Showing posts with label geology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label geology. Show all posts

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Earth's Best Dandruff

Every backcountry traveler or camper has had a nightmarish experience with wet clay roads. But do you know about "anti-clay", that is, a surface that is as miraculous on the positive side as wet clay is on the negative?

It is easy to be ignorant of what causes wet clay's amazing properties. It would be so nice to learn about things when they make huge impressions on you -- that is the very time when you are motivated to learn. 

There might be a really good source of popular science out there, but I haven't found it yet. (And extra credit to any reader who has any ideas on this.) I am familiar with Wikipedia and "How Things Work". They both help. But the Wikipedia articles on a scientific topic quickly degenerate into the algebraic patois of the specialist, which makes for excruciating reading.

What I need to find is popular science, written by an educated layman or generalist, with a minimum of info-mercial intrusions.

But let's get back to "anti-clay," that is, the most wonderful surface in the world to be traveling on, especially in wet weather. That surface is decomposed granite, the ground that I am camping on, now.


It is miraculously well-behaved. If it appears loess loose, you can still mountain bike or drive right over it. In size, it is 2--6 mm. It is rather sharp at the corners, that is, block-shaped rather than oval and rounded like the gravel in streams. Therefore it interlocks when under the pressure of feet or tires.

Decomposed granite, my favorite surface for mountain biking, camping, or driving on. Ordinary "dirt" at the top of the photo.

Among its miraculous properties, the parent rock or its dandruff is easily worn into smooth troughs by the tires of mountain bikes and other vehicles. This makes for glorious mountain biking. The ultimate miracle is not turning into soup or sticky muck when it is wet, as anyone who drives a rear-wheel-drive vehicle can attest.

The opening paragraphs of Wikipedia's article on "Soil Mechanics" are pretty good. 
Soils that are not transported are called residual soils—they exist at the same location as the rock from which they were generated. Decomposed granite is a common example of a residual soil. 
But I am not really complaining about how hard it is to find popular science articles about topics that interest me. It causes an intense interest to pop up in my fevered brain. It is fun to obsess over traction-enhancing technologies, such as the locking differential.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

A Spurt of Appreciation for Living Geology

In a Star Trek episode in Season 3, some aliens moved at extremely accelerated speeds, so fast in fact that the Enterprise crew couldn't even see them. They could only hear an insect-like buzz when the aliens went by. It also worked in reverse: to the aliens, the Enterprise crew were frozen, static.

That captures the disconnect between a human observer and geology. I have always wanted to be more knowledgeable and interested in geology, but something got in the way.

While camped on the edge of the ponderosa forest near Springerville AZ, recently, I was lured to the road that climbed a large volcanic knoll (aka, cinder cone). It was an easy hike. What a grand view you can get from a few minutes of hiking and a couple hundred feet of elevation gain! That is especially true near some kind of boundary, in this case the ponderosa forest/grasslands boundary at 7500 feet.

From my cinder cone I could see 15 more cinder cones in the Springerville volcanic field. Since they were in the grasslands, they had a weird tawny mammary appearance. I didn't photograph them because they weren't really impressive in the usual trivial postcard sense.

But the view offered something more important: the ability to imagine geology. Instead of the eyes glazing over with boredom when you read a series of words like 'Pleistocene', or see a sequence of numbers like 2.4 millions years, etc., I was able to grab onto the scene mentally. Why, the newest volcanic cinder knolls were only a few hundred thousand years old.

More helpful than the newness was the sheer number in view at one time. What if I were standing on this same volcanic cinder cone, and looking to the east? That is where the newbie would be likely to pop out, because of the westward drift of the continental plate. How quickly would the baby volcano be born? It would probably glow red at night.

Imagine hot red splat shooting off into a cold, dark sky. How high? Then it falls back down -- as a still warm rock? -- and builds the cinder cone's height, to be hiked up and enjoyed by some other human, when my own bones have mouldered back into the soil. Food for grass.

Could I stand on this cone and see several other cones glowing at once? Ahh, wouldn't that be grand! And would I actually be in danger from their expulsions? 

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Patience of Rockhounds

When we were camped in the wash near Moab recently, a half-dozen trucks drove by one morning. It took a few minutes before I could tell what they were up to. They were rockhounds.

How strange it seemed for somebody to be pursuing an inexpensive and, may I say, old-fashioned activity. The outdoor sports around Moab are usually more flamboyant. It's as if each tourist is locked in competition to out-glamor every other tourist, in a frenetic orgy of adrenaline and dollars. Since I feel drawn to just about anything that is out-of-step with modern times, these rockhounds started me thinking...

