Texas Primer: The Balcones Escarpment

If life wasn’t always quiet on the Western front, the Hill Country tells us where the fault lies.

Daddy,” I hope my children will have the presence of mind to ask one day, “where does the West begin?” I will take them into the front yard of our house in Austin, point down the street to where a high limestone terrace will be visible in the distance through the branches of winter trees, and say, with sober authority, “There.”

The Balcones Escarpment. It is geology’s most fateful mark upon the surface of Texas, a bulwark of cracked and weathered rock that extends in a pronounced arc from Waco to Del Rio. It is the Balcones that creates the Hill Country, that sets the stage for the Edwards Plateau and the High Plains beyond. The cotton economy, for our schematic purposes, ends at the base of the escarpment, where the rich blackland prairie that sustained the courtly reveries of the old South runs literally into a wall. Above that mass of limestone there is only a veneer of soil, and the country is hard, craggy, and scenic—cowboy country. The distinction is that sharp: farmers to the east, ranchers to the west.

But of course the escarpment was there long before human beings came and parceled themselves out along its boundaries. We can trace its ancestry back 300 million years, when some primitive version of the North American continent collided with another and still-unknown landmass. For eons these continents, riding forward on their crustal plates, ground into one another with


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