MIT's 12.120: Environmental Earth Science Field Course
Trip to the Mohave Desert
01-04-2004 through 01-14-2004
about 1800 miles of driving
Official course catalog description (we get 6 units of credit):
12.120 Environmental Earth Science Field Course
Prereq: 12.001 (Geology) or 12.102 (Earth Science)
Introduction to the methods of geologic mapping; practical experience in aspects of environmental geology such as selecting sites for hazardous waste disposal, hazard assessment in seismically and volcanically active areas, and in understanding the three-dimensional character of dissected alluvial deposits. Subject offered according to demand.
Professors: Sam and Tim
TA's: Danny and Becky
Students: me, Dylan, Aron, Sarah G., Sarah S., Melanie, Emma, Jennifer, Johanna, Mariela, Andrea, Abbie, all from MIT, and Mimosa from Wellesley
Tour Guides for the various facilities -- did not go with us for the trip: Ken Turner - Lake Mead, Al and Dave - Coso Thermal Plant, John Harley, with Vern the bus driver - Yucca Mountain
There were two big 15-person vans plus one minivan for the food. Each professor drove one of the big vans, and the TA's were in the minivan. My van was driven by Tim, and in addition to me, both Sarah's, Melanie, Dylan, Aron, and Mimosa were in it.
There were three "work" groups. One did breakfast dishes, one made dinner, and one did the dinner dishes. Each day, these tasks rotated amongst the three groups. Since the professors woke up well before us, they prepared breakfast every day. My group had Abbie, Jennifer, and Sarah G.
On this trip, I saw more sunrises than I had seen in my entire life!
MIT paid for everything (food, lodging, gas, rental costs, etc.) except dinner on the next to last night of the trip.
Day 1: The America West plane arrived an hour late (3:30) in Las Vegas. I was met by Danny and Dylan. We found my luggage. Then we went outside to wait to be picked up. It was about 50 degrees. Tim and Becky drove us to the Motel 6 that we were to stay at. Dylan was my roommate. When we got there, we relaxed and watched a movie on the TV. By dinner, 4 of the students had arrived (the 3 guys and Emma), so it was dinner for 8. I had chicken fingers and fries. The professors paid for it. We went back to the motel. The four students walked around the Strip a bit. We visited Excalibur, New York New York, Mandalay Bay, and then the Luxor, where we rode the "sideways elevators" or inclinators for a while. They go up the inside of the pyramid at a 39-degree angle. We then watched a very interesting street artist who paints otherworldly scenes of nature. We got back at 11, hung out, watched some TV, and went to sleep at 1. Altitude -- 2000'.
Day 2: Woke up at 8. Temp in room: 64. The professors woke up very early to go food shopping; they spent about $800 on our first supply of food! Three of us went to Carrow's (like Denny's) for breakfast. I had pancakes. We all got in the vans and went to the airport to pick up the remaining 9 students who were all coming together from Boston. After their arrival, we had our first picnic lunch in the airport parking lot. Each day, lunch consisted of bread, jams, peanut butter, meats, pickles, jalapenos, granola bars, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, carrots, mayo, apples, oranges, cabbage, etc. We then got into our vans, and began our drive. We stopped at a gas station, where we received our "textbook", a spiral bound compilation of relevant articles. We made it to our campground at the Valley of Fire State Park. We were the only ones there. After setting up tents (since this was my first night camping ever, I needed a little help in setting up my tent), we got our yellow notebooks, which we had to write things in that would be graded, and we got our hand lenses, which we could use to look more closely at rocks. We then took a few short walks, one around a petrified forest, the other through a wash surrounded by red rock. We went back to the campsite. Dinner was stir-fry vegetables over rice. The group had two propane stoves and two propane torches, in addition to fresh fruits and vegetables. There were real pots, pans, cups, bowls, and silverware. The TA's would go to the supermarket at various points during the trip to restock the food supplies. Dessert was cookies and hot chocolate. We sat around the campfire and talked a bit. Sleep at 9:40. Altitude -- 2500'.
