“The Lonesome Crowded West”
A Short Story
By: Chad Ambrose
To begin, I must tell you who I am (so I thought, anyways).
I am 21 years old, male, Caucasian, American, intellectual, analytical, flippant, peaceful, thin, bearded, and curious. I ask questions, but the hard ones, I keep to myself. I like to figure things out for myself whenever possible. The Bible says self-reliance is a sin. I don’t believe in the Bible. Regarding God, I believe the concept is irrelevant. We are here now and will become soil, or ideally a fossil, long after we lose the ability to breath and circulate blood through our veins.
I’m a junior at the University of Pittsburgh, studying Environmental Studies and Administration of Justice, while also learning how to live.
I am lucky enough to have parents that made the finer things in life possible and to them I am eternally grateful. My friends inspire me to be exceptional. To them, I am also eternally grateful. My sister keeps me grounded on this Earth and will never let me forget where home is and to her I am eternally grateful.
Take A Hike
Once upon a time, a boy (myself) rolled out of bed at about 7:00 am on a Saturday in June. I walked out the front door of apartment #2 and headed down the block to see my best friends one last time before I journeyed off to The Lonesome Crowded West. My closest companions from college loaded up in the car to drop me off at the airport and bid their somber farewells for the summer.
“May I see your driver’s license, sir?” said the attendant at the curbside baggage check. “Mr. Chad D. Ambrose, En Route to Denver, Colorado.”
I sauntered inside with my boarding passes, backpack and sleeping bag. A few short hours later, and I had landed in Colorado, yet hardly any time had even passed. An envoy of students were – at the same time – embarking on their own similar journey to Denver, and then to Laramie, Wyoming; 18 in total but it was no coincidence. This trip had been planned for several long months of anxiety and anticipation.
During the flight I had thought, “who am I going to be friends with these long 6 weeks; who is going to understand me out here. It’s taken me 21 years to finally find a few people who understand me; what are the chances that even 1 out of the 18 or so people I’m about to meet will…”
Our group rendezvoused at the airport, and after all had arrived, we split into 2 separate groups. I took a seat in the van that was predominantly inhabited by the males of the group and proceeded to plug in my headphones. The drive was expected to take 2 and a half hours in total, but first we planned to stop at a significant geologic outcrop in Northern Colorado for a course introduction. As a group, we viewed dinosaur trace fossils while admiring Red Rock’s Amphitheater in the background. (which just so happens to be an interesting and complex part of the fossiliferous Morrison formation.) After walking around for about half an hour, we all returned to the vans and continued upon our drive.
For the remainder of the ride north to Laramie, I decided to leave my headphones in my backpack so that I could converse and listen to music through the radio with the other guys in the van. It was relieving to learn that most of the guys seemed to have interesting and similar musical interests, but also, varying perspectives on the world and intriguing political ideologies.
The first day of the class, Reading the Earth, (the class in which we were all enrolled) involved traveling through the very small, desolate, western town of Rock River, Wyoming. We arrived at the property called the Allen L. Cook Spring Creek Preserve. This is where we would be spending the majority of the next 4 to 6 weeks of our lives. The course was based upon 3 main pillars: ecology, geology, and paleontology, while also analyzing the interconnections between all of these disciplines. We were lucky enough to have 3 dedicated professors to properly teach the information, Mandi, Steve, and Kelli.
Mandi had taught the course several summers prior and was undoubtably the alpha of the course. She leads the group in exercises designed to understand the prairie ecology of Eastern Wyoming and in particular the plant life. Steve also leads the group in learning ecology of the prairie. Being an ornithologist, he adds an important emphasis about birds, bird life, and in particular, the Riparian zones of ecosystems that parallel the prairie ecology that is to be studied. Kelli leads the group in learning the geology of the region. She also helps the class to make connections between characteristics of geologic formations, geologic time and fossils associated with the specific formations to be studied.
