Six Weeks in Sinks Canyon

Editor’s Note: In the summer of 2013, Teresa Avila spent six weeks as both a geology student and a science journalist at the University of Missouri’s Branson Field Laboratory, a geology field camp in Wyoming. Avila is pursuing a double major at MU — in Geology and in Science and Agricultural Journalism. She successfully completed the geology field class. She also reported and wrote the following piece of literary journalism as part of a journalism independent study class.

By Teresa Avila

A rusty red wall of rock sits at a tilted angle in central Wyoming. The highway next to it, U.S. 287, is a relatively quiet one. Especially so at 8:00 in the morning, when the wind rattling past green-silver sagebrush is still chilly enough for a jacket.

The low whooshing sound of an approaching vehicle echoes in the distance. Soon enough, a caravan of six white vans rushes into view. Leading the caravan is a navy blue truck, driven by a woman in her thirties with a tomboyish figure and a cloud of dark, curly hair above a tanned face. In the back of the truck, Miriam Barquero-Molina has a bicycle for when she makes her way back to the University of Missouri’s Branson Field Laboratory, about 22 miles and two hours away.

The truck and vans speed past the red rock, only to pull into a small gravel parking lot a few minutes later. From the vehicles clamber 43 undergraduate geology students, seven teaching assistants, one geology professor and one Australian shepherd/border collie mix.

The only thing in sight besides the fenced-in lot, the highway and a faded blue Porta Potty is a landscape of geology. Massive layers of rock rise up from the earth, their reds, pinks, oranges and tans dominating the landscape’s color palette far more than the ragged vegetation.

The students keep up a low chatter of conversation as they slather on sunscreen and adjust packs. Yesterday, the first official day of field camp, was all basic work done in the camp’s back yard. This will be the first real day in the field.

With a signal from Miriam, the crowd begins hiking toward the red tilted rock cut they passed earlier. Miriam’s dog — Kilah — prances through the students with her pink tongue hanging out at an angle.

They stop in front of the red rock and wait for the stragglers to catch up, observing the way the layers shoot upwards going from right to left.

The Red Peak formation formed in the Triassic, most likely in a desert environment that stood next to an ocean.  Teresa Avila/University of Missouri

The Red Peak formation formed in the Triassic, most likely in a desert environment that stood next to an ocean.
Teresa Avila/University of Missouri

“Tell me what you see,” Miriam tells her students, and within minutes the formation is swarmed with students armed with rock hammers, hand lenses and small bottles of diluted hydrochloric acid that they’ll drip on the rock to test for calcium carbonate.

The dog, Kilah sniffs around the base, probably in hope of rabbits, as terms like “rounded to sub-rounded grains” and “thin laminations interspersed with massive bedding” fill the dry air.

“Ripple marks.” A student points with his rock hammer at petrified waves in the rock. The possible conclusion: this used to be in water. The teaching assistants ask why the rock is so red. “Iron deposits,” comes the answer. The iron in the rock has rusted with exposure to oxygen, making the term “rusty red” a surprisingly accurate description.

“One thing we geologists figure out is the puzzle,” Miriam says once she has her students’ attention again. “We are the puzzle figure outers.”

It’s as if the history of the earth is a giant book. Someone has taken that book and torn it apart. They’ve burnt some of the pages, torn other pages in half, smeared the writing, and have let everything else be exposed to the elements.

Geologists have to trek across the earth looking for traces of these pages. They glue them together, decipher the smeared writing and put everything back in order. Pages are always missing, so when they try to read the story, they have to use context clues to fill in the missing pieces.

That’s why Miriam stresses for her students the difference between observations and interpretations. Observations are the hard, unarguable facts — the scraps of information that a geologist has to work with. The interpretation is how the geologist puts those scraps together to form a picture of how a rock got there, and what has happened to it between its formation and the current day.

This is the main goal for the geology students when they stand in front of what, honestly, could be nothing more complicated than a pile of  red rocks. They have to train themselves to notice certain details — missing pages that they have to learn how to spot.

A little less than 250 million years ago, the stretch of sagebrushed Wyoming highway on which the students stand would have been in the middle of the Triassic period. The supercontinent Pangea  formed in the Triassic, but dinosaurs as the popular culture imagines them had yet to evolve. The climate was largely hot and dry, with wide subtropical deserts covering huge swathes of the land. In what is now central Wyoming, sea level was high enough to make the area a coastal environment.

The red rock, what geologists call the Red Peak formation, was deposited here.

It’s fair to ask, though, how anyone could tie this highway cut with the Triassic. The major hint, Miriam tells her students, is the color. In the United States, most Triassic-age rocks are red, thanks to almost immediate iron oxidation from an arid climate. Going a step further, geologists can say that the rock was deposited in an arid coastline environment, similar to what one finds in Africa where the Sahara meets the Atlantic Ocean.

