Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Farewell to Wyoming

It's time for one last post about field camp, to show off some of the entertaining pictures other people took, many of which have me in them. I don't have much to say about the above picture and don't even remember it being taken, but somehow I think it encapsulates the personalities... souls, even... of Jordan and myself.

An unofficial group shot. There are many amusing poses in this picture, but I won't bother to explain them. Besides the handful of group shots taken during our six weeks, there were a number of photo ops for just the women; being only five, we apparently constituted a kind of natural photographic formation.

The choice of clothing in these photos is tells you something about our unique personalities, or perhaps our individual degrees of laziness. You can tell which photo was taken in the field and which on our "tourism" days because Jordan, who preferred skirts at all times, possibly because they required something like three fewer steps to put on, can be seen wearing jeans in the field. Jenni, with red hair, also makes concessions to the necessities of the field by wearing hiking pants, but may be seen in jeans on our tourist days. Kaylee and Abby do not see any need to alter their uniform of jeans and t-shirts for anything. I also seem to find the same clothing suitable for every occasion, it's just that mine is incredibly geeky. But honestly, I don't know why you would want to be wearing jeans all day in the 90 degree sun when you can have paper-thin, rip-stop nylon hiking pants. In the same vein, when isn't an Australian slouch hat useful?

This picture, however, probably showcases the pinnacle of my fashion sense:

I think about personal efficiency quite a bit. This should not be construed to imply I am conscientious; rather, I am lazy. Here we see the famous Australian slouch hat, which keeps the sun off my face and neck while also shielding me from awkward socialization, such as being asked whether I really like the Sox, or perhaps whether I might like to go on a date. It has a white spring-clasp on the ties which I scavenged from another hat because the one that came with this hat simply wasn't up to my tie-clasping standards. The work of the hat is abetted by my collar, which is turned up to ensure that I need only apply a minimum of sunscreen on my neck. I am wearing the long-sleeved shirt because I do not like to put sunscreen on my arms. I do not like sunscreen. I am wearing the gloves because it was chilly that day, but I am too lazy to take gloves off to write; thus, they have no fingers. Also notice the drinking hose very near my mouth, so that I do not have to strain to rehydrate myself, but may suckle at will, like a gerbil. I put a lot of thought into these things. The crowning glory, to which I am pointing in the picture, is the pocket protector. This came for free with my field book pouch purchased from, and, noticing that my shirt had a pocket for once, I made use of it. This meant that I was able to transfer all my pens and pencils from my field pouch to my pocket in one motion, saving me at least three seconds.

And now for something completely different:

Below, witness a night out.

There is something about geology that I do not yet completely understand, which is its relationship to alcohol. The Uncyclopedia parodies this relationship nicely with the introduction, "Geologists are 'scientists' with an unnatural obsession with geology (rocks and alcohol)," and goes on to state that "There is a considerable, and still growing body of scientific literature that suggests that geologists are in fact the world's first alcohol-based life form" in their seven-paragraph section entitled "Geologists and Alcohol."

I have had enough experience at this point to suggest that there is certainly truth to the stereotype of drinking being the essential geologist social activity, but I don't know why. It's not as though we were a body of shallow frat boys with too little imagination to find anything else to do after 6 PM in the evening (or 12 noon, depending). It's also not as though geology were terribly stressful, with warplanes strafing us and roadside bombs going off next to the vans all day. We're just looking at rocks. But the habit of drink is so ingrained in the profession that I have been told it is possible to discern the soil scientists from the geologists at a Geological Society of America meeting because all the soil scientists are standing about chatting, or heading off to bed, while all the geologists are in line at the bar. How bizarre. I also don't know what it means that I never liked beer until I started doing geology field work.

This is a story about beer. We were not allowed to transport alcohol in the state vehicles (those being the vans in which we rode about). This was no problem at camp, where many students had their own vehicles and could go out on errands. But when we were camping, all we had were the vans. At Atlantic City in the Wind River Mountains, a plan was devised: several intrepid beer-drinkers would be driven down to the store in a van, then left to walk the 1 1/4 miles back to camp with their beers. The two 24-packs and three 6-packs in the picture are just a few of the beers purchased on this expedition. When I saw the group of brave souls straggle back to camp after dark, they were red-faced and covered in sweat. This is the proper way to enjoy a beer, I think.

Here, some of the effects of beer can be observed, which include dancing in a "club" made from an abandoned bunk room in which the DJ works a laptop and outdoor gear enthusiasts switch their head lamps to red light mode and swing them about the room like a blood-drenched disco (blood-drenchedness not visible with flash). Each of the dorm rooms was named after a geologic period or formation; this room was called the Precambrian, and after this it became Club Precambrian. I had been taking a nap that evening and people kept coming in and saying there was a party in the Precambrian. In my sleep-addled state, I thought, That's billions of years ago. I'll never make it.

A normal evening meal.

Have I spoken about the vans? Here is one of our vans. We came upon this traffic light in the middle of nowhere in western Wyoming, with nothing but sage and barbed wire in all directions. The sign below the light said "wait here for pilot car." We waited for ten minutes; nothing stirred as far as the eye could see. Tyson said, "Is this a practical joke?"

Anyway, our three white vans quickly earned names: the Funvee, the Party Bus, and the Humdrumvee. The first two boomed with the strains of 80s rock classics, while the last made its way sedately, its occupants nodding off in peace. Unsurprisingly, I made my home in the Humdrumvee. However, the riders in the noisy vans apparently still managed to sleep, some of the time:

As the weeks wore on, this became the default view in any van. My fellow students and I all caught sleep when we could; they because they stayed up till midnight working on homework before clomping into the bunkhouse, and I because they stayed up till midnight working on homework before clomping into the bunkhouse.

Here is a picture from the bonfire on our last night, which I unfortunately missed because I wasn't feeling well. The fellow in the middle is one of our instructors, who really does smoke cigars and wield a riding crop. As a teacher, he is pretty much just like you would imagine he would be.

We were all asked if field camp had passed quickly or slowly for us, and most people said the time flew by, they felt like they'd just arrived. It was the opposite for me. By the time the six weeks were up I felt the summer should already be over (on the other hand, the three weeks since I've returned home have disappeared in a blink). I look at pictures of camp now and recall how stressed I was at the time, and feel my stomach wanting to tighten in time-displaced sympathy. It wasn't the work, it was the socializing; having to spend all day with people, then come home and eat with them, do group projects with them, then bunk with them too. That's about five times as much interaction as is healthy for me, especially when the majority of the group is ten years my junior with five times my energy level. Not that they weren't all wonderful people. But as Jonathan Rauch says in his classic article on introversion, "I'm okay, you're okay--in small doses."

The field camp experience was still very good for me, though, because I learned many things, including how to use beer for self-medication, and will be set to graduate after one more year of classes. For my next adventure I will be traveling to Tucson for a conference and some camping, and if anything interesting happens I will write a blog entry about that.

And it's farewell to Wyoming!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The mouse, and other tales

This is a picture of a chewed-on Hershey's Kiss and a completely wrapped Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. They were in my duffel bag, which had remained untouched under my bunk for several weeks. I had pulled it out to look inside, because we in the girls' dorm were beginning to suspect we had a mouse living with us. That we were only beginning to suspect by this point, and not already utterly certain, was due partly to an exchange that had happened rather earlier in the field season.

Despite the fact that they fed us three square meals a day at camp... as much food as we could eat... my roommate Jordan was a perpetual purchaser of snacks. Whenever our convoy stopped at a gas station or grocery store, she would squeeze back into the van with a bagful of kettle chips, popcorn, Coca Cola, pork rinds, sunflower seeds and candy. She was very generous about sharing these things with the rest of us, and was in fact an exceptionally sweet, funny and giving soul overall. Probably still is, for that matter. So when one morning I went to put on my boots and found I couldn't stick my foot in all the way, my first thought was: a scorpion! but only because, for some reason, this is always my first thought when there's something in my boot. I reached in and pulled out a couple of pieces of candy and had my second thought.

"Jordan," I said the next time she banged up the stairs and into to the cabin, sunflower seeds in hand. "Did you put this candy in my boot for me to find?"

"Yup," she said. "I put that candy in your boot."

"Well, that was very sweet of you," I said, genuinely touched.

"No problem," she said, and continued to her corner of the cabin, where approximately 32 articles of clothing lay strewn about the floor and bed amidst assorted food items, books and crumpled assignments.

As the days went by I began to see various Kisses and Cups about the cabin in various states of chocolatey undress, but I assumed they were simply escapees from Jordan's general disarray. Even when the other women began finding either fully wrapped, half-wrapped, or completely unwrapped and clearly gnawed pieces of chocolate among their belongings, we were still inexplicably clueless. Perhaps each of us thought the person bunking next to us was a terrible, secret slob. And then we saw the mouse.

It turned out to be a rather brave mouse, scuttling across the floor in the light of day. I assumed it was female--after all, this was a women's dorm--and a newly rigorous inspection of our things revealed that it definitely preferred Kaylee's drawers, among which it had scattered copious nesting material and droppings.

It had no such preference for where to stash its food. There was candy everywhere. The fully wrapped pieces amused me the most. I liked to imagine the mouse hauling a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, fully folded in foil and half the size of its own body, up the six-inch height of my Size 10 boot to stash the candy there in the recesses of the toe.

"Jordan," I said, after we had confirmed the mouse's existence, "Did you lie about putting that candy in my boot a couple weeks ago?"

"Yup," she said. Then she laughed.

Here is our cabin not long before we packed up (Jordan's corner not shown). I was constantly amazed at the amount of stuff these women had. I am a light packer; I had brought 4 t-shirts, 2 pairs of pants, a ziploc of toiletries and some other things; these women seem to have lugged along the entire contents of their bedrooms, as well as half the bathroom.

But this picture is also to reintroduce the subject of our dorm buildings themselves. I mentioned in my first post from Wyoming that the camp had once operated as a Japanese internment camp during World War II; in fact, it was only the buildings (and only some of them) that had this duty. The Heart Mountain Relocation Center was located between Cody and Powell, Wyoming, and operated between 1942 and 1945; in it, nearly 11,000 Japanese Americans froze and sweltered through the Wyoming seasons in these thin-walled buildings. Despite this treatment, spawned by one of the darker endeavors our nation has undertaken, the internees managed to retain some of their dignity, building a democratic self-government and even volunteering for the U.S. Army from within the camp's walls.

When the camp was disbanded, the buildings were leased out to towns, farms and other facilities that needed them, and were scattered across the state. Some of them ended up at the Iowa State University geology field station. By the time I saw them, so much of the original material had been replaced that the cabins were no longer particularly historic. Sometime between then and now, letters had been found in the walls, to or from the original inhabitants. The letters were burned. It was before we had come to a point where such things would be treasured. If you wish, you can read more about Heart Mountain here.

Our last day of field camp, after camp cleanup was complete, some of us got to visit another mountain: Hunt Mountain, the highest peak in the northern Bighorns at just over 10,000 feet. This is the highest I've been! We were able to drive the van up it, thanks to the handy Forest Service roads and the fact that the steep bits are on the sides of the Bighorn range; once you're in the range, everything is very high up and the peaks only a little bit higher.

There was plenty of snow up here still, though it was the first day of July:

We walked off to look for fossil corals "as big as our heads," as they had been advertised to us. These corals dated to the Ordovician Period, more than 400 million years ago.

I don't have any pictures of the giant fossils we found, but I'm not sure they were quite as impressive as they sounded--they looked so much like regular modern chunks of coral you might find washed up on a southern beach, you'd hardly even know how old they were. I brought back some small samples.

My roommate naps on top of the van after having her fill of coral.

The best part about the trip, for me, was the scenery. We were in the alpine zone, where life is too harsh for many trees, but where the ground was studded with wildflowers like a carpet. The air was fresh and the only sound was the wind rushing up the valleys. The clouds were beautiful that day.

We took the scenic route out of the mountains, heading down toward the town of Lovell, and the long set of switchbacks down the very steep side of the Bighorns was not to be missed. We could see all the way to the other side of the basin, 80 miles in the hazy distance, and Sheep Mountain (around which we'd done so much mapping) looked like only a small ridge in front of us. All the land was blue with distance, making it seem like we were on some promontory above the ocean. I didn't take any photos because I knew they wouldn't look anything like what I saw.

There are still more photos, though.

Here we are on laundry day in Basin, WY. Laundry was quite an event. It would take at least three hours to do... there was the drive to a town with a laundromat, then waiting for everyone to make use of a washer and dryer, then the long drive back.

My museum! Here is where I kept my collection of rocks and fossils I found during the summer. I ended up taking only about half of this home with me. Some of the interesting pieces:

One of the grad students staying in camp said he thought this trackway belonged to the Pterichnus ichnogenus. If you remember what a regular genus is... comes before species, right... well, genus and species are used to identify living (or fossil) things. Ichnogenus and ichnospecies are used to identify traces left by these things. For instance, the dinosaur prints at Dinosaur State Park in Connecticut belong to the Eubrontes ichnogenus. They may have been made by Dilophosaurus, which is an actual genus of actual dinosaur, but they aren't referred to as Dilophosaurus tracks--not scientifically, anyway.

There is a whole branch of paleontology, called ichnology (ick-nology) devoted to the study of trace fossils. Trace fossils can include tracks but also fossilized burrows, resting hollows or nests, boreholes, or any other trace of what the animal did while it was alive. The people who study these things are called ichnologists. Though you may never have heard of the science, it's not trivial; for instance, identifying the types of burrows in a sandstone may tell you whether it was deposited in a lagoon or offshore, which may tell you how close it was to an area where oil might have formed. In many ways I think ichnofossils are more exciting than regular fossils; regular fossils give you a snapshot of an animal's death, but ichnofossils are a snapshot of its life.

If my ichnofossil above is Pterichnus, it may have been made by an isopod that walked along the sea floor during the Cretaceous.

Here is the ammonite I referred to earlier in the summer. Ammonites are popular fossils and you have probably seen them for sale in gift stores. Their closest living relative is the nautilus, and like the nautilus they had many chambers in their shells which they could fill with gas to regulate their buoyancy. They were a mollusk, and they swam about the ocean with their heads and tentacles sticking out of their shells. See the anatomy of an ammonite.

For some reason, as ammonites evolved, the sutures between their chambers became more and more complex. See a close-up of ammonite sutures here, and a graphic illustrating their increase in complexity here. The sutures that can be seen on my ammonite are clearly quite complex, which is natural as mine is a Cretaceous ammonite.

A very exciting thing is that I picked up many fossils to give specifically as gifts, so you too may soon be the proud recipient of an ancient coral or ammonite.

Here is an interesting thing I found that I did not manage to bring home with me. It was just too big. This large rock (ale for scale) is mainly composed of some brown, translucent mineral that is likely some kind of semiprecious gem.

I do not know what this is. Neither did anybody else. I let the ISU people take it back to their campus, where they will chop it up and make thin sections--very small slices of rock that allow light to pass through. By the behavior of the minerals under polarized light, you can tell what they are.