What fraction of the time does a rockhound come up with anything interesting? How can anyone be so patient?


Perhaps their patience isn't so unique. A dog sniffs for a rabbit, and chases across the field with all the hope in the world; and it usually comes away empty-jawed. How many times does a professional salesman hear, "Maybe. I'll think about it," before he actually closes a deal? What fraction of the time does a book or music hunter land something great?

Anybody doing anything difficult must fail most of the time. Only the trivial stuff can be routinely successful. What a great metaphor rockhounding is for so many things! And that includes the "piecemeal pilfering" theme that interests me these days.

When it seems difficult to be patiently hopeful, it would symptomatic of our times to get touchie-feelie and psychologize and emotionalize it. What interests me is how much of the problem is actually intellectual, that is, a mistaken idea, which as usual involves a misleading comparison.

I am prone to thinking in terms of "pie-charts." If some factor or component only shows up as a 2% sliver in the pie, I want to jump to the conclusion that it "isn't that important." That's just the opposite of the way that a rockhound thinks. Or take a walk through a pharmacy and note what percentage the active ingredient is!


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

My First Flash "Flood," part II

Between the noise and the rain and the sticky goo, I was getting cabin fever. Not just a hackneyed expression, this is a real state of desperation. Oddly enough, whenever I have personally experienced this mood, I rebelled against it with the most determined optimism. This can seem odd or even a little magical to the person experiencing it, but, if we are to believe William James in The Will to Believe, it is common behavior:
It is, indeed, a remarkable fact that sufferings and hardships do not, as a rule, abate the love of life; they seem, on the contrary, usually to give it a keener zest. The sovereign source of melancholy is repletion. Need and struggle are what excite and inspire us; our hour of triumph is what brings the void. Not the Jews of the captivity, but those of the days of Solomon's glory are those from whom the pessimistic utterances in our Bible come. Germany, when she lay trampled beneath the hoofs of Bonaparte's troopers, produced perhaps the most optimistic and idealistic literature that the world has seen; and not till the French 'milliards' were distributed after 1871 did pessimism overrun the country in the shape in which we see it there to-day. The history of our own race is one long commentary on the cheerfulness that comes with fighting ills.

So I put on a raincoat and took the dog for a walk down to the dry wash to see if it was still dry. The "red sandstone" under my trailer was hard. But the rain made it greasy and slippery in a way that I had never experienced. As with walking on icy sidewalks, I had to bend the knees and keep my weight forward. But I still fell once while walking slowly across it. It wasn't pure sandstone, apparently. Clearly, driving away from the kiddie motorcycle rodeo was impossible until the roads started to dry up in the afternoon.

I am still mystified. How could greasy wet Mancos shale be mixed with that red sandstone and yet still look like pure red sandstone?

As we approached the dry wash I remembered the warning from a local Moab expert about not crossing over if it was raining. An SUV, without that advantage, crossed the sandy dry wash just ahead of me, and then disappeared into the Great Beyond. It seemed ordinary and oddly ominous at the same time.
 
Something grabbed the corner of my vision. Water was streaming down. It was only 2 inches deep -- it was not like watching the Red Sea crossing in Cecil B. DeMille's Ten Commandments. Still, it looked so odd and unnatural to see flowing water all at once. Was this a humble example of the fabled flash floods of the Southwest? How long I had yearned to see one!

Woops, wait a minute. We were standing right in the middle of the formerly dry creek bed, and just downstream the vertical bank was 15 feet high. Warned or not, I just couldn't leave the stream bed. Surely there would be noise or something, or time to skedaddle if flash floods really were "flashes."  (I had always suspected that the term was an exaggeration.) Apparently "flash flood" is an analog term, not a digital one. This one didn't show any signs of washing man and dog down to the Colorado River.

Unable to dare this mere "sudden onset of moving water" into lethal glamor, I settled for merely observing it. The front edge moved downstream at half walking speed, because it kept filling in the low spots on the sides of the stream. As I continued to watch, the advance of water seemed systematic, relentless, and even sentient. But it is the foul mood, written about in the last post, that deserves the credit for the magic of this experience: I started seeing this moving water as a Malevolence.

Rationally It should choose the path of least resistance, but instead Its lethal fingers probed the sides of the dry river bed for victims. The fingers would close around their latest victim until they choked it, swallowed and digested it, and then moved relentlessly downstream to continue the slaughter.

