This is the first part in a short series from my time at field camp in college. Look for the next parts in the coming weeks.
The first time I heard Doug “Wahoo” we were driving in a twelve-seat van. It was just the two of us. We were looking for springs, the kind where water leaks/gushes/bubbles out of the ground. We were looking for springs in Pilot Valley, Utah.
Pilot Valley sits underneath snowcapped Pilot Peak, and even most people in Utah would give you a quizzical look if you asked them where it was. One of the springs we had found earlier was called Donner Springs, as in the infamous Donner Party that stopped here on their way west. Believe me, if they’d traveled through Pilot Valley, they’d been miserable long before they made it to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and starved to death. If there ever was a center to the middle-of-nowhere, Pilot Valley was it. Besides a small, sad farm and a thriving metropolis for lizards, there was nothing that would bring any sane individual to this place.
But then we were geologists.
The Donners were lucky. Their spring may have held fresh cool water, but the conductivity meter told us they would not have found respite at most of the springs oozing up along the western bank of the valley. Conductivity translated to “saltiness” and we’d affectionately named some of the springs things like Salty and Nasty, which should tell you just how refreshing they would be after a long dry trudge across the wasteland to the east.
In fact, all of the springs in the valley are along the western hills and are at the same exact elevation. This elevation is significant in Utah, as it is the shoreline from a fifteen-thousand-year-old lake, although most Utahns know it as The Bench. In populated areas people who live on The Bench have
A: to shovel more snow than the rest of us, and
B: more money for the fancier houses built there, so can probably afford snow blowers.
The shoreline is at the same elevation all the time, everywhere, from Pilot Valley, to Salt Lake City, to Idaho in the north. Driving through a shade-less, baked, and barren desert, it was a bit difficult to imagine that this all used to be underwater. If you could have rowed a canoe onto the vast Lake Bonneville, fifteen or twenty thousand years ago, you would not recognize the Utah we know now. What are now mountains popped up only as islands back then. There were glaciers emptying into the lake, calving icebergs, and leaving the water silty and bitterly cold. Giant sloths frequented the beaches to drink from its waters.
Now, all we have left of this massive, and beautiful lake is a few small fresh water lakes, one big salty one, and a bench, or shoreline against the mountains that once were islands. It is at this shoreline at which the springs in Pilot Valley come seeping out of the ground.
Doug and I were in search of those springs. Our assignment was to map, describe and measure each one, partly for research and partly to prove we really should be allowed to call ourselves geologists. This was field camp, the last and most epic hurdle needed to receive a piece of paper with the words Bachelor of Science on it.
The springs occurred along a fifteen mile stretch of a dirt road. “The speed limit for the dirt road is 35 miles per hour, no exceptions,” our instructor had said before we left. “If you pop the tire, you will be going to get it fixed, not me.” Doug sped up. We went over a dip and up again.
It rang out the open windows across the empty valley, startling a few lizards along with me. I laughed. That was Doug. Calm and quiet. Polite and responsible. But inside there were more “wahoos” than five other people use in a lifetime. I always knew it, I guess, because I was the same way.