And now for something Completely Different

This evening, I find myself sitting in a dorm room at Indiana State University at a three-day workshop with my Lilly Fellows. I had planned on being social tonight, but there is something I feel I need to do, and this is the perfect time. So instead of joining in the drum circle which I can hear through my window, or going to the pub with my new friends, I’m going to tell you a story. I wasn’t going to tell this story on my blog because it has nothing to do with geology, or paleontology, or science at all. But last night, it occurred to me that this story is as much about Traveling Through Space and Time as any story I’ve ever heard. This story is not about my personal travels, but about an object that went on a very long journey.

It all started in the spring of 1945. A young American man named Arthur Evans had left his wife and three children in Nappanee, Indiana to go off to war. He joined the Navy and had been sent to the Pacific. During the Battle of Okinawa, his ship supplied the US troops on the Island. When the battle was over, he was given a few hours of leave time to go on shore. As he walked along the beach, he found a variety of small, interesting items with Okinawan and Japanese writing on them scattered around. He did not read the language, but thought his friends and family back home would enjoy seeing such exotic things from a far away place. So he took them back to his ship, and eventually back home after the war ended.

Over the years, he stored the items away. His little family grew to include four more children, then many grandchildren. I am one of those grandchildren. As a young girl, I remember discovering these items in a box in the upstairs bedroom with my cousins. He had a large artillery shell, a box of pencils with Japanese writing, some photos of Okinawan people, a book with maps that I couldn’t read, and a few other things. I was fascinated by them, but forgot all about them over the years as I grew up.

When I was a Junior in high school, my US History teacher gave us an assignment. We were to interview people who lived through World War II and write a paper about their lives. I was lucky enough to have all four grandparents living at the time, so I chose to interview them. I still have a copy of the paper, and I was able to refer back to it to fill in some of the details about this story, although my grandfather died about ten years ago. (I am still in contact with this teacher and recently wrote to tell him this story and thank him for assigning this. I hope that someday I will assign something that has such a big impact on one of my students!)

When my grandmother died in 2011, my father inherited some of his father’s things, including the items from Okinawa. My mother showed them to me one day, and I began to wonder what the letter said. It seemed unlikely that anyone in Nappanee in 1945 would have been able to translate these items, but I thought maybe someone in Indianapolis in 2014 might be able to. I knew several people who spoke Japanese and/or were from Okinawa, so I reached out to them and sent pictures of a few items, including the letter.

In 1945, Okinawa was not a part of Japan, so their languages were not the same. My friends who were raised there were young enough that they learned Japanese, not the Okinawan dialect the letter was written in. They could understand it a little, but not well. Months passed and I had almost forgotten about the mysterious letter and pictures. And then…

I received a message on Facebook. It was from the mother of two of my former students. She immigrated from Japan years ago, but still had many contacts there. Her daughter had passed the photos on to her to see if she could make any sense of them. She had done some research on Japanese websites and contacted someone in Japan who had contacted a reporter from Okinawa. She forwarded my information to the reporter and a few days later, I found myself on the phone with a woman in Okinawa! To make a long story short(ish), the reporter had found the sister of the man who wrote the letter, my mother shipped the letter to her, the reporter brought her the letter, and the story aired on Okinawan TV. I never would have thought my TV debut would be in another language and halfway around the globe, but it was.

The reporter said that she thought it was fate that this letter was returned to its home nearly 70 years after the end of the war. I think it is a great story of a letter that traveled through space (from Okinawa, to Nappanee, to Indianapolis, and back home) and time (from 1945 to 2014), and united people from halfway around the world. Even though this blog is supposed to be about science, I think the story belongs here. I wanted to put these videos and information on a website that I own, so I don’t lose access to them, in case the Japanese TV station ever takes the story down. I hope younger generations of our family will see this story and appreciate the bonds that can grow after war. I love that several very curious women cracked the case of a seventy year old mystery and helped another woman regain part of her past.

