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Grand canyon
(Photo by Robert Gill)

California to the Grand Canyon

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On the Road to the Grand Canyon

After nine and a half weeks and nearly 3,000 miles, the group—now led by Senior Lecturer Edward Meyer, the program director for the entire Stretch—enters its last segments, which will lead the group into the Sierra Nevada mountains, Death Valley, and, finally, the Grand Canyon.

Among other things, they’ve spent the past week practicing digital-mapping techniques in Death Valley, Calif.

“There’s a mapping project looking at rocks that were deposited just before the development of complex life, during perhaps the most extreme climate fluctuations on the planet in the last billion years,” Meyer says. “Students create a geologic map to help them see the relationship between different rock types that tell this story. And instead of producing their map with pencil and paper, they’re making it with ArcGIS software. It’s their first exposure on the Stretch to that software.”

They make several stops on the Colorado Plateau to study craters with Assistant Professor Marisa Palucis, who studies planetary geology.

“We visit a meteor crater and also a volcanic crater just outside of Flagstaff, Ariz., that are relevant to planetary geology—Martian geology,” Meyer says. “We discuss how you recognize impact craters versus volcanic craters, something geologists struggled with for 100 years.”
 

Isabella’s Notebook

Isabella Jacoby ’20 is a double major in earth sciences and studio art—and her field notebook is doubling as a visual record of everything she sees on the Stretch.

“A lot of taking notes in the field is about making these little records so you can jog your memory later and remember exactly what you saw,” she says.

She has a system: drawing on the left-hand pages and writing on the right of her waterproof field notebook. “We use this notebook for pretty much everything. I have some stratigraphic columns in here, and some general drawings of the shapes of rocks—anything you can draw in the field helps you remember when you’re looking at it later.”

This exercise in observation helps her understand what she sees, she says. “We’ll be looking at a rockface or an outcrop, and a lot of times you can see the bedding and how it curves through the rock. That’s super-important for understanding how the units have folded throughout time in terms of tectonic deformation and the whole geologic story of the area. It’s really cool when you can see that and draw it, because it enables you to understand what’s going on.”

In addition to field notes, Jacoby is keeping a visual journal. “I’m trying to think visually about what we’re seeing,” she says. “It’s inspiring to have the freedom to draw and work on my art in a setting that’s also full of other things that I’m interested in. I’ve been using it to keep track of the places we’ve been and what they all look like.”

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notebook
(Photo by Robert Gill)
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notebook page
(Photo by Robert Gill)
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Isabella writing in her book
(Photo by Robert Gill)

Putting It All Together

And then they reach the Grand Canyon. On the last full day of the Stretch, their job is to hike the Bright Angel Trail from the South Rim—about 10 miles—and describe what they see.

“The focus is to look at the 1.8 billion years of rock exposed in the mile-deep Grand Canyon and to think about how it relates to the evolution of the western part of the United States and Canada,” Meyer says.

It’s a culminating experience that pulls together everything they’ve learned this term.

“You could see the last couple billion years of geology—the climate, the extension of the basin and range that we talked about the entire time, the Colorado River, which we had talked about the entire Stretch, human impacts,” says Kellen Appleton ’20. “We could all see this coming together. We just spent the day hiking and did a lot of personal reflection, but also academic reflection, because we could see how everything we had done was relevant. That was a really high point for me.”

“There’s no better way to finish the Stretch than to hike down into the Grand Canyon,” says Max Bond ’20. “You can see pretty much every single geologic event that we talked about all term in one place. To be able to go down into the canyon and answer all those questions made me feel very confident about what I had learned.”

What the students have learned is more than facts. It’s a process of learning to think like scientists, Appleton says.

“We didn’t have a full picture at all in the beginning. We had to build it piece by piece. That was very powerful, because it’s an important part of doing earth science,” she says. “You have to take little pieces of data and compile them and spend hours in Excel. And then you get one number and you go to another project. At the end, we had built ourselves this overarching narrative of the geologic history of North America.”

But the end is also a bittersweet moment for a group that has bonded tightly over the past two months.

“It was so weird to finish that assignment and be like, I’m done with the Stretch,” Bond says. “The last night was very emotional.”

“Mostly we went on a giant hike and spent a lot of time together and had a lot of quiet reflection,” Appleton says.

“And then we were done. It was a very satisfied feeling.”
 

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Students sitting on the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
On the south rim of the Grand Canyon. (Photo by Berit DeGrandpre ’20)