin to doubt the truthfulness of what I observed on TV---several decades before the term “reality TV” was coined!  

Rooster Cogburn ready to take on Ned Pepper.  Photo from movie trailer courtesy of
So, I always find it entertaining to watch the scenery in a TV series or movies and that leads me to True Grit, the 1969 edition with John Wayne.  The scenery was spectacular if you were just looking at the rocks and were not trying to figure out how those big mountains were jutting up at Ft. Smith, Arkansas, the home of Judge Parker’s courtroom and gallows.  Now, I have visited Ft. Smith and there are numerous trees and a nice river valley but certainly there is not a high mountain in sight.  The reason behind this conundrum is that most of the movie was filmed near Ridgeway, Colorado, near the high peaks of the San Juan Mountains.  So, movie viewers just need to imagine that Arkansas and “Indian territory” (Oklahoma) had the mountains and enjoy the scenery.

Most everyone’s favorite scene in True Grit is near the finale when Rooster Cogburn (Wayne) is facing the “bad guy”, Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall) and his three sidekicks:
(Rooster) I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned, or see you hang in Ft. Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience.  Which will it be?  (Pepper) I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.  (Rooster)  Fill your hand you son-of-a-bitch.  And off they ride towards each other with six-guns a blazing, with a wonderful geological feature, Lizard Head, popping up in the background!

The Lizard Head Wilderness (~42,000 acres), located southwest of Telluride along CO 145, contains some of the region’s most spectacular peaks including several 14ers: Mount Wilson (14,245'), Wilson Peak (14,017'), El Diente (14,159'), South Wilson (14,110'), and  “an almost 14er”, Gladstone Peak (13,913').  Lizard Head, a peak that gives its name to the Wilderness Peak, comes in at 13,113' and is often considered as the toughest peak in Colorado to summit (a technical climb on loose rock).  Although it is easy to find references stating that Lizard Head is a volcanic neck, it actually is a weathered hunk of Tertiary volcanic tuff capped by a harder welded tuff.  Peak baggers usually refer to the rock as “rotten” and consider it as somewhat unsafe to climb.

Lizard Head Peak, an outcrop of volcanic tuff.
Lizard Head Pass, near the peak, is the high point of CO 145 running from Telluride to Cortez and displays some great views and interesting geology.  Although the San Juans are composed primarily of various volcanic rocks, from the Pass summit to the southwest a variety of sedimentary formations (Pennsylvanian through Cretaceous) begin to crop out along the road.  The most conspicuous unit travelers observe is the Cretaceous Mancos Shale, a fossiliferous, fissile black or dark gray, marine shale that is easy to locate near the summit where marine fossils like pelecypods (clams) are common.  The shale is also very easy to spot to the east below the tuffs of Yellow Ridge where the volcanic rocks form a massive and sharp ridge while the easily erodible shale is slope forming.

Trace fossils in Mancos Shale, Lizard Head Pass.

Fossils, note pelecypod, in Mancos Shale, Lizard head Pass.

Of course, Jeff Bridges stared in the 2010 remake of True Grit. Although I liked the second movie the original is still my first choice and I will always remember the sound of John Wayne—Fill your hand……….

Looking east from Lizard Head Pass.  Outcrops of volcanic rocks overlying Mancos Shale.

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