That’s the beginning of the Red Peak formation’s story. But plenty of events changed the rock over time. The most obvious one is whatever took the entire landscape and tilted it so dramatically.

That isn’t the students’ focus on Mesozoic Recon day. Rather, the idea is to walk across the tilted beds and learn the major formations with which they’ll be working for the next six weeks of field camp.

Unlike the rocks they’re studying, the students and staff have much clearer histories to offer. If asked, some can recall how they stumbled into their geology major through an introductory class that caught their interest and never quite let go. Or they can say that they knew they wanted to study geology ever since they were kids with giant rock collections. Every story differs slightly, but for six weeks, everyone will add another small layer of experience that will be shared with over 40 other people.

A brief history of the Earth

Geologically speaking, the Triassic period wasn’t all that long ago, ranging from 205.7 to 248.2 million years ago. To really be deemed “ancient,” you need to go back to the very beginning of the earth’s roughly 4.5 billion year history.

The violent, fiery beginning of the planet is now called the Hadean eon. (The name’s connection to Hades, the Greek god of the underworld, is no coincidence.) This eon includes the planet’s formation from coalescing clumps of rock — like bits of dust gather together to form dust bunnies — to the development of a solid core, magmatic currents, poles, a moon and a cool outer crust and atmosphere.

The oldest dated rocks come from the tail end of the Hadean (counting the margin of error) and the beginning of the Archean. The Archean spanned the next 1.5 billion years, followed up by the Proterozoic, which finished at 542 million years ago.

These first three eons — the initial 88 percent of the earth’s history—are often grouped together in the supereon called the Precambrian. While geologists know about major events from that time, such as mountains being built and ancient continents forming, it’s a much fuzzier image than what they know about, say, the Jurassic — when brachiosaurus and allosaurus navigated a tropical climate. Geology is nearsighted by nature; the more recent past is much easier to document and understand.

The Paleozoic era came after the Precambrian, along with the explosion of larger, shelly life that characterized the Paleozoic’s first period, the Cambrian. At this point, modern-day North America and Greenland were combined to form a continent called Laurentia. What we now know as Canada pointed to the east, and Texas to the west, which left Wyoming near the equator. Over the course of the Paleozoic, Laurentia would eventually become part of the supercontinent Pangea—home to the dinosaurs once they rolled around in about 300 million years.

The ocean kept up a steady cycle of moving into, then retreating from, the ancient coastlines. Specific types of rocks and their accompanying fossils indicate just where the ocean reached. The Madison Limestone in central Wyoming, for example, came from a shallow ocean that reached that area from about 323 to 354 million years ago in the Mississippian period.

This pattern would continue into the Mesozoic — which includes the Triassic — when the area would shift into a time of worldwide rises in sea level and a flurry of mountain building.

Rock, as the scribe of the past, is the main way in which geologists can make such hypothesis about what the earth was up to. Though if asked, Miriam will readily say that interpreting rock is often a lot of “arm waving.”

Rock doesn’t often make it easy on geologists. Sometimes, millions of years worth of rock are nowhere to be found, already eroded away by wind and water. Such is the case with the Great Unconformity, in which the 3.4 billion years between the Precambrian and Cambrian are missing from the Wyoming geologic record.

(It’s such a momentous event that Miriam and head TA Angie Van Boening make a point of visiting and kissing the Great Unconformity every year on the field camp’s trip back from Yellowstone National Park. Pictures are taken.) Other times, the clues are vague or indecipherable.

But in the right conditions, rock can be an amazingly meticulous recorder. It can show the exact path of a prehistoric animal moving across the sea floor, or a few hours of flooding on a long-gone coastline.

Rock also records methodically. Like a chef creating a lasagna, the bottommost layers had to be put down first, and must be the oldest. Assuming the rock hasn’t been tossed around, moving up is moving forward in time.

Fremont County’s Derby Dome oil field, a 20 to 30 minute drive from the field camp, gives an example.  The bottom of the Dinwoody Formation — which came right at the beginning of the Triassic — was deposited millions of years ago in an ancient lake. At the top of the Derby Dome, a geology class deposited a line of footprints a matter of minutes ago.

Hiking the Mesozoic

A straggling line of these students crosses the red-green-gray landscape. The smell of sage fills the air as hiking boots crush and break the leaves and stems. Small flowers wave in a slight breeze, while any trees are hard and gray. Their roots are almost mistaken as rocks. Their bark, when present, feels like packaging foam.

It’s a pleasant enough background for the main goal: to learn about the distinct layers of the Mesozoic by hiking them.