Below are links to my uploads of two videos that go with the story. I will also include links to the original websites and also a translation.
My Youtube video of the story that was on TV in Okinawa
Translation (with my comments in parentheses):
“Hello” said Manabu Uehara. He visited Chiyo Kokuba in Kin village, Okinawa, on the 1st of Oct.
“I don’t have any detail of these letters yet. It’s still in the U.S.” he said. He was showing her some pictures sent from the U.S. last month. In the pictures, there were some old letters.
Uehara works for a website to share information about funeral ceremonies in Okinawa. Last month, a Japanese lady contacted him: “My American acquaintance has letters that her grandfather brought from Okinawa during the war. She wants to give them back to the owner.” She said she googled “Sobun Yamakawa”, the name of the sender, and found exactly the same name on the Uehara’s website.
Uehara started to look for the owner. And a few weeks later, he found Kokuba who is a younger sister of Yamakawa.
Seeing the pictures of letter, Ms. Kokuba said “What a fond memory. If the TV crew was not here, I would have burst into tears. I’m trying to control myself now.”
For a long time, she has believed that the letters were “lost” because of an unforgettable incident happened 69 years ago during the battle of Okinawa.
“One day during the battle, some US soldiers came to my house with a Japanese translator. They said they are going to burn my house, because Japanese soldiers are hidden inside of the house. They burnt my entire house. Entire village. Maybe they brought the letters from my house, believing something secret written in them.”
The place where Ms. Kokuba’s house used to be during the war, was taken and became Camp Hansen, One of the biggest US military bases in Okinawa.
“That takes me back…” said Ms. Kokuba, in front of the gate that she is never allowed to go in.
I called Ms. Lisa Evans Kern living in the US. I asked why she has the letters. She told me that the letters were originally from her grandfather. He was in Okinawa during the war as a member of Navy, and he laid up the letters in lavender (put them in storage) after the war back in the U.S.
“During that time, he was walking on the beach, and found several things. He thought it’s interesting and pick them up” said Ms. Kern.
And finally, yesterday….
“Father, please be assured that my family members and I are all doing well in Tokyo.” Ms. Kokuba was reading the letter at home. She saw her brother’s handwriting eventually after 69 years.
“When I saw his handwriting, I felt like I met my brother face to face. I felt like he is still alive and doing well. I feel happy and sweet, cannot describe well. In Okinawan dialect, I would say KIBURU DACCHA, meaning `feel a thrill go through`.”
In the envelop, there was a letter from Ms. Lisa Kern. She wrote she was sad to hear about Kokuba’s story during the war. Also, she was surprised it was the internet that helped her finding Kokuba.
“We can communicate with each other like this, because the world is peaceful now. I would like to tell Ms. Kern `Thank you very much for returning the letters with your kindness`” said Ms. Kokuba with smiles.”
Another video letter to our family, in which Ms. Kokuba says thank you and my heart is warmed tremendously.

This is the link to the news station’s original story.

Stop 12: La Brea

On June 28, we left Monterey and drove south following the California coast as much as we could. It was a beautiful drive!

CA coast, south of Monterey

After driving along the coast, we headed in toward Los Angeles. Fortunately, David doesn’t mind driving in big cities like Chicago and Paris. So he didn’t have any trouble here, but we were all impressed with the size of the highways… 10 lanes wide, one way! A bit more than we’re used to in Indianapolis. The city is large and sprawling, but not quite as overwhelming as New York. Our first stop was at the La Brea Tar Pits and the George C. Page Museum where we would experience the Ice Age of 30,000 years ago. I’m not sure what we were expecting, but we certainly didn’t realize that the Tar Pits are smack in the middle of downtown LA. We found a place to park across from Hancock Park and walked across the wide street. The park is surrounded by apartment buildings and a few high rises. Sirens could be heard in the distance. It was quite a contrast to the far-from-civilization places we had seen, and not where we would have guessed an interesting bit of natural history would be found. California continued to show us that our preconceived notions of the state were all wrong.

Here’s a little video I put together with a stop along the coast, followed by the walk through Hancock Park up to the Page Museum. It’s not really geologically relevant, but I think anyone who hasn’t been here will appreciate the atmosphere of the park and its location within the city.

The contact I had found at the Page Museum set me up with a tour guide named Rocio Santoyo. We were scheduled to arrive in time for her last tour of the day, then have a chance to interview her afterwards. We were running a little late, so we didn’t get a chance to check out the exhibits until later. We were able to jump into the tour group and make introductions right before she began the tour.

The tour started in front of the lab. As a science teacher, it was really neat to see another place (like at Ashfall and Dinosaur) where paleontology research is an ongoing activity. We watched researchers sorting microfossils under microscopes. They were seated along a glass wall, so we could watch them work, without being able to interfere. A few of them would post notes to tell us what they were working on, and they had little displays of the tiny mammal jaws and teeth they had found. In the middle of the lab, and labeled boldly, there was a HUGE skull partially encased in plaster and cloth. This belongs to the Colombian Mammoth, Zed.

Here Rocio is introducing us to the museum and lab…

The tour group walked outside to the Observation Pit. It was designed to give visitors an idea of what researchers would have seen when they first opened a pit years ago.

Inside the Observation Pit

This pit was opened, each fossil taken out, recorded, then put back in place for visitors to see. Here is our view of the pit…  and here is a link to an article written about the re-opening of the pit. It was actually published on the day we visited!

Tar pit, obscured by leaves

We walked further to a pit that had been completely excavated to a depth of about 30 feet. It has since filled in with oil that seeped in. It became obvious how these animals could have stepped into the oil without noticing it was there. Rocio explained further: 

Then we walked to see and learn about Project 23. 

When we were done with the tour, I got a chance to ask Rocio some questions myself…
It was nice to talk to another female scientist, since most of the people I interviewed on this trip were male. I think it’s really good to be able to show my students that science is done by a diverse group of people. One of my colleagues who teaches chemistry is always frustrated that the History of Atomic Theory might as well be called the Old Dead White Guy unit. She and I are glad to see that science is changing and the field is closer to reflecting the population now. Rocio is an excellent example of a woman who is passionately curious about the world around her, and that is what science needs! Yay for women scientists!

When we left Rocio, we went into the museum to see some of the exhibits that we had missed earlier. The museum was close to closing, so we saw a few things before heading out.

Sabre-toothed Cat skeleton

I thought this display was particularly cool. You look into a window and see a skeleton, but if you glance away and look back, it has changed!

Sabre-toothed cat!

We also enjoyed seeing the skulls of the most common fossil they have found… Dire wolves!