During my academic career, I had developed a strong background in geology, having studied the subject several times thus far in both high school, and in depth at college. I was very excited to learn more about this subject first hand in the field, rather than my previous experiences within the classroom.
In addition to a strong study of geology, I also was prepared for this course with a fundamental understanding of fossils, dinosaurs, and vertebrate evolution. During the spring semester prior to this summer field course, I had enrolled in a [r]evolutionary course offered by the University of Pittsburgh: Evolution of the Vertebrates. Therefore I was anxious for the opportunity to see actual dinosaur fossils, or any fossils, in their true and natural depositional environment. My knowledge of birds entering the course was – albeit – minimal. So with regard to that, I was apprehensive, but still looking forward to the ornithological portion of the course.
After the first week in the course, I was able to have a moment of reflection, and digest the whirlwind of changes having occurred in the past 7 days. I thought to myself…
“Wow! I’m simply awestruck by this entire experience. It is both everything I’ve ever wanted and nothing I have ever expected. Camping and hiking in Vedauwoo State Park felt like a total and complete vacation. Hiking up mountains like those and seeing such vast views had been beyond imagination. But in reality, it was not a vacation. It was an intense environmental change and learning experience, best to happen in the true beauty of nature. I became acclimated to high altitude, hot sun, intense winds, long days, and pre-planned meals. I also became acclimated to sleeping on the ground. I had camped outside a total of 3 nights thus far and had spent 6 of the 7 days in the field. (Actually 7 of 7 because I chose to partake in an additional hike at Happy Jack’s Recreation Area.) I am more impressed with what I had learned in the first week, even more-so than with what I had become acclimated to. The plants and animals are so incredibly different here compared to ecology of the east coast. But after only a week, I look at plants growing low and matted to the ground and recognize Hooker’s Sandwart. I notice shrubs with pale olive green leaves, emitting a lovely and unique scent, and realize this must be Wyoming Big Sage. I see the white flowers of the Woody Aster plants and see disturbed soil. And I then subtly began to understand the impact of native, yet invasive, plant species. When I span various horizons, I see hints of red, grassy, branched stems and realize that this must be Cheat Grass and/or Flixweed (which are equally significant non-native invasive species).
The first week also taught me a different way to look at animals. When I see a bird fly off, I notice that it happens to be bigger than a sparrow, with a black body and white markings on its wings. I realize this must be a Nighthawk leaving its nest. Similarly, I look to the sky and see several large birds circling together with various soaring/flying patterns and am able to differentiate between a (some) Turkey Vulture, Golden or Bald Eagle, and Crow. Occasionally binoculars are a necessary tool for these observations, but I know what to look for after just one short week.
Reflection about the larger mammals we’ve encountered allows me to draw some conclusions. Grazing in this part of the country and within this ecosystem plays an ever so significant role. Cattle create destructive paths between grazing areas and watering holes. Other grazers like Prong Horn and Mule Deer also contribute. I am uncertain to what extent their contributions degrade the environment compared to cattle, but none-the-less, there is an effect.
Not only do the grazers play a role on the prairie, but also the burrowing White-Tailed Prairie Dogs significantly alter the landscape by tunneling and thus shifting soils and sediment. This keystone species impacts the local ecosystem in many ways, most notably by transporting seeds throughout the areas they affect. These critters can be looked at as both good and bad (mostly good but I guess that’s a matter of perspective).”
I sat back, looked at the stars, stared in awe and fell asleep to the incredible melodies and inspiring lyrics of Isaac Brock and the band Modest Mouse. Man oh man, I certainly had quite an astonishing introduction to the Wild Wild West.
When I awoke in the morning to the sunrise, I quickly struggled to find my phone to snap a quick picture.
“This trip is bound to have many beautiful sunrises, but this one seemed extra special.”
