Geology is Hard Core
(and not just because of the solid inner core)
By: Alexandra Sartori
What does a geologist do in their free time? Go out and study more rocks.
Still waiting on the punchline? It’s not coming, that wasn’t a setup. If you’re an Earth and Environmental Science undergraduate, there’s a good chance you’ll end up selling some of your weekends to the department for your degree.
Field trips are an important part of the learning process in the Earth and Environmental Science (E&ES) Department. You can only stare at so many pictures of rocks on a slideshow before your brain starts undergoing metamorphism. Many of the classes offered by the E&ES Department actually utilize field trips weekly in their teaching. This allows students to get hands-on experience with the very rocks that they’re staring at pictures of.
FIeld trips for E&ES degrees tend to look like 2-3 hour trips to the Quebradas, San Lorenzo, The Great Unconformity, or other interesting areas. These are all locations that are
rich in geologic history and are also surprisingly close to NMT. Students will trek out to the desired location to discuss the geology going on around them while being guided by their TA. Students will even use the very precise terms for the geology they describe, “Yeahhhh, I’d say we’re looking at a porphyritic quartz rhyolite…silica super-saturated due to the high quartz concentration. Are those subhedral biotite phenocrysts? God, I bet those babies have zonation in thin section,” which if you’re a non-rock-licker, will sound a little alien.
On special occasions though, classes will get to go on overnight field trips. Overnights allow classes to go to more remote locations and spend more time in the field. They also serve as a good opportunity for students to prepare for Field Camp. Field Camp is a bit like the FE for Geoscience majors, except you spend 6 weeks in the middle of nowhere trying to prove you know something about rocks.
As Paydirt’s most favoritest residential
Geology major, I decided to document what one of these overnight field trips look like recently. In Dr. Waters’ Igneous and Metamorphic Petrology class (GEOL 380), a field trip to Gallinas Peak and Red Cloud Mine was organized for a fateful weekend in September. Gallinas Peak and Red Cloud Mine was of interest for this class given the role of igneous processes in shaping the area.
The plan was to leave Friday at noon
and return on Saturday in time for dinner. In preparation for the trip, I packed my old Deuter backpack full with the most basic camping supplies: tent, sleeping bag, camp chair, snacks/water, appropriate clothes, a day pack, geology field essentials, and a water bottle full of my "spicy cinnamon apple juice."
As the class clambered into the two E&ES Department-rented Suburbans on Friday, dread began to sneak into my stomach. This was my first overnight geology field trip and I felt totally unprepared. Now, I’m not a stranger to camping trips. I’ve bagged my fair share of peaks and have successfully survived all my backpacking trips but I’ve never had to do that PLUS be proficient at field geology.
Gallinas Peak is located near Corona, NM, making for about a 2 hour drive out. The ride out featured bluesy music per the TA and the occasional geologic conversation sprinkled in
with idle chatter. The vibes were there but my anxiety was still high.
When we pulled into the campsite, my nerves began to settle. It was a normal camping spot but with a pit toilet and other campers nearby. The class quickly set up their personal tents and we reconvened to start our field work. On the first day out we visited two spots that were connected by short drives on backroads.
Now, stopping at a “site” can mean a range of things, anything from getting out of the car to gawk at a rock all the way to collecting very specific samples for hours on end. For this trip, stops entailed 1-2 hour long surveys, where students observed, theorized, and discussed the surrounding geology. The first stop here featured a Permian-aged sandstone (think upwards of 300 million years old) that had undergone some fluid transport and contained Rare Earth Elements (REE) deposits. But really the big pull to the site was:
Purple Rock. The second stop was a copper mine that’s commonly known as the “Red Cloud Mine.” This area featured a giant hole in the ground and, you guessed it, cool rocks.
At each site, samples of interest (fun rocks) were collected, bagged, and properly tagged. Ziploc bags and sharpies are a crowd favorite for this process: each ziploc bag is labeled with the collection site, your name, and the day/time. A field notebook is used, as well, to write down any pertinent qualitative data about the site. When you’re in the field and tunnel visioning on the current outcrop of rocks, it’s easy to feel like you’ll remember every detail. Unfortunately, this will definitely be the heat exhaustion and hunger telling you lies; as soon as the trip is over you’ll forget everything. So, writing (and sketching!) as much as possible in your field notebook can be incredibly helpful later on.
After completing our stretch of field
work for the day, we drove back to camp for “Hobo Dinners.” So, I know Hobo Dinner doesn’t sound particularly appealing but it was everything a little geologist like me could ask for after a day of travel and field work. Tofu (or chicken for meat-eating counterparts), veggies, onions, seasoning, olive oil…all wrapped in an aluminum foil pocket and placed on the fire until cooked. The camp was singing their praises over these tin-foil-hot-pocket contraptions. Armed with my Hobo Dinner and my water bottle full of my "spicy juice," I could not have had a more relaxing evening.
…Until the rain started.
It hit right in the middle of enjoying dinner, so we had to run to the trees for cover. Later, we indulged in Oreos while huddling under the popped trunks of the Suburbans. Eventually, the rain slowed and everyone dispersed towards their tents. I read a few chapters of God Emperor of Dune before falling asleep, thinking of rocks and space worms.
Dawn of the final day…I woke up at 06:00 and raced to the campfire to claim a cup of coffee. Breakfast was filled with bleary-eyed geologists and banana pancakes. As the class devoured their pancakes, Dr. Watersand Dr. Kelley prepared us for our field work for the day. This involved discussing specific igneous
and relevant geologic history of the area. After a fulfilling breakfast, we carried on to four new sites.
The sites were exciting but my enthusiasm for geology began to dwindle towards the end. There’s only so much geology-time with borderline strangers I can take. Even my field notebook began to reflect my mental exhaustion with entries getting more brief and banger quotes like: “Is this worth it?” starting to show up. Eventually though, we headed back to the Suburbans for the final time around 15:00 before leaving for Socorro. Covered in dust and grime, the ride back to Socorro was a battle to not fall asleep.
Field trips are a wild but essential part of studying Earth and Environmental Sciences. They teach you how to understand geology on the fly, how to apply your book-knowledge, how to have casual conversations about geology with other scientists, and, most importantly, how to survive around almost-strangers in the middle of nowhere. With my first overnight geology field trip under my belt, I’m excitedly looking forward to more in the future. Nothing beats school-mandated outside time as a degree path. Love this life, love being a rock-licker.