The rock layers of the Mesozoic, otherwise known as the roughly 186 million years containing the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, tilt out of the earth at high enough angles that they form steep inclines and declines. With the giant lasagna of the Mesozoic tilted up, the students can walk across the layers themselves, instead of just the cheesy top noodle.

The day is thus an exercise in hills. Finding a new bunch of layers usually comes after scrambling up an incline, thighs and calves burning and breath usually short. After listening to a short lecture from Miriam, it’s a slide down a steep decline, arms out and falling a distinct danger.

To give order to the rock layers they find, geologists label what are known as formations. When they find similar rock types — say, a white sandstone that came from a desert — in several different places, they name the entire formation.

That’s what happened in the case of the Nugget Formation, which was formed in the deserts that covered Wyoming in the late Triassic and early Jurassic. When buried, the desert sand compacted so thoroughly it became rock.

Now, millions of years later, erosion has unearthed this rock again. In Derby Dome, the Nugget appears as billows and swells of rounded, white stone. It’s possible to see the preserved giant sand dunes through what geologists call cross bedding. Miriam points out long, swooping lines — each a different layer of sand — that show the inner structure of the dunes.

The Nugget Formation, composed of sandstone that came from a desert, is topped by the Gypsum Formation.  Teresa Avila/University of Missouri

The Nugget Formation, composed of desert sandstone, is topped by the Gypsum Formation.
Teresa Avila/University of Missouri

After examining the Nugget, the geology class clambers to the top to eat lunch.

“Ready for a manwhich?” Miriam asks her dog. They sit in the shade as she feeds Kilah a peanut butter sandwich and gives her water. After finishing, Kilah wanders around to the students and teaching assistants to beg for more food or pets. Her stump of a tail more wriggles than wags.

“Shameless,” Miriam will say of her dog. The students don’t mind. Anytime Kilah trots by, people hold out their hands and say in sweet, high-pitched voices, “Kilah! Kilah! Come here girl!” Most of the people here miss their dogs at home, and Kilah is usually more than happy to act as a substitute.

But if Miriam is on the move, Kilah will follow her rather than linger for more ear scratches. Kilah, along with an elusive orange cat named Crookshanks, has followed Miriam to the Branson Field Laboratory for Miriam’s five years as camp director.

Miriam is the latest — and the first woman — in a string of camp directors who go back 113 years. Branson Field Laboratory is the longest continuously running geology field camp in the nation.

Edwin Branson started the camp in 1911 as a newly appointed professor at the University of Missouri who believed in learning through hands-on experience. Branson recalled the array of geologic features he’d seen near the small town of Lander, Wyoming, as a graduate student. Such an area, he realized, would be an excellent place for geology students to see everything from glacial deposits to the Great Unconformity.

The land on which Branson Field Laboratory now sits began as a favorite camping spot among students and staff. It’s an island between two diverging streams of the Popo Agie River (pronounced Popo-Ja) in Sinks Canyon, just outside Lander. In 1929, Branson arranged an educational property lease from the U.S. Forest Service. Over the next couple of decades, tents gave way to more permanent cabins, and eventually running water and electricity.

In 2013, the field camp is a collection of dormitory-style cabins, a classroom, a dining hall and bathroom and laundry facilities. The river allows for thick foliage that the rest of the canyon lacks, including white-barked aspen trees and a riot of yellow wildflowers that students stick in their hair and hats on occasion. Boulders left behind by glaciers scatter across the camp, sometimes tilted at cartoonish angles against buildings and next to footpaths. A beaver dam — and occasionally the beaver — can be found along with deer and moose.

On either side, the pale gray walls of Sinks Canyon are the first and last to see sunlight in the morning and evening. At night, the stars shine with a ferocity not seen in areas closer to the city. And as it does day and night, the Popo Agie River rushes past the cabins with snowmelt from the Wind River Range. Students use it to cool off after a long day in the field and to keep their beer cold for when they drink at the campsite just off field camp property.

Branson Field Laboratory sits in a relative oasis thanks to the Popo Agie River.  Teresa Avila/University of Missouri

Branson Field Laboratory sits in a relative oasis thanks to the Popo Agie River.
Teresa Avila/University of Missouri

The community is a tightly knit one by nature. For six weeks from late May to mid-July, students eat, sleep and work in close quarters. Friendships are forged in the course of four-day projects, arguments spring up over who makes too much noise in the cabins, and news — concerning everything from what’s for dinner to who got the best and worst grades on the latest project — spreads like proverbial wildfire.

TA Joe Boro says at one point that he thinks someone should do a sociology project on the whole event.

Academically, the field camp has several main goals, Miriam says. Mainly, her aim is to teach students such basic techniques of field geology as interpreting formations, thinking thee-dimensionally and mapping. She also puts students in groups when they do projects, to teach them how to work with different types of people. The various professors who cycle through the camp can also provide valuable connections to students.

