There is one aspect of being a geology major in college with plans of going to graduate school that I think is seriously overlooked and that is Field Camp. In order to be accepted into graduate school you not only need your B.S. in Geology, but you have to complete a 4-6 week course called Field Camp. Those two words alone would have sold me on a degree in geology and I really didn’t know about it until probably my sophomore or junior year.
Field camp is designed to take everything you have learned in undergraduate school and apply it out in the field. You have to be able to identify the different rocks, assign them to known formations, measure their strike and dip, translate this data onto a map and then generate structural cross sections. Now I really just combined four years of a college degree into one run on sentence, but I can assure you it is a little more difficult than that.
I was wrapping up my B.S. in Geology at Austin State University in Clarksville, TN in 2009 when I enrolled in Field Camp through the University of Memphis. They were the closest university that ran a field camp course and also had much fewer students for the course than most others. In total there were six students, four of those included myself and my three fellow APSU geology students. Field Camp was ran out of Spearfish, SD and our coursework would encompass a few locations around the Black Hills in South Dakota and Northeastern Wyoming. This story isn’t about Field Camp though, this story is about four soon to be degree holding geologists loading up a 2005 Honda CRV and spending a week and a half on the road getting to Spearfish, SD from Clarksville, TN, with a few detours along the way.
The only plan is that there is no plan
Well, there was kind of a plan, but it wasn’t very good. We knew that we had to be in Spearfish, SD on a certain date during the summer of 2009. We also knew that we could have driven in a University of Memphis van for two days only stopping to sleep, eat and use the bathroom, but we saw absolutely ZERO fun in that. We decided that we wanted to stop in Kemmerer, Wyoming to go fossil hunting, drive through the Tetons to Yellowstone to camp for almost a week, then head towards Spearfish, South Dakota stopping at Devils Tower, Wyoming before we arrived at our final destination. This was one of those moments like you see in movies where four college buddies go out with a bang before they enter the real world, except really none of us were headed into the real world because we were all going to graduate school. We had an opportunity to explore parts of this beautiful country that we may not get the chance to do again and we ran with it.
I remember sitting in my crummy apartment (seriously it was a slum, ask my wife) the afternoon before we were supposed to leave for Wyoming and having that excited feeling like a kid knowing he was going to Disneyworld the next day. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of this sooner, but I thought to myself “why don’t we leave now and drive straight through”? Well it only took a phone call to my three friends and within 30 minutes I was headed to pick everyone up. My packing list consisted of a hiking pack full of clothes, rock hammers, colored pencils and my laptop. Most of the camping gear (tent, tarp, cookware etc.) was split up among the group and anything else could be bought along the way or we didn’t need it.
A quick nod to the Honda CRV
My 2005 Honda CRV was the best. I have never really been a person to fall in love with a vehicle, but this Compact Recreational Vehicle (yes, that is what CRV stands for) was my first real (vehicle) love. She could go anywhere and this trip was going to prove it. Her four cylinders would propel my buddies and I along an adventure that I would pay good money to have a chance to do again.
The Road to Kemmerer, WY
After picking up my buddies and cramming what seemed like way too much stuff for four guys, we hit the road a little later in the evening than we probably should have. Like most road trips I’m sure, everyone in the CRV agreed that we weren’t going to sleep and we would just cut up and laugh all the way to Wyoming. We weren’t even to St Louis, Missouri (4 hours drive) yet when I looked around and all three guys were out like lights. I attribute this to the smooth, gentle, relaxing sound that my 2005 Honda CRV would make while at highway speed and soon I too started to succumb to the drive and pulled over. I woke up one of the guys and asked him to drive. This lasted approximately 30 minutes as I woke up from the violent jerking motion of the vehicle as he caught himself falling asleep. I’m not sure if it was the 30 minute cat nap or the jolt of adrenaline, but either way I was able to take over driving duties again for the majority of the trip.
