Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Sunday, May 24, 2009


The story of my Caribbean adventures will have to continue later because, as many of you know, I have departed for field camp in Wyoming. This is geology field camp, which is a requirement for graduation in most geology programs. Geology is a science that must be practiced in the field to be learned properly, and I am attending a six-week program run by Iowa State University and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. I know these weeks will be full of exciting things for my readers, and I'm determined to make a blog entry once or twice a week, with plenty of pictures.

Here are my field camp supplies in my hotel room in Ames, IA. In my bags I have clothing for all kinds of weather, camping gear, books and geology things like my rock hammer. I caught an early morning flight out of Hartford (which seems perpetually cheaper than Providence) to Cincinnati and then on to Des Moines, where I was picked up by the ISU department secretary and set up in the fine Best Western in Ames. After my 3 AM wakeup call and hours shuttling around airports, it was a relief to get into this clean and quiet room. I do want you to notice something about it, though:

The sink is the first thing to welcome you when you come in. I have never seen this exact setup in a hotel before, but perhaps sinks are an essential part of midwestern hospitality. Anyway, I quickly took a nap, then changed into my bathing suit. When I saw there were two rowdy boys using the hotel pool, I decided to work out instead, with my new resistance band. So I put on my ipod and began doing bicep curls in my bathing suit. I was hoping my roommate wouldn't walk in... a woman from Michigan arriving at an unknown time.

Eventually two students from Michigan and one from New Jersey arrived, and we all went for a swim and went out to eat together. (These were other people going to the same field camp, not just random students.) The next morning we were picked up by an ISU van and taken to the campus where we rendezvoused with the other ten students who would be making the trip out in the vans. (There were a further ten who were heading directly to Wyoming on their own and whom I would meet later.)

I had been expecting professors to drive the vans, make stops at interesting sites like the badlands or Devil's Tower, and learn things, but instead we were driven out by one (non-geology) professor and a couple of the undergrads, and were to go straight through without stopping to look at any rocks. The professors would be awaiting us at camp. I admit to being disappointed. We could see the stunning, lunar landscape of Badlands National Park in the distance, but couldn't get close; we saw only signs for Mt. Rushmore and Devil's Tower, lurking somewhere there a few small miles from the highway; and worst of all, there was this:

Wall Drug! I don't know what Wall Drug is. I only know that there are approximately 170 billboards for it scattered across Minnesota and South Dakota, not to mention on buses in London, if you believe the billboards in South Dakota, and that Katie (remember Katie?) told me that I have to go to Wall Drug, and that surely we would, and then I would see. Then I would see what Wall Drug is like. But I have no stories of Wall Drug for you, or pictures. I have only my tears.

Another missed opportunity:

The Corn Palace. Need I say more?

Our van, which was very comfortable with only 5 passengers, was unanimously despondent over missing out on these many (only) highlights of South Dakota. We tried to distract ourselves with the radio, but it only served to hammer home our situation. View with sound:

We drove for nine hours, finally entering some interesting landscape as we approached the Black Hills of western South Dakota. We kamped at the KOA in Rapid City, surrounded by vacationing seniors who were all going to see, or had seen, Mount Rushmore.

I must say that the KOA was very nice... they have a breakfast bar thing wherein a person may order all-you-can-eat pancakes for one dollar (plus tax). The average visitor eats 3.4 pancakes. The record is 28 at one sitting. I had 3.

Most of my pictures, taken at van speed, did not turn out that great, so here's a picture I took at the gas station, of a Black Hill.

As we crossed into Wyoming the scenery became more interesting still. We passed many gullies and small landslides called slumps, where the ground had gotten soggy one day and slid a few feet down the hill, leaving a red gash and a bumpy tongue of soil under the grass. Here is one of the gullies, also caused by the ravaging effects of water:

Now, we have lots of water in the Northeast, and we don't see a tremendous number of gullies, or other types of mass wasting. Our bedrocks and sediments happen to be more solid, but climate also plays a role. It isn't water alone that allows land to waste away so much as a combination of water and the vegetation that can be supported on it. An extremely wet climate, such as that of a tropical rainforest, will also see extremely heavy plant growth, and that tends to hold the ground in place. An extremely dry climate like a desert won't see much plant growth, but there's not much rain either, so the amount of erosion can be minimal. But there is an in-between area where there's enough water to wash away soil but not enough to allow heavy plant growth, and it's in this type of climate that the greatest erosion can occur.

I don't know if Wyoming really falls into that category (I suspect the type of soil they have in the picture above has more to do with it than anything), but it did rain for much of our drive.

Some of the scenery we passed was exciting in a topographic way:

And some was exciting just because it was different from home:

Here, rolling brushy plains that made me want to ride a horse out into them and see what was over the next hill. We passed many herds of pronghorns and I tried to take a picture of a herd, but we were going too fast... however, you can imagine them in this scene. There were little pronghorn calves with them which were very small and cute.

Finally, we drove up alongside the Bighorn Mountains, which are certainly the tallest-looking mountains I've ever seen, though I'm not sure they're actually the tallest (somewhere around 9,000 to 10,000 feet, but I'd have to look up the figures for some of the peaks I saw on my visits to the Southwest).

There was definitely snow on them. As we neared the Montana border we turned west and went up into the mountains, which was definitely the best part of the trip. The weather was spitting rain and chilly, foggy at times, but the view was still great. Here's a shot of the valley from just partway up the first climb:

Here, a shot ahead to some of the strata (rock layers) we'd been reading about in preparation for the trip. Notice, if you can, how they don't lie horizontally but are angled due to the faulting and uplifting that occurred when the mountains formed:

Once up in the mountains, it was quite snowy in some places:

We also saw many moose, which were my first western moose sightings (I have seen them in Maine before). The funny thing was that every tourist by the side of the road whom we passed waved to the vans. We waved back but the windows were tinted.

General mountain shot above; below, the other two vans follow ours down out of the mountains into the Bighorn Basin to the west.

There is an amazing ravine as you exit the Bighorn Mountains. It's very sheer and deep and the sides of the ravine are formed of precambrian granite, 2 billion years old and more. They do look really old up close, with a fine network of younger granite veins cutting through them like wrinkles on an old face:

But the most exciting thing was all the rocks we could see as we took the final turn out of the mountains: hundreds of exposed feet, showing a geologic history ranging from billions of years ago to just, well, a few million. I haven't seen this much exposed rock in one place since the Grand Canyon:

And amazingly, our field camp is just around the corner from this. The sheep visible from the driveway turned their backs on me when I went to take their picture:

And, finally, here we are at the Carl F. Vondra field camp.

In the following entries I will have many interesting things to say about those red rocks, the other people at field camp, and the camp itself, which operated as a concentration camp for Japanese Americans during WWII. But now it's 10 o'clock and getting very chilly. Next time!


Katie said...

Oh yeah, I forgot about the Corn Palace . . .

And check out those huts--great for roofball!

Mom said...

Hi, Jo:

I've seen both the Corn Palace and Wall Drug a few times.

I don't think you missed anything.