Think of old-time science-fiction B movies: The Blob that Ate Philadelphia. Or Star Trek TNG episodes: a black oil slick thing that killed Sasha. And remember the "Crystalline Entity?"  

My encounter with the Alluvial Entity must be a representation of something more general.  Recall the half men/half bulls of ancient mythology, the sphinxes of the Egyptians and endless examples of that type, and the demi-gods, and the confused nature of Jesus for the first couple centuries. In more recent times there was the intriguing dual nature of light: sometimes seeming like a wave, sometimes like a particle. 

It's hard to imagine superhuman Benevolence or Malevolence unless it is made of some material that is different or superior to the humble clay of our own bodies. (Oh geesh, why did I have to say 'clay!') That is where the Alluvial Entity grabbed me mentally, if not physically. Once we begin to feel harmful or helpful powers and intelligence in this alien material, we can't resist partially anthropomorphizing it -- which is far more convincing than completely turning it human.

And to all my readers: have a happy (early) Halloween!

Friday, August 30, 2013

William Blake Paddles Down a Dry Granite River

The word 'flow' in the title of the last post and a comment by uber-commenter, George, reminded me of something. Gee, if only the search box in blogger worked right. After some brute-force-searching I finally found that other post. 

This blog isn't a travelogue of Breaking News of the day. There is too much of that approach on the internet. The more minute-by-minute writing becomes, the more trivial it gets. So I rewrote this other experience, hoping that a couple "moments of truth" will come across more clearly to the reader.
_____________________________________

The Little Poodle and I "paddled" upstream -- on the mountain bike -- along the popular Arkansas River, near "Byoona" Vista, CO. We saw one river rafting company after another. As luck would have it, we made it in time for their mass "descension" of the Arkansas River. (If balloonists at the Albuquerque festival can have a mass ascension, then rafters in Colorado can have a mass descension.)


It seemed like a documentary about the D-Day invasion of World War II. Actually it all happened quickly and smoothly.

It has always been a poignant experience to watch people enjoying any water sport. I have tried to connect with the water over the years, and nothing really worked. So I surrendered to my fate as a land mammal.

The little poodle, not being a Labrador retriever, felt the same way. So we turned away from the river and biked into an area dominated by foothills of spheroidally-weathered granite. The road was actually just a dry wash of decomposed granite: small, clean, bright, and loose. It is tiring to bike uphill through loose gravel. A rocky path is actually easier.

We plodded onward, uphill -- or rather, upstream--and into the hot morning sun. Along one section there was a rivulet of clean water that the parched poodle desperately wanted a drink from. He needed some help because the rivulet was only a half inch deep. 


So I scooped the loose granitic gravel into a hole, making it easier for him to drink. It was strange how this didn't muddy-up the water. Here I was, surrounded by the Collegiate Peaks (all Fourteeners) and the marvelous Arkansas River. But the mere sight of such things had little effect on me.

It was only when I scooped out a drinking hole for my little poodle, and felt the desperate lapping of his little tongue against the palm of my hand, that I was strongly affected by what was around me. I guess William Blake really was right. ("To hold infinity in the palm of your hand...")

I pushed the bike uphill for a long way, knowing that when we turned around, it might be easy to bike down the dry wash. (A more prudent approach would have been to test that theory closer to the start.) Indeed, it worked out just as hoped. It's one of the advantages of mountain biking.

Descending the dry wash on the bike was a strange experience because I couldn't really steer the bike, properly speaking. I could only react to the changes in the looseness of the granitic gravel. The path was troughed and concave, and I could only try to keep the wheel straight. 


Looking at my front wheel, it appeared as though it were stationary and the gravel was flowing by, like water flowing by the bow of a sailboat. I could only help the gravel steer me back to the center. With each minute, this unusual mountain bike ride seemed more like kayaking down the Arkansas River. It gave me the unusual satisfaction of actually connecting with a water sport for perhaps the first time in my life. And I was on dry land.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Flowing Through Colorado's Best Land

Gunnison, CO. Why try to restrain myself? I am in my favorite land in Colorado. Good luck to those who enjoy static shapes and colors in the landscape. But I'll never understand them, for better or for worse.  For me, the outdoor experience is primarily about motion, be it transportation, cyclical processes and strife in the environment, or my own motion as an observer.  Even an activity as pokey as hiking can provide enjoyment if I vicariously experience the frantic running of a doggie hunter companion. 