Here is some of my field equipment. The card in front has actual sand glued in the holes, so that you can see which sizes belong to the geological classifications of "very fine," "fine," "medium," "coarse" and "very coarse" sand. These things mean very specific things. Also in the picture are some of the small, useful things I was not taught in class but adopted after spending time in the field, such as rubber bands to help me open my field book to whatever page I was on, or white tape for scale on the handle of my hammer (one stripe = 5 cm). It is very difficult to juggle all the equipment you need to use at once, such as field book, clipboard with map, pen, pencil, camera and ruler, all at once, especially when it is windy, so anything that makes this easier is welcome.

We have come at last to the journey home:

at which we did stop at Devil's Tower. In my Yellowstone post I talked about columnar basalt, which forms as cooling rock cracks into mostly hexagonal columns. Devil's Tower is a prominent example of this. This rock was once an intrusion of magma deep within the earth. The rock it formed turned out to be more resistant than the rock into which it intruded; as the sedimentary layers around it eroded away, it remained, until it became a tower above everything else. Devil's Tower is rather attractive, but in the end I'm not sure it's much worth going out of your way for. However, if you happen to be in the area, it is something to check out.

I have one more post about Wyoming for you, this time with photos taken by others that are worth a look. After that, an update on the work Katie and I did in Arizona (and which she is still doing)!

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Wyoming wildlife

There are still a couple more blog entries to come, including one about our last day at camp and the ride home, but as promised, here is your tour of Wyoming wildlife. I have never seen so much wildlife. By which I mean relatively large, wild animals, not squirrels and birds.

This is not wildlife. This is Dolly the llama, who belonged to the camp's neighbors. We went out to feed her one day.

The camp director hides llama food in his hands. Dolly would take it from our hands. Afterward, I guess my hands still smelled like food, because she then took my fingers into her mouth and bit them. Apparently llamas have no top teeth, so it wasn't as painful as it could have been, but still.

Dolly was very protective of the neighbors' cows; that is why she was in the field with them. She would not let herself be petted though.

After we'd been in the pasture a while, the cows came up to investigate us. I found this a little disturbing.

There were some lizards in Wyoming, though not as many as in Arizona.

A horny toad. One of the defense mechanisms of the horny toad is to go very still. You can even pick them up and they won't react. Or put them on someone's hat.

One day we found a snake in camp. It didn't have a rattle, so people decided to pick it up and take pictures with it.

In this picture taken by another student we see what is probably a bull snake, which I think is the same thing as the gopher snakes I saw in Arizona. This snake was clearly a bit irritated but otherwise docile.

I only saw a couple rattlesnakes in the field; here's one:

A prairie rattlesnake, I think. It didn't rattle until after Kaylee had almost stepped on it. It was much feistier than the bull snake, coiling up to strike when I stepped a little too close. But the feistiest thing we found all summer was definitely this:

It is a small scorpion, maybe two inches long. At the start of field camp the instructors told us to flip rocks over with our rock hammer before picking them up, just in case there were scorpions underneath. I always forgot to do this. But this day my field partner did happen to lift the rock we wanted to look at with his hammer first, and that was good, because there was a scorpion underneath. The scorpion immediately ran at his boot and began stabbing it repeatedly with its stinger. When pushed away with a rock hammer, the scorpion proceeded to try to stab the rock hammer about 1,000 times, in between trying to chase my partner's boots again. It was possibly the most aggressive animal I've ever seen in my life.

There were other interesting arthropods:

Here, it looks like Charles is offering a beer to the giant moth. Moths love beer.

This is a Jeremiah cricket, also known as a potato bug. Wikipedia states that it is neither a cricket nor a true bug, nor does it eat potatoes. states, "Other names include: Satan's fetus, the Devil's spawn, the Devil's child, the Devil's baby, the Devil's fetus, evil fetus, bald devil fetus, bald fetus of Satan, and earth fetus." They also include this on their FAQ:
Q: Do potato bugs eat potatoes?
A: Potato bugs eat your cheeks.

Tongue-in-cheek humor aside, as far as I can tell it is just a large, striking bug. There were also a lot of spiders in Wyoming, like, everywhere. Especially running around on the ground and in the porta-potties.

