Saturday, December 16, 2006

Junior Geologist

It all started with a book. This last Summer, a friend gave me the audio version of Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything." It's a fascinating story about the history of science and runs about 18 hours in length. Perfect for listening to on the road.

During the rendition, Mr. Bryson covers a section on the beginnings of geology, wherein European gentlemen-thinkers of the late 1700's set out to discover the causes behind Earth's many puzzling features. Having listened to this program a number of times, I began to take greater notice of the rocks and landscapes passing me by.

Later in the year, I found myself browsing the aisles of a local Border's bookstore and was seduced by a sale item that caught my eye. The volume was called "Earth" and contained a collection of beautiful photographs taken of the planet's surface from space. The images were spectacular to gaze at, but how the various structures came about was beyond my understanding.

All of this simmered in my mind for a while until I decided to find out more. As it happened, another couple of sale books crossed my path. "Rocks and Minerals of the World" from Half Price Books and "The Complete Guide to Rocks and Minerals" from Borders beckoned to me. Scanning them each several times from cover to cover, I discovered there was a lot to know regarding what goes on under our feet.

At first, the sheer variety of rock and mineral types was overwhelming, along with their chemical compositions and crystaline structures. Added to that were all the different tests that existed to help determine just what you were holding in your hand. Of course you had to consider all of the large-scale geologic processes as well, such as vulcanism, erosion and plate tectonics. Eventually, with exposure, this bank of information would become more managable.

So, in October, I found myself embarcing on the last big road trip of the year. Photo assignments were scheduled to take me to housing developments in Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Maryland, New York and Connecticut. While roaming one community being built in Kentucky, I happened to spy a number of unusual rocks in the soil. They had a reddish-orange cast that I had never seen before. I picked up a few and thought that I might be able to use my new books to identify them. That's what got me started.

In Tennessee I came across more unfamiliar rocks covering the ground of a recently excavated zone. Many were spherical with banded interiors. Others had an markedly organic appearance. Again, I picked up a few for later investivation. Not long after, a thought occured to me. Wouldn't it be neat to pick up rocks at sites in all 48 states? If I did, I would have a ground sampling of the entire United States. A seed was planted.

As I traveled up the Eastern coast of the US, I continued to pick through freshly unearthed rocks at construction sites. These seemed to be ideal spots to come by samples. Some places yeilded many interesting stones, while others were less forthcoming. Maryland, for example, surprised me. I observed a backhoe digging into the soil where a propane tank was to be installed. The shovel brought up generous amounts of soft clay, but nothing solid. Peering down, the walls of the trench revealed several layers of smooth material in assorted colors. Harder substances were totally missing.

Connecticut, however, was another matter. Building sites there were teeming with rocks. The samples I collected from various sites around the state displayed a wide range of shapes, weights, consistencies, surface textures, patterns and colors. Obviously there had been a lot going on in Connecticut's past.

Next, I ventured into New York and took note of the rocky cliffs along the Palisades Parkway close to New York City. Along one side of the river were massive stone walls extending to significant heights. This was a grand departure from my experience at the Kansas-Missouri border, where layer upon layer of yellow and gray limestone pile up.

In fact, the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut countrysides had large rocks strewn across the landscape practically everywhere I looked. There was certainly no shortage.

On my way home, I happened to pass through Pennsylvania. Near Pittsburgh, I stopped at several spots to dig materials out of the open cliff faces that presented themselves. Here, I found not hard stone, but a predominance of gray, flaky shale. This delicate substance was very difficult to keep all in one piece.

Encountering Missouri, I viewed its numerous highway cutouts with new eyes. As most everyone knows, the exposed walls of hills and mountains next to roads reveal the true nature of what lies beneath the ground's surface. As is often the case, vast underground rock beds exist hidden away. Yet, they are constantly there supporting us in spite of our minimal awareness.

Returning to Kansas City, I had lunch with my friend Pat and told him of my adventures and new field of interest. To my surprise, he started mentioning all sorts of facts regarding the subject. As it turns out, Pat took some geology courses back in his university days and has maintained an ongoing fascination to present day.

Encouraging me to bring a few samples to our next weekly lunch, I did so. (Over the course of my trip I collected 14 individual plastic bags.) I dumped the contents of one container out onto a table and Pat began to point out details that revealed many of the stones' identities. At the time, this was pretty amazing to me. To a novice like myself, significant attributes were meaningless. These were all just rocks that happened to look a little different from each other.

