Holiday Road Trip? Compelling Reasons to Stuff a Geologist in Your Car – But Do Your Own Driving

“‘If I’m going to drive safely, I can’t do geology.'”

-Geologist quoted by John McPhee in Basin and Range

There’s nothing like roadtripping with geologists. If you’ve got a long, dull trip coming up, stuff a geologist or two in the car with you – it’ll liven things up considerably! Of course, you’ll find yourself taking risks you never expected to take, and pulling your car off the road at extremely short notice and sometimes awfully close to a sheer drop, but trust me, it’ll be worth it.

You know how you’re driving along, minding your own business, and sometimes zip through gashes in hills and such where engineers have decided removing some rock is in the best interest of the roadway? You know how it’s all mostly been a brown or gray blur as you speed past? All that’s about to change.

You’re gonna see the cuts as you’ve never seen ’em before.

Image shows a highway divided by Jersey barriers. A roadcut on the far side has been cut through pale white and gray sediments.
Roadcut on Oregon Highway 97. It was so delicious, I wanted to lick it.

Above is a road cut on Oregon Highway 97. There are four lanes of fast traffic and Jersey barriers. There’s also a sweet shoulder – on the wrong side of the road. But if you get a change to stop here, you’ll be able to look at Nature’s own diagram of how the Basin and Range was formed.

There are so many more stories these rocks will tell you. But you don’t need to take my word for it: here’s the testimony of someone who had the pleasure of traveling the Cascades with a pair of geologists, and learned what it’s all about:

For geologists, professional and amateur alike, it’s simple. It’s the rock below our feet and the rock towering over our heads. It’s the physical and chemical processes that gave these rocks their distinct textures and flavors, and the tremendous forces that shape(d) them. The biotic veneer that selectively coats the crust is fascinating and often beautiful in its own right, but for a geologist, it’s all about what’s underneath that counts.

My apologies for waxing philosophic. I’ve got all this on the brain after returning from a long weekend of road tripping through the Cascades with two close friends—one a structural geologist and the other a seismologist. What better way to see the mountains, right? It’s like having a backstage pass: you get the insider’s scoop, far more interesting than the average self-guided tour.

I confess to a whole new appreciation for road cuts since hitting the road with Lockwood. I’ve discovered that even the most inconsequential-looking road cuts full of boring brown rock can hold wonders if you stop and get close. And hey, if you choose a nearly-deserted stretch of Nevada highway, you can focus your attention where it belongs: on the rocks.

Image shows a highway going through rubbly brown rock.
Roadcut in rhyolite in Nevada. The colors and patterns of these rocks up close are beyond belief.

Of course, it’s not all stop-and-go. You can do geology at any speed. Silver Fox explains it very well in this post:

I was conducting what has been called x-mph geology, where x is the miles per hour one is driving; this time I was doing 70-mph geology. Geology at seventy miles per hour (or 70-mph geology) is generally much less detailed and often less accurate than geology at 20 miles per hour (20-mph geology). And it turns out that if you slow down to about 5 mph or less, you can almost complete a rock report on whatever iron-stained jasperoid or copper-stained porphyry you happen to be driving by, and the speed is almost slow enough for the geo-type in the passenger side of the truck to lean out and grab a sample.

The speed-geology terminology, along with an unrelated warp speed terminology, was invented by myself and another thermally altered geo-type back in the 1980s, probably while bouncing up and down some excessively rocky road in the Mojave Desert. Warp speed terminology is appropriate when gauging speed rather than geology: Warp 1 is 10 mph, a speed indicating that one is probably going steeply uphill or traversing one of those terribly rocky roads. Warp 2 (20 mph) is much preferred to Warp 1, but that still isn’t much. If Scotty will give it all she’s got, maybe you can get your speed up to Warp 4 or 5 on a dirt road, which is heaven, unless the washboard causes “She’s breakin’ up, Captain,” in which case Scotty will have to wind the engines down to a more comfortable Warp 3 or 4. Also, Warp 4.5 to 5 on a dirt road can result in extreme turbulence when one comes over a hill and then bottoms into some unexpected washout on the other side. Scotty might then decide that, “She’s comin’ apart, Captain,” which isn’t a good thing no matter what warp you happen to be doing.

I’ve had that feeling on more than one washboard road in ye olde Honda Civic, but she always holds it together. And we get to see truly amazing sights, like this whole cliffside of shiny serpentinite.