Many dire wolves and a Kieran

I didn’t use a tripod here, but I should have. My photos didn’t come out that great in the low light of the museum, which was a bit disappointing. Here is one more that I liked. It’s through a window of a storeroom. This gives you a bit of an idea how HUGE the collection of fossils is at the Page Museum.

Part of the fossil collection

This is one of many places I wish I could have spent more time. It is really unique!

When the museum closed, we left to do the normal tourist things in LA. We drove up to see the Hollywood sign, went up Mulholland Drive, then went toward the shore one last time for dinner.

Proof we went to LA

I enjoyed posting pictures of all the mansions to Facebook. I labeled them with 80s star’s names, although we really had no idea who lived there. I guess I was getting a little loopy from the hours on the road! We had not picked out a place to eat, but thought LA would be a good place to get some food that didn’t come out of our cooler. We let Evan use Urbanspoon and/or Yelp to pick a spot. He suggested a place a bit out of our way, but what’s an extra few miles on a 7200 mile journey? We drove to Malibu just in time for some fried seafood on the beach at sunset. It might have been my favorite meal on the trip!

K representin' Indy

Again, I failed to use my tripod and regretted it later, but I was kinda too covered in sand and grease to mess with all the gear.

Me and my sweetheart

Not the best picture of us, but let me tell you, the beach was beautiful and we had a wonderful evening. We left Malibu for a drive to Ontario, California. We got in late, but we were OK with that. We had enjoyed our little slice of LA and were ready to leave the Pacific coast for our next adventure.

Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellowship presentation video

Today I am giving a short presentation to some of the Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellows and their guests. I am looking forward to sharing a little about the experiences I’ve had over the last year. From the planning, to the travel, to the interviews, to the photo and video editing, to the blogging I have learned many things. Not only did I learn a lot about geology but I learned about desert, marine, and alpine biology and paleontology. I learned about how to conduct interviews. I learned about the National Park Service and how they meet the challenge of balancing preservation and education with a small budget. I found many parallels between the great work they do despite a shortage of funding, and the work we educators accomplish with our minimal budgets. I learned about the human history of the west, and about the difficulty of survival under the harshest conditions.

There is still more blogging to come, but for now, here is the final draft of my video presentation. Unfortunately, some of the pictures go really fast, and I didn’t provide adequate narration for some of the locations pictured in the video. But I still feel that it gives a good overview of what I learned from the experience while showcasing some of the most beautiful parts of America.


Getting ahead of myself

I’m getting ahead of myself here, but… Kieran was Star Student of the week in school this week, so he got to spend a little time each day telling his class about our trip. He started with Monterey, then Yosemite, then the City Museum (which wasn’t on this trip, but last spring break). Tomorrow he wants to show them Joshua Tree. I haven’t finished that blog post yet, but today I put together a quick video to give the kids (and you readers) a sense of the place. This video was taken near Barker Dam which is in the western half of the park and in the Mojave Desert. I will write more about the geology of the area (and some of the oldest rocks we saw on our journey) soon!

Fun At Joshua Tree


And Kieran and I thought you should see a picture of a desert bighorn sheep, too!

Desert bighorn sheep at Joshua Tree NP

Stop 10: Point Reyes

We left Yosemite on June 24th and headed to Merced, CA. We had heard good things about a particularly yummy taco truck from Ranger Erik (see previous post). He told us that Ramone’s truck would be found in Planada, just before we got to Merced. As we drove through, we did find the truck, but it was closed up and no one was there. Bummer! We all had our hearts set on a good burrito, so we planned to catch some Mexican food later on. We did end up having the craving satisfied in San Francisco. More on that later.

When we arrived in Merced, we enjoyed a little pool time and had a relaxing evening. The next day’s drive was set to be a big one!

In the morning, we rolled out early to head to Point Reyes National Seashore. As we drove, we could not believe the number of distinct ecosystems we went through! High desert, chaparral, grassland, pine forest. We arrived at the Point Reyes Visitor Center and got a little information about a good place to drive and see some wildlife. We drove along the San Andreas Fault and talked about how strange it was that an earthquake could happen here at any time.

The road from Yosemite to Merced

We decided to go out to the sea lion overlook off of Sir Francis Drake Blvd. The road ran along a ridge of a peninsula that jutted out into the Pacific Ocean. This was the first time any of us had seen the Pacific, and it seemed surreal to see it from this vantage point. The Pacific coast is nothing like the Atlantic, where the water meets the gentle slope of a sandy beach. The rugged, rocky beaches here and high cliffs upon which the roads were built were quite beautiful.

Sir Francis Drake Blvd.

The road also took us past several cattle ranches, some of which allowed the cattle to roam free. We were a little taken aback by how rural and agrarian the area seemed. So this is California?

We've got cows.

When we arrived at the Sea Lion overlook, I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the cliffs, rocks, flowers, and mist. I think I took more pictures of flowers than of sea lions!

Flowers at Point Reyes

We even saw a deer.


But we had come here to see some marine wildlife. We stood there quite a while and another couple was lamenting that there was “nothing to see”. I had not given up on it yet. Evan went back to the truck to grab binoculars because he and I thought we heard some sea lions. When he got back, it didn’t take him long to find what we were looking for. This video is one of my favorites, because I think it is hilarious. David is doing the camera work and can’t really see the little screen because of the glare. He zooms in on the sea lions, but thinks he’s just looking at rocks, until Evan explains what we see in the binoculars! Lots of excited chatter in English and German(?) in this one!