I don't care how the motion is achieved; be it horse, bicycle, a raven playing with ridge-lift, human hang gliders, or kayakers. (As long as it doesn't require a yukkie engine.) Perhaps I should add a You Tube gadget to this blog and let you click on the opening-credits scene of William Wyler's "The Big Country" (1957).

And indeed it is a big country in the upper valley of the Gunnison River. It's a land that has a healthy balance of horizontal and vertical characteristics in the topography. 


The Vertical makes the land visually interesting. The Horizontal invites motion. They each provide something that the other can't provide. They are like the alternating series of sine and cosine waves that monsieurs Laplace and Fourier added up to approximate any wiggle in the world.



There is a  unique opportunity to enjoy motion here, especially for a mountain biker who does not care for technical single tracks. You see, the land is a menagerie of granite hobgoblins.





Better yet, it is decomposing granite. It devolves into a coarse sand. When other places are monsoonal mud-holes, this land is merely wet, with good traction for wheeled machines, presumably because of the shear dilatancy of the granitic sand. The single tracks take on the concave trough-like shape of a toboggan run. In fact one of the trails is called the "Luge."

As a result you can enjoy the childlike pleasure of screaming down these troughs on your mountain bike, while still being relatively safe. How many times have you screamed "yee-hah" without feeling like you are begging for an accident?

By pure luck this was the time for the annual "Rage in the Sage," a 24 hour mountain bike race. How many places could you mountain bike all night with a headlight on and not break your neck?! From the dispersed campsite I could see mountain bikers screaming down an inclined ridgeline, silhouetted against the sunset. Glorious and unique!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Moving Beyond Postcards

An experienced traveler has to move onward and upward when it comes to his appreciation of the outdoors. The postcard-worship of the newbie/vacationer is no longer of much use to him. Many people are uncomfortable with statements like this because they think they are negative. Was it "negative" when you graduated kindergarten and were promoted to first grade?

A year ago I experienced an unusually powerful example of "aesthetic evolution" near Socorro, NM. Explaining it seemed like a big project. And we all know what people do when they are dreaming things up into a big project. They procrastinate. Since I returned to this area recently let's see if it I can knock it down to size, this time around. 

I went into a certain area along a dirt road. My expectations were very low. In fact I remember henpecking myself about the choice of road and the waste of gasoline. It was a complete surprise to encounter some sexy and naked "structural geology."

It's an RV blog cliche to rhapsodize about geology in other contexts, such as red rocks in Utah. Red certainly is a nice color and very impressive if you are looking at it for the first time. But after standing there (like a dope) looking at red rocks, you must eventually admit that it was red rock 265 million years ago, yesterday, tomorrow, and probably hundreds of millions of years from now. So what are you supposed to do about it, exactly?

Anything static quickly becomes boring regardless of how postcard-ish it seems, initially. That is why many people love rivers; fast running wildlife, horses, and dogs; a trickle of water dripping out of a rock in arid country; and rapidly developing clouds and storms. It's also why some people (like me) consider photo cliches like mountains, oceans, wildflowers, and sunsets to be boring after a few seconds. 


If you agree with any of that, even just for the sake of argument, you must wonder how I can see geology as interesting. Talk about "static"! Layers of rocks have been standing there with the same stupid look on their faces for hundreds of millions of years, Ice Ages and volcanoes excepted. 


Actually though, I'm admiring "structural geology": the change of rather uniform layers of sedimentary rocks into photogenic topographic sculptures by means of differential erosion from water, in a dry country! Trying to imagine those processes does not seem boring and static. 

How did these weird shapes in the landscape get here?



At first they seemed like volcanic dikes, which are vertical wall-like extrusions of lava out of cracks in the earth. If the surrounding material erodes away, the "wall" is left by itself. My favorite example is near Shiprock, west of Farmington, NM. St. George/Hurricane UT also have some fine examples.


But a hike revealed that those wall-like structures in the second-to-last photo were sedimentary layers that were upended at exactly 90 degrees. How does that happen?:

 
But whatever you do, don't think about the stupid color or pretty shapes -- think about the process that might have created these strange structures.

At the bottom of the arroyo the rocks became rounded. That's the usual thing in arroyos. It makes a great impression on you to be stepping on sharp rocks and cacti, while feeling guilty about how all this must feel on your dog's paws. And then, over a distance of a step or two, the rocks turn smooth and white:


Perhaps the soft curves in arroyos are easier to believe if we stop thinking of them as being "rounded by water", and think about a water-borne slurry of abrasive rock particles wearing the bigger rocks smooth.

