Columns

2008.05.21 Her summer really rocks

on . Posted in By The Way

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.

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