California sea lions

We left Point Reyes and took US Highway 1 south toward San Francisco. The road hugged the coast, high above the shoreline, and instead of building bridges each time a river dumped into the sea and cut back into the cliffs, the engineers of this road just made the road go back into the cut. This road is as far from “as the crow flies” as a road can possibly be, curving left, then right around hairpin turns on the edge of the continent. The views were magnificent, but we didn’t stop often to capture pictures. I tried to take a few from the passenger seat, but most of these are marred by a terribly blurry foreground. Anyway, we ended up with a few good shots.

Lighthouse along US 1

Many places along US 1 made us think of the Amalfi Coast in Italy, only foggier.

As we arrived in San Francisco, we were fairly surprised that we went from forested rural land, then suddenly into the suburbs. We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, but only saw part of it, as it was shrouded in thick fog.

Golden Gate Bridge in fog

As he was driving, David kept messing with his phone and the mapping software he uses. I thought this was weird, but he didn’t seem to be having trouble with the driving. He kept making turns through the city that I thought couldn’t be the most direct route to follow US 1 further south. When he turned into an urban neighborhood and into the parking lot of a machine shop, I started asking him what was going on, until I saw it… A taco truck! Not just any taco truck, it turns out, but the second best rated one in San Francisco! The sneaky man had been researching our lunch options on Urban Spoon at every stop light. We hopped out, went to find an ATM to get cash, and went back to order. Evan had lengua, Kieran had carne asada, David had al pastor, and I got the veggie one. While we waited, Kieran and I went to the park across the street and he played on the playground. English was the second most common language spoken here, but he fit right in with the other kids.

We enjoyed driving up the crazy steep hills, and admiring the architecture while eating some fantastic Mexican food. San Francisco seemed like a very culturally rich city, and I definitely want to come back and spend some more time there.

Obligatory steep road photo

But we were just passing through. It was not long before we were back on US 1 and hugging the coast again headed to our destination for the next three days: Monterey Bay, where we would leave the geology discussion at the door and talk about animals and environmental issues instead. It was about time for a break from looking at rocks.

Sunset near Monterey Bay


Stop 9: Yosemite, Part 3

Updated 9/18/2014. I just realized that I had linked to the part 1 video and then the part 1 again.  Oops! The link is updated now and it should make a lot more sense!

Oh my, a three-part post about just one place?! Yes, Yosemite is a huge park with lots to see, and in our three days there, I feel like we only scratched the surface. At least we saw enough to know that there is much to do there, and we need to return.

On the morning of June 24th, we woke early, broke camp in Tuolumne Meadows and headed West and South toward Yosemite Valley. The drive was filled with ooohs and aaahs. We drove past El Capitan, then Half Dome. Yosemite Falls was flowing beautifully.

Yosemite falls

Having not been in Yosemite Valley before, I was a little surprised how many people (and cars!) were packed into the relatively narrow valley. The place bustled almost like a city. Between the valley walls were packed two roads (one Eastbound, one Westbound), some bike paths (a great way to relieve some of the road congestion), campgrounds (for those who book nearly a year in advance), lots of buses, the Merced River, Visitor Centers, in some areas a wide meadow, and lots of people. We knew Yosemite was a very popular summer destination, but driving and parking were a bit more complicated than I had planned. Still, the place seemed to run smoothly and we got to the Visitor Center almost on time. We had been given permission to park near the Visitor Center in an area designated for employees, which was nice. When we arrived we gathered our gear and headed right past the mule deer munching grass on the lawn of a chapel toward our meeting place.

Ranger Erik Westerlund was there to meet us. He said that he thought he’d walk us through his usual geology talk which he regularly presents to groups of visitors. We didn’t catch the beginning of the talk on video, so it starts off a little bit into the discussion. Ranger Erik is a biologist and always thought geology was boring, until two events changed his mind. I’ll let him tell the story. I will say it’s interesting to get two biologists together to talk about geology. He and I both kept interrupting the geologic story with “hey look, a Steller’s Jay!” and “is that milkweed?” and “how is the health of your monarch butterfly population?” I edited most of that out, but I might put together another video at the end with all the extraneous plant and animal talk. There are some really interesting stories in there! And besides, geology is Boring. Right?

Hey look, a Steller's Jay! (photo by Evan Kern)

And this is one of my favorite pics from the trip:

Showy milkweed and a bee (photo by Evan Kern)

I split the videos up in two so that they weren’t so hard to upload. Here is the first video. In this video, Ranger Erik explains how subduction of the Pacific oceanic plate under the North American plate along the coast of California caused the Sierra Nevada range to be uplifted. The Merced River cut the V-shaped Yosemite Valley. Then, much later, glaciers carved the valley. Since then, it has filled in with sediment to a very great thickness!

Before Erik explains why he finds geology interesting now, although he thought it was boring before, I think I should explain a few things.

Firstly, Erik talks about endemic species and endemism. I doubt my new students will know those words yet. Endemic species are species that only live in a certain area. We discussed the fact that California has a high degree of endemism, which means that there are many species that only live in California.