Day 3: Woke up at 6. Temp in tent: 38. Breakfast was oatmeal and hot chocolate. It was my group's turn to do breakfast dishes. We broke camp (I did need a little help, for this was the first time that I ever took down a tent), and left by 7:15. We made it to the Lake Mead Visitor Center by 9, in time for our talk by Ken Turner, a water expert. He told us all about the history of the Colorado River for about an hour and a half. We then drove to the dam itself. On the way we had to stop at a security checkpoint, where we all got out of the vans with our bags. The incompetence of these folks was supreme. They barely even looked through our stuff and then said we could go on. We took a dam tour, including a video, and actually going to the power plants at the bottom of the dam. Lunch was at 12:30 in the parking lot of the dam. We then had a long drive to the Mojave Preserve and the Hole-In-The-Wall. We took a short walk to the hole itself -- a volcanic phenomenon, and then about a mile walk down a wash to look at volcanic bedding. We set up camp as it was getting dark, but this time there were other people around. The dinner was spicy, so I had food that I had brought along, though it was our turn to help prepare the dinner. We had smores and hot chocolate around the campfire, in addition to a reading from the book "Cadillac Desert". Sleep at 10. Altitude -- 4400'.
Day 4: At about 2 in the morning, rain began, though it stopped by 6, when we woke up. Temp 42. The tent had a rain shield, so I did not get wet. The sunrise looked just like the fires of Mordor behind a mountain range. Breakfast was again oatmeal and hot chocolate. We had a drive to the Amboy crater. In the van, we listened to the first LOTR CD. Once there, it was a 3 mile walk including 300 ft up the cinder cone. We had a lecture by Tim in the crater and some snacks. After another drive, we saw the Blackhawk flow, an ancient debris flow triggered by an earthquake. We had lunch there and took a short walk to examine the structure of the flow. We then drove to the Rainbow Basin, near Barstow, CA, where we set up camp for the next two nights. After pitching the tents, the other 12 students and I climbed the badlands around the area (about 250 ft up). We made our way down just before the sunset. Dinner was 5 pounds of pasta, so I had a lot! Since most of the group was vegetarian, the dinners were vegetarian. It was our turn to wash the dishes. The way this worked was with a four bucket system. The first bucket had a scraper to get off the grunge. The second bucket had hot, soapy water with a sponge. The third one had hot water for rinsing. The final bucket had cold water mixed with a little bleach to kill the remaining germs. After our group washed the dishes, we had oreos and hot chocolate. Around the campfire, I read about 12 pages from the desert book aloud to the group. At this point, a few people began forging different metal and glass objects in the fire. Bed was at 10:20. Altitude -- 3000'.
Day 5: Woke at 6:30, temp 42. The temperature would get up into the high 60's today. Again, oats and hot chocolate for breakfast. The entire morning was dedicated to a geologic mapping exercise done in pairs. Each group was assigned a different area of the Rainbow Basin to map. This involved lots of climbing and hiking around, measuring rock angles and slopes, and then plotting these results on a map. We went around the central part of the basin, on razor sharp ridges with our tools -- a Brunton compass with all sorts of gadgets -- and got some decent results. At 11, we all met up again, and each group plotted their results on a master map; this way we could analyze the entire area's geology. It got to about 70 degrees. The professors decided that we should go back to certain interesting areas to see what was going on. So after lunch, we all revisited some of each group's areas, about 2 miles of hiking in total. When this was done, we took the Owl Canyon hike, 2 miles each way, with 300 ft elevation change. This included climbing 2 dry waterfalls (about 8 feet high). Along the way, there was a tunnel that we walked through. This night's dinner was cous cous, so again I was happy. After dinner we had hot chocolate and another reading around the campfire. Since the moon was beginning to rise later, we had a stargazing session -- Mariela knows a lot about the different constellations and stars -- but the stars were somewhat obscured by the light from Barstow. Bed at 9:30. Altitude -- 3000'.
Day 6: Wake at 5:30. Temp 42. Same breakfast. After taking down my tent and packing my gear, it was our turn to do breakfast dishes. From here we had a long drive to the COSO geothermal power plant. On the way we listened to the second LOTR CD. The plant is on a Naval bombing base, so we needed to go through security, and there were places where we couldn't take pictures. The tour, led by Dave and Al, had four stops: 1) A pad where hot water is retrieved from the ground; 2) The top of a mountain where we could see the entire area; 3) The power plant control room; and 4) a natural geothermal feature area, with bubbling hot springs, similar to a very small Yellowstone. From here, we drove to Fossil Falls, where we had lunch. We then walked a half a mile to the place where 10000 years ago a huge waterfall existed. The other two guys decided to climb down the cliff. From there we drove to a spot on the LA Aqueduct, which is used to "steal" water for LA from the Owen's Valley. We also saw another debris flow. On the way to the next official stop, pressure from the students induced the professors to make an unscheduled stop at "Gus's Really Good - Fresh Jerky" a place that had been advertising with billboards for the past hundred miles. From there, we went on the Lone Pine Fault Scarp, an abrupt change in the ground level due to a fault line. There was an 8.0 earthquake there in 1872. We walked about a mile, and had a lecture on the motion of faults. From there, we had a drive to the White Mountain Research Station (run by the University of California), where we were to spend the next two nights indoors! On this drive we saw the Sierra Nevada Mountains totally snow covered. Since there were only three guy students, we got a whole dormitory to ourselves (7 beds and 1 bathroom), whereas the girls completely filled their dormitory. I showered for the first time in four days. It was my group's turn to cook dinner. Dinner was rice with beans and tortillas, so I just left out the beans. I was even able to check my email here! After dinner, we all watched a documentary video about the desert, and half way through, the professors surprised us with freshly baked brownies. Sleep at 11:30. Altitude -- 4000'.