Image shows my silver Honda Civic parked in front of a shiny gray roadcut.
The most awesome roadcut ever, full of glorious serpentinite.

When you’re roadtripping with geologists, there’s a particular rule to have in mind:

One of the first things I tell my students (and occasionally even with some success) is “don’t sleep while traveling in the vans”. Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the lower 48 states, and no matter how much time one has, it’s hard to take it all in. When you only have four days, it’s pretty well impossible, but there is still much to see in transit between stops.

This advice works for locations other than Death Valley. Anywhere there’s landscape of any sort, there’s going to be something fascinating the geologists you’ve commandeered can point out. And you don’t want to miss things like where to find wonderful amygdules filled with zeolites and that sort of information.

Image shows Lockwood and a red-headed geologist inspecting a black and rust-colored roadcut.
The most wonderful vugs live in this modest little roadcut.

Now, sometimes, you’ll hear your geologist(s) huff in frustration. It’ll usually be when you’re gazing in misty-eyed admiration of some magnificent stand of trees, or tangle of vines, or some other example of life’s verdant green virility. You may hear them moan about the sad state of overgrowth about the same time you’re waxing lyrical about how life always finds a way, even in the most hostile situations. There is a reason for this: it’s pretty much like when you’re trying to tell a story, and somebody else is breaking in with inconsequential details. John McPhee explains it beautifully:

To them, the roadcut is a portal, a fragment of a regional story, a proscenium arch that leads their imaginations into the earth and through the surrounding terrane. In the rock itself are the essential clues to the scenes in which the rock began to form – a lake in Wyoming, about as large as Huron; a shallow ocean reaching westward from Washington Crossing; big rivers that rose in Nevada and fell through California to the sea. Unfortunately, highway departments tend to obscure such scenes. They scatter seed wherever they think it will grow. They ‘hair everything over’ – as geologists around the country will typically complain.

Now, being from Arizona, I’m a little suspicious of too many plants ganging up in one place as it is. Now that I’ve done geology, and have a continued torrid love affair with rocks going on, I sometimes really would like someone to get me a flame thrower for Christmas. You may notice a particular glint in your own geologists’ eyes as they give the lovely winter greenery the side-eye. But they’ll also distrust seemingly-bare rocks, too, as Jennifer Frazer well knows:

Now, my friends, you can see why geologists hate “vegetation”. For in addition to your garden-variety and annoyingly rock-obscuring trees, shrubs, flower, and soils, they must also contend with the biofilm of lichens — little fungus-alga co-ops — and naked algae that encase every rock in sight after a few decades. That means that nearly every rock face you look at is not its true color; it’s the color of the encrusting life. The day the light bulb blinked on and I thought, “That cliff isn’t gray-green. The rock is pink and the stuff living on it is gray,” was one of revelation for me.

This further explains why geologists flock to newly blasted road cuts like flies to honey, and further why they carry around rock hammers* for splitting rocks to see what they truly look like. It also explains why I get nervous around them when they get that glimmer in their eyes suggesting that if they could napalm the countryside in their research area, they would.

I have felt this desire. Fortunately, there are plenty of spectacular roadcuts through things like the Crescent Formation in the Olympic Mountains, so I do not have to make the botanists cry.

Are geologists better to travel with than a DVD player? You bet! You will be entertained by their sudden exclamations of wonder. You will find yourself learning things you never suspected were true of the landscapes you drive through. You will come away with a whole new appreciation of dull brown rocks, and dull gray ones, and really, rocks of any kind. You will even find yourself appreciating the amazing stories utterly flat and endless stretches like the American Midwest or Oregon’s Willamette Valley can tell. You could come out with some lovely hand samples containing fascinating fossils and glittering gems. And you will have learned how to do things with your car you never suspected it was capable of.

You will even learn why weirdo lava columns are pointing at you, and realize you’re standing smack where a glacier once was, and can imagine the lava running bang into you, and the columns radiating out from your awesome coolness.

Image shows me standing beside some lovely andesite columns protruding toward the road.
Columns in andesite at Mount Rainier.

You shouldn’t need any more reasons to stuff a geologist in your car this holiday season. Go forth and find one!


Originally published at Scientific American/Rosetta Stones.


