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  • Writer's pictureBecca Dzombak

Wyoming 2019: In which we sample a paleosol mega-transect

I just can't get enough of Wyoming, apparently. After our initial field conference in June and a month of teaching field camp in Jackson, my labmate (other Bekah) and I headed back out to WY in early September for a week of paleosol sampling. After driving from Denver to beautiful Rock Springs, WY (passing some magnificent basement along the way) and loading up on supplies, we drove into the scrubby desert south of Atlantic City, home to lots of banded iron formation (one of the mapping projects during field camp; it's a cool spot). Luckily, we had an uninterrupted stretch of blue skies for days, so our sampling was unimpeded by lightning or mud.

When asked to describe the Wyoming desert where we worked, the first word that comes to mind would have to be 'desolate.' It is a vast, sweeping landscape that at first glance feels empty - and second glance, too - but once you spend a few days immersed in it, you notice things. Little prairie dogs skittering around the sagebrush, hawks and vultures wheeling high overhead, small herds of wild horses kicking up dust in the distance. A field of biological soil crusts stretching up and down mounds of dirt, filling in between drainage ditches long dry. A scorpion uncovered while digging out an ancient, charcoalified log. A snake, almost stepped upon, that elicits a wholly undignified sort of yelp.

The nights, though, are quiet. I've lived in Michigan almost my entire life, and summer nights here are a cacaphony of chirps and tweets, buzzes and croaks. Crickets and peeper frogs orchestrate my sleep. My friends from out west tell me it's deafening enough to keep them from sleeping. Camping in the Wyoming desert, with a near-total absence of insect sounds, throws me for a loop. Every rustle from a harmless squirrel, every gust of wind, cuts through the silence and keeps me on high alert. There's no white noise.

Stepping out to use the facilitrees before I fell asleep, I glanced up at the sky. The sun had set reasonably long ago and the firmament was a perfect navy-purple ink which, without my glasses, appeared nearly glowing with a low, full moon. I grabbed my glasses from my tent and looked back up to see quite possibly the best stars I've ever seen, not a single pinprick of light pollution contaminating the view. The chill in the air that settles over deserts once the sun sets began to creep through my fleece as I stood there, neck craned back, taking it in and thankful that I'd had that seltzer so soon before crawling into my sleeping bag.

Then the coyotes began to yip.

Though distant, their barking bounced off the cliffs, filling the wide valley with their calls. It became unclear where they were exactly, but I knew they were unlikely to bother us. There was something cozy about it, knowing that in this desert, there was life, closeness, celebrated in that pack at night. (It reminds me of my standoffish cat who only deigns to snuggle you at night, when he thinks you're asleep. Only then will he nestle next to my arm.)

I did have to pee, though, and I hurried to the scrub with the anxiety of seeing a glowing pair of eyes reflected in the beam from my headlamp. I took one last long look at the sky, cozied myself back up in my tent, and fell asleep to the sound of coyotes howling in the night.


Other highlights include:

- My first badger(!)

- Using a giant field truck, complete with winch on the front to avoid getting stuck

- Having a desert pool party for Labor Day

- Finding a big piece of shale that's shaped like a longsword

- Meeting another paleosol-seeking geologist on the same outcrop as us in the middle of Wyoming

- And, I'll be honest, heading home a day early to surprise my partner for his birthday! I'm terrible at gifts, so "presence as presents" worked well for me.

I don't want to give too much away, but this work is exciting to me because I'm interested in improving how we use paleosols as paleoclimate proxies. We've sampled a long transect, and we - well, mostly our hardworking undergraduates in the lab - have been grinding away this semester getting all 100+ samples prepped for analysis. With any luck, we'll know a little bit more about paleosols by the end of the year!

And realistically, I'll be back in Wyoming next summer anyway... so many basins, so little time!

(Ancient) lake party for Labor Day in the middle of the Wyoming desert!

Who needs a hammer when you have a pickaxe? // HAPPY HAPPY biological soil crusts!

Sampling the Wasatch in CO // Fall colors arrive in Wyoming

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