The drive to Kemmerer, Wyoming was fairly un-eventful after the incident in St Louis, Missouri. We made a few pit stops here and there, but we were pretty hell bent on beating the Google Maps estimate of 22 hours straight through to Wyoming. With the help of a case of Red Bull (Thanks Samantha!) we did just that.
Fossils and the term “Public Land”
We were in Kemmerer for one reason and one reason only, fossils. The area around the town is known for its impeccable fossils of the Green River Formation. There are numerous fossil quarries outside of town and after talking to a local owner of a fossil shop we had a plan. We knew that we would be camping out that night so we did what any experienced outdoorsman would do, we bought canned ravioli and beer to wash it down.
I don’t remember exactly which quarry we went to, but I do remember having to go offroad for an uncomfortable length of time in a 4 cylinder, all wheel drive, 2005 Honda CRV loaded down with way too many guys with too much gear. The road, which used to be dirt, was now one continuous mud hole as far as we could see. The road finally came to an end at what looked like an active rock quarry, but instead of heavy machinery, there were families and groups of fossil hunters methodically extracting rocks from the quarry wall. If you ever make it out to Kemmerer, just Google fossil quarry and I am sure a few of them will pop up. For about $20 you can dig all day and keep most of what you find.
The reason I say “most” of what you find is because some fossils are way way way more valuable than the everyday fish fossil you can find in these quarries. After awhile you end up with so many fish fossils, you actually start comparing them and tossing the duds into a rock pile ultimately destroying a piece of geologic history. It wasn’t until one of my buddies decided to break open a big slab of rock that we learned some fossils belong to the quarry owner no matter who finds them. All I heard was the sound of this slab being cleaved open and a series of expletives from my buddy that did the cleaving and at his feet on the quarry floor was an almost complete fossil of a freshwater stingray. The four of us just stared at it for a few minutes is disbelief that with what we found which didn’t go unnoticed by the man running the quarry that day. He was happy because he was set to make quite a bit of money off of selling it and we were happy to just be able to see it and say that we found it. I won’t lie, I did ask if we could get our $20 back since this particular fossil could fetch the owner $10,000 or more. The answer was a hard no.
After getting denied what was essentially beer money for us, we asked the owner where we could camp around here. Being from Louisiana originally and living in Tennessee at the time, I didn’t realize exactly what the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) was or what “public land” really meant. The beauty of this country is that there are millions upon millions of acres of land that are for the American people to use. These can be National Forests, National Parks, Wildlife Management Areas, Wilderness Areas and so on. We happen to be in an area that was unrestricted public land. We could set up our camp wherever we wanted to and that is exactly what we did. There wasn’t a soul in sight for miles. No electricity, no water, no Park Rangers just big skies and good times.
One of us started a fire while the others popped the top on some beer and a jug of blackberry wine (local TN winery that I wish I could remember). We drank and laughed and looked at the stars through the breaks in the clouds until the jug was empty. We didn’t even touch the ravioli. I could have stayed there another few days, but we were eager to get to Yellowstone National Park and camp out for 4-5 days.
Yellowstone National Park
The drive to Yellowstone from Kemmerer can go two ways, one is through Idaho and the other is through Western Wyoming through the Grand Tetons. If you ever drive from Kemmerer to Yellowstone I highly encourage you to drive through the Tetons. I really can’t even put into words the beauty of those mountains that summer in 2009. I’m fairly confident that the four of us had our jaws dropped the entire drive.
I could write another two to four thousand words about what all you can do in Yellowstone, but you really need to check it out for yourself. There are trails to hike, roads to drive, nature to watch, geologic features to see and waterfalls that in my mind are only rivaled by Niagara Falls. We spent four nights camping near a creek in a small valley where elk and buffalo spent their mornings grazing. Our days were filled with driving to the different regions of the park to see geysers, mud pots, wildlife and waterfalls and I can decisively say we didn’t spend enough time there. I could spend a month in Yellowstone and not see enough to truly appreciate how special this place is. I will let the following pictures I took give you just a taste of Yellowstone.
