Sunday, April 1, 2007

Day 5: The Voyage Home

Friday was the day they kicked us out of Zzyzx. The staff has done a incredible job in supplying us with a great environment for our program. The food was fantastic, and who has ever heard of clean showers and flush toilets on a field expedition? Thanks for going that extra distance to make space for all of us in your overcrowded facilities!

My original travel plans had me tentatively making the two hour drive to Las Vegas, spending the night on The Strip and making a side trip to the Hoover Dam and/or Zion National Park on Saturday. Unfortunately, I just have too much schoolwork due next week. An Optics midterm, plus my Astrobiology presentation on Terrestrial Planet Formation, to name two. Add in the LA traffic heading to Vegas for the weekend, and I opted out.

Once again, serendipity played a hand.

The rest of the San Jose Astrobio "crew" was heading to Death Valley, and if I could give Melissa a ride home so she could work on Saturday, Ben and Peng could do the reverse of my "Day -1", and hit Mono Lake as they drove home through Tahoe. Dr. Kress was also meeting her boyfriend there so they could head down to LA for the weekend.

Since I have never been to Death Valley, I thought it would be a great little bonus stop. Sure, it was a three-hour side trip and a little tourist-y, but hey, after a week in the desert, we were entitled to a bit of luxury, right? ;)

The side trip was worth it. The weather hadn't gotten outrageously hot yet, and the scenery was amazing. We stopped in Badwater Basin (where I happily paid the use fees!) and had lunch in Stovepipe Wells, with a side trip up Artisan Canyon.

Melissa had to be back early, so we left the rest of "The Crew" as they headed off to Mosaic Canyon for a quick hike, and finished our drive to San Jose.

I'm finally home, and it's Sunday, with my car still half filled with gear. I have lots of stuff to do, and am hating the idea of going back to "The Grind", but such is life. We have one more "Homework" assignment for Spaceward Bound!, which I'll post here once I get their final questions, and I'll also post an epilogue with my thoughts before signing off.

(The San Jose "Crew" (Left to Right), Me, Dr. Monika Kress, Ben Haller, Melissa Harker and Peng Yav)

Day 4: A Moral Dilemma

Thursday would be our last day of "Themes", and their accompanying sign up sheets. Three days, and I still had not had a chance to visit Elaine and Sabine in the molecular biology lab, and try my hand at DNA sequencing of their soil bacteria samples. I had also passed on Monday's geologic tour of the area because I knew there would be another tour today. What to do, what to do...

Well, looking at the sign up sheets, there were already five people signed up to help Sabine and Elaine in the lab, with no maximum limit, and only four out of a maximum of ten to go on the geology tour. Well, considering that the Monday geology tour had 25 people, and it looked like the molecular biology lab was going to be busy today, I opted for the tour.

My decision started looking a bit iffy just after breakfast when I noticed the trip leader holding the sign up sheet, containing all ten slots filled, plus a bunch of extra people added. My cozy group of five was now fifteen.

The tour's original plan was to hit the Stromatolite field - the same fields I saw yesterday - the Kelso Dunes, the Cima lava flows and either Afton Canyon or Pisgah Crater. Unfortunately, no plan survives contact with the enemy. Our enemy today was time.

Due to a slightly late start, and the fact that we had to be back early, the Afton/Pisgah leg was immediately scratched. At least we were on the road...

Well almost. A quick stop to top the tanks in Baker stretched out to a 30 minute visit to the Taco Bell/Arco Food Mart, and the Alien Jerky tourist attraction, while we waited for yet another car of people to join us. Scratch Kelso Dunes.

I hope I am conveying my frustration at this point. We are now one of those "tour groups" I had been avoiding all week, simply going out to see things, and not doing any research. We were a large group, which meant we would be getting less one-to-one time with the people who knew most about what we were seeing, we were delayed and spending more time at a tourist trap, and we were heading for two places I had already been. I was seriously considering the six mile walk back to base and the molecular biology lab.

I tried to play the good soldier, bought myself a Häagen Dazs ice cream bar, and waited patiently. The 90 minute trip to the stromatolite fields gave me a chance to cool down, and get my mind off the situation by talking with my fellow tourists.

The talc mine and the stromatolite fields were right where we had left them yesterday. Having been there before, I was able to regurgitate a bunch of the information about stromatolite and desert varnish formation, and a bit about the geology of the area to my fellow teachers. That was kind of fun, and I was definitely feeling better. I even found a second stromatolite sample and a quartz rock with some hypolithic cyanobacteria (chroococcidiopsis) to add to my collection.

