The Field Trip: A True Story (Chapter 1)

At Caltech, back in 1979, I decided on majoring in Geophysics. That’s not the degree that I eventually graduated with, but that was my major before I switched over to Engineering. As any kind of Geo major (Geology, Geophysics, or Geochemistry), part of the experience was field work — going out into nature, and seeing rocks and volcanoes and fault lines in their native habitat, so to speak. One of the beautiful things about studying the Geosciences in Southern California, is that much of that beautiful geology isn’t covered by forest or dirt. It’s all out there in the open. Visit the right locations, usually out in the desert, and you can see the ancient layers of ash deposited by volcanic eruptions, or siltstone and sandstone layers from ancient river or lake beds.  And you can also see how those layers bend or break or have been moved and even flipped upside down by the tectonic movements over the ages.

Wikipedia - Rainbow Basin is a geological formation located approximately eight miles north of Barstow in the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County, California. It has been designated a National Natural Landmark. Rainbow Basin is a mixture of private and public land, but it is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and is accessible to the public via an unpaved loop road. The basin is notable both for the fantastic and beautiful shapes of its rock formations and because of its fossil beds, which have provided scientists with valuable information about life during the middle Miocene epoch, between 12 and 16 million years ago.
Wikipedia – Rainbow Basin is a geological formation located approximately eight miles north of Barstow in the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County, California.  One class of mine had us spend several weekends there practicing the mapping outcroppings of a particular ash bed from a particular volcanic eruption.

I remember one of my very first field trip in a freshman geology class.  Doctor Leon T. Silver, this rugged, man’s man in his mid-50’s led us on a climb up a mountain.  Then, once we were high enough that we could see all of the geology surrounding us, and as I held a death-grip on a steep cliff-face so that I would not fall to my possible death, Dr. Silver lectured to us about the plate tectonics that had created those mountains — no one was able to take notes, simply because we were all too scared to let go.  This was a favorite tactic of Dr. Silver, to bring us to visually unforgettable locations, and tell stories about the geology.  Another memorable trip, we climbed up the side of an volcano.  I remember being so parched by the heat and exertion that when I tried to get the attention of the guy ahead of me, carrying the big water thermos, nothing would come out except for a thin croak.  I don’t know how much I actually learned from those trips, but they certainly were memorable.  And I think, that as a freshman class, that was more of the point.

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Badlands near the Salton Sea — another memorable field trip had us, again, mapping a lava bed through the dried gullies. On a previous field trip, at least as we were told as a kind of horror story, an undergrad had been killed as a result of a flash flood.  As the story went, if the water was close enough that you could hear it rushing down the gully, it was already too late to escape.  Was the story true?  I have no idea.

Say what you want about the Freshman field trips, they did make me want to pursue Geophysics as a major.  Sophomore year, I decided to take this class called “Earth History”.  It was a multi-disciplinary class, taught by 4 different professors.  Again, Leon Silver was there, representing the Geophysical aspects of the subject.  If I remember correctly, we also had a Geochemist, a Geobiologist, and a Biologist. a professor on loan from Scripps, Lynn Margulis.  Ms. Margulis, as it turned out, was quite a character herself. As I recall, almost every lecture that she gave, she would mention some of the same facts over and over again, about how human sperm was not very different from Gingko tree sperm (yes, Gingko trees do produce sperm).  After a bit, it became kind of like a joke to the students, partly because there were Gingko trees along the street on one side of the campus.  I’ll leave it to the reader to come up with his or her own punch line.

One of the interesting things about the class was that it was divided between Geoscience majors and Biology majors.  This turned out to be a source of conflict, that didn’t just affect the students, and what we wanted from the class, but also to the professors themselves, and what they envisioned the class to be about.  The professors themselves would frequently argue over who would lecture in each class.  And it was always Ms. Margulis representing the biology department, and everyone else representing the geology department.  There was a lot of mutual resentment.  But then again, I don’t think that these were the kinds of people who could get along at a dinner party, much less vying for control of a stupid college class.  The Geology majors AND professors completely resented Ms. Margulis, and Ms. Margulis seemed to have a desire to teach almost every class, leaving some of the Geology professors to fume in the background.

As it turns out, this class, like a lot of Geoscience classes, had a tradition of taking field trips.  Professor Margulis was dead-set on taking us all down to Mexico, along the Baja peninsula.  There were so many things she wanted us to see. The problem was that Baja had just experienced one of its worst rainy seasons in recent history. As Dr. Silver and his fellow Geoscience professors pointed out, the roads that we’d have to travel to get to any of those places were mostly dirt and not great. Even under the best of circumstances, we’d be driving rugged roads in the backwoods of Mexico. With all of the flooding that had occurred over the winter, no one knew if those roads were even navigable. But Professor Margulis insisted that the roads were fine. She was quite passionate about bringing us to Mexico. None of the other places that were suggested at all appealed to her. It was Mexico or bust. And there was no way that anything would ever convince her otherwise.  And, to be honest, I was incredibly excited to travel to Mexico, even on a field trip.  And I’m sure that others felt exactly the same way.  I can’t remember exactly how the decision was made.  I think maybe she managed to get the grudging support of at least one of the other professors, and so plans for the trip began to form.

The Baja Peninsula

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