Beyond that, Miriam says she wants her students to learn resourcefulness. Field geology is rarely a straightforward process. The students will need an arsenal of stock methods, general knowledge and a few tricks to tackle problems that won’t have a set answer.

“For most of the people who pass through this camp, this is sort of the experience of their undergraduate careers, and they are talking about it years afterwards,” Miriam says. If geology is in your veins, she says, field camp is where you decide that this is your career.

Now, more than ever, Branson Field Laboratory is needed to educate geology students across the country. Thanks to budget cuts, the number of university field camps nationwide is decreasing, while the number of students who want to participate in them is increasing.

“Administrators in some institutions just see field camp as a vacation,” Miriam says atop the Nugget. “Field Camp is an involved thing.” There’s a big difference, after all, between mapping formations in a classroom and seeing them physically. That’s why most employers want to know that students have had field experience.

With fewer and fewer field camps available, students are pooling in Branson Field Laboratory from all over the country, from as far away as New Jersey, Texas and Michigan.

“We’re educating the geologists of the nation, basically,” Miriam says.

Biking and mountains

Branson Field Laboratory’s classroom has a total of three computers: boxy, beige things that look like leftovers from the early 2000s. Those sit on one end of the classroom. The rest of the space is largely taken up by wooden benches and tables where students work on their projects.

At one of these tables, Miriam sketches out a bicycle in straightforward lines There’s a specific pattern: two wheels, a triangle, a drive train, a seat and handlebars.

“As a kid, the one thing I was drawing was bicycles,” Miriam says. “I was obsessed. I was drawing bikes everywhere.”

Growing up in Spain, she went biking with her dad beginning at a young age. She got her first grown-up bike for Christmas when she was 13 and fell in love.

That has developed into Miriam’s current-day love for endurance sports, mainly in the form of biking and running. Daily excursions at 3 or 4 a.m. are standard.

Miriam’s interest in geology also began as a child. When she was about eight years old, her family took her and her sister on hikes on the weekends. Miriam’s sister was interested in animals, and would later become a biologist, but Miriam became fascinated with natural disasters and mountains.

“I wanted to find out everything I could about mountains,” she said. “And once I asked my dad what you had to study, or what profession you had to become to know about mountains. And he told me you had to be a geologist.”

Miriam completed her undergrad study in geology in Spain and Ireland.

When she attended the University of Wisconsin for her masters, Miriam recalls her first experience as a TA in an optical mineralogy lab, showing students how to analyze minerals under a microscope.

“It was really difficult, really challenging,” she said. “I was sweating bullets, and when I was done, I was like, ‘Wow, that was a lot of fun.’ And I realized that was what I wanted to do.”

When she interviewed at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) for her doctorate, one of the first questions Miriam asked was “Do you have a field camp and can I TA in it?”

“I just enjoy being in the field and doing field geology and teaching other folks how to do it,” she says.

Miriam was a student at UT when she first heard about MU’s field camp. She and her class were camping near Branson Field Laboratory on a field trip. The director of the UT field camp went to chat with then-MU camp director, Bob Bauer.

“When [the director] came back to camp, he was like, ‘You know, Bob Bauer just told me that in two years he’s going to retire,’” Miriam said. “’You should keep your eyes peeled near graduation, because I think that would be the job for you.’”

In 2008, Miriam applied for the recently vacated position of MU’s field camp director. She was offered the job three days after her interview, “and I took it with both hands.”

As part of her position, Miriam doesn’t do any research of her own at MU. Rather, she uses that time to teach, advise and run field camp. Miriam is in charge of property maintenance, faculty and TA hiring, curriculum development and student registration. She also needs to get permission for several of the trips on which she takes her students. Often, the best rock formations are on privately owned land. Miriam has to contact the owners every year and confirm that she’s allowed to bring students on the property.

Such is the case for Derby Dome and Dallas Dome, two locations with which the students get deeply acquainted over the course of two weeks.

Students learn how to map formations in these oil fields, which means they must find where specific rock formations appear on the surface and sketch them out — accurately — on a blank map. The success rate tends to be mixed.

The maps must also include major faults and folds. These features are a direct tie to the tectonic events that took the layers of the Mesozoic and tilted them to such an angle. The culprit is the same one that makes up most of the more exciting events in the earth’s history: colliding tectonic plates.

The Paleozoic North America had seen its share of collisions, including when Laurussia (Laurasia and Russia) crashed into Gondwana to form the Ancestral Rocky Mountains.

More easily seen is the result of the much more recent collision during the Jurassic between the Farallon Plate and the North American Plate. As is standard, the denser, oceanic Farallon Plate was forced down beneath the lighter, continental North American plate. The North American plate buckled and folded in response, creating three major mountain building episodes — or orogenies — in the western United States.