Chroococcidiopsis is an interesting little critter. It is a photosynthetic bacteria which forms colonies just below the surface layer of dirt, on the bottom of translucent rocks, like quartz, surviving in the cooler, wetter layer of soil, and enjoys protection from the strong, desert UV light by using only that light which filters through the rock. If you look closely at the picture, you can barely see the greenish haze along the base of my sample.

Sadly, our stromatolite stop had taken longer than expected, and the Cima lava field stop was now in doubt. As a sort of token compensation, we would stop and eat lunch at the Dumont Dunes, a recreational area on the way back to base.

Allow me to pause and allow that to sink in. If it helps you build the image I am trying to portray, there was also a 20 knot wind blowing...lunch + dunes + sand + wind...get it? Good. Now you know what my immediate response was. I ate my lunch in the car on the way there.

Dumont Dunes, unlike Kelso Dunes, is part of the Bureau of Land Management lands, right off of highway 127, and is open to off-road vehicles. Kelso Dunes is part of the Mojave National Preserve, closed to all vehicles, and is far removed from the nearest highway.

Natural dunes have delicate wind formations that occur in untouched areas. These formations make very unique sounds when they shift, from gentle whispers to booming thunder. It is really something to hear. Once the wind formations are walked on, or driven over, they become nothing more than piles of sand.

Don't get me wrong, the people on their ATVs and other dune runners are entitled to play in the sand. In fact, I think that it's a perfect setup, having the Dumont Dunes, the easily accessible dunes, as a recreational area, and having the Kelso Dunes, the remote ones, as the natural preserve.

What started getting to me was that we were heading to this area to see piles of sand (not dunes), in lieu of other destinations.

The figurative final straw was our cavalier attitude toward the honor system based "Use Permits" for the area. Many national parks, preserves and other land areas have use fees. Since the budget for rangers and other people to collect fees is limited, use permit purchase is honor system based. If you are going to use an area, you put your usage fees into a machine, or sometimes just a locked box with a slot, before you use the area. The fees go directly to the management and maintenance of the areas, not to some mysterious "corporation" or into some government bureaucracy.

Until now, our science teams had been extraordinarily vigilant in ensuring that our groups had the proper permits for use and sample collection in the areas where we were, as well as teaching us how to leave a minimal impact on the fragile desert environments. Respect for the environment and the honesty and integrity exercised in getting and using the proper permits for areas where there would be no enforcement had been one of the things I had been proud to see.

Even though the Spaceward Bound! budget is extremely limited, I would have liked to have seen the trend of having the correct permits continue. Barring that, I would have been willing to pitch in, or even pay for the entire vehicle's permit myself. Instead, we simply drove on past the pay station, and into the recreational area. I was frustrated, and angry that we didn't even give it a second thought. While the others sat on the sand eating their lunch, or made trips to the toilet facilities, I sat in the van and tried to catch up on some much needed sleep.

I do feel the need to apologize to my fellow travelers and our guides. I did express some displeasure at our entry into the recreational area, so it may have seemed like I was "pouting" in the van. Everyone has their own boundaries, and this was just a bit beyond mine. I did not want to detract from your experience in the Dumont Dunes, but it felt wrong for me to be out in the area.

On the brighter side, we did end up sending one of our vans to the Cima Lava Flows, so after a brief passenger exchange, I did end up seeing them again, but with a different guide.

After returning to base, I was preparing to settle in for a 2 1/2 hour "All Hands" meeting when Dr. Kress and Leo Hernandez stopped by on their way out to retrieve the meterology station we had set up on Monday, and download the week's sensor data.

"Hey, Mike. Would you like to blow off this meeting to go see the final results of the project you started on Monday?"

Uhhh, duh...A decade of experience in corporate meetings has left me with zero desire for another. Plus, I could easily justify it by noting that it was my computer that they needed to retrieve the data from those two sensors that wouldn't connect to Leo's. :)

After a refreshing hike, the station was right where we left it, and I was surprised at how easily we located the site. It says a lot for our careful placement and situational awareness when we set it up. We retrieved all the sensors we had placed earlier, hiked back to base and began downloading data.

So a huge thanks and hug to the Soil Meterology team for putting a real positive cap on today, and helping me achieve one of my week's goals of being able to see an experiment through from beginning to end! Drinks are on me when we're back in San Jose.