Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Golden intermission

I have some free time at the moment, and I have these photos that were taken when I went tubing on Clear Creek in Golden a month ago. They were taken with a waterproof disposable camera. I won't include all of the pictures... I am assuming that pictures of, say, Jess's feet mostly of interest only to Jess, and she already knows what her own feet look like... but I will put up the ones of me, for my adoring family.

I was wearing my "swim shirt" (or "rash guard" if I want to sound like a surfer), which I put on so that I wouldn't have to use so much sunscreen, but perhaps it also has some insulating value as I was able to tolerate the cold water of the river much better than my companions, who are my Denver friend Jess (leg on right) and her friend Jeremy (leg on left).

Jess is not so much smiling in this picture as grimacing through the icy cold. I suppose it was not much colder than the ocean off Connecticut in the summer, but we were mostly sitting, not swimming, and the clouds were over the sun more often than not.

A shot of the many people enjoying the river on this weekend day at the end of August. And my white legs.

Jeremy and Jess rescue a flip flop. Also, my thumb, which I managed to insert into the picture after warning the other two that it was easy to get their thumbs in the picture. The camera came with a sort of recessed lens that just invited you to put your thumb over it.

Me with one of Golden's 10,000 bronze statues. Someone had put a polo shirt on this statue of a little boy playing baseball, both of his arms through one arm of the shirt, and it looked bizarre. And we needed to use up photos on the camera.

Tubing was a tremendous amount of fun... the river was quite low, so that I ended up with a couple of huge purple bruises on my butt from hitting rocks. But most of it was still tubable... what a great word... and there were several rapids to go over. You would dip down over a smooth slide of water, and then gasp with cold as the wave at the bottom splashed up over the tube and onto your previously dry torso. We went down one and a half times until certain people in the group got too cold. They exhorted me to go down again by myself if I liked it so gosh darned much, but I refused. Half the fun was trying to keep hold of their feet and elbows as we went down.

Well, today Katie and I went antique shopping in Denver. Tomorrow we leave. I am exhausted and have nothing else left to say.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

This post contains SPECIAL ELK

The plant is dead.

Long live the plant? I bought this little pot with five bamboo stalks in it when I moved to Rhode Island five years ago. One by one the stalks slowly died, until only the tallest remained. I brought it with me to Colorado and then on my trip. It has been suffering since that 20-something-degree night in Glacier and all its leaves died a few days ago; I spent another 20-something-degree night in the Rockies a couple nights ago and the plant has turned white like a ghost. I now have no dependents at all.

I haven't had a chance to write for a while, so there will be a lot in this post. But more time putting up pictures means less time writing, so perhaps it will actually take you less time to read. But first, a picture Josiah took of me and posted on his blog:

I journeyed from the Bighorn Basin down toward Utah, bypassing Yellowstone and the Tetons. Everyone I met, or heard talking at any tourist attraction, was either coming from or going to Yellowstone. So why wasn't I? I'd already been there, for one (and can report that it is probably the nation's smelliest national park); for two, it was cold up there!

The land from Lander, WY down to Utah was incredibly boring, but as soon as the Utah border was crossed, it got interesting.

This is near (or in?) the Flaming Gorge... the bit of land in the background looked like a red barge sinking stern-first into the Green River. After passing the gorge I climbed into the Uinta Mountains, which were beautiful and full of wildlife:

I was heading for Dinosaur National Monument, which straddles the UT-CO border. I wanted to see this place because I'd applied for a job here... I had actually applied for six internships last winter, in the hopes that I'd get just one. I did six phone interviews; five of the parties were interested in employing me. At that point all my applications seemed a bit of overkill. Three of the jobs were GeoCorps positions, in which geologists (at any point in their career) may work in national parks and on other public lands; three of the jobs were for the US Geological Survey, as part of a special internship program I could only do this year. For the sake of practicality I took one of the latter jobs; however, my heart would rather I had gone to work for the BLM in Montrose, or for Dinosaur National Monument, doing a survey of fossils in their exposures of the Chinle Formation.

Remember the Chinle? That's the formation that makes up nearly all of Petrified Forest National Park, which I spent ten weeks working in a couple years ago.