Secondly, I think a refresher on evolution is probably a good idea now. Erik finds geology interesting because in California, as in many places, geology has been a direct driver of evolution. There are several things people misunderstand about evolution, so let’s clear those up. First of all, individuals do not evolve; populations evolve. Secondly,evolution is simply a change in how common each genetic trait is in a population over time.For speciation (one population splitting into two species) to happen, there are certain criteria that must be met. Here is how a new species is formed: 1) The population must have some genetic diversity within it. If all the individuals within the population were the same, the population could not evolve. 2) Some members of the population have to be separated from other members for a long period of time (this is where the geology comes in). 3) In one of the two populations’ ecosystems (or in both), there has to be some environmental difference from the original populations’ ecosystem. It could be a climatic difference, it could be a different predator, or it could be a difference in vegetation. It could also be a social or behavioral difference. 4) In this new environment, some members of the population may have genetic differences that result in them being more successful at competing for resources (we call this “better adapted”) than other members. 5) As a result of this difference, the more successful ones will either have more offspring, or have more that survive. 6) The offspring will have the more successful traits passed on to them, so the more successful genes become more common within the population in the next generation. 7) Eventually, one population becomes so different from the other that they no longer can interbreed. They are now two different species.

So now, see if nunataks make sense as drivers of the evolution of the Lyell salamander!  (<– This is the link I messed up before.) I find it so interesting that California is a biodiversity hotspot, in part due to glaciers! Indiana had glaciers, too. Anyone want to guess why Indiana doesn’t have a high degree of endemism?


Black-headed Grosbeak (photo by Evan Kern)

Upon finishing the geology talk, we asked Erik for a recommendation on a trail. He suggested a hike up to Vernal Falls. We also got on the subject of food and he suggested Ramone’s Taco Truck. That is the beginning of another story that I will tell in the next post.

Bear trap

On the way to Vernal Falls, we saw some interesting things, including this bear trap in the campgrounds. I wondered how often it became a curious kid trap! Shortly after passing the bear trap, this little thing walked right past us along the sidewalk:

Young mule deer

At the trailhead, we enjoyed the view of the river:

The Merced River, below Vernal Falls

The trail to the falls is paved, popular, and a fairly steep up, up, up. There were lots of squirrels who were looking for some easy lunches in the form of handouts from hikers. They didn’t mind being petted at all. We didn’t pet or feed them for a couple of reasons… one because it is not good for them to become dependent on summer handouts, then have difficulty finding food for the winter, also because the little guys can carry fleas and diseases. Lots of other people enjoyed playing with them, though. I just enjoyed the fact that they seemed happy to model for my camera.

Not shy

Along the trail, there were a few places to stop and take some family portraits. One of my favorite things that happens along populated trails is the little interactions with other hikers. We offered to take a picture for a Japanese couple and their two little kids and they took a picture for us. This is one of the few “all four of us” pictures we got on the trip:

All four, near Vernal Falls

It wasn’t long before we were at the halfway point. We were tired and had a bit of a drive to Merced, CA that afternoon, so we decided not to go to the top. Here is the view of the falls from the bridge at the halfway point:

Vernal Falls

Once back in the valley, we hopped in the truck and headed off toward Merced, with visions of delicious taco truck burritos dancing in our heads.

Stop 8: Ancient Bristlecone Pines National Forest

On June 21st we woke up at our hotel in Bishop, California, well-rested and ready to head out for an interview. This one would be a little different. This time we were going someplace that was not chosen due to its geology, but due to the unusual plants that live there. Ancient Bristlecone Pines National Forest is part of the Inyo National Forest. It contains some of the oldest trees alive, and has a dendrochronology record that goes back almost 10,000 years. This time, we were not going back millions of years, but thousands of years.


We drove south, then east, then north out of Bishop to get there. It was a long, twisty, up and down road with great views. When we arrived at the beautiful, brand-new Visitors Center, we met Dave Hardin. Dave is a retired middle school science teacher from Bishop, who now works as a Ranger at Ancient Bristlecone Pines. In talking to all these park rangers, I’ve become rather jealous of their jobs, but Dave’s job in retirement gave me a great idea. If you need to find me after I’ve retired from teaching, start looking at national parks out west!


Dave started off by introducing us to a few Bristlecone Pine trees. He explained the life history of the trees, and why they live in this area. It turns out this stop was about geology afterall! The bristlecones grow very slowly, and I mean VERY slowly! He showed us a couple of trees that were under a foot tall. I would have guessed they were 1-2 years old. They were 15 or more years old! The problem with growing very slowly is that almost everything is taller than you for a long time. These trees can’t even compete with the sagebrush that grows only to about 18 inches tall. So, if you can’t compete, you better be able to live where no one else can! That’s exactly what bristlecones do. They grow in the dolomitic rock, which is basic, or alkaline. They don’t particularly love basic soil, but the sages can’t grow there. In fact, almost no plants can grow there, so they avoid competition. They also grow pretty far apart from each other for the same reason. Being too close together leads to competition.

Bristlecones on the left, sagebrush on the right

In fact, when a bristlecone finds a good place to grow, it will grow there, very slowly for thousands of years, using up the mineral resources in the soil around it. Eventually, it will exhaust the minerals in the soil its roots can reach, and it will start to die back. The oldest bristlecone pines have tall branches that have died off and lost their bark. Many have only a small section of green needles left. But they still produce cones in their old age. Bristlecones even reproduce slowly. They have a two year reproduction cycle and don’t reach reproductive maturity until their 30s. As Dave said, if you want to live a long time like the bristlecones, you should rest often, and live slowly. Somehow I don’t think I’ll live to see 4000 years, even if I take lots of naps!