Holiday Road Trip? Compelling Reasons to Stuff a Geologist in Your Car – But Do Your Own Driving

7 thoughts on “Holiday Road Trip? Compelling Reasons to Stuff a Geologist in Your Car – But Do Your Own Driving

  1. 1

    I am not a geologist, but yeah.

    Here in the Ozarks, the road cuts reveal karst features, sometimes. There are a few places where the dirt is sloped back, and the half-dissolved pillars left standing all knobbly and layered. Vertical cuts often reveal little caves, and trickles of water (in winter they freeze). One place has a perfect section of a sinkhole, but you have to look back to see it – I always do.

    Deeper down, the undisturbed layers show cyclic stratigraphy – I still am in awe of that. And one place the bedding planes are all disrupted by a meteor crater’s rim – I got to point that out to a real geologist, one time.

    I recall being further East, somewhere, and looking at a road cut, and realizing the black layer was coal. I collected a few chunks.

  2. 2

    One of the risks of taking geology field trips as a student is that your professor drives one of the vehicles. At least, that was the case for me; it took some effort to qualify to drive for the state, and most students didn’t want to bother with it, so there were very few available student drivers. Now, being a passenger with the professor is interesting. He or she wants to tell you all about what you’re seeing as you go down the highway… and even what you aren’t seeing. “You can’t see it from here, but [insert long tectonic dissertation here]. All interesting stuff, and I used to vie to ride shotgun so I could get as much of the story as possible. But from the front passenger seat, you get to watch the professor drive. And it can be scary as hell.

    There was the one who tended to drive down the center of the road. Another who was all over the freeway in heavy traffic. A third who tended to get so interested in the rocks that he could get us lost on back roads in the desert. There was the one who insisted on taking washboards at 50 mph. And every single one of them was capable of pulling over abruptly into a postage-stamp spot of shoulder, leàping out of the vehicle, and running across a busy road to whack at the rocks on the other side.

    Myself, I find it almost impossible to do geology while driving. So I usually talk somebody else into doing the driving. Because, why go somewhere if you can’t look at rocks along the way? This has led to some interesting interactions with my husband, who shakes his head in wonder when I insist he stop so I can get a sample from what to him is a perfectly uninteresting rock face.

  3. 3

    I often drive I-90 from Boston to Buffalo (roughly). That route takes you right through the Mohawk Water Gap, where a major river flows East through the northern end of the Appalachians. It’s a pretty remarkable spot. The Mohawk River (which is navigable and formed part of the Erie Canal), the Interstate, and a rail line squeeze between mountains with little room to spare.

    Not only interesting geology, but an important historic route as well.

  4. 4

    Long ago, I had the privilege of riding with Gene Shoemaker across a long stretch of Moenkopi formation near Holbrook. His aim was to drive at a speed that allowed the vehicle suspension to cancel out the bumps in the “road”, essentially flying with only occasional contact of rubber to rock. He had his left arm and head out the window, the whole way, pointing out geology.

  5. rq

    “Vegetation”. You say that like it’s a bad word. ;)

    Last summer in Canada I did some warp geology (what’s the kilometres-to-warp conversion, or do I just use Canadian warp?) in the Laurentians and then further up north roundabouts Sudbury. For some of that I had my brother the geophysicist on board. Definitely a way to travel.
    I do have to quibble with the ‘do your own driving’ part, though. If your geologist is knowledgeable and reasonably local, they can explain things while simultaneously steering your vehicle and still stay on the road. If you, as a newbie and acolyte, try to whip your head back and forth and still stay between the proper yellow and white lines, you’re putting yourself in danger.
    The only solution I see is many intermittent stops along the way. Or a chauffeur.

  6. 6

    My dad was a geologist and driving around with him always meant that he pointed out “Great roadcuts!” I’d just roll my eyes in boredom, being a kid and all. Now I get so excited, like you, to see the layers of geologic history laid out and I wish he were still around so that we could talk about it.
    One cool thing – in one his publications, “The Geologic Story of Mount Rainier” (Geologic Survey Bulletin 1292 from 1969) there’s a photo of me in front of “Columns of Dark-Gray Andesite” and I’m almost positive it’s the exact spot of the picture of you in your last photo. It’s taken at Rainier on the road to Sunrise.

  7. 7

    I found it! OMG how awesome that our paths crossed that way!

    I wish your dad was still here, too. Oh, the road trips we could take! We should go trekking this summer and bring him along in spirit.

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