You can only take one GeoCorps position in your lifetime--but since I haven't used mine up yet, I can apply again for next year, or down the road. So while I had a chance I wanted to see Dinosaur, to see if I might like working there. The first thing I noticed as I drove down toward the monument is that the geology is totally messed-up.

Here is the west end of Dinosaur, looking like some giant egg that has hatched. I would like to describe the geology here but I'm not sure I can. The park has 23 formations exposed in it. I'm not sure that sentence means anything to most of my readers... well, depending how you classify things, that's about twice as many as the Grand Canyon. If sedimentary geology starts out as a layer cake, with sediments of different character representing different times and environments deposited in horizontal layers before being cemented into rock, then perhaps Dinosaur is a layer cake that's been squeezed in a vise, cut up by a five-year-old and then run over by a unicycle.

In the west end of the park, Split Mountain makes a large hump where the earth's crust has been folded, and above you can see the south flank, where several formations lie stacked against each other.

Here is the vista from Ruple Point, where you can see how the Green River splits Split Mountain. (Why didn't the river just go around the mountain instead of cutting through it? Well, what if the river was there before the mountain began to rise?) This mighty canyon reminds me of an interesting idea; where we have great gorges and canyons, it isn't so much that the river is really low down as that the land around it is high. You have to climb quite a bit to get up to the rim of the Grand Canyon, or, for that matter, any of the other canyons I've traveled to this year--the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, the Wind River Canyon, Shell Creek Canyon, et cetera. In the case of our famous canyons, the river was often there first, before the land was lifted. And the land was lifted slowly enough that it was more efficient for the river to cut down into it than be rerouted. Below, Split Mountain at dawn, and some other of the park's sights:

Some more views of Dinosaur... bottom-most is a view of the Mitten Park Fault. Can you find it? The rocks on the right side of the fault went down in relation to those on the left. They were bent until they finally broke. Imagine the forces that must be at work to do this to such large chunks of the earth's crust!

So. I could have been working here all this summer; I have to say that I was absolutely fascinated by the complexity of the geology in the monument... I scarcely noticed the dinosaur fossils you can go see, and in fact, am not even going to bother including a picture of them... the whole place is like a giant, beautiful puzzle in rainbow colors.

It was the one-armed geologist and explorer John Wesley Powell who named many of the features in the monument on his way through to his more famous conquest of the Grand Canyon. Places that bear his inspiration include Rainbow Park, site of the monument's free campground, where I stayed 2 nights all by myself, at a bend in the Green River.

Sunset from the campsite, and a prairie dog and fossil, both located just behind the campground.

Top, a petroglyph near the campground; bottom, a sign on the dirt road leading out to it. I was perplexed by this sign. If it was so dangerous I couldn't stop, wasn't it too dangerous to drive through at all? Would I be safer if I drove through at, say, 30 mph instead of 25?

Top, a fossil of bryozoans--tiny colonial sea-creatures--I stumbled over on my hike to Ruple Point, when for once I wasn't even looking for fossils; bottom, the old visitor's center at Dinosaur, which is now condemned as a result of having been built partly on bentonite. The shrinking and swelling of the soil over the years eventually rendered the building unstable.

I would like to have written more about Dinosaur--for instance, what I actually did there--but I have only so much time and space, and anyway, I am quite sincere in my wish to work there and if that happens you will have a whole summer of posts and pictures of the place.

So. I could not continue westward, because I had only a few days left before I needed to go back to Denver to pick Katie up. Katie was in Montrose, but she was going to be in Denver, because she was putting her stuff and her car in Denver, where I had my storage space, because that was economical and because we needed to be in Denver anyway at the end of October for the Geological Society of America conference. But she was in Montrose. Which was only a few hours away from Dinosaur. So, despite the slight absurdity in visiting someone I was going to be spending every waking moment of the next month with, I went to Montrose.

I saw this fellow on my way. So far on this trip I have seen an RV towing a helicopter and an RV towing a golf cart, among many other odd vehicle combinations, but this is my first motorcycle-with-bicycle-on-board sighting.

As I think I have mentioned before, the job Katie had this summer, working for the BLM, was the job we had both (inadvertently) applied for, and interviewed for, and were both told we were a top candidate for. They had called our advisor to hear his opinion on each of us. We don't know who they would have picked because before they decided, I made my own decision to be all practical with the USGS thing. Katie spent the summer being paid to look for dinosaur footprints. While she went in to the office on friday, I followed in her footsteps, and did in fact find some:

Don't look like much, do they? Footprints I've shown on this blog in the past have been seen from the top down. These are seen from the side (and a little below).