After several weeks of ongoing examination, I eventually presented Pat with enough samples to illustrate the basics. I still can't immediately pick up a rock and know what it is, but I do know a little more as to what to look for. To help me out, Pat produced a couple of publications for my review. One was an old textbook from 1971 called "Physical Geology" and the other was more recent, titled "Messages In Stone - Colorado's Colorful Geology". Both texts were quite enlightening.

Again, scavenging through bookstore bargain bins, I acquired another three books for my growing library. They were "Earth - The Making, Shaping and Workings of a Planet", "Encyclopedia of Minerals", and "Simon & Schuter's Guide to Rocks & Minerals". Having multiple pictures of rock types to examine, it bacame easier to see the differences.

Following my purchases, I was asked to go on another photo shoot in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I set out on my quest to add more stones to my collection but was thwarted by Iowa's hearty top soil. I discovered, as in Maryland, Iowa's clay layers go down pretty deep. No wonder it's such a great area for growing things. Unfortunately, though, it left me with nothing to show.

This, then brings us pretty much up to date. I have been reading sections of the books I have bought and have learned a bit about igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks, plus some on the vast assortment of minerals out there. Mostly, my interest lies in the composition of underground materials and how they got there. Not so much in collecting pretty gemstones.

Since it will be several months before I go out on the road again, I am left with the pictures I have taken for sources of enlightenment. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to capture lots of images of landscapes and rock formations over the last three and one-half years. Now I can go back and look at them in a new light, and will hopefully have new insights in the process. I am particularly anxious to review my shots of Arches National Park, Colorado National Monument, the Badlands, Bighorn National Forest, and Devil's Tower.

As for readers out there, who might have similar interests, I hope my initial pursuits can be of value. Again, I suggest visiting areas where new home development are going on. There seems to be a great deal of excavation in these places and people are expected to be looking over these sites. Also, zones where road construction has taken place are good for observation, although they are often inconvenient to access. Stream beds likewise seem to be a logical place to see geology in action. Personally, I have not had the best of luck in such locales and have found the materials there to be highly eroded. But that shouldn't keep you from looking. If you are lucky enough to gain access to a quarry or mine, well, have the time of your life.

Okay. That's about it. Good luck in your endeavors and stay out of harm's way. -- Tom

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Virtues Of The iPod

Now that I have talked about one of the devices (my GPS navigator) that make life on the road tolerable, I would like to mention another, the Apple iPod.

I was initially exposed to this little white box during a camping trip to Iowa. John, my technological friend, who knows a lot about cameras and other gadgets, pulled his out and started explaining what it does. (This harkens back to the days when we were comparing notes on our Apple Newtons, which I still adore.)

As with all new technology, the iPod didn't seem like a very big deal when it first made an appearance. "Yeah, it plays music", I thought. "So what?" I've got several Sony products that play cassettes and compact discs, plus a radio that works just fine.

Of course, it dawned on me while driving back home that I had a pile of cassettes and CDs floating around in the car. These were pretty bulky and inconvenience to handle. Also, my CD player was susceptible to bumps on the highway, always skipping when I went over a bridge, for example. I often had to set it on a towel.

As for cassettes, I had given up on music a long time ago. All my cassettes, now, were of audio books. These made long driving trips quite enjoyable.

The car radio had its problems. There was always the fact that stations would come in and out of reach as I would cruise from town to town. Almost as annoying was the selection, consisting mostly of Christian broadcasting, public radio, rap/hip-hop, country and western, and overplayed classic rock. None of these choices provided enjoyment for very long.

The idea of the iPod, or any digital music player, began to grow on me. If I could learn how to use one, I might be able to get rid of all my media clutter. No CDs or cassettes to fumble with, or potentially damage or misplace. Everything would be organized in one neat package, the unit's tiny hard drive.

Some time later, I was reintroduced to another person's iPod and discovered its shuffling feature. This is what finally sold me. I could put all my favorite music on this compact electronic player and it would randomly play selections. It was like the best radio station you could imagine. Without commercials, you would hear only the music you wanted to hear, and always be surprised.

So, I bought one. Shortly thereafter, I decided it was one of the best things I had ever bought in my life. At least in the top 5. It was extremely convenient and practical. Easy to use. No mess. Everything you want. Nothing you don't.

Once you own an iPod, you have to find things to place in it. At the time I purchased my unit, Pepsi was having an iPod promotion. You could look under the cap for a code, which you would then enter at Apple's iTunes Music Store. This would allow you to download one free song of your choosing. I got my first 50 songs this way.

Next, using the iTunes software on my computer, I began to convert all of my compact discs to mp3 files. Once in this format, songs could be easily transferred to the iPod's memory bank. Having done this, I was happy as a clam. I could ride around for hours and hear all of my albums, played in random order, with no repeats. I could also use the iPod's menu to narrow the playlist to include specific artists and genres.