Here is the video of Dave explaining everything about the Bristlecones, and then part of our hike.

When we left the Visitors Center, we took a short trail into the Path of the Ancients. The trail wound around among the trees and there were lots of squirrels and wildflowers to see. The trees individual ages are not indicated in any way, because in the past people have broken off parts of the trees as souvenirs when they knew which tree was the oldest. Now people are less likely to take parts, since they don’t know which tree is oldest. Still, we knew what to look for and could identify the very old trees, as opposed to the several hundred year-old youngsters. I have been around rocks and fossils the last few weeks with ages in the millions of years old, but I felt a kinship with these 4000 year-old trees. They are alive. It was awe-inspiring to think about what human history they had been witness to. They were standing here before the Egyptians built the pyramids, when the Greeks dominated the Mediterranean, and while the Mayans were contemplating how to measure time.

This tree is in the three to four thousand year old range!

The oldest trees may be approaching the ends of their lives because they have used up all of their resources, but the younger trees, maybe 1000 years old, are still growing strong. While I was thinking about the history of the trees, I began to think about their future. As the climate warms, they will not survive at lower elevation. They will not be able to compete with the piñon pines that currently cannot live at such high, cool elevations, but will soon be able to. It is sad to think that the next generation will live at higher elevation, and the one after that at higher elevation still. The mountains only go up so far. If the climate warms too much (and too quickly), the population of these ancient organisms may not survive. The bristlecones have made their stand by growing and changing very slowly. In a quickly changing climate, the population may not be able to adapt. I suppose it is possible that they will find a way; nature often does, but it is not just the polar bears whose extinction I worry about. Maybe the bristlecones don’t make such a good poster child for environmental awareness, but you can’t deny the wisdom of the ancients. I hope we can learn from them and find a way to slow down our pace so our society can reach an old age along with our elders, the bristlecone pines.

An ancient

Stop 6: Zion

When we left Capitol Reef, we drove to Bryce Canyon. I feel like we short-changed this park, because we only spent about two hours there. But I must say, two hours at Bryce allows you to see quite a bit. We drove through and stopped at a few overlooks. Bryce has the youngest rocks in the Grand Staircase. These limestone rocks weathered in much the same way as Arches’ rocks did. After years of ice wedging and water erosion, the sandstone has been carved into many tall fins and hoodoos (tall, thin towers that look like people or spirits rising from the ground).

Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce also has an impressive amount of biodiversity, including species typical of the high desert, bristlecone pines, pronghorns (is there anything cuter than a prancing pair of pronghorns? No, there is not), and at least one friendly raven.

Young pronghorn antelope prancing in the meadow

A raven surveys his domain

Once we had finished up at Bryce, we were all exhausted from what we had seen and all the hiking we had done! We drove to our campsite just outside the park. We had reserved our spot very early in the year, so we got the best site! We had a teepee that was located on a little peninsula of land near a lake, all by itself. It was such a nice area that people hiked back to the lake to check it out. One German couple even stopped to congratulate us on our “house” and asked if we could build a fire inside it like the Native Americans used to do. Of course, we built our fire outside. We had an early departure planned for the morning, so we threw our stuff in the teepee and made dinner (brats and instant mashed potatoes over the campfire). As night fell, we watched the stars come out and saw a meteor, the Milky Way, and several satellites. It’s amazing the difference light pollution makes! You definitely don’t see things like this in Indianapolis! Evan insisted on getting the telescope out, so we did. But Kieran went to bed early. Apparently the novelty of sleeping in a teepee combined with the exhaustion from the day’s activities were too much for him. When it was time for the rest of us to retire, we crawled into our sleeping bags. Evan and Kieran have nice 20 degree mummy bags and they slept fine. David and I had 40 degree, old sleeping bags. The forecast for the night was 38 degrees for the low. When David and I woke up with the first rays of morning sun, we were shivering! We started packing up the site and noticed that a pillow we had left out to dry (apparently our car-top carrier is water-resistant, not water-proof) had frozen to the table! Turns out it had dropped to 26 degrees that night. We got the boys up and headed out to find coffee and get to Zion National Park.

Our house on the lake near Bryce

When we got to Zion on 6/19/14, we stopped at a few pullouts to take pictures, but pretty soon we were in the valley ready for our interview. We met Dave Sharrow at the Human History Museum and then drove to a bridge that crossed the Virgin River. Dave had been really helpful when I was in the planning phase of this trip, suggesting books to read and asking questions that helped me think about the logistics of the interviews. He thought this location would make for a nice video, and he was right! What a beautiful place! Dave is a hydrologist, but works to manage all the natural resources of the park, not just the water resources.

Stream in Zion National Park

The geologic story of Zion National Park is a story of sand dunes. The park is mostly composed of Navajo Sandstone which forms the highest sandstone cliffs in the world (2,000 feet high)! These cliffs have been carved out of a very thick layer of rock formed in the Jurassic period when Utah was covered with the largest sand dune desert ever known to have existed on Earth. Because these dunes were filled with grains of sand that had been smoothed and rounded as they were blown across the desert, these rocks have small gaps between the grains that can hold water. As a result, the former desert dunes now contain a great deal of water which seeps out as springs. I was quite surprised to learn that the Virgin River we were standing over was not fed by runoff or snowmelt, but by springs!