No wonder I procrastinated a year. This post is already long. Part 2 will wrap this up with what I experienced this year. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Aesthetics Bend Under Strain

Some types of outdoor enjoyments are easier than others. Getting a kick out of desert poppies takes little effort. But experiences of that type don't stick with you very long either.

Appreciating geology is far more difficult. Geology is huge and fundamental. Despite being able to see it raw and exposed in arid lands, such as the American West, it is difficult to actually enjoy it in the normal sense of the word. For one thing it doesn't move, except in the case of active volcanoes. It is also hard to pronounce all the scientific terminology. The whole thing can be off-putting because it seems cold and technical.

Go for a hike or a mountain bike ride through the mountains and you will occasionally see some impressive folds. Sometimes they're just little guys at road cuts. And yet something keeps you from doing backflips about them. How could hard, strong, brittle rocks be permanently deformed? Bent into arcs.

When possible, I try to anthropomorphize "uninteresting" things in nature. It doesn't matter if it is scientifically unrespectable.  

That's not the only possible technique. How about wallowing in any imagery that grabs you, wherever it be from? Don't be proud, politically correct, or anything else. Outside of Leadville CO, I once had great fun wallowing in imagery that should be quite alien to an atheist with a Protestant background: a large group of backpackers -- probably Baptists from Texas! -- resembled pilgrims in the high Pyrenees on their way to Santiago. Rocks aren't the only thing that can bend and deform under heat and pressure; so too can your aesthetic sensibilities.

The other day I was having a rematch with a rough road that goes up to a saddle at the north end of the Santa Rita mountains, south of Tucson. The mountain bike has to be pushed most of the last mile. (Fortunately I had remembered to wear regular trail sneakers, rather than cycling shoes.) But I had forgotten to wear a helmet. I only had a sombrero, and was quite conscious of it, since a helmet would be necessary to protect me from an "end-over" on the way down.

I will lose readers by talking about the rest of this experience, since secularists can be such prigs (and hypocrites), but here it goes anyway: halfway up the final push I stepped away from myself and grinned at what I saw: a fellow pushing his mountain bike up the hill like Christ carrying his cross up Calvary. Even the sombrero, that I was worried about, had become a crown of thorns. I was actually milking the act by bending the back and altering the stride, as if to glory in the suffering. 

But, at the same time, the experience was completely real and serious. Those are great moments when you experience something as if 100% of you is focused right there and then. You remember such moments for a long time.

Of course at the top was the usual bliss that comes at a saddle. I could see the viewscape to the east, all the way across the San Rafael grasslands. 

I do feel sorry for rigid atheists who won't allow their imaginations to run. Religious imagery should be seen as part of a continuum that includes mythological, poetic, sentimental, or romantic imagery of all kinds. If nothing else, surrendering my usual anti-religious prejudices honored the occasion. I bent to a special setting; in an indirect sense it was at least a partial success in appreciating those geological folds at the beginning of this post.


Monday, January 30, 2012

Mining Engineer Qualifying Exam


For 10 points answer the following question on today's pop quiz. Theses photo were taken in southern Arizona, somewhere near Ajo.

If you were going to open up a mine here, what kind of mine would it be?:
  1. Anthracite coal.
  2. Gold.
  3. Athabascan tar sand petroleum.
  4. Cobre, copper.
  5. Garlic.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Learning New Four-Letter Dirty Words in Geology Class

It's a world of a different color where I'm camped now compared to Moab, which is just a couple weeks in the rear view mirror. Here in the lower Rio Grande Valley the world is grey, brown, and buff, which is rather bland compared to the red sandstone of Moab.

After a night of hard rain it began to dry up.  I needed to go to town to do the usual errands. (Here an RV travel blog should begin spoon-feeding the eager reader with every minute and mundane detail of his errand and shopping trip.) The road was a recently graded county road, with a hard gravel surface. But at one spot the color abruptly changed from buff to "red". Having been in Moab recently, I thought that it was a small area of red sandstone. Still, a slow yellow light began blinking in the back of my head. Then there was a small dip. I was surprised how difficult it was to get back up the hill. Whew! That was close. What the heck kind of sandstone do you call that?

A couple hours later, the errands were over and I looked forward to returning home on a drier road. Once again I was driving through the dip in the red/brown dirt: the slope of the road caused me to slide to the right edge, the lower edge, where water had drained. In seconds the van was up to its axles in plastic gook. You've probably already guessed the dirty four letter word for the day: C-L-A-Y.

