Painted Desert

Painted Desert

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.


Mom said...

Love, love, love the photo Josiah took of you.

Were you not tempted to join the Lucy's?

Obviously that one elk was fence disabled for sure. I bet he had other special needs, also.

Yea, Yea, Katie's back!



alex said...

I hiked the sounds of silence trail in dinosaur national monument. Came across a geod of sorts. It is red and globular on outside and white and calcitic on the inside. Do you knoew what formatyions the sounds of silence trail encounters that would have such a rock

J said...

It's funny, I actually do know a certain amount about the formations you go through on that trail, but not enough to tell you which one the geode could have come from.