by Harrison Smith
Since 2003, the CPH Geology department has been bringing students to various geologically significant sites across the western US during a marathon spring break field trip. This year marked the twentieth anniversary of Geology 110: Field Geology of the Western United States, uninterrupted by even the pandemic, and the retirement of veteran geology professor Mark Hemphill-Haley.
At 8am on March 11, all twenty members of the 2023 Geology 110 expedition met at Van Matre Hall weighed down with our camping gear to load into the four vehicles that would be our homes for the next two solid days as we drove to Death Valley.
The Bonanza King Formation is a massive bed of carbonate rock that constitutes much of the boundary between Nevada and California. It is visible in many places across both states, but at Point of Rocks, it dominates the landscape. There, tilted beds of Bonanza King carbonate cut through the terrain like the ribs of a dead giant, draped in loose alluvium that slants down to the desert flats.
The footing on the ridge was treacherous. Skree slid under my feet as I moved up the slope, conscious only of the $500 Brunton Compass in the case at my belt and the possibility that I might drop it in front of everyone. I looked down, and, deciding that the bed at my feet was good enough, knelt to remove the Brunton from my belt case. In the protection of my big straw hat, I carefully lay the edge of the compass flush on the top of the carbonate bed, tilting it this way and that in a futile attempt to find the striking angle of the bed. It was exhilarating to finally be practicing a geology skill in the field. We were learning to measure the striking angle of a rock bed, which is the compass heading at which it cuts the ground, and I was determined to find it myself. In conjunction with the dip, which is the angle at which the bed descends into the ground, strike-dip measurements of rock beds and faults provide a picture of what’s going on under the surface. Finally, I set aside my pride and looked around to find Michelle Robinson, geology alum extraordinaire, who was down the ridge helping another student.
“Michelle, can you help me with this strike?” She smiled. Of course– this trip was all about learning. Each one of the students I spoke to about our experiences on the 2023 Death Valley trip said something similar.
“It was a little difficult to ask questions, but as soon as you understand that no one is judging you, it’s a perfect open environment,” third year geoscience student Jane Martinez said.
My experience was the same– at first, I felt in awe of the older students. They seemed to know exactly which questions to ask at each of the stops we made along the way, but I never felt too intimidated to ask my own questions. Every interaction was a reminder that science is not a competition, but a collaboration.
“At first, I was pretty shy too, but I just liked the fact that some of my upperclassmen helped me out with terms that I didn’t know and they were always giving me information on the simplest questions, and I really appreciated that,” said Daniel Abel, a third year geology major. “If I’m with someone new, I’m going to help them out as much as I can with the information that I have, so that they can get better and smarter with geology.”
This trip was an extremely valuable experience in that it allowed geology students to form bonds with their peers.
“I feel like I made a lot of really good friends over the trip and it’s kind of hard to do that sometimes,” Abel said. “I really appreciate that.”
Mark Hemphill-Haley has been associated with Humboldt’s geology department for decades, first as a student and then as a professor.
“The thing that excited me about geology when I first came to Humboldt was the enthusiasm that the department and the students shared about learning geology, and the depth of knowledge of the faculty and their excitement,” Hemphill-Haley said. “I think at Humboldt students in general are a little different than some other universities. You know, it’s a little harder to live here in some ways. So I feel like people that are here really want to get their life’s worth out of the programs. And so I just think that the students are special.”
Trips like Geology 110 and the connections made during those trips are what make Humboldt special. “The thing that I’ve noticed from when I was an undergrad to students now is, we’re still the same,” Hemphill-Haley said.