The earliest, the Nevadan Orogeny, took place in the Jurassic and largely affected northern California and the Great Basin area of Utah.

The Sevier Orogeny began a bit later, in the early Cretaceous, and did manage to reach Wyoming. The third event, the Laramide Orogeny, began in the late Cretaceous. Both the Sevier and Laramide Orogenies ended by the Eocene, about 45 million years ago.

The Sevier and Laramide Orogenies can be distinguished based on their differing styles. The Sevier Orogeny was “thin-skinned,” that is, it only buckled the top layers of rock, down to the Cambrian layer. The Laramide included these layers as well as the older, Precambrian layers.

Included in the Laramide Orogeny were central Wyoming’s Paleozoic and Mesozoic formations. The end result: tilted beds and folds that make up Dallas and Derby Dome, including the bed of red rock next to U.S. 287.

Professional rock collectors

It’s the Monday of the fourth week of field camp. The students have just spent all day in a mapping test, hiking and re-hiking the same few acres, forbidden from talking to each another for the test’s eight hours. The general consensus: “We’re not talking about it.”

Instead, people tell each other that the next day will be easier; they’re going to visit a reclaimed mine.

The Atlantic City Iron Mine began operations in 1962, and for a time was the largest mining and milling operation in Wyoming. Because of high production costs and a depressed market the mine closed in late 1983. For the next 16 years, the open pit mine had to be cleaned up and reclaimed, first by a salvage dealer and next by a group of local contractors.

Mark Moxley from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality brings the geology students to Atlantic City Iron Mine to let them see how a reclaimed mine can be used.

But Alan Whittington, a volcanologist and professor at the University of Missouri, has other purposes for being there. The first half of the day focuses on the mine. The rest of the time, he leads the students in a search for what the mine had unearthed.

As miners extract target minerals and ores from the ground, it leaves behind small mountains of waste rock. For a geologist, these piles present excellent opportunities to collect rocks that would otherwise have remained in the earth and far out of reach.

At the edge of the lake that used to be the open pit mine, students clatter across piles of rocks that overlook the lake’s steep walls. It’s a slightly surreal landscape because nothing about the lake or hills of rock look natural. The abandoned equipment and occasional rusting, metal parts don’t help either. Yet plant life has taken hold, most prominently the silver-green sage that seems to dominate the rest of Wyoming.

Alan tells his students that they have half an hour to search the rock pile. No goal exists here, no specific item the students are expected to find. It’s more of an open-ended scavenger hunt.

“I want to find boudins,” student Kyle Brown says, bending over the rock pile. He’s referring to boudinage structures, which occur when a rock is stretched so much, it actually starts to tear apart.

The students amble across the pile, picking up anything that catches their eye. Sometimes it’s a particularly nice piece of quartz, or a slab of schist with little red garnets in it. Other times, it’s rocks with interesting folds and other structures captured in their layers, evidence of the tectonic activity that has formed the landscape around them. And often, people just like how a rock looks.

Alan calls the students together and shows them a few interesting specimens he’s found. With his English accent, he quizzes them as he lectures, asking what could have formed certain structures, or what minerals formed the green color.

Then all samples are loaded into the backs of the six white vans. Some will go back to the MU geology department’s general teaching collection. Others will enter peoples’ private collections. Most geology students have picked up one or two interesting rocks from field trips and their own excursions. Sometimes, it’s more than that.

“I’m trying not to collect any rocks unless I have to,” Adam Hinton said. When moving into a new apartment, he said he had a big box of rocks he could hardly lift. His fiancée wasn’t thrilled with that.

Nolan Walla isn’t sure what he’ll do with the small boulders rattling in the back of the van either, but he’s not going to leave them behind. They have some great boudinage structures, with rock that is so sparkling it looks like it’s been doused in glitter.

“What’s the point of having a rock that doesn’t sparkle?” Gretchen O’Neil asks as she sifted through the purple, green and red striped rocks.

At the end of the day, they show off their haul. Students nod and say, “nice!” at beautifully preserved folds and chunks of the mineral epidote — occasionally used as a gemstone — and green-hued asbestos — the fibrous mineral used in housing and capable of causing cancer if inhaled too often. Or they argue about who has better boudinage structures, or ask to trade rocks.

Geologists, one student will later say, are really just people who didn’t outgrow the rock collecting stage of their childhood.

Meet the chef

Several students were first introduced to camp chef Jill McKenzie when she approached them the day before field camp with a bowl and several spoons.

“I need you to try my pico de gallo,” she said, handing out samples. “I haven’t added the cilantro yet.”

