2008.05.21 Her summer really rocks

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

Interstate 80—to the east I’ve followed it many times. To the west my travels are incomplete. I turned southwest off I-80 in western Nebraska and I missed the big show.

When I was driving it in 1977, I would have ignorantly sped right by anyway. I wouldn’t have known better. It was just me in the car; no geologist in the passenger seat.

I’m talking about a special place in Wyoming, an outcropping of rocks near Rawlins. What you see there is rock covering a greater spread of time than any exposed rock along I-80’s 2,900 miles from New Jersey to San Francisco.

It beats the Grand Canyon where you can walk down a trail and every few steps take you back through a million years of time.

At Rawlins, the rock covers an amazing 2600 million years, from some of the oldest on Earth up to about 5 million years ago.

I’ve got Wyoming rocks on the mind these days after re-reading John McPhee’s book on the subject. What an incredible state for a geologist. I’m excited. I’m electrified. Someone in the family has to be, because it isn’t my daughter, Maddie.

She’s excited, all right, but not in the way I would be. I’m not the one who is headed to Wyoming to study the amazing rocks. No, it’s Maddie who needs some science credit for college. She’ll come home with six credits for a month in the Rockies. I’ll be back here in Morenci writing about softball games and city council meetings. Some people just have all the luck.

Her summer studies are really all about history, but on a time scale that geologists see and the remainder of us only trip over.

For example, to talk about the Cretaceous period—just after Wyoming’s dinosaurs disappeared and plesiosaurs and giant turtles were swimming in its seas—and know that all the time from the present back to then represents only about three percent of the planet’s history...it’s just too mind boggling.

Maddie is not about to get boggled, at least not about sorting out the Mesozoic from the Cenozoic. That will come later in the classroom.

For the past month she’s been hard at work stimulating the economy, checking off her long list of equipment needs for this experience, an adventure that I might consider giving up a toe for. Certainly not my right arm, but I’m thoroughly jealous.

The University of Michigan has a field camp in the mountains south of Jackson, Wyo. It’s where the Tetons run into the Snake River Range. Unspeakable beauty. Students live in small cabins at an altitude of 6,000 feet. After some morning classroom time, the majority of the day is spent out in the field.

That’s why she came home yesterday with the required mason’s hammer, for chipping away at some fossilized mud shiny with old fish scales. Wyoming has this stuff, and so much more.

Hiking boots, sleeping bag, backpacker tent, raincoat, field pack, mess kit, water bottle, etc. Everything has to fit inside one duffle bag and one backpack. Seeing it spread across the living room floor, I expect a challenge when she puts it all together.

At least she won’t need a cell phone. There’s not much reception in the valley where the camp is located, but on the other hand, there are those mountaintop days where a phone might work. Better bring it just in case.

John McPhee writes about massive flows of lava, about warm seas when Wyoming was located over the equator, about dinosaurs as small as a little dog and as big as a bus. The land rises and then falls. Lakes form and fill in with ash and sediment. Earthquakes shake the land. New volcanic mountains form and are worn down through erosion over time. The age-old Rocky Mountains are actually rather young, geologically speaking.

As you read this, a small caravan of mini-vans is making its way west on I-80, probably in Nebraska and heading for a campground before reaching Wyoming on Thursday.

The typical students in this class are like Maddie. They know little about geology. They’re after adventure and some science credit along the way.

That caravan is sure to breeze right by the outcropping at Rawlins. They’ll never know what they missed.

  • Front.nok Hok
    GAMES DAY—Finn Molitierno (right) celebrates a goal during a game of Nok Hockey with his sister, Kyla. The two tried out a variety of games Saturday at Stair District Library’s annual International Games Day event. One of the activities featured a sort of scavenger hunt in which participants had to locate facts presented in the Smithsonian Hometown Teams exhibit. The traveling show left Morenci’s library Tuesday, wrapping up a series of programs that began Oct. 2. Additional photos are on page 7.
  • Station.2
    STRANGE STUFF—Morenci Elementary School students learn that blue isn’t really blue when seen through the right color of lens. Volunteer April Pike presents the lesson to students at one of the many stations brought to the school by the COSI science center. The theme of this year’s visit was the solar system.
  • Front.leaves
    MAPLE leaves show their fall colors in a puddle at Morenci’s Riverside Natural Area. “This was a great year for colors,” said local weather watcher George Isobar. Chilly mornings will give way to seasonable fall temperatures for the next two weeks.
  • Front.band
    MORENCI Marching Band member Brittany Dennis keeps the beat Friday during the half-time show of the Morenci/Pittsford football game. Color guard member Jordan Cordts is at the left. The band performed this season under the direction of Doyle Rodenbeck who served as Morenci’s band director in the 1970s. He’s serving as a substitute during a family leave.
  • Front.poles
    MOVING EAST—Utility workers continue their slow progress east along U.S. 20 south of Morenci. New electrical poles are put in place before wiring is moved into place.
  • Front.cowboy
    A PERFORMER named Biligbaatar, a member of the AnDa Union troupe from Inner Mongolia, dances at Stair District Library last week during a visit to the Midwest. The nine-member group blends a variety of traditions from Inner and Outer Mongolia. The music is described as drawing from “all the Mongol tribes that Genghis Khan unified.” The group considers itself music gatherers whose goal is to preserve traditional sounds of Mongolia. Biligbaatar grew up among traditional herders who live in yurts. Additional photos are on the back page of this week’s Observer.
  • Front.bear
    HOLDEN HUTCHISON gives a hug to a black bear cub—the product of a taxidermist’s skills—at the Michigan DNR’s Great Youth Jamboree. The event on Sunday marked the fourth year of the Jamboree. Additional photos are on page 12.

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