But now for the part everyone is waiting for: the large mammals.
This is some sort of post-mammal (or mammals). We did find a lot of bones, which were disappointingly difficult to identify. It turns out that dead pronghorns, elks and deer don't look like you expect them to.

Here is a live (not stuffed!) bighorn sheep. We did not see him in the Bighorn Mountains. We saw him in the Wind River Mountains, right next to a pulloff on the highway. In fact, just out of frame to the left is a red Subaru. This ram seemed very docile but we did not get very close. (Remember, I have 10x zoom on my camera.) I can imagine they do a great deal of damage at ramming speed.

Just beyond the fence here is a mule deer, which wandered by while we were working on our Wind Rivers project. Deer love beer.

A couple nights before, some of us had wandered up onto a hill as the sun set, and as we were nearing the top a pronghorn suddenly crested the peak in front of us. It stood silhouetted against the last of the sunlight, snorting at us in mechanical-sounding whooshes of air. I did not have my camera but a fellow student captured this shot:

I like the pronghorn, they are always out there on the plains of Wyoming, with their oddly big heads that make them all look like juveniles, and their inscrutable dark eyes. They go wherever they like and they sometimes go very fast. They seem to have their own mysterious business. I must have seen a hundred of them while I was out there but didn't get a single good picture.

In the Tetons I saw a moose and calf but it was too dark for a good picture; here's someone else's shot of what was probably a different moose and calf, though taken on the same night:

But it was in Yellowstone that we had the greatest opportunities for wildlife photography. We didn't see a whole lot of wildlife in the wilderness, but boy, did those animals love lawns and parking lots.

Here are some elk.

These elk were feeding on a lawn in front of some kind of administrative house at Mammoth Hot Springs. It was a herd of females with a number of fawns and juveniles.

A fawn wonders what it's like on the other side.

Here, two females seem to argue over a patch of grass. After flailing at each other with their hooves, one backed off and walked away.

Of course, we saw bison too:

The funniest thing about this bison (which is the same thing as a buffalo) is that there was a family there watching it with us... the little boy had a toy bow-and-arrow set, the kind with suction-cup arrows, and the mother kept telling him he better not shoot it at the buffalo. So, eventually, the kid shot it at the buffalo. The arrow landed maybe five feet in front of it. This buffalo, which up to that point had been chomping on the grass totally oblivious to us, suddenly looked up and began glancing around with a kind of wide-eyed expression. It got very quiet. These animals, of course, are known for being a bit mean-tempered, and one had gone out of its way to ram a woman who had simply been making a pay phone call on the other side of the road a couple weeks earlier. However, our buffalo soon went back to its grass-eating, leaving the embarrassed parents to explain to the child why he couldn't get his arrow back.

They look very furry and friendly, though.

Especially when they scratch their fuzzy-wuzzy heads against (tiny-looking) fire hydrants.

Another funny thing was this family playing softball while several male buffalo wandered around them. They didn't even glance at the animals.

While driving the Yellowstone roads we ran into several of what the park rangers apparently call "bear jams," or tourists clogging up the two-lane roads because someone saw, or thought they saw, a bear. One of these bear jams actually came with a bear, a small black bear, which was crossing a stream near the road. It was very cute and looked just like they do on TV, but I didn't get a picture. We didn't see any grizzlies, but I imagine they look something like this:

However, the last bear jam we passed didn't have a bear at all, but a beaver. Beavers are bigger than you think. This one was just sitting by the side of a pond, while tourists crept up to it, within a couple feet, until the beaver got annoyed and went into the pond. I could see all this because traffic had come to a total stop, a tourist having stopped their car right in the middle of the road, put it in park, and gotten out to take pictures while a dozen cars backed up behind him. After several minutes our van driver managed to communicate that the driver should move his car, so the guy got back in, drove five feet to the side of the road, put it in park and got out again. I thought this was hilarious.

More entries to come!