Normally I think in terms of geology; but today's "class" was in rheology. Three feet from the right edge of the road, all seemed normal. A few inches closer to the right, and it turned remarkably plastic. My foot would sink in three inches. I made a noble effort with rocking the van and straightening the front wheels, but the combination of slopes doomed me to a shameful surrender, that is, calling my towing service who promised a tow truck in 3 hours.

What was I to do until then? So I walked to the chile farming area about a mile away. Demographic profiling is supposed to be a bad thing, but there are times when you can't avoid it. That works in both directions. If I had had the advantage of being a slightly attractive woman, I would already have been rescued; I could have just leaned against the van, preened and primped a little bit, swished my tail a couple times, and then some silly man would have magically appeared from behind a creosote bush. Actually, it probably would have been a couple of silly men, with each trying to show that he knew more than the other guy.

Let's see now: who should I target? Obviously not somebody with a small or clean car. There was no point in asking a woman. If I'd asked a bourgeois-yuppie-gringo type he would have thought that, if my story were actually true, I should just call my towing service, Platinum Card service, or push the Onstar button on the dashboard; and if I couldn't do any of this, well, I was probably just a recent parolee who didn't even have an automobile and was just cooking up a story to get into his SUV and steal his iPhone.

It seemed like the best bet would be a middle-aged male, blue collar or maybe a farmer: a guy who liked solving problems the old-fashioned way, with his hands and experience and common sense. But was there still anyone like that in America? And could they speak English?

I'm pleased to say that I struck gold on the second try: a middle-aged, male, Mexican employee of the chile company, who was driving an older, non-clean pickup truck. He even grinned when I mentioned the specific road, as if it were well known locally. He had me out of there in a few seconds, and I gave him some gasoline money out of gratitude.

Now, what is the moral of this story? Some gloating readers want to hear me admit that my next tow vehicle should be a four wheel drive machine. But I hardly see how a tow rope and ten seconds of work every five years justifies spending an extra $14,000 on the pickup truck. Or should I change towing services? Nah, none of them provide instantaneous service and if they tried, it wouldn't be affordable. My adventure would never have happened if I had been driving more towards the center of the road, or if I had stopped the van and probed the ground on foot before committing myself.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Impressions on Mind and Mudstone

Lower Rio Grande valley, New Mexico. Why is it that we know so little about how the vaunted gadgets and machines of our Age work? Perhaps that says something of our educational system; or maybe it is just inherently difficult to approach science and technology in layman's terms. Some people probably think technical subjects are uninteresting since there is nothing personal or emotional about them.

But there must be some explanation for stopping dead in my tracks when I saw this shadow on a shale rock on some BLM land recently.


My goodness, it looked identical to the fossilized leaves on a shale rock that belonged to an impressive rock-collection that my father "inherited" from a retired school teacher, back when I was a kid. One of my siblings turned out to be the real rockhound, but I was interested in them too.

At first the sheer size and color of the quartz crystals and geodes made the biggest impression. (Think of the razzle-dazzle that you find on the tables at Quartzsite AZ in the winter.) But the purely visual buzz wore off soon. I thought the fossils were more interesting and significant in the long term.

When I said "looked identical", above, it brings to mind the word 'reminiscent.' The dictionary says the Latin root is 'mens', the mind. Why are fossils interesting to people? Is it the connection between past and present or is it the challenge of trying to visualize a radical, but unbelievably slow, process of transformation?

But today I was only looking at an ephemeral shadow of waning November light; back then, as a kid, there was something about fossils and their transformation that was reminiscent of the old retired teacher, who once had a job similar to what my father had now -- I mean, then. Would my father really get old like that and retire? Would I?

The transformation of boy to old man is not as radical as that from living leaf to an intaglio on a fossil, but it's big enough. And it was the transformation to light and shadow, on today's hike, that formed the link.

This is drifting a bit from the starting point of this post. I'll get back to the theme next time.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Lay's Potato Chips of Sandstone

A big part of the art of camping is stepping away from the 'looked over', and wandering amongst the 'overlooked'. The best way to do this is to camp where the scenery is subtle or mediocre in the immediate foreground, but more promising in the distance. Naturally that provides the incentive to go for a walk, right from the RV's door.

But you still go with low expectations. You have to try to be interested in what there is to see, and you have to look for ways to experience it beyond mere 'looking'. Usually, the surprises are on the positive side.