Here they are seen more squarely from the side. They are lumps that protrude down from an overhang. Sometime in the Cretaceous Period, there was a river here, where some sand was deposited on top of some mud. A dinosaur walked over the sand and pushed it down into the mud. The whole package was lithified, or turned into rock, and then in modern times the mudstone eroded away, leaving the tougher sandstone to stand as this overhang with lumps coming down from it.

For real? Are those lumps really dinosaur footprints? Couldn't they be anything? Couldn't I be making all this up? Well, try to come up with an alternative hypothesis. What pushed the sand down into the mud? Falling Cretaceous coconuts, maybe? (If so, there should be some fossil coconuts in there!)

After finding the footprints, I hiked up to the rim of the Gunnison Gorge, where the black metamorphic rock that gives the nearby national park its name can be seen at the lip of the inner canyon:

I had meant to be out for only a few hours, but it turned into a 6 1/2-hour hike. This was thanks to my assuming that the trail I chose, which was 3 miles out to the footprints as the crow flies, would travel in something like a straight line. Considering it was called the Sidewinder Trail, I probably should have known better. (The trail was just completed this summer and still isn't on maps.)

That weekend, Katie and I did stuff. There is a Mennonite buffet restaurant in the town of Delta. I had never been to a Mennonite restaurant. Now I have. We went to the Mountain Harvest Festival in the little town of Paonia near the West Elk Mountains (which may be seen in the distance in the above picture). I was startled to see people dressed fashionably... you know, moms in yoga pants and such... more hipsters even than in Cody. I think there is a kind of positive correlation between hipness and proximity to mountains. Nobody wore yoga pants in Bowman, North Dakota.

At the Harvest Festival they had a slow bicycle race...

And a grape stomping contest...

Above, a team of child superheroes stomps grapes; below, a team of Lucy look-alikes stomps, watched over by a couple of the judges, who were also dressed like Lucy. (And as I write this, my host and a roommate are actually watching I Love Lucy upstairs. So there you go.)

An adorable small child examines a stick. We watched him play with this stick for about half an hour.

They have some strange butterflies out Paonia way.

Now... this thing we are about to do, this kind of experiment wherein Katie and I will share the same compact car for a month, has provoked a certain amount of thought on my behalf, because I have never had so much sustained contact with another human being as I am about to endure. However, if I were to do this with anyone then Katie is a good candidate, as she is much quieter and more laid-back than I am (!) and I think the biggest argument we ever had lasted 20 seconds and was about how to cook the pasta. And she is a responsible, model citizen. In fact, the only suspect habit she has is one I noticed a long time ago. She is capable of great tidiness, and in fact used to wash my dishes every night she came over, but she does not pick up beer bottle caps. Ever. Every beer that was opened--and over two years, there were many--had its place of opening marked by the deposition of a cap, there, on the countertop or coffee table or end table or sink. These bottle caps would stay where they were until I put them in the trash. So I often wondered what would happen if I weren't around to clean them up.

Now I have my answer.

Apparently, once they reach a critical mass, the bottle caps spontaneously arrange themselves into pyramids. I know because this is what I saw when I entered Katie's trailer. It is not clear how the caps perform this maneuver. What is clear is that they never, ever make it into the trash.

The bottle-cap-meister, on the gondola over Telluride. We went up to this resort town on Sunday and it was absolutely beautiful. There is a free gondola! I wanted it to be the kind of gondola that is poled by stripe-shirted men down long canals, but it turned out to be just your regular free mountain resort sky gondola.

I included this odd picture of Telluride from the gondola because it is blurred in a way that makes it look as if it's a toy town. Click for detail.

A less deceptive picture of Telluride.

After the gondola ride, which I loved (so much that I made us do it again before we left), we went shopping downtown. One particular store had a bounty of interesting hats and accessories, including one of the most bizarre mash-ups of high fashion and 80s cheese that I have ever seen, which Katie will demonstrate for you below:

It is a real fur snap bracelet. Enough said.