The next week flew by incredibly fast. Cliques in the groups began to be identified as easily as the changes in geologic formations can be seen. My introverted nature typical lead me to be solitary individual. I did my best to remain uninfluenced, although generally certainly associated myself with Dutch, Paul, Chris, Eliott, and Dan H. when splitting up for meals or short hikes. There were many opportunities to bond with other group members this week. We were assigned several labs requiring group work in teams of 2 or 3 to properly perform the procedures.
Finally Monday night had come around and the group had time to relax and get caught up on work. I had desperately yearned for some alone time for reflection. I returned to a comfortable space beneath a cottonwood in the nearly empty Northwestern corner of the cemetery that lay adjacent to the University of Wyoming campus. The sunset, as always, was beautiful, peaceful and inspiring. Or perhaps my inspiration was a result of all of the thoughts, stories, and ideas buried beneath me. Regardless, I reflected upon the week…
“We’ve shifted gears a bit. We took the knowledge gained in the first week, and with its application we were able to analyze the effects of cattle grazing by comparing biodiversity of grazed land with its control subject; a protected exclosure of land. We also took a beautiful field trip to camp at Seminoe State Park. This park was an effective conduit to introduce depositional environments and their relationships to various rock formations that expand across this Southeastern region of Wyoming. Like plants and animals, I began viewing geologic formations in awe and beauty. But, with only a bit of direction and closer observations, I learned to distinguish sandstone, limestone, and granite deposits with merely a glancing eye from the distance. Not only did I learn the types of rocks, but also, the names, depositional environments, relative ages, and the stories told within the faults and folds of these formations.”
“Knowledge, like snow, is beautiful. Snow in use, like knowledge in use is majestic and peaceful. Snow at rest can be good or bad. Sometimes it will melt and feed a dry area that lacks seasonal precipitation. Other-times it will collapse in the manner of an avalanche and destroy everything in its path. Knowledge at rest can steep and create a masterful conclusion. Yet on the contrary, it may over marinate and sadly all go to waste. Everything is best in moderation. I’m taking newly developed knowledge, allowing it to snowball, throwing the snowballs at walls and determining which parts stick together, which pieces break apart, and which ones are redundant and irrelevant. And heck, why not use knowledge to have a bit of fun.”
“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” said a brilliant man named Carlos Martinez del Rio, quoting Shakespeare to our group from Pittsburgh. Although scholars debate the meaning of each word, our experience in Wyoming brought forth the essence of Ulysses’ search for brotherhood. Being exposed to Nature in its purest form starkly contrasted the lives we came from in Pittsburgh; not to say that there isn’t Nature in civilization, but this new touch of Nature rendered the group of strangers now as a family.
The great thing that separates family – kin – from all other relationships is its versatility and resiliency. The incessant busy-ness of our group was clear to any observer. The stress level had risen exponentially, fluctuating between anxiety and frustration. However, our strong bedrock — a desire for knowledge — withheld all potential rifts in our pride. I reflected upon the past 9 days, the highs, the lows, the in betweens and the dreams.
“To think that I don’t know emotion, Man I’m an incredibly emotional person. I change in a matter of minutes. I miss home, my friends, my bed. I love the freedom, the wilderness, the ground. I hate structure. I love structure. I love being alone. I crave being the center of attention. I drive myself crazy. I calm myself down. I put myself through an entire range of feelings, Every.Single.Day. And that’s OKAY. The last thing I expected to learn from the vastness of the West is how to explain emotions. However, it makes a great deal of sense. Everything is connected.”
The prior week involved discussions between the students with an emphasis on the connections between Art and Science. After perusing a series of essays on entomology, we joined author and Professor Jeffrey Lockwood for a discussion about insect life in the prairie. Rather than focusing specifically around insects, Lockwood led our discussion toward innovative ways of articulating the right questions. He introduced us to an interesting project where scientists and artists from seemingly unrelated backgrounds were placed into pairs (e.g. dancer, and entomologst; painter and physicist). By approaching issues in nature from vastly different perspectives, each pair drew new conclusions to old questions. By prescribing to open minded philosophies, science and art can be viewed through the same lens.
Lockