Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Not meant to be an adventure

In the past few weeks I have visited my three candidates for graduate school. So many things happened during my two trips that I think they warrant a blog post, even though I hadn't set out to have a noteworthy time.

I first visited the University of California at Riverside, which is east of L.A. After 14 hours in United terminals and airplanes, I was picked up at the Ontario airport. Since my flight had been rerouted to Canada... actually, I'll save the plane mishaps for later. Ontario is a town in between L.A. and Riverside and it has its own small airport. Some graduate students took me to Tio's Taco Restaurant for supper. This was possibly the best thing about my graduate school visits. Tio must have a lot of free time, because the (huge) grounds of the restaurant area are covered in tile artwork, sculpture, and cathedrals made out of glass bottles and concrete. The aesthetic was something like that of Stewart's rock shop... remember Stewart's?

...but somehow more artistic and less horrifying, perhaps because the sculptures at Tio's seemed put together with some intent and care, rather than being a mess of twisted mannequins lashed onto fiberglass dinosaurs with Christmas lights. Here, Tio's creations... click for detail:

"Dante's Inferno" with Barbies and troll dolls:

Person made of bottlecaps:

Person made of toys:

The inside of the cathedral made of glass bottles:

The next day, I went with a class on a field trip to Solana Beach, north of San Diego. There is a Dog Beach here. It's called a Dog Beach because it's one of the few in California that allow dogs; thus, everyone with a dog goes there, and the beach is simply overrun with dogs. My pictures don't really do it justice:

While my potential grad school advisor was giving a lecture, two small dogs were chasing each other in circles around her feet. Their owners were nowhere in sight.

We were there to study ichnofossils, or trace fossils--the traces left by an organism while it was alive. In this case, we were looking for burrows made by shrimplike creatures:

Here, in between the S and the E of the graffiti, you can see that the rock layers are "messed up"; that's from an ancient shrimp burrowing into the sand, which later turned into rock. Ichnofossils give clues about paleoenvironment. We can infer that when the sand in these cliffs was being deposited, it was near a shoreline, because that's where shrimp burrow today (as opposed to the deep sea or a river, for instance). Here's a nice shot of the cliffs, with the California coastline in the background:

This was my first time in California. I had been told by a friend that the Pacific is nicer than the Atlantic in every way: that it is bigger, bluer, smells better, sounds better, that its waves are more wave-shaped. But it honestly looked about the same to me.

At some point we went to another beach, and went looking in tide pools. I had no sandals suitable for the water and so was wearing my sneakers and was doing a very good job at avoiding places where I might get wet, until a big surge came up on me while I was trying to take a picture of a sea slug. My sneakers got flooded. At this point I was exhausted (I had had a long day in airports previously, and not a very good night's sleep) and feeling poorly, but I still managed to smile for my portrait when we found a rock that looked like a chair:

We all went back to Riverside and went to my potential advisor's house for supper. She and her husband were kind enough to let me dry my shoes in their dryer. I had pizza and poppy seed cake, but not very much of either, because I did not feel very well. An hour later, in my bed on the floor of the living room of the graduate student who was hosting me, I tossed and turned as my stomach ached and I became increasingly nauseous.

I cannot say very much about the next five days, because they are mostly a fuzzy blur. I didn't sleep that night, partly because I kept having to get up and partly because I was in so much pain, and I didn't sleep the next day, because perversely, the pain and nausea failed to relent and as the day wore on were joined by a fever. I lay on my foam pad in a half-conscious state as people and cats drifted through the house. My host's roommate brought me some gatorade. I was supposed to be meeting faculty at the university. And I was supposed to be getting on a plane the next morning for home... but I couldn't, not if I had a fever. For 24 hours I stared at the walls because I couldn't imagine doing anything more taxing, despite the book I brought and the TV in front of me. I couldn't even keep water down. I was desperately thirsty. Finally I fell asleep around eight in the evening and woke a few hours later with my fever gone. I would be able to go home!

I was extremely weak and still nauseous and in pain the next morning, but able to basically shamble around an airport, so I was dropped off and wandered through the empty security "snake" to the desks and check-in machines and checked in for my flight. It was cancelled. All the flights out were cancelled that day. The little machine rebooked me for tomorrow. At the thought of spending another sick night in a stranger's home, even a very nice stranger, I quailed, and turned around to get back into the security ropes behind me so that an agent would call me up.

"Hey, you're behind us," said a grey-haired man, who had arrived at the previously empty queue with his family while I was using the machine.

"No, I got here before you," I explained. "That's why I was in front of you." This seemed self-evident to me.

"No, you're behind us. You need to wait. She has a very important meeting." He pointed to his wife. His voice was strained.

Sometimes it's clear that people are behaving the way they are because they're very stressed out. I paused. "You're welcome to go ahead of me," I said. Then I waited for a long time. Finally the man and his family finished up and on their way out he stopped and apologized to me. The agent rebooked me on an evening flight. I went and sat down and made a phone call, and stared at the walls.

While I was waiting for my ride, I took this:

Snow-capped mountains of Southern California. I don't know what range they are but they are quite close and very high.

I was still so weak and sick that I decided not to go to the university for some of the interviews I would have had the previous day; instead I rested at the house of my potential advisor. I tried to drink two gatorades but only made it through 1 1/4. Nothing tasted good. But I flew home that evening, and slept the next day instead of going to class. Then I stayed in bed the next day too. Unbelievably, I was still nauseous and in pain and very weak. Katie came over on Saturday and I ate a little and we sat around. I spent much of Sunday in bed. A couple days later the last traces of nausea disappeared and my appetite returned. I'd been sick for more than a week. A lecturer at URI said she'd had many students out with a long-lasting stomach bug. Perhaps I had picked it up at school before I even left for CA.

Then I had a couple weeks of normalcy... but not really, since I'd missed a week of classes and had to work twice as much as normal to catch up. As soon as I returned to health I had two exams. Then I prepared for my next trip, to visit the University of Colorado and the University of California at Santa Cruz.

The morning of my flight I had a telephone interview for a summer internship, so I couldn't sleep in. When I got to the airport at noon the unfortunate incidents started early, as my plane sat on the runway in Providence. The pilot announced that due to excess traffic at Dulles airport in D.C., where I would catch my connecting flight, we couldn't take off yet, but were going to wait half an hour. Also that the bathroom wasn't flushing and no one could use it. Air hostesses came down the aisles offering us liquids; people politely refused. After half an hour, the pilot announced that we would have to wait another half an hour. More than that and we would have to return to the gate for another de-icing. (Perversely, it was 36 degrees and snowing out.) But after this second wait we were allowed to take off.

I had missed my connecting flight to Denver. As we exited the plane it was announced that we could rebook at the service kiosks. I ran to the bathroom first. The service kiosk told me that another flight to Denver was departing in 25 minutes at the gate behind me, that I was rebooked on this flight, and to press confirm. I pressed confirm. It then told me it was too late to check in for the flight. I thought that was crazy. It would take me approximately 15 seconds to walk to the gate. The plane was leaving in 25 minutes. I could see it right there out the window.

I got in the long line to talk to a real person. An hour later, I was rebooked on a flight to Denver that would take off in five hours and land at midnight. After landing in Denver, I was supposed to take a 45-minute shuttle to Boulder, where my hosting graduate student would pick me up... no, that was totally impractical now. I called the professor I was going there to meet and she made a reservation for me at an airport hotel in Denver.

For the next five hours I did homework.

I was so tired when I got to Denver that I remember very little of what happened next. I only know what my hotel room looked like because I took a picture of it, but it's as blurry as everything else. The next morning I took a shuttle back to the airport then another shuttle to Boulder and talked to professors and grad students all day. It was in the 60s in Boulder. The buildings there have a very strange style... I was told it was called "Italian Country," and to me it looked oddly out-of-place in the American West. I didn't take any pictures, but you can see one here. On the shuttle back to Denver that afternoon I had another phone interview, for a position in Colorado monitoring landslides. It was odd to be in Colorado for the first time and be talking to someone on the phone who is also in Colorado, because a phone interview is the only practical thing when you live in Rhode Island and they live in Colorado.

For some reason, my only remaining photos are of bathrooms. The Denver airport is crazy for geology, which is really nice. Many kinds of cut and polished granite in the floor, as well as fossiliferous rocks, and artistic representations of fossils and dinosaurs. Here is a blurry photo of a triceratops in my bathroom stall:

I flew on to San Jose where I was driven to Santa Cruz and spent the night in a neat house (with lofts in the bedrooms, of the kind small boys might beg to sleep in) with a fat cat that we caught staring at what seemed to be rats in a tree (this must be some kind of California phenomemon). The next day, more interviews. The campus if UC Santa Cruz is forested, which is unusual. Trails wind among the redwoods from building to building. The parking garage rises up out of the forest.

That night I was taken back to the airport in San Jose. I got on the plane. Then the pilot announced that a part was broken and the mechanic wasn't around, so we should get off the plane, so I got off the plane. We waited a bit at the gate and then learned that the part was not in stock and would need to be driven down from San Francisco, so we should all go out through security and back to the counter to re-book.

I stood in line for an hour and a half... the time went faster thanks to the talkative fellow next to me, who told me the real reasons behind the ipad's delay, which I cannot vouch for since I neither watch TV nor read the news and do not know anything about the tech industry, let alone what an ipad is, and so will not repeat here. As I waited in line I also stared at the two signs at the United counter, one of which read "United: #1 in on-time arrivals" and the other "Counter closes at 7:30 PM" (it was 7:15).

When the guy in front of me finally got to the front of the line, the woman behind the counter left. "She had to go to the bathroom," he explained.

I happen to have a picture from the San Jose airport bathroom, too. I took it because it's hilarious.

I have never seen this before. You can tie your child next to you while you urinate. Is that good? Not being a parent, I don't know how useful this would be.

Now, despite being the tenth-largest city in the United States, with a population as large as Rhode Island's, San Jose has a really wimpy airport. There were no more flights leaving after eight o'clock. They put me on a shuttle for San Francisco, and I sat in a daze listening to the driver's Hindi music for an indeterminate length of time. I was, as I had been for much of the past two weeks, very tired.

The flight from San Francisco to Dulles was delayed.

By the time I got to D.C. the next morning, my flight for Providence was leaving in ten minutes. Through my terminal, down a set of escalators, down the tram, up a set of escalators, up another set of escalators, then immediately down another (!) set of escalators, to the end of another terminal, I ran, with my two bags, despite the uncertainty of whether the increasingly insistent pain in my legs and lungs was actually going to get me to my gate on time. I arrived just as they were closing the door.

The flight to Providence arrived on time. But I never want to fly United again.

In the past few weeks I have survived illness, airline mishaps, two exams, two trips to the west coast, six phone interviews, and a viewing of "Bright Star," which reminded me why I don't watch romance movies. About the phone interviews, which had become a marathon of their own: I applied for six summer internships in the hope that I'd be able to get one. It turned out that at least five of the six were interested in employing me (the last one I'm not sure about, but it doesn't seem to matter now). This put my head in a spin. Just before I started this blog entry I accepted the Colorado landslide-monitoring job.

This means, among other things, that the reader will be learning about landslides and not paleontology this summer. I had applied for three paleontology positions and many things went into my very difficult decision to eventually let them all go, but most important was the fact that the landslide job is part of a special internship program that I can only get into this year, as a graduating senior; the paleo positions are part of a program I can apply for any year. All six of the positions, though, were for national parks and monuments, the Bureau of Land Management, or the US Geological Survey. All government positions in the Department of the Interior, within which I have an ambition to work. (We'll see what I think about that after this summer!)


kristin said...

your'e baaaaack, better than ever! I am proud of you, your a fighter and it sounds like the summer will be very interesting ;-)

Mom said...

Laugh out loud funny. And I admire your strength to get through all of that.

Yes, it would be very convenient to tie in a young child while you had to use the facilities.

Loved the Barbies.

Colorado for the summer, what fun.

Gram is still with me so I had her read your entry, also. She really enjoyed it but is very sorry you were so sick and had so many airline problems.