In that spirit Coffee Girl and I took off on a day that was supposed to be dreadful, but in fact, was delicious: what a luxury it is to leave the wide-brimmed sombrero at home, and welcome the sun's warmth onto my face, while enjoying the bracing chill.

We encountered the thinnest lamellas of sandstone that I've ever seen. They were fragile and nearly exfoliated.


Monday, August 22, 2011

Surprise on Snake Hill

The dogs and I went exploring the Plains of San Agustin. Wikipedia tells us that it is a graben, like Death Valley. Graben means ditch in German; have some fun ggrrrowling the word out. It is a block of land that sinks between two parallel faults or cracks. Supposedly San Agustin sank 4000 feet, and then filled halfway in with sediment from the nearby mountains.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Old Rocks

In the Southwest a few years ago. 'Love at first sight' is a principle that doesn't seem to apply to geologic layers, at least for me. It fails in both directions. When I saw red-rock Utah for the first time I drooled over it like anyone would. But once the brain has seen red rock and admitted it as a possibility, it ceases to be interesting. And yet I know RVers who make a big deal of it, long term. Red sandstone cliffs decompose into loose red sand which is impassable to a mountain bike.

Conversely I was none too crazy about granite at first. It was crumbly and ignoble. Eventually though, the eroded hoodoos and gargoyles win you over.


Soon you appreciate the sure-footedness that you have while scrambling over granite rocks, but it's the dry washes that are the most fun. They are filled with granite decomposed into coarse sand. Granite sand can be sharp-edged; under the shearing pressure of your shoe it locks up and makes for easy walking.

My little poodle becomes years younger as he scampers up and down these granite dry washes. Ironic isn't it, that his fountain of youth is a billion-year-old metamorphic rock? On a recent mountain bike ride the granite went all the way to the top of a ridge. What a great surface for running! At the top of the mountain pass he was quite smug in his achievement and guarded the bike while I took photos.


Where we are currently camped there is a gully and dry wash every quarter mile. Fluidity is written in the streamlines everywhere you look, even in the roads. It is fun to look for quartz veins running through the granite.




Thursday, June 3, 2010

Back to Normal

The rescued poodle was coming along fine. He and my (unnamed) new dog were confused by each other, but they will probably get along.
How nice it was to get back on the road--back to normal--and drift over the high plateaus of the Southwest, those brilliantly-lit, elevated, display cases of geology. It has been a long time since I saw Shiprock near Farmington, NM. The last time I was here a friend and I were such newbies that we didn't know that it trespassing to travel on Indian reservations, off the main highways. We actually boondocked right at the base of Shiprock until a Navajo kicked us out.

The main peak is an old volcanic throat. The surrounding rock, probably sandstone, has eroded away.


On this visit I especially enjoyed the volcanic dikes that radiate away from the main peak. They were formed when igneous rocks oozed through cracks. They extend for  miles, but are only a few feet wide. In places they looked like a crumbling brick wall, with holes.

When you look at the topography of the Colorado Plateau today, you see the erosion-resistant residue of the past. I wonder how many people, living in this era of electronics and computers, are aware that much of this technological progress is based on photo-lithography: which means 'writing on rocks with light,' in Greek. The "rock" in microelectronics is a silicon wafer.

On the Colorado Plateau we see the results of hydro-lithography. Silicon is one of the main components of the earth's crust.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Geologic Time

Normally I only have a bit of success in getting anything out of geology books. It's not the geologist-author's fault (ahem) necessarily--it's the nature of the subject to have lots of jargon and memorization in it.

On a mountain bike ride the other day, my little poodle and I headed up the Uncompahgre Plateau on a smooth dirt road. It was pleasant but unexciting, and since there was no special scenery along the way it seemed like the ride might be a little disappointing.

But then the magic started happening; I started to lose self-consciousness and melt into the landscape.
There is a trance-like quality to one's state of mind at times like this. Perhaps because of that, or because of the congruity of the bicycle's speed and the gradual changes up the plateau, I was able to imagine the grandeur of geologic time. "Imagine" or "appreciate?" I'm not sure. But in either case it would have been impossible for me to experience this any other way.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Living with a Laccolith

North of Gunnison, CO. My little poodle and I hiked up the small "mountain" behind the camper. There was no real trail. We kept traversing the slope so it wouldn't be too steep. Eventually we found a game trail to follow. Then we'd lose it, or at least, it seemed so. This became a game, far more interesting than following a real hiking trail.

We found a large spherical mushroom, with a crack. It made me thick of that scene in "Jurassic Park" when they watch the dinosaur egg hatching.

