Thursday, May 12, 2011

When nothing really is something

But what about Mechanics of River Incision?

I hear you cry.

Never fear, all will be revealed soon enough. Caltech has a large and active geology department. Every term there is an opportunity for non geo majors to go on a field trip. The original plan this term was to take a field trip to Baja California, but school administrators, worried about drug related violence thousands of miles away, squashed that plan like a puny bug on the wind shield of a speeding 4WD. The plan was hastily modified, we packed our bags, and headed for Arizona, and the grand canyon. Which was a pretty good consolation prize, in my opinion.
We took four 4WDs stuffed to the brim with food/undergrads (the distinction is sometimes borderline) and drove into the distance. The first night we stopped at the campground at Lake Mead at about midnight - this is close enough to Las Vegas to see the glow in the sky. I found a perfectly smooth concrete table off the ground and away from blowing dust, unrolled my sleeping bag, and started taking time lapse photos of the moon. Those, and other photos, can be found here:
I don't own a sleeping mat, so I use a car windshield reflector and a folded up blanket, and slept like a baby until some noisy campers in the next site got up at 6am and their leader decided to practise projecting his voice with useful commands like "eat breakfast" "load the car" and "don't forget to brush your teeth ...eeth ...eeth". In due course I got up, threw everything back in my bag, and walked down to the lake, which is somewhat shrunken. Later we all drove back down the road to the same spot, and the academic portion of the trip began. As we squinted into the early morning light reflecting from the lake, a few students took 10 minutes to present their report on some aspect of relevant geology, such as 'water usage in Nevada' 'formation of Lake Meade', and so on. As a physicist it is often tempting to view all things in their simplest form, and assume that problems are thus simple. On this trip I learnt that with geology, it's actually quite difficult to know specific things about geological history, since we've only got a 2D view (plus bore holes) through often unreliable strata, and everything is really really old.
We drove on. Through the course of the day we visited a pretty cool slot canyon carved through 45 degree strata (where I explained the mechanics of river incision in combination with my beautifully LaTeX formatted report and paint-tastic diagrams), some cool rocks, rock carvings, and dinosaur footprints in the valley of fire, and a few other rocks here and there, the history and formation of which were expertly and mercilessly dissected by the keen eye of my expert colleagues. We visited and stood on the great unconformity and Frenchman mountain (outside Las Vegas), smuggled alcohol between ancient inverted topography from lava flows in Utah, and listened to C.K. Louis' stand up comedy on W's iPod. In good company the hours and distance on the road quickly diminishes, and by the end of the day we'd arrived at Torroweap, where we were to camp. Unable to find any sufficiently and well placed trees I hung my hammock at ground level, in which capacity it still exceeds the comfort and convenience of tents in many respects.
No sooner had I turned around but dinner (spaghetti) had been cooked, we sat in foldy chairs around a camp fire, told outrageous stories, and shone lasers into smoke for fun - which was awesomely cool. Sometime after midnight it was time to hit the sack, and I slept brilliantly, cushioned by about 10cm of very soft dirt.
Next morning, not realising that we were camping in the same place the next night, I packed all my things in my waterproof bag and stuck it in a low shrub out of the dirt. This move would turn out to be startlingly prescient! Water bottles were filled and we drove down to the canyon rim, a short trip down the valley between the numerous cinder cones of a tantalising volcanic field. The largest of these is Vulcan's Throne, situated almost exactly on the Torroweap fault and responsible for some pretty cool lava dams in the grand canyon - some more than 200m high, over the last few million years.
We could wait no longer. We burst from the cars and streamed towards the edge of the canyon, where ground suddenly and inexplicably gave way to nothing (which really was something!) for hundreds of meters. In this section the canyon is quite narrow, but still extremely deep, with a thin green thread of Colorado (oh, the irony) river at the bottom. Photo time. Instantly I had lost my shirt and taken a few photos, including the obligatory handstand. Of course, when you're walking on your hands, you can't see where you're going very well, and I had to be careful not to fall off the edge...
We lined up and got a few more talks on geological details, including all the different layers in the canyon, their ages, colours, history, etc etc. Probably the most overtly impressive feature was the degree of slipping on the Torroweap fault - probably 150m or so of discontinuity in the strata, and evidence of continuing movement. We ranged up and down the rim a bit to look in both directions, and were suprised by a sudden but intense rain shower, out of otherwise blue skies. Prescient indeed. Before we returned to the campsite we had enough time for a few of us to cast aside our exhaustion and bolt up the side of Vulcan's throne. We were time limited, and in the end I opted to pause near the summit, enjoy the view, take some photos, and perform the customary rites associated with climbing peaks in general and volcanoes in particular, before skipping at great speed to the bottom in a cloud of dust.
Back at the camp site we surveyed the damage. The sudden rain shower had turned the soft dirt to sticky mud. Even worse, some people had pitched their tents without flies, the better to enjoy the starry sky the night before. Now their groundsheets resembled paddling pools. All was not lost, however, as the sun was still out for a few hours and everyone was a fan of Douglas Adams. This time I had enough time to set up a sling system and suspend the hammock between two appropriately placed trees, and after tacos and yet more fireside chats, retired and slept. On this occasion I was testing a new approach to hammock insulation, in which a sleeping bag is suspended tight beneath the hammock, where it could not be crushed by my body weight. For the first time, I was really warm from below, but sadly a bit cold on top, where I only had my thin blanket.
Next morning I was up at dawn (the sun powered across the nearby range right into my face), and after dressing I decided to see how far the fire trail ran. Kicking the still sticky mud from my shoes I walked for about 20 minutes, and eventually emerged from the trees on the edge of the Torroweap valley, with a terrific view down towards the volcanoes and the edge of the canyon in the early morning light. I returned, packed, and soon we were on our way.
The trip back was long and tiring - I spent quite a lot of it asleep in any of a dozen hyper awkward positions, munching on left over food, and marvelling at the extraordinary scenery of highway 15 (I think) as we wound our way back down into the LA basin. I arrived back at Caltech with enough time to visit my office, do some work, shower, and eat dinner before Monday, and all the work starting again.
This trip was the last of four consecutive extra curricular weekends, and as a result I was pretty behind on work. However, there are 168 hours in a week, and quite a lot can be accomplished in 168 hours. I even found time to catch up on missed TV.

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