And because Katie would want me to include it:

As far as voltage warnings go, this one is pretty scary. At least, the voltage demon is scary. The big-headed man is just silly. And that's it for Telluride.

I drove out... okay, to be completely honest, I didn't just leave Montrose, I went out Monday morning and looked for ammonites for three hours in the @^$#&* Mancos Shale (that is its official geologic designation) because Katie had one and I wanted to find one, but I didn't find any... I drove out to Grand Junction and east on I-70, which was beautiful just like everyone told me it would be, then up into the mountains west of Rocky Mountain National Park, which was where I finally saw a big cat.

I don't have a picture of it, because it ran off as soon as my car rounded the curve on the little dirt road I was on... I just saw what looked like a giant tawny housecat sitting on its haunches in the road and then it was gone. I don't even know if it was a mountain lion or a bobcat. I thought it looked too small to be a mountain lion, but what do I know?

Instead, here is a picture of some trees near where I saw the cat.

And then that night it was in the 20s, and I only know because I took my thermometer out after breakfast and it read 29. I hadn't woken up that night. Wow. Then I went to Rocky Mountain National Park and had some nice hikes.

The moon sets over the Never Summer mountains. I have become very aware of the moon, sleeping outdoors all month. At Badlands, my first night backpacking, it set at bedtime. I watched it set. The next night it set too late for me to stay up and watch. Now it's setting at noon or something. This seems crazy to me. It's only been a couple of weeks! Slow down!

Dream Lake, which was lovely green and had pretty cutthroat trout swimming in it.

A chipmunk that wanted a handout. He was crawling on my boots at one point.

And now... what you've waited a very long time for...

When I saw this sign I knew that I wanted very much to see some special elk. So I drove back to this area at 5 PM and parked where a bunch of other people were parked, and sure enough, an elk came out. He walked up to a fenced-in area (where the overgrazed willows were being allowed to regrow) and walked back and forth, back and forth, peering beyond the fence and seemingly unable to see that he could get around just a few feet to his right.

We all watched him for half an hour or so as he trotted about, failing completely to apprehend that the fence ended just beyond where he was standing. This was, perhaps, a special elk. A little bit slower than the other elks.

Above, the elk stops to read the sign, but still fails to comprehend that the fence ends just to his right.

In fact, it was wonderful to see the elk come out (more did come out later to join our special friend) and hear the males bugling, which sounds like whale calls, and is eerie and wild. I didn't get a picture of any of the harems because they were too far away, just a couple of the bulls that were a bit closer to me, but it was really a fantastic experience and made a lovely end to my first month of traveling.

Wow, this might be my longest post ever. I would like to do one more quick post before I leave Golden, but we shall see... Katie joins me tomorrow and there is much work to do to get ready for October.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Lost and found

I've spent the last few days in the Bighorn Basin, which is the geologically interesting area where I went to geology field camp last summer. At the time I was there I made note of the places where I'd found fossils, in case I came through again in another 20 years and wanted to do some fossil hunting. I had no idea I'd be coming through the very next summer.

I wanted to do some fossil hunting especially because last summer, I'd mailed my box of rocks an fossils back home (I was taking a plane). And I had many good specimens:

...but the box never arrived. I don't keep much of what I find; almost all of these things were destined to become gifts to friends and family or be tossed into the back yard after I showed a few people. Still, I was disappointed to have lost them.

So here I am back in the basin. People from Denver have told me they found the Wyoming landscape boring and unbeautiful, which I didn't understand as I had only been to Northern Wyoming, with scenes like this:

My car is at the bend in the road in this picture; I am camped in the trees. Also, since I know Jordan (my friend from field camp) will recognize many of the places here, I must say, hello Jordan!

My first day out hunting for fossils, I found a pile of dinosaur bone. It looks terrible.

Only a close examination showed it really was bone; that, and the fact that it stuck to my tongue. (Many pieces of fossil bone will do this. I am not making this up!) As for its belonging to a dinosaur, that's simply an educated inference. I was in the Morrison Formation (yes, named after the town of Morrison, west of Denver) which is famously dinosaur-bearing, and the chunks were huge, obviously from a large animal. What other large land animals were there besides dinosaurs then? There were no elephants, no rhinos... well, maybe it could have been a crocodile. But I assume I was licking a dinosaur.

