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Geologic Column
Seventeen places
Lisa Rossbacher

Lists of interesting places to visit have become something of a cottage industry. 1000 Places to See Before You Die (Patricia Schultz, Workman Publishing, 2003) and its tie-in materials of travel journals and calendars are bestsellers. Similar books include Unforgettable Places to See Before You Die (Steve Davey and Marc Schlossman, Firefly Books, 2004) and Unforgettable Things to Do Before You Die (Steve Watkins and Clare Jones, Firefly Books, 2005).

Iguazú Falls, called Foz do Iguaçu in Portuguese, and Cataratas del Iguazú in Spanish, lie on the Brazil-Argentina border and are a must-visit for any geology enthusiast. Courtesy of Lisa Rossbacher.

After having written more than 100 columns in Geotimes, I am well aware that the one column of mine that continues to generate the most correspondence (as recently as a few months ago!) was about the “geologist’s life list.” The column was first published in the April 1990 issue and reprinted in December 1998. The concept follows the “life lists” that many avid birdwatchers keep, tracking locations and experiences of geological significance.

My original geologist’s life list was influenced heavily by places I had visited or read about, and by the travels and opinions of friends and family, with some effort to include geologic and geographic diversity. The initial list created a storm of suggestions for additions, and an addendum was published in Geotimes a year later, in April 1991.

Looking back on the lists from a distance of 15 years, they’re not bad. There are some places I would absolutely add (Iguazú Falls, in Argentina and Brazil, for example) and some that I might leave out (the Carolina Bays can be, well, sort of underwhelming). But overall, I included most of the biggies.

In 1996, Terry Acomb, then a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati, turned the idea of a geologist’s life list into a creative Web site that includes both the original lists and some of his own favorite locales. Although Acomb has long since graduated from the University of Cincinnati, the geology department there continues to host the site — and I am grateful for that support.

The geologist’s life lists beg an inevitable comparison with the 1000 Places book. Just as my geological colleagues had opinions about my lists, so do I have opinions about the 1000 Places list. The overlap between the original geologist’s life lists and the 1,000 places is limited. Several reasons explain this difference.

Some of the items on the geologist’s life list are generic, such as “a desert, both erg and reg” (“sand sea” and pavement) and “coastlines along the leading and trailing edge of a tectonic plate,” and therefore they cannot be correlated to the specific locations in 1000 Places. Some of the items on the life list are experiential and not location-specific: “feel an earthquake with a Richter magnitude greater than 5.0” and “find gold, however small the flake.” Still others are, I admit, not likely to interest a nongeologist; visiting an ophiolite or an anorthosite complex is not part of most tourist guides. And the 1000 Places has a major emphasis on hotels and restaurants, rather than rocks.

Nevertheless, the lists do have some similarities. In 1000 Places, 17 spots were specifically mentioned on one of the two original geologist’s life lists published in Geotimes:

In addition, five of the generic geologic events or experiences are included as specific sites in 1000 Places:

There are two anomalies of note. One is that the geologist’s life list includes “coastlines along the leading and trailing edges of a tectonic plate”; 1000 Places includes these and the coastlines of North Carolina (Outer Banks) and Oregon, but I’m not feeling generous enough to count them here. Similarly, the geologist’s life list includes “the Cretaceous/Tertiary Boundary.” 1000 Places includes Gubbio, Italy — where you can see the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary in an outcrop — but does not mention the geologic significance. No credit.

A colleague recently suggested to me that his goal was not to visit all 1,000 places in the book. His goal is 999. “What happens when you get to a thousand?” he asked. “Then you die?”

No — these lists are about living. They are fundamental ways of sharing our ideas about places and experiences that are meaningful to us. Of course, a competitive element is involved, but that’s minor compared to the fascination of trading stories with friends and colleagues about where we have been, what we have done, why we went to the effort of getting there, and what we learned in the process.

Rossbacher, a geologist, is president of the Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Ga.

Terry Acomb's favorite locales

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