Day 7: Wake at 6:50, temp in dorm room 53. This morning I had oatmeal. We then began our day trip to the north. After going over a 7000 foot pass, we got out in the totally snow covered (1 foot or more) -- the snow line was about 4500' -- Long Valley Caldera, where we learned about an ancient eruption. We then drove over an 8041' pass, and made it to the South Tufa of Mono Lake. We walked around for about a mile and a half examining the lake and the tufa structures, the professors teaching as we walked around. From here we drove to the Panum Crater trailhead. We all walked up the 300' elevation, 1.5 mile snow covered trail to the top of the 650 year old cinder cone (at the 7000' foot level). We all relaxed at the top, admired the view, and took some group photos. After walking back down, we had lunch. From here we went to the Mono Lake Scenic Area visitor center. We watched the twenty-minute film, spent some time in the gift shop and looked around at the exhibits. We then drove back south to the Owens River Gorge. Here we walked up a narrow snow-covered ridge to look into the canyon. We then walked down a road and looked at the Bishop Tuff, a very large eruption that occurred less than a million years ago. We studied the fiames in the rocks (flattened out pumice). We then made it back to the Research Station. After relaxing, it was my job to set up a projector so that we could watch a DVD movie that night. Since I wasn't going to like the dinner, they had saved me leftovers from the previous night. Our group did the dishes. After this, we all watched the Jack Nicholson movie, "Chinatown" about the LA water system. Half way through, the professors again surprised us, this time with a few different flavors of ice cream. Sleep at 11:30. Quote of the day: "Grumble, grumble, pain, darkness." (Describing what would happen to us if there was an eruption the size of the Bishop Tuff today.) Altitude -- 4000'.
Day 8: Wake at 6, temp in room 51. Oatmeal for breakfast. We left by 7:15 and tried to make it to the bristlecone pines at 10000'. Along the way we listened to the third LOTR CD, and as we got to the part with the beacons, we were passing the very impressive snow covered Sierra's, so it was very fitting. We only got as far as the Sierra overlook (9300') before the road was closed due to snow. The views were still spectacular. On the way down, the minivan smelled like burning rubber, and we found out that it had lost quite a bit of oil. We stopped at a gas station to get oil, and we each bought some snacks for the vans. On the next part of the drive we saw Owens Dry Lake, which used to be filled until LA stole all of its water. We then entered Death Valley National Park. We had lunch at the Panamint Valley overlook (4300' above the valley floor). We then drove to Mosaic Canyon. We walked about a mile up the canyon, which was made of water polished dolomite. We studied the erosion that water has done to it. We then drove up to Ubehebe Crater, a large explosion created when rising magma hit water. Dylan, Aron, and Mimosa went down into the crater (700 feet down), while the rest of us walked the two miles around it -- with about 300 ft elevation change. We then drove to the Furnace Creek campground, well below sea level. By this point the members of our van had grown close to each other. When we got to the camp, we pitched our tents in the twilight. This campground even had flush toilets. While dinner was being cooked, I played cards with a number of other people. The night was very warm so far. Dinner was veggie burgers, so I only had the rolls (which were egg rolls, with lots of protein). After dinner, we observed the stars again. This time it was much darker out, so we saw many more, including the haze of the Milky Way. Around the campfire, we had smores. Bed was at 9:40. Altitude -- negative 200'.