Some other signs of life:

A stromatolite. These are rocks formed from colonies of cyanobacteria. The oldest ones are our earliest fossils, but I think this one was only Triassic.

And a horny toad, which is a lizard. And well-camouflaged.

While I was hiking around in this area, which was one of the places we had to map for camp, I recalled that I had lost my space pen in spring of last year around about this place... at least, this was where I had first noticed it was missing...

Next to one of those rocks on the hill, I remembered taking off my vest and some layers underneath it (because we were climbing the hill, which was making me hot) and putting my vest back on and realizing my pen was no longer in the pocket. I searched the lush wet grass all around but could not find it.

Well, now it was September and the grass was no longer so lush. In fact, when I approached a rock that looked familiar, it took me all of 2 seconds to spot these:

Yes, my pen, and a pencil to boot, from more than a year ago. This was a triumphant moment. I had been extremely disappointed to lose this space pen as it was the only thing worth a damn for writing in in my field notebook; pencil smudged under my hand, regular pen smudged in the rain. The question is, though, does this pen still write after being out in the weather for more than a year?

So, ha.

The next day I went out looking for ammonites. Interestingly, the museum in town hosts one very large specimen found in the area:

It is five feet tall. One ammonite I found last summer was about 8 inches in diameter (I brought this one home with me on the plane, and so it was not lost), but this time I was hoping to find smaller specimens I could give to friends.

This spot where the ammonites are is a place my field partner found while we were mapping. I tried to plot it accurately on a map and to tell my instructors just where it was, but they could not find it on subsequent visits. I found it easily on my return trip and was amazed to see the coils of ammonites sticking out of every piece of rock lying around the pile. There were even more than I remembered.

Above, find the ammonites; below, the middle-of-nowhere location.

The specimens are really not very good, compared to those you could buy for $4 in a rock shop, and especially compared to those I saw at Badlands, but they are abundant.

These were Cretaceous ammonites; next I went to some Jurassic rocks where I knew I could find belemnites, bullet-shaped remnants of ancient squidlike creatures. I also searched anthills in this area, because ants carry up very small fossils from underground. Look what is here!

Those star figures, no bigger than the ant on the left side of the picture, are crinoid columnals. A crinoid is an echinoderm, like sea stars, and they also have pentaradial symmetry; their bodies are divided into five parts. But instead of just taking a star shape, they have a long stalk with fronds at the end. The stars in the picture are segments of the five-sided stalk. In life they would have been piled one atop the other for at least several inches. I have seen circular crinoid columnals before in other places but this was the first time I'd seen star-shaped ones.

So, here are the small fossils I got from the anthill:

Some columnals and some sea urchin spines. And the other fossils:

Also, some other spoils I had forgotten about: at the visitor's center in Buffalo, they gave me this gift package. Considering that I hadn't taken a shower in a week, I wonder if there's any significance to some of the items...

On my return trip back to town I stopped for a picture of this odd local inn, which for some reason has a sheriff mannequin heiling Hitler on the front bench:

The place is for sale, if anyone is interested.

It's really hard for me to believe that it's just been a little over a year since field camp. I feel like a totally different person. Of course, a lot has happened in the past year--a grueling push to graduation, grad school applications and visits, a big move, and now this solo traveling. I feel more like I was last in the Bighorn Basin about five years ago.

The next day I went on a scenic drive.

Shell Falls

Aspen turning in the Bighorns

The Medicine Wheel, a structure of some spiritual significance but unknown origin; you can see the many prayer bundles tied to the fence around it.

Then I went to Cody, WY, which is a nice tourist town.

Unfortunately, the Dug Up Gun Museum was closed when I got there, so I can't tell you what the heck it is. Probably just what it sounds like.

Cody was the first place in a long time... since Denver, I suppose... that I have seen hip people. I mean people who deliberately dress with some kind of fashion or intent to look modern. opposed to the herds of old men in jeans, tucked-in dress shirts and cowboy hats who sit playing cards at side tables in gas stations out here. Not all of the men in the rural west dress like that. All of the women, however, have long hair and lots of eyeliner. You do not see young women with short hair outside the big cities. I know I stick out like a sore thumb just because of my short hair. People know I'm not from 'round here. In Cody, however, there was another young woman with short hair. It was almost like being back East!