As digital music players became more popular, additional forms of entertainment became available. Soon, audio books appeared on the web. At, I was able to purchase and download a number of books to my liking.

Most recently, so-called "podcasts" have become all the rage. These are digital audio and video segments that come from a variety of producers, both big and small. Again, I have gotten a number of these, for free, from the podcast section of the Apple iTunes Music Store. Other sources, such as Podcast Alley, are popping up as digital media distribution centers.

Podcasts are highly targeted forms of information. Many have to do with specific personal interests and hobbies. I personally enjoy ones on science and higher education. You can also find ones that discuss travel destinations, politics, health maintenance, and learning new languages. All sorts of stuff. Many radio and television programs are likewise being turned into audio podcast files.

I, myself, tend to travel alone. In such cases I would not recommend the iPod's new video capabilities, since they would be distracting. If you are traveling with a family, or other group, however, this might be just the thing. Both movies and popular television programs are available in the iPod format for a modest price.

Let me reiterate. Digital music players are a totally convenient way to store, organize and access music. They have the capability to hold and display a wide variety of content. The only hurdle these items have to overcome is the playback system.

If you are in a car, you are mostly limited to using an FM transmitter, one that will broadcast the sounds on your iPod to the car's radio. These often have difficulties, depending on the matchup between the transmitter and the car's radio receiver. I happen to drive a lot of rental cars and each one seems to have a unique personality regarding the radio system. Sometimes my iPod will play flawlessly. At other times, the signal is very intermittant. In the worst situations, listening can be quite frustrating. In the future, though, I see a trend to incorporate direct inputs for digital music players. This would eliminate the headaches.

Overall, my sleek little iPod has been my faithful traveling companion, eliminating everything I don't like about music on the road. I start my car, plug in the player and drive blissfully for the next 6 to 10 hours. What could be better?

Saturday, September 16, 2006


Without doubt, the most impressive things I saw on my recent trip to Alaska were the glaciers.

Prior to this, I had never seen one, at least not in person. I have a few old pictures of my uncle visiting a glacier when took a motorcycle tour of Banff and Jasper National Parks in the late 1940's. It looked pretty frosty. When I finally saw one for myself, pictures could not describe the impression it left on me.

Coming into Alaska on Highway 1, I passed a number of spectacular mountain peaks as the highway slowly rose in elevation and leveled off. Roughly 50 miles from Palmer, the grade began to descend. On my way down I caught sight of a curious feature.

Along the side of a mountain range was a river of ice. The scene looked as though someone had spilt some milk and it was following the path of least resistance. It hardly appeared substantial at all. From a distant side view, the phenomenon came across like a white ribbon that curved its way back between the peaks.

Then a sense of scale set in. I was observing a mountain. A huge one. The snowy band at its base must be tens of miles in length, with significant width and depth. It had to be. This was my first glacier and it was glorious.

Continuing my drive, I eventually came to a scenic turnoff that included a viewing platform. I was still at a great distance, but had now passed the end of the field. Reoriented, the glacier was flowing towards me. I took out my camera and attached the telephoto lens. The terminus of the ice sheet looked very peculiar. The surface gave the appearance a tooth. Its irregular edge undulated like a crashing wave at the beach. The body behind rippled into the vast distance beyond. This was the Matanuska Glacier.

I only had a couple of minutes to take in this natural wonder, then it was off again to Palmer. During my assignment, the builder I was shooting for advised me to visit the Portage Glacier if I found 2 or 3 hours to kill. On Sunday, that is just what I did. Driving South, through Anchorage, I skirted the edge of the Kenai Peninsula and Cook Inlet until I reached Chugach State Park. A sign pointed the way to the Portage Glacier and there I went.

Having never seen the Portage Glacier, I was unsure of what to be on the lookout for. In the distance, nestled between two crests was a formidible sheet of descending ice. Surely that must be it. I got as close as I could and pulled into a parking lot next to an observation area. The scene was quite beautiful. A craggy cake of turquoise ice was perched between two rocky peaks. White clouds flowed over and into the depression, caressing the ice as it went by. Framing this was a vivid blue sky, green babbling brook and hearty evergreens as far as the eye could see.

Somehow, though, the scene did not seem worth all the buildup. Yes, it was pretty, but there was an awfully lot of snow residing between the mountaintops most everywhere. I didn't see what might make this an exception. Just in case, I got in the car and drove further down the road. Then I came to a sign saying "Portage Glacier Ahead". Well, I felt kind of silly after taking so many pictures of something else, but was glad to have finally stumbled across the genuine article.

The road deposited me into a parking lot in front of a small lake. Floating tranquilly were two aqua-colored icebergs each the size of a truck. Off in the overcast distance was a massive bed of grey ice, creeping towards the water's edge. It had the character of something that had been around for a very long time. It was cracked and dingy. Spectators were gathering at the lip of the lake to have their images taken with the glacier in the background. Here, the air was actually cold. Not only did people need sweatshirts, but jackets as well. Someone in the group informed me that this body of ice, like many others, was receding. It had been much more prominent in the past. This was not too difficult to spot.

It would have been nice to have gotten closer to this frozen giant, but that would have required one of the available boat tours, for which I did not have the time. Therefore, it was back to Palmer. The next day, I finished my work and was ready to depart. Forced to exit Alaska the same way I entered, I was presented with one last opportunity to experience Matanuska.

The Matanuska glacier does have public access. Tailing a happy couple in a car to the gate, I signed the safety waiver and followed them to the staging area. As one would guess, walking on a glacier can be pretty hazardous. Any number of bad, unexpected things can occur. This did not stop a moderate contingent of inquisitive souls from taking a stroll on the ice.

It took about 15 minutes to walk from the parking lot to the leading edge of the ice. During this process, one learns a few fascinating things about glaciers. First, park managers set up a path for explorers to follow using orange safety cones. Even though you can see the land between yourself and the glacier rather clearly, this precaution is to keep you from getting stuck in the dense grey mud.

Following the trail, the ground is a bit rough, but nothing a normal person couldn't handle. As you progress you notice that the ground does indeed get soggy. This is from all the liquid runoff the melting glacier is producing, or perhaps the surrounding snow. In either case, little streams of water were flowing in numerous places.

Before long I noticed a transition in the ground's texture. I looked down to see a collection of small angular rocks imbedded in solid blue ice. It was extremely hard, dense and heavy. Not so much like metal, which has a degree of flexibility, but more like acrylic or crystal.

Next came the sound of a light crunching as I moved on to the snow. Like the crackling sound a bowl of cereal makes when you crush the flakes with a spoon. I could feel the surface mash down just a little when I walked on it. Also, the temperature began to get cold. Whereas I was warm before, I now needed a sweatshirt to be comfortable.

Eventually I reached the bounding heaps of ice. These got progressively larger as the glacier moved on into the distance. Traversing the ice sheet, for me, was problematic. I was wearing tennis shoes. Other visitors, who had brought shoe cleats and ice picks were nimbly hiking the major masses of the pack. I was only going to be able to get so far. The trick was to stay on the dirty areas, where tiny pebbles were stuck in the snow. These could be walked on. Finding a direct path of them from point A to point B was not necessarily easy.

With extreme caution, I climbed onto the lesser domes of the ice. In the valleys, lengthy fractures had formed and these had water flowing through them. Since I was forced to walk in the low areas, getting wet or muddy was always a potential difficulty. At one point, I found a flat area of dirt and rocks that seemed favorable. This turned out to be mostly mud with a slightly dry surface. Glop, glop I went.

Ultimately, I topped the crest of one of the minor mounds and stopped to survey the enormous body of the glacier that spread out before me. I knew I would not be able to go further, up ahead where many other tourists were marching. For me, this was good enough. I was standing on a glacier and it was totally thrilling, more so than any other place I had been.

How can I describe what I saw? It was spectacular. It was big. it was white. it was lumpy. It was powerful. It was serene. It had cracks criss-crossing it. Clusters of chilly people were wandering all over it. It was like an ice maker dumped out several trillion ice cubes in a very long pile. You were dwarfed by it, like an insect is dwarfed by a freeway. It's just hard to believe that it even exists and that you are touching it. It was beautiful. It makes your heart race.

Continuing down the other side of the slippery slope, I discovered a dry, rocky area that circled back to the glacier's edge. I should point out that around the leading edge of the glacier, sharp-edged rocks of all sizes could be found just setting there. Most of them looked as though they had been shattered, no doubt by the tremendous pressure they encountered in the ice during their long journey to this place.

Heading back to the car, a revelation occured to me. As I left the swollen heaps of shiny white ice and navigated the frozen, blue, rock-saturated ground, I realized that I was still on the glacier. It did not simply begin where the lumpy mounds appeared. It was deep beneath my feet. Here, the top frosty layer had been melted away, leaving the rest to be covered over by dirt. Who knows how far beyond the visible edge the glacier actually extended. This is what a glacier goes through in recession.

It was sad to say goodbye to the Matanuska Glacier, I wish I could have stayed longer to explore. My brief encounter was both exhilarating and informative. I hope I have the chance to see another. I hope you do too.