Monday, January 17, 2011

What a Geologist Sees - Part 26 [Original Post Date 2/10/09]


Two years ago, I started a 30th anniversary recount of my life-changing move from the Atlanta area to El Paso. I got distracted and I don't think I got much past Fort Worth on I-20 in my story. I don't know if it is worth going back and picking up that thread.

This summer will mark the 30th anniversary of my 1979 summer job in the Bisti Badlands of San Juan County, New Mexico, a "few" miles south of Farmington.

It wasn't a field-mapping sort of summer job, it was a Fossil Recovery job. It was funded by Western Coal Company (a subsidiary of one or more utilities) in the "Four Corners" area and administered by UT El Paso and UNM. Per Federal and State law, before any significant land disturbances, a fossil recovery is required.

In the 440 mile trek from El Paso to Farmington, NM, I was leaving behind the wreckage of my first serious love affair (I was a late bloomer), just one of those life experiences that didn't turn out well. 'Nuff said.

When my field partner and I arrived at the work site, we were given our instructions on where to start and we were given our maps (which were the most-detailed, best topo maps a geologist could hope for). If my memory serves me, after 30 years, the scale may have been 1:100 with 5-foot contours, which made it very easy to figure out where you were, which was very important for the Fossil Recovery Project. One of our professors was there to start us off and he came up to check on us every couple of weeks or so.

We were in the San Juan Basin, working in the Cretaceous Fruitland Formation (Fm. abbreviation), to clear the area for a future coal mine. We were to sample and record the map locations of any occurrences of invertebrate fossils (fresh water clams) and permineralized (petrified) wood. When we found dinosaur bones (or other vertebrate fossils), we were to collect and bag all bone fragments and to record the map locations. For the larger fossils (as with the dino bone pictured here in both photos, from different angles), the Univ. of New Mexico would come in later and do their plaster-casting thing. Sometimes it would take two hours of being on my hands and knees to pick up every bone fragment. The idea was that the Univ. of New Mexico lab students would attempt to glue the fragments back together along with any larger pieces found nearby. Sort of like putting together a large jigsaw puzzle without a picture to guide you.

The environment of deposition of the Late Cretaceous Fruitland Fm. was somewhat similar to today's Everglades. The Fruitland Fm. was primarily composed of soft clays (which give rise to the "Badlands-type" topography), along with a few sandy stream channel deposits (which we would sample and screen for small vertebrate (rodent) teeth. It was from these channel deposits that we also collected the fresh-water clams.

After suffering through rain every day (except one) of the first two weeks, things settled down. The clays in the Fruitland Fm. are like grease when wet. So my field partner and I spent our time trapped in our respective truck campers, waiting out the rain. This is why I always stash books in my car trunk, in case I ever get stranded again, so I will at least have something to read.

One of the early things that I learned was that you always had to have your rock hammer with you, in case you slid into one of the ravines. They weren't terribly deep, but you couldn't get out unless you hacked crude stair steps into the clay, one at a time. Even when it was dry it was difficult to clamber out with the steps cut into the clay. You also had to use your rock hammer to pull yourself up the slope, by slamming the sharp, chisel end of the "shale pick" into the clay.

A couple of quick facts: 1) The "erosion pedestals" pictured in two of the photos were capped (protected) by hardened sandstone lenses or sometimes chunks of permineralized wood. 2) We covered about two and one-half square miles in 6 weeks (actually 4 weeks after the rain stopped).

We were supposed to go back there in 1980, but the area is a checkerboard of Federal and State land and each has their own permits and regulations that have to be reconciled before fossil collecting (recovery) is allowed. I am not sure if we were on Navajo Reservation land, or just close.

Aside from the dinosaur bones we found, we found fragments of large turtle shells (I was told by my professor that we might have found a new species of turtle), and crocodile "scutes" (bony plates).

On a side-note, as I didn't really get along with my field partner (our personalities were just different), he chose to hang out at the motel on our days off (Tues. and Wed.) and drink beer, while I drove up into Colorado and other places and drank beer there and took pictures.

Despite the fact that I enjoyed that summer job, I do have a few regrets from that adventure:

1) I should have talked my field partner into shifting our off days to Sat./Sun, so I could have hung out over at the Univ. of New Mexico Archeology field camp. There were a lot more female students in Archeology than there were in Geology at that time. Maybe I could have talked one of them into going with me on some four-wheeling/camping adventures in the mountains around Silverton or Durango, CO. (I had a 4X4 Jeep pickup with a camper shell).

2) I should have had a back-up 35mm camera when I went back to Arches National Monument. When I was there two years earlier, the shutter had jammed on my Miranda Sensorex II camera, though it somehow unjammed later (on the earlier trip in 1977). I got photos from Canyonlands and Mesa Verde, but none from Arches. I specifically drove back to Arches to get some photos and the same thing happened again (when it was happening, the operation of the camera sounded normal). So I have been to Arches National Monument twice and don't have a single photo to show for it. After the shutter jammed, I got no more slides for the summer.

3) I should have gone to Shiprock, AZ and maybe over towards Monument Valley (but then my camera might have betrayed me there, too).

4) My paycheck for the summer job was pretty decent in 1979. $2200 for six weeks - mid-May through June. But I didn't get paid until the end. The money, from Western Coal Co., was "funneled" through UT El Paso and that is where the checks were cut. They wouldn't mail them to me and they wouldn't let my professor bring them to me. I had to borrow money from my professor and from my parents and use credit cards to be able to travel at all. My biggest purchase (after I finally got my paychecks and after I paid everyone back) was a Pentax MX camera, to replace the aging Miranda.

5) I wanted to pan for gold in the Silverton, CO area, but because of a heavy snow melt, the creeks and rivers were full to the brim with muddy water. And because of the heavy snows, I couldn't get back into some of the back country areas in the San Juan Mts. until the last week of June, for photography and mineral collecting.

6) I should have picked up more "clinker zone" samples. When an underground coal seam burns (very slowly), it bakes the shales above and below the coal seam. We found a clinker zone of baked red shale with Cretaceous plant fossils (leaves and stems). I only picked up two pieces of the shale with plant fossils, I should have spent an hour there.

So it was an adventure of a lifetime, though it was smudged by the El Paso disappointments and the camera foul-ups.

Everything happens for a reason, even if we don't understand at the time.

I hope someday to return again and get some damn photos of Arches and then make a side trip to Monument Valley.

I will probably post a few more photos related to the project (I got a few hundred slides before the shutter crapped out). [Oh, I forgot to mention the story about my encounter with the redneck cop in Ouray, CO. That will have to wait.]

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