Among the many fashionable aspects of Cody...


Outside Cody I drove up a ways into the Absarokas, which are differenter than Wyomings other mountain ranges, as different as they are from each other. The Absarokas are volcanic and weather into eerie shapes.

Also, speaking of eerie shapes,

That whitish mound is a pile of hundreds of deer and elk antlers. I just wonder to what use those hundreds of animals were put.

My favorite thing about the Absarokas:

Enjoy Both!! Both what? Wyoming and beef country? Wyoming and beef? Possibly Cody Cattlewomen and beef?

But I left the mountains (cold, full of bears) to camp in the badlands that evening. Here is the welcome sign signaling I am entering BLM land, where I can set up a tent in what is hopefully a warm, dry place for the evening:

And my campsite, above. There was a lot of wildlife here.

A pronghorn, above; below, the three maps I use to find a place to camp. I have these three maps because I cannot get one map with all this info. At top is a national-scale map showing all public land in the U.S. This is the only map I have showing BLM land. The BLM does make maps showing land ownership, but they each only show a few miles' worth of land, and at that scale I'd spend hundreds trying to cover all the places I will travel. However, the national map does give me a good idea of which parts of the state have large sections of BLM land... and large means easier-to-find. The kicker is that does not have any towns or roads marked on it. So I have no idea where the land is in relation to anything else.

At right is my National Geographic atlas, which has many things, including all Forest Service Land and campgrounds, which is useful, and also boundaries of National Parks and Indian lands, all of which are public land that is shown on my national map. So I can match the two up.

The third map is a recreation map of Wyoming that shows all the little dirt roads that give access to the places I've figured out are public land. I suppose people use these dirt roads to find out where they can go ATVing or bring their horse trailer in to go horseback riding. I don't suppose most people drive out in their Corolla to go camp there. But some do.

Sunset a couple nights ago. The sky on the left, to the south, is cloudy; I think it's ash because last night I was in that dust and it smelled like pipe smoke, heavy and sweet. I know there are some wildfires going in the general area, I just don't know where.

My atlas and my state of WY map both show points of interest. Often I don't have time to research these before I go through an area, and I have found driving out of my way to see what they are mostly a waste of gas... not that they're not often pretty, or interesting, pieces of rock or history or whatever, but not quite enough to warrant the drive. However, I was glad I made the drive to the Gooseberry Badlands Scenic Overlook. Partly because the badlands were extremely colorful, even moreso than my camera was able to capture in the strong morning light:

...partly for the wildlife...

...a cottontail and more pronghorns, which make an oddly mechanical air-escaping-from-a-valve sound when you get too close... but partly for the visitor log, which was hilarious. One page:

Comments read, "Could not wait - had to stop for sex break" "Bang the old lady" and "Traveling from UK - no sex!"

Well, after all this adventure, I needed a shower. Thankfully, I knew where I could get one:

The State of Wyoming Bath House. What, your state doesn't have an official bath house? How are your poor, unwashed masses supposed to get clean? The Wyoming bath house is in Thermopolis, which is a nice little town that is host to a hot springs. Here you can have a free 20 minute soak (and two showers; one before, one after). And so I finally had a shower. I had been washing in sinks prior to this. There are many things about camping I do not mind at all--sleeping on the ground, occasional cold or heat or windiness or bugginess, eating out of cans--but being dirty is not really one of them. I do not find it particularly freeing. My scalp gets itchy.

Sadly, my day of relaxation in Thermopolis had a tragic end. Much later I realized I had driven off without my bathing suit or towel, which I had left drying on a fence. What can I say? They were perfectly good items and I will miss them. Perhaps I will find them in the same place a year from now.

Ironically, as I upload these pictures of Thermopolis, I realize that I took the one below as I was driving away, and that, in fact, my bathing suit is somewhere on the wooden fence below the hill.

But also in the picture, and probably more to the interest of most of my readers, are the fine travertine rocks that look like they're spilling into the river just as the hot springs once did.

Here is some colorful algae growing in the hot springs. Actually, it looks disgusting in person.

My foot, tonight.

Sunrise, this morning. I am writing this from the Fremont County Library in Lander, WY; tonight I will be in Utah. I will not say where I intend to go after that; you will have to see.