Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Saturday, May 31, 2008

First week on the job

Our first week on the job has been a mix of orientation, mapping and prospecting. We have been to several sites already. Many of the geo crew will be familiar with the site we visited in March; here's a pic I took of the fossils we found at that time:
Now flash forward to May:
I was a little surprised to see this still here, but why not? As we poked around on Tuesday, I got a private lesson in fossil hunting, including these handy tips:
Color probably won't help you. Objects such as petrified wood, bits of sandstone and chert, and carbonate nodules often share the same color as bone. Instead, look at the shape and texture of the pieces at your feet. It helps to have a knowledge of anatomy. Study the bones in the fossil prep lab in your spare time.
When you find something, don't remove it unless you're sure you can find the spot again. Don't make piles of bone pieces, as this could lead a future researcher on a wild goose chase, digging up the rock in search of the rest of the skeleton that seems to be weathering out. When it comes to deciding what to collect, consider the preservation quality, completeness and rarity of the specimen.
We found a few bits and pieces on Tuesday but the significant finds came Wednesday. I was set loose to prospect in an area that was being mapped, and wandered about a bit unsure of myself. I spent quite some time digging out bits of something I thought might be bone but which might also have been some concretions that formed around roots in the Triassic soils. I was not finding much of anything and for a couple hours was quite bored. But eventually the fact that I was outdoors in lovely and very quiet surroundings and able to explore whatever I wished became its own enjoyment and I started to find the job very relaxing.
And then after lunch, I did find something. It didn't require a tremendous amount of skill; in fact, I couldn't miss it. The previous day's advice about color suddenly seemed ironic.
These are the broken pieces of a scute (armor plate) of Typothorax, an aetosaur. The pieces are weathering out from under the sandstone body; tomorrow we'll go and dig and see how much there is. It's not likely that there's much more under there. Isolated aetosaur plates are much more common than complete skeletons. But one cool thing about this specimen is that the sand that was deposited on top of it by the ancient river formed a cast or impression of the scute, so the bottom of the sandstone looks like this:
I did a lot of walking that day and was amazed at how many different forms the desert could produce in just this one area. The colors of the rocks changed everywhere: purple, purple with white spots, red, white, striped red and white, green, orange. (I will talk later about what causes these colors.) And the bodies of sandstone weathered into different shapes everywhere. Out of all the hills and drainages I explored that afternoon, I found this particular pattern in just a couple square feet of it:
Here the sandstone has weathered into small spheres about the size of golf to tennis balls. Spheroidal weathering is common; any jagged edges on a newly broken rock have more surface area than the rest of the rock, and so receive the brunt of the exposure to the processes of chemical and physical weathering. Over time, rocks become round, even if all they're doing is sitting there. But, come on, how often do you see them looking like this without having been tumbled in a river? There were rounded boulders all over, but this was the only place I saw little rounded stones. Very odd.
That day I also found a spoon, blackened with age. Somebody's trash. I was about to bring it in when I realized it might be old enough to have turned from "trash" into "artifact." I was suddenly confused. Was I supposed to toss it in a dumpster or wrap it and mark its location in the GPS? In the end I just left it there, but after finding a couple parties interested in the spoon I believe we'll be GPSing and collecting it tomorrow after all.
The orientation I went through on Thursday wasn't quite as exciting, but I must say the facilities here are very nice. There's a community room with satellite TV, books and videos (I have not partaken of this yet), a workout room, a library, laundry room, barbecues, and a little post office.
The only other thing worth mentioning at this time was my being pistol-whipped by law enforcement. As we were dismissed from orientation I happened to lean back in my chair. One of our faithful servants of the law walked behind me and her pistol, hanging from her belt, clocked me in the head. She was very apologetic but of course I was more amused than anything else.
All is well and I am not having any troubles with the climate or anything else. Very tired. Looking forward to tomorrow. I will leave you with a picture from my evening ride the other night:

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The trip

Welcome to the first entry on my summer paleo adventures. I'm writing for a diverse audience now including, among others, paleontology grad students and family members who know nothing about the field, so I doubt these entries will be a perfect fit for the readership, but I hope they'll be interesting. As with my stories, I don't intend to do much editing, the better to get the entries up here.
As some of you know by now, the trip out west was remarkably uneventful, with one major exception. But before I get to that I'll give you some of the highlights:
I picked Katie up at 6:00 AM in Kingston. It was cold. It had been dreary lately… well, you all know that… and we were both thoroughly sick of the cold. On a whim, I said, "I'm sick of this. Let's go to the desert southwest." Katie said, "Yeah. Right now."
Pennsylvania is an exceedingly boring state to drive through. As the etymologists among you must know, chief among Pennsylvania's characteristic virtues is its, well, woodedness. There are lots of trees. Six hours of trees, pretty much. Or at least it seemed like that.
We spent the first night in Columbus with one of Katie's friends, a linguist who has been studying Balkan dialectology. When I heard this I thought she was saying "Vulcan gynecology," which I suppose could be an intriguing subject but it was probably for the best that it was never really touched on in Star Trek.
The next day we drove to Lebanon, MO, where we stayed at a campground called "Fort Niangua River Resort." It took us half an hour to check in and fill out forms, and in the end the lady waved her arm vaguely and said, "Okay, you can camp over there somewhere." There were no numbered sites. There was some grass and a couple picnic tables.
In the morning I was awakened at 5:30 and I lay in my sleeping bag thinking of appropriate slogans for Missouri. Like, "Missouri, land of very loud birds," or "Missouri: where unseen animals making mooing noises move through the woods at ungodly hours." The other odd thing about the state was the roadkill. We'd been seeing deer since we started in RI, but in Missouri, the roadkill was all… turtles. Sometimes very large turtles. Snapping turtles like great steel helmets that I couldn't even figure out how a vehicle could run them over.
Before we got to Oklahoma, the roadkill started changing to armadillos. I had never seen an armadillo before, and have still never seen a live one.
Somewhere in Oklahoma we were listening to the radio and hearing about the tornado-spawning storms. I thought it would be cool if we could see a tornado. Katie didn't think so.
As we drove into Texas, the person on the radio mentioned how the storm in the panhandle was producing tornado warnings. Katie pointed out that storms produce tornadoes; people produce warnings. I offered that perhaps a very sensitive storm might produce warnings. "Sorry I'm making tornadoes again! I can't help it, it's all this heat and humidity and low pressure… it just happens every time. I'm sorry. I'm having a bad air day."
The Amarillo KOA campground… sorry, kampground… had a nice blackboard outside the office that welcomed our party, and we were greeted inside by a cheery blonde woman in a bright yellow polo who told us that the latest news had the storm passing to the north of us. But that if things did get hairy we could spend the night in the bathroom.
We pulled into our campsite. The winds were something like 20-30 mph at this time, and Katie said to me, "Maybe we should just sleep in the bathroom." I said no, that it was good practice to put up a tent in a windstorm, in case I ever had to when I didn't have the option of staying in a bathroom. (Note that this was my practice, and Katie's brand new tent.) We guyed the tent out and just as we were driving the last stake in, the wind picked up and the first raindrops hit me so hard I thought it was hail. In a matter of half a minute the wind had escalated to 40 or 50 mph and gusts were flattening the tent completely. Rain started coming down at a 30 degree angle. The sky had become a dark brown color. This was clearly the time to head for the bathroom.
Wet families and dogs were already gathered inside. One woman held the door shut as the wind outside escalated to a howling 75 mph. Katie was understandably anxious about her tent, and I consoled her by reminding her that there was a barbed wire fence just downwind of the campsite, and if the tent blew away, surely it would catch on that.
Occasionally the door would be opened and we would peek out to see tree limbs in the road, and the tent still hanging in there.

A nearby man was talking about how they'd be evacuating people out of the campsites in Palo Duro canyon, which—he said—would have a 40-foot-high wall of water rushing down it in a storm like this. This was of some interest to us as Palo Duro had been our first choice for camping, but was eventually ditched for being too far from the highway.
After about an hour the storm let up enough to venture outside. It had not spawned a tornado in our area. To the east the sky was still brown, with a giant double rainbow arching up into space. The tent was still there. (We shall have to write to Marmot about this.) We slept in it with no further problems.
The next morning we visited Cadillac Ranch, at which several cadillacs have been planted in a field (at the same angle as the Cheops pyramids, I'm told) and may be spraypainted at will.
Katie picked out the color as well as the message you can read below:
We also put our names on the cars.
On our drive across New Mexico, we encountered a funeral train on the highway:
As well as a very unusual rest area:
And by the time we got to Arizona, I was so tired I didn't even hooray. We were impressed by the apartment, though, which is giant compared to the one we had in March. It's ridiculous, especially as Katie and I are the only ones living in it so far. The living room dwarfs the furniture in it.

In the next entry, you'll hear about our first days on the job!