Jill has been cooking for Branson Field Laboratory for the past six years. Originally from Utah, she first had visited Lander to promote her cookbook, “52 Weeks of Proven Recipes for Picky Kids.” Through her continued subscription to Lander Talks (the local radio station) news, she saw an ad from then-camp director Bauer for a camp chef. Jill thought it sounded like a fun job for her and her six children.

“I said I don’t really have a professional resume at this moment,” Jill recalls as she sits just outside the dining hall one evening after dinner. She told Bob he could Google her name to find out what she’d done. “He called me back and said you’re hired.”

Jill has since filled the position of “camp mom,” as she called herself at the camp’s introductory meeting. Besides cooking, Jill has been known to provide haircuts, first aid supplies and firm yet gentle reminders that you really ought to wear sunscreen. She often serves breakfast in her pajamas, hair in a messy bun and wearing a tie-died apron. Every Friday, she puts together a theme night, which may range from Thai to Hawaiian to Harry Potter.

She runs her kitchen with the help of student employees, volunteering TAs and her children. While usually she brings all six kids with her, this year she brought 12-year-old son Michael and her 20-year-old daughter Jessica. Her 16-year-old son Joseph joined after a few weeks into the camp.

“It has been the best place for my family,” Jill says. She describes how working together in the kitchen has allowed her family to interact in different ways than they would at home. Jacob, who is now seven, was potty-trained at this lodge. Michael skinned his first rattlesnake here.

She’s in the middle of describing what cooked rattlesnake tastes like — a consistency between chicken and fish, and a little bit sweet — when student Matt Cauthon swings by to let Jill know that he doesn’t need that hair cut after all.

“You don’t want one?”

“No, I want to rock it out, get my long, long hair back so I can do ponytails again.” Jill laughs at that. “Want me to let your dog out?” Matt adds.

“Sure, sure thanks.”

A black and white dog named Bishop with an obvious springer spaniel influence trots out and greets Jill with a wag of a flowing tail. He’s a little more wary of the strangers.

Jill continues to explain that since her family has just moved to North Carolina, her husband couldn’t join them this year, as he has the past two years.

“We’ve been married for 23 years and I miss him — he’s my best friend,” she says. “But we’re not co-dependent on each other.”

In addition to a dog and kids, Jill brings horses to ride on the trails surrounding the camp. At home, she uses these and other horses to provide therapy for people with anything from Asperger’s syndrome to a history of domestic abuse. Most topics Jill discusses — be it her family, faith, work or personal philosophy — come through with a barely contained enthusiasm and thoughtfulness. “I just love life,” she inserts at one point.

Jill’s love for horses and for cooking stems largely from her childhood influence. Her father was a chief master sergeant in the Army and Jill wanted to connect with him in some way. She found that connection through training horses and cooking.

“My dad gave me my first horse at 9, and he walked me through how to train it,” she says. “It was very frightening. I remember falling and I would cry and he’d put me back on and say ‘Honey, life is like this horse. It’s going to throw you off and you have to learn how to stay on.’”

Jill’s father taught her extremely helpful skills for feeding a camp full of people, since he cooked for thousands while in the Army. It especially came in handy for a job in which Jill had to feed over 120 people using only Dutch ovens. Jill has been a private chef, taught several cooking classes and has prepared home meals made to order. Any ideas of opening a restaurant have been tempered by the fact that Jill wants time to put her family first.

“No success outside the home can compensate for failure inside the home,” she quotes David O. McKay, the ninth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Overall, students agree that Jill is an excellent chef and overall camp mom. The only night they go without her cooking is Saturdays, when everyone piles into the vans drive to Lander for dinner.

Jill and her kids also get a break in the fourth week of camp, when students and staff make a four-day trip.

Yellowstone bound

That trip, to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, has a soundtrack of old rock and bluegrass. In van MZU-0359, Jonathon Petsch, known by his last name, acts as DJ with a collection of peoples’ iPods. Nolan drives, while behind him sit seven more field camp students.

Each van has a designated driver and regular riders, so that each vehicle has a personality. Nolan’s van is known for bluegrass and for continually cutting off other vans in the ongoing game to see who goes first in the caravan.

As the vans head out on a Wednesday morning, the first of the four days, guitars and banjos strum from the speakers. The first day is all about roadside geology, the features that Miriam and Alan can point out from the side of the highway.

“We’ve just crossed the Laramide, Sevier and Basin-and-Range in ten miles,” Miriam tells her students at one point. “That’s like half of North America tectonics.”

As the vans continue west, Miriam’s voice crackles over the radio, sometimes understandable, other times not. The students in MZU-0359 aren’t too fussed, though. They’re still listening to their music and keeping an eye out for one of the most spectacular mountain ranges in the United States.

At 8 million years, the Grand Teton Mountains form the youngest mountain range in Wyoming and are still seismically active.  Many visitors, though, are more fascinated by how they pop up from the ground like a sudden idea. While the peaks themselves are sharp and steep, the land surrounding them is relatively flat.