The Road to Devil’s Tower
From Yellowstone we headed towards Devil’s Tower in Northeastern Wyoming. As a geologist it is kind of hard to not go to Devil’s Tower if you are in Wyoming, it’s an iconic geologic feature. We left through the East Entrance of Yellowstone down Highway 14 which takes you up out of the park and down through the mountains following a river that ultimately turns into the Buffalo Bill Reservoir right before you get to Cody, Wyoming.
The town of Cody looked like a pretty cool town to spend a day or two in and I really wish we would have stayed the night. We ended up just making a quick stop by a place called The Old Trail Town which is a collection of old western buildings from around Wyoming and put back together as a town would have looked in the “old west”. It looked similar to any John Wayne movie and after about 20 minutes we hit the road. Like I said, I wish we could have stayed the night and mixed it up with the locals, but our window of camping out under the stars was closing before Field Camp started.
Continuing along Highway 14 (aka Greybull Highway) through Cody we passed through the town of Greybull thinking we were on cruise control all the way to Devil’s Tower, but that was about to change. About 10 miles outside of Greybull I saw a little sign that had I been going a tad faster than the 75 mph that I was going, I would have never seen it. All it said was “Dinosaur Tracksite” and had an arrow pointing off to the right of the highway. I just about put my foot through the floorboard slamming on the brakes as hard as I could and flew off the road in the direction the sign was pointing. Once again the 2005 Honda CRV was offroading through open terrain.
In the middle of nowhere we pulled up to what was actually a pretty well kept little park that had a guest book, informational plaques, bathrooms and most importantly an outcrop with what had to be over a thousand dinosaur footprints on it. I’m not sure if we were supposed to walk on it, but there was no sign or person there to tell us we couldn’t. For the next hour we looked at almost every footprint, took pictures, and walked in the dinosaur’s footprints like I’m sure most children would do, except that we were all in our twenties.
Getting back on the highway we headed East towards Devil’s Tower and didn’t stop until we got there. The scenery went from relatively flat agriculture land in the river valley to all the of sudden you were zig zagging up switchbacks to get up and over the Big Horn mountains. If I could do it again we would have camped out in the Big Horn mountains for at least two days. We did end up camping there for a night during Field Camp in a place named Crazy Woman Canyon and it was spectacular. This canyon had steep sides and a pretty thick forest. We ended up seeing quite a few mule deer while hiking around that day.
You can see Devil’s Tower from pretty far away and its no wonder that it was regarded as a holy site for Native American’s. There isn’t a whole lot to do around Devil’s Tower except get educated on its history and stare at it, unless you are a rock climber. The closer you get to it via various trails or climbing the debris field you come across lots of shreds of cloth tied to trees and brush. Come to find out while reading some information in the visitor center, these are prayer cloths that tribes still place around Devil’s Tower today. Unfortunately, not everyone likes to read and I saw a few people touching and untying some prayers cloths. Please don’t do this if you ever go, it’s not a good look.
We ended up camping overnight at an established campground under the shadow of Devil’s Tower. This was going to be our last night camping before Field Camp was set to start so in order to not waste anything we finished the rest of the beer and wine we had which turned into a pretty serious hangover the next morning. Good thing was that Spearfish was only 60 miles away and once there we could relax until Field Camp started the following morning. The journey totaled about 2,300 miles, 7 states and we crossed the Great Continental Divide, twice. It truly was an experience I will never forget.
Go Exploring, Leave the Plan at Home
Seriously, go out and explore this country (United States of America) and don’t make a 10 point plan on what to see and do at various tourist traps. Just pack some camping gear (make sure its the right gear for the job) and head out with a destination in mind. Figure things out as you go. There is so much public land (I’m going to write more about this in later posts) in this country to explore that you couldn’t see it all in five lifetimes, but in your lifetime you owe it to yourself (and your family if you have one) to see some of it. I know that I will personally be making a serious effort this year to do more backpacking and camping, so stay tuned.
– The Family Outdoorsman