Zion Canyon Sandstone Cliffs

All of this water leaking out of the rock is responsible for the erosion that has carved Zion Canyon. Dave explained that the rate of erosion here is incredibly fast. Each 1000 years, 1.3 feet of depth is eroded from the canyon. This may seem slow, but the Mississippi River in contrast, only erodes at a rate of 0.11 feet per year!  Almost all of this erosion takes place during the major flash flood events that happen several times a year.

After our interview, Dave and I had a conversation that any teacher might find interesting. I asked what things a visitor might miss when they come to Zion. He said that what a visitor takes away from the experience depends very much on what they knew when they arrived. Later on I got to thinking that we teachers often complain that we have diverse classes which can be a challenge. For example, my students range from highly motivated students who have taken AP science and math courses and gotten As in them, to highly motivated students with limited English proficiency, to unmotivated students who hate science and just want to graduate, to students with a variety of learning disabilities, and everything in between. But at a national park, the expectation is to educate all of those people, plus very young children, much older adults, all without knowing their past education. Of course the point of education should always be to meet the learner where they are and increase their knowledge from that point. Unfortunately, this is the problem with reliance on standardized tests to measure teacher effectiveness. Students don’t start off with standardized knowledge, attitudes, and skills; so an end-of-year assessment does not necessarily measure student growth. True student growth is multifaceted and very difficult to measure. But I digress. At any rate, this conversation really made me appreciate the efforts of the National Park Service to educate visitors no matter what prior knowledge they possess.

Before we left him, we asked Dave for a few suggestions for trails to hike. We finally chose to hike up the canyon along the Canyon Overlook trail. We saw lots of lizards and hundreds of tadpoles! It was odd but nice to be in a desert, and to hear and see so much flowing water! I really enjoyed seeing the tracks left in the sand by all the passing animals. It reminds me of the “nature of science” activity many teachers do with pictures of animal prints and questions about what you can infer from what you see. I will leave it to the reader to interpret the interactions between the animals that made these tracks.

Tracks made by someone at Zion

I’m sure this guy had something to do with some of it!

Hey lizard, you have something on your head.

We also found this kind:

More tracks at Zion...Awwwww!

We saw a huge amount of biodiversity here, probably due to the park being on the edge of the Colorado plateau and having both desert climate and lots of water.

Kieran checking out the tadpoles

We are currently having some technical difficulties with the videos. I’m going to post this now, and hope the video problem gets fixed soon. I’ll update the blog when that’s done!  The problem has been resolved, mostly, I think. Thank you, David!! Here is the link to the video of my interview with Dave Sharrow.

Next up: Las Vegas and then Death Valley.

Stop 5: Capitol Reef

After leaving Arches National Park, we made the drive to Capitol Reef National Park. The drive between the two parks is absolutely breathtaking. With each turn around a mountainside or crest of a hill, we would OOOHHH and AAAHHH! We thought it was hilarious when we got near Capitol Reef and saw a sign for a “scenic route”. Is there a road in this area that isn’t scenic? We doubt it! We got to our hotel with some time to relax. I did two loads of laundry, and while waiting on it to dry, I walked the hotel property to take some pictures. The hotel bordered some grazing land that was fenced off and had an enormous sandstone butte behind it. The boys decided to take a short and very cold swim (the water was OK, but the air temperature was 58 degrees, and it was windy). After getting them out of the pool, I decided to go back out and take some sunset pictures.

Sunset at our hotel: Best Western Capitol Reef


Sunset at Best Western Capitol Reef



Sunset again

After a good night’s sleep, we got up on 6/18/14 and headed to the Visitors Center at Capitol Reef. We met Ranger Anna Vornholt and Geologist Sophie Westacott. They did a great job explaining the geology at Capitol Reef. I must say, this area is incredibly beautiful mainly due to its fascinating geology, but the geology is difficult to see and explain. I’ll do my best here: If you picture the layers of sediment that were deposited in a shallow tidal flat (symmetrically wavy, if you remember the discussion at Arches) as pages in a stack of multi-colored paper lying on a table; all the pages are in horizontal planes. Then picture pushing against the edges of the pages (tectonic plates moving toward each other did this) and making the pages fold upward on one end. If you look at the edges of the pages, you might see an S-shape. This is known as a monocline, or fold. You would still only see the top sheet if you look at it from above. This is the youngest rock. Now picture taking the whole stack, still folded and run a saw through it horizontally. This would represent the erosion that has happened since the fold. This would expose many different colors of rock. Since each layer has a different composition, they erode at different rates (differential erosion, again). For this reason, some of the rock layers look like fins that stick up at angles. Some erode quickly into piles. Each layer is a different color: red, cyan, grey, mustard yellow, orange, white, black, beautiful. OK, if that doesn’t make much sense, watch Sophie explain it with the Geology Sponge. It’s a pretty effective teaching tool. I just might have to make myself one. Capitol Reef has North America’s largest monocline and one of the largest in the world, called the Waterpocket Fold.