The Tetons were formed in a two-part process. First, the Laramide Orogeny uplifted a predecessor to the Tetons. Geologists can’t say what this proto-Tetons looked like, since erosion eventually whittled it down. Then, the Teton Fault, as part of the Basin and Range system, reuplifted the same area and made the Tetons as we see them today.

The Teton Fault is a normal fault. To envision this, imagine having a stick of butter. You make a sloped, diagonal cut to slice it in half. One side of this dipping slice would slide down and leave the other side to stick up. This is essentially what happened in the Tetons. The eastern side of the fault slid down the fault to make the low-lying Jackson Hole. The Tetons remained at their elevation, making those sudden peaks that characterize this range.

Miriam shows her students a small section of this fault in the foothills of the Tetons. She leads them down a popular trail near Jenny Lake. As the group of over 40 walk along the trail, they briefly block other hikers.

“Sorry,” they say, smiling. “There’s a lot of us.”

When the group reaches their destination, they find a scarp. A scarp is a visible part of a fault where one can actually see where one side has slumped down, leaving a sheared-off wall.

The scarp doesn’t look like it’s related to the massive mountains behind it. At best, it looks like a small gully, while the scarp is an unusually steep, grass-covered hill. Several feet above the students’ heads, hikers walk along the top of the scarp, unaware that they’re on top of the fault that formed the Tetons.

It’s another reminder that the most interesting aspects of geology are often hidden in plain sight.

That’s not the case for the Yellowstone super volcano. Any apocalypse lover who’s seen the movie “2012,” or better yet the Discovery Channel’s documentary — bordering on mockumentary for geologists — “Supervolcano,” can tell you that a massive hotspot lurks beneath Yellowstone National Park.

Even those not interested in doomsday scenarios would have a hard time not noticing the largest concentration of geysers in the world. These are some of the most crowd-pleasing signs of the volcano; geysers spewing hot water, scalding pools of water full of extremophiles, and bubbling puddles of mud. The smell of sulfur swirls around tourists from all over the world, cameras flashing every few seconds.

Yellowstone contains the greatest concentration of geysers in the world thanks to its location above a hotspot. Teresa Avila/University of Missouri

Yellowstone contains the greatest concentration of geysers in the world thanks to its location above a geologic hotspot.
Teresa Avila/University of Missouri

But the supervolcano’s presence shows up in other ways.

The Yellowstone volcano has had three major eruptions in its past. Alan aims to show his students the more subtle hints of the park’s violent past, by bringing them to several volcanic outcrops scattered around Yellowstone.

On the first day in the park, he fixes a geologic map of Yellowstone with magnetic clips on the sides of a van. Coffee mug in hand, wearing the Discovery Channel “Supervolcano” t-shirt, he points out a large bubblegum pink blob that represents rhyolite from the supervolcano’s most recent major eruption.

Rhyolite is an igneous rock that is associated with solidified lava flows. This rhyolite flow demonstrates the sheer size of the volcano; it easily covers most of the left side of the map.

Volcanoes don’t only spew lava. Ash, when compressed, shows up as a rock called tuff.  At Artist’s Point, the spectacular area of the Yellowstone Grand Canyon featuring the waterfall and streaks of colored rock, Alan explains that the waterfall indicates where the hardier rhyolite ends and the easily eroded tuff begins.

Another relic from the volcano is the small, innocent-looking Indian Pond: the result of a hydrothermal explosion. It stands just a short hike away from the site of a second hydrothermal explosion — the largest one known to geologists. It was large enough to form Mary Bay, which appears on the edge of the Yellowstone Lake like someone took a bite from the lake’s coastline.

The sites fly by in a whirlwind, interspersed by hopping into the vans, listening to a few songs, and climbing back out. Somewhere between the first and second day of the field trip, the handbooks and little orange notebooks disappear and students focus on taking pictures: academic pictures for later study, scenic photos and selfies in increasingly creative poses. While at stops, it’s not uncommon for Alan to casually say that the information boards put up at interesting geologic sites are absolutely wrong.

The Yellowstone trip ends with a final night of camping on U.S. National Forest Service land just outside Yellowstone, the area where Yellowstone rangers dump the “bad” grizzlies. A few people opt to sleep in the vans, however dirty they’re getting after three days on the road.

The final day is spent examining remnants of the Absaroka volcanoes that existed in the Eocene period only 50 million years ago, yet have now been eroded away. As the group stops at the preserved site of a volcanic debris flow outside of Yellowstone, Alan calls it the “more exciting end of sedimentology.”

“Is my bias showing?” he asks to general laughter, a response to his put-down of the sub-field of geology that deals with the slow accumulation of sediment over thousands of years.