Day 9: Wake at 4:45, temp 41. We got up so early to make it to Dante's View in time for sunrise. We drove the 20 miles in the darkness of the early morning. Along the way we saw a coyote. When we got to the top, we set up the stoves, and made breakfast. I had grits and hot chocolate. Once the sun had fully risen, my group washed the dishes and then we made our way back down to the campground, where we broke camp for the final time of the trip. Next we went to the National Park Visitor Center. We watched a short slide show. We then drove to Zabriske Point where we saw how human influence can speed up erosion by a factor of 10 or more. Then we drove to Gower Gulch, to see how a wash has cut through 10 feet of debris. From here, we went to the Devil's Golf Course, and saw an expanse of oddly shaped salt formations. Next, we went to Badwater, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere (-282'). It was about 75 degrees here. After looking around, and looking way up at the "sea level" sign, we had lunch. Since this was our last picnic lunch of the trip, we all had to do our part to help finish the remaining food. Some people had sandwiches of graham crackers, chocolate, jalapeno, pickles, cabbage, and mayo all at once. My task, which made everyone very excited (since they all knew how picky an eater I am) was to finish the last quarter of the strawberry preserves jar. On our next drive we looked at Shoreline Butte, a relic of ancient Lake Manly, which once filled Death Valley. We then pulled over to the side of the road at a spot where the side of the road had been blasted out during the building of the road -- a geologist's paradise! We spent a while looking at the exposed layers of the rock, while cars passed us, most likely wondering what we were doing. Then we drove onto the Las Vegas Water Detention Center, a place that is supposed to prevent a flash flood from entering the city. It has never been put to the test. From here we went to the MIT storage shed in Las Vegas. Since this is not the only trip that happens, and these trips happen every year, MIT has bought/rented a storage place. We unloaded the things we would not be needing anymore: stoves, utensils, etc. The storage shed is extremely eclectic, with all sorts of relics hanging from the ceiling. We then checked into the Motel 6. By this point, we had driven about 1550 miles in Tim's van. The 13 students decided to walk up the Strip, since this was the only night that we were on our own for dinner. As we made it further up the strip groups broke off to go eat. Finally, with four of us left (me, Dylan, Emma, and Melanie), we ate at the Caesar's Palace buffet -- my first meat in a week; and basically the only money I had to spend on the trip. On our way back down the Strip, we met up with a few other people from our group. We watched the Bellagio's water show, and a street artist -- the same one as the first day. Bed was at midnight. Altitude -- 2000'.
Day 10: Wake 5:30, temp 66. All of us went to Carrow's for breakfast, and the professors paid. A bus picked us up to take us to the Yucca Mountain Project -- on the Nevada test site, where they detonated lots of nuclear weapons in the 50's and 60's. This is where the US plans to send all of its nuclear waste beginning in 2010. We first stopped at an information center, where we got badges to be able to enter one of the most secure places in the country. Our tour guide was John Harley. Vern then drove us about 90 miles north to the entrance to the test site, where a guy with a gun got on board to inspect us. The tour included stops at the entrance to the tunnel where the waste will go in, the machine that bored the tunnel, a few research buildings, a lunch stop, and some test trenches. All we were told is that it is a very safe location for waste, even though there are some cinder cones within 20 miles. After bussing back to the motel, 8 of us walked up the strip to Ghirardelli's (me, Dylan, Aron, Emma, Abbie, Sarah S., Mimosa and Mariela). We all had some ice cream. We also bought a small gift for each of the professors and TA's. That night, we came full circle, by going to the same restaurant that we had gone to the very first night, though this time, all 17 of us went. During dinner, we presented the gifts to the professors and TA's. Sam and Tim also bought gangsta' style dollar sign necklaces from one of those cheapo machines that you put quarters into. We all got a kick out of that! We went back to the motel for a few minutes before a few of us (me, Dylan, Aron, Mariela, and Mimosa) watched a movie, "The Last Samurai", on the Strip. Bed was at 1:30. Altitude -- 2000'.
Day 11: Wake 8:45, temp 65. Everyone ate breakfast at Carrow's for one final reunion (they all got up early so we could all be together, because my flight was earlier than any of theirs). Tim and Becky drove me to the airport. There was no line to check in, and the Jetblue plane left right on time. There was severe turbulence over the Rockies, but even so, the flight got in early.
For those thinking of taking 12.120, but are a bit concerned (like I was) because either they've never camped before, or some other reason, it's worth getting over your fears! MIT provided me with a tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad, and the TA's taught me how to set them up. Wearing a sweatshirt and two shirts, inside the sleeping bag (I also bought a sleeping bag insert), I was quite warm; the tent protected me from what little rain we got. Some people even had tent roommates to share body warmth.
All in all, this was a truly excellent experience, and I would recommend 12.120 to anyone interested in geology or earth science!