The little "mountain" was not tall and we were soon at the top. It proved to be quite flat on top--maybe just a little tipped or domed. Geologists would call this a "laccolith," formed by igneous material intercalating sedimentary stratifications, followed by...you can see why reading geology books is about as much fun as conjugating verbs in Latin. What the geologists would say if someone taught them English is that hot lava under pressure squeezes between flattish layers of sandstone or shale, doming the top layer a little. Then the top layer of sandstone erodes away over the ages, leaving the volcanic rock as an erosion-resistant, flattish, domed caprock. But just imagine the pressure that was needed to split the layers of sandstone!

Our little mountain was a miniature poodle-sized version of the laccolith. There are quite a few of them in this section of Colorado. The top dog is the Grand Mesa, just east of Grand Junction, CO.

There was a nice stand of grass and aspen on top, and there should have been a herd of elk or deer too. 
Although there was no scenery to brag about, it was pleasant and soothing to walk lazily over the flattish glade. It was only as wide as a large lawn, in town, and felt quite personal; a comfortable, private little world hanging in the sky.

Colorado's San Juans

Clearly, the San Juans are Colorado's best eye candy, in the usual postcard sense. The San Juans are newer than the other ranges and are volcanic, rather than folded or fault block ranges. Here was our first route in the San Juans:


Stratified sedimentary layers I'm used to--but a green layer? How could a wind-blown seed find purchase on a slope like this?

A motorist stopped when he saw my little dog in the BOB trailer behind the mountain bike. He was a serious amateur photographer and was studied up on nature. He thought the seeds would have been dropped by birds into the cracks or holes that even a steep slope must have. Probably so, but how did these plants or bushes propagate up there?

We finished our ride and returned to find a Silverton couple saddling up two llamas, for an overnight trek up to an alpine lake. 


 
They are members of the camel family, but don't have humps. Their hooves are more like a hard pad, with two-toes and funny toe nails. How would these pack animals fare in a competition with burros? It would all depend on the rules. The llamas would probably survive drought better. They are ruminants that could survive on a wide variety of grasses and plants. Burros have to pack their own chow. 

I've decided that Colorado's San Juans have better eye-candy than recreation, at least from my specialized point of view. Harsh volcanic ground is murder on dog pads and mountain bikes. Topography can be too steep for RV boondocking. I am better off in the Arkansas or San Luis valleys. But most of all, crossing the dirt-road passes in Jeep Wranglers has been turned into a mass-tourist thing, which ruins it for mountain biking.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Orogeny and Erosion

We are camped in the national forest right on the route of the recently completed Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race. The other day we rode a forest road up to the foot of Mt. Elbert, the tallest peak in Colorado. The most pleasant surprise was the marvelous, hard-packed, sandy texture of that particular forest road.

I couldn't get the word 'orogeny' out of my mind. What a beautiful word. It means mountain-building. Of course the opposite of orogeny is just as important. Erosion is one way to look at it. As detritus is swept down the side of a mountain, to the valley, the small stuff should drop out last, at lower altitude. Indeed we were benefiting from that today on the ride.

The forest was a lodgepole pine monoculture. If ever a tree was aptly named, it is the lodgepole pine. The forest was as bland as you can imagine, but it wasn't as dark and depressing as a spruce/fir forest. When I stopped pedaling and held my breath, I could hear nothing--no wind, no birds. Did anything live here?  It was as empty as the Mojave Desert.


Finally we got to the end of this marvelous forest road where we could see faint trails going up the ridges of Mt. Elbert. With binoculars I could see a group of twenty peak-baggers descending from the just-vanquished peak. They were 3500 feet above us. You really have to stare at these ants to tell what direction they're moving.

Looking down at the little dog I could tell what he was thinking. The smaller the fuzzball, the bigger the dreams. That recent Thirteener has whetted his appetite for his first Fourteener. Before he had any more time to think about it, I turned us home.

Is it really fair to curse the ugliness of pine and spruce forests? Some of my favorite western scenery is the Palouse of eastern Washington, which consists of rolling hills covered with wheatfields. But how attractive would that be to a mouse? And that's the problem. A man is too small to enjoy this lodgepole pine forest. If he were 150 feet tall and walked here, it would be gorgeous.

This seems like mere whimsy--playing Gulliver in the Rockies. But maybe it explains the great appeal of an outdoor sport like hang gliding or parasailing. Getting your eyes above the clutter allows you to appreciate the land's contours and texture.