Geologists can easily be divided into various branches. Some study sedimentology, some study sudden events like earthquakes, some are interested in the oil industry and some tend toward the “tree hugger” side of the field.

No specialty is safe, and everyone ribs each other with general goodwill.

As the vans head back to Lander, they make a detour into Thermopolis. The town is home to some of the best dinosaur dig sites in the country, and a corresponding Dinosaur Museum.

As students wander the exhibits, or the gift shop, the news suddenly circulates that a young boy throwing rocks at the parked vans smashed one of the windows completely: van MZU-039.

Something always happens on the Yellowstone trips, Miriam says.

While she sorts out the details with the boy’s family and a policeman sent to the scene, the students push the rest of the window out, vacuum the glass inside the van, tape a tarp and cardboard to the window space and pose for a picture with it.

Fixed points

On the evening before the Regional Exam, at the end of the fifth week of camp, the Sacajawea cabin on the far end of camp sees an influx of traffic. The next morning, students will be tested on their knowledge of the geological history of central Wyoming, Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. Study groups coalesce around anyplace with a table and snacks.

A short distance from the Sacajawea cabin stands what could be either a small house or a large cabin. It’s surrounded by miscellaneous tools, flowers and glacial boulders. The front porch has green lights strung along it and a carpeted ramp for the two dogs that live in the house with their owners.

Husband-and-wife team Suki Smaglik and Warren Ulmer are the camp’s caretakers, living in the house year-round to make sure the land and facilities are kept in good condition. In the shed near the house, Warren, ear buds in — usually listening to NPR — is a common sight.

The couple moved into the area when Suki got a job teaching geology and chemistry at Central Wyoming College. She and Warren worked for a while as that college’s field camp caretaker before quitting and moving into a house above Sinks Canyon. Bob then offered them a position with Branson Field Laboratory, which they accepted a few years later.

The couple found a backlog of projects. Their first year, Suki says, they had a hard freeze in the fall that shattered plumbing and a major flood in the summer that took out the already tenuous bridge spanning the Popo Agie in camp.

“So then we were questioning, what did we get ourselves into?” Suki laughs.

Even now, Suki and Warren maintain a busy schedule keeping the camp in working order. Warren focuses on the bigger maintenance projects, while Suki is in charge of making sure everything is clean and safe for students and staff. When nine girls move into Sacajawea cabin at the beginning of  the 2013 camp, she made sure that they’d settled in, and warned them about the mice.

“I suggest you tap your shoes out before you put them on,” she told two of the girls sleeping in the cabin’s loft. “Mice like to poop in them.”

Suki and Warren enjoy living a little off the grid. They still own their house above Sinks Canyon, which is self-sufficient in water and electricity. Suki ponders aloud that retirement in Alaska or the Sierra Nevadas would be nice.

For now, they focus on their work. While Suki focuses on teaching and research at Central Wyoming College, Warren is more of a jack-of-all-trades.

“If you live in Wyoming, it’s such a non-tech state that if you’re a white-collar worker you learn to just get whatever you can,” he says. Trained as a meteorologist, Warren also served two tours in Iraq. He says he might do a third, but Suki says she’d really prefer that he didn’t. Her tone of voice suggests that it’s a discussion they’ve had numerous times.

A lot about the couple suggests complete familiarity with each other. It makes sense, considering they live in such a remote part of the country year-round, in a home that was originally designed to house one person and not two. (Suki mentions that they don’t, in fact, have a closet.) But even if the cabins need constant upkeep and the winters roads can get questionable, Suki and Warren see themselves working in Camp Branson for several more years, at least until Warren can retire.

“It’s kind of sad when you guys leave,” Suki says. “All of a sudden there’s no one walking down the road to get breakfast and no one coming home late at night. But after a couple of weeks we adjust, get used to being alone again.”

As the afternoon light slips into evening dimness, the students walking past the house fade into no more than bobbing headlamps.

Within a week, final projects will be done and most students will be getting home via plane, car or van. (Nolan’s van, MZU-039, will not have a new window yet and will need three or four retapings on the way to Columbia.) On the last day, hugs and numbers will be exchanged, promises to visit each other will be made. And in the weeks after field camp, hundreds of photos will be uploaded to Facebook. This will include pictures from those remaining at camp to complete research, showing how close a major wildfire came to field camp a mere week after the session ended.

But that’s later. For now, students are still quizzing each other on the Sevier Orogeny, how the waterfall at Artist’s Point formed and what caused that bed of Red Peak along U.S. 287 to tilt. There’s a grade to think about.

Meanwhile, across the dimming Wyoming landscape, the massive, tilted rocks of interest stand just as they have been for the past few million years. Conceivably, the next few million as well.

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