Here is a link to the video:

Anna and Sophie also explained our observation that the land looked like someone had sprinkled black rocks all over the surface. This area was covered with a lava flow not long ago. The black volcanic rock that came from deeper within the crust flowed over the surface of the rocks and cooled. As it cooled it contracted, leaving cracks in the rocks. As rain seeped into the cracks, it eroded the layer of rock under the volcanic rock, but left the super hard black rock as it was. Eventually, the underlying rock became eroded away and the volcanic rocks were no longer supported, so they rolled downhill. The black rocks were rounded by all the rolling and tumbling down the hillsides. Everywhere we went in the park, we noticed these black rocks that had rolled and settled temporarily in place. We thought it would be interesting to come back in a few years. Certainly gravity will have shown them the way to lower elevation still.


Black and red rocks at Capitol Reef in Cohab Canyon

After our interview, we asked for recommendations on a good hike and maybe a nice drive. We are coming to find that asking rangers these questions can lead to some spectacular sights! Of course, when I asked Anna her favorite trail, she said her favorite hike ever is always the last one she took. They suggested a trail that doesn’t get much use because it is a tough climb up switchbacks for the first half mile or so. They also suggested a drive that was on a dirt road, but passable by a two-wheel drive vehicle in current conditions, so we would have no trouble. We did the hike first, and it did not disappoint. Anna and Sophie had mentioned that Capitol Reef has yellow-bellied marmots, but I assumed that we wouldn’t see any. All these parks have mountain lions, but sightings are extremely rare. I thought marmots might be similarly rare. I was wrong. Not two minutes into our hike, we saw about eight marmots sunning themselves on the rocks that were being warmed by the morning sun.

Yellow-bellied marmot being adorable, er sunning himself.

Once on the main trail, we took our time going up the face of the mountain and got lots of pictures of the valley below. There were some clouds and their shadows drifted across the valley, causing it to take on a different look every time we turned that direction.

The valley from the top of the trail

Once we reached the peak, we found ourselves in a yellow sandstone canyon. The hike suddenly became easy, with many opportunities for the kids to climb. We noticed that the rock had crossbedding, striations caused by windblown sediment being deposited from different directions, back when this area was sand dunes, before it became lithified. The rock was quite a contrast from the red tidal flat layer we saw lower on the hillside. And of course, the whole area had black, round basalt rocks that had fallen into the canyon. We walked through an area called the grand wash. The trail guide said not to hike here if there was a threat of rain. It was very apparent how water had shaped this area of the canyon. We even saw a little pool of water, but we couldn’t get down to it easily to check for aquatic life.

Iron-rich rocks, formed in different environmental conditions along the Cohab Canyon Trail


In Cohab Canyon

The boys found a nice place to climb


Lizard tracks


We only did half of the hike and then went back down to the truck. Evan and Kieran must have been ready for a break because they fell asleep on my favorite drive so far! We drove out of the park onto Bureau of Land Management lands. The area had lots of grazing cattle and was fairly flat for a while. They we came back onto NPS land in the Waterpocket Fold District of the park. We drove along a valley bottom for a while. On our left was a small river that had cut deeply onto the rock. Further to the left, there was a long tall wall of rock. On our near right were fins upon fins of various colors and textures, all sticking out of the ground at a 45 degree angle. Farther off to our right were high red and yellow sandstone walls. The road and river both meandered between various layers of rock. After driving along the fold for about thirty minutes, the road turned right, toward the high sandstone walls and then climbed switchbacks up and out of the canyon. We had amazing views, but I was nervous at the same time. The road was steep and one lane, but not one way. We were happy that we didn’t encounter anyone going the other way! We had hoped to stop at a particular overlook, but missed the turn. Here is a link to the photo on the NPS website that has the picture I was hoping to get. And below are some of the pictures I took of the area. Not quite as spectacular, but lots of color, still.

The road to the Waterpocket Fold District in Capitol Reef National Park

To the left of the road


Going between fins

Fins and chevrons

The tree grew straight up. The rocks didn't!

The view from the top of the road

At the top

After the climb out of the valley, we entered the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument. This is a huge patch of land that connects the north rim of the Grand Canyon with the other parks that make up the Grand Staircase of the Colorado Plateau: Bryce Canyon at the top of the stairs with the youngest rock, Zion National Park with older rocks, and the Grand Canyon with lower elevation and older rocks. This was a nice bonus, since we hadn’t planned to go to this Monument! That’s one more beautiful place to add to our list.

A small part of Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument

Capitol Reef may be my favorite park. I wish I could have stayed longer and explored it more. It doesn’t get as many visitors as some, but it should! It is a truly inspiring place to view the dramatic changes the Earth has been through, and a reminder that it is still changing. It is impossible to really capture its magnificence in photos or video. If you are ever in southern Utah, don’t miss this remarkable park!

Interesting videos from NOLA

My husband David tends to be the man behind the video camera.  Here are a few videos he’s made with the new camcorder.  The first few are at Barataria Preserve in Jean Lafitte National Park.  Turn up the sound and listen to the frogs…

Here is an adult American alligator and a baby in front of her (I’m assuming this is Mama, but I don’t know.

And here’s a swimming gator.

And on a completely unrelated note, here is a street musician in NOLA.

We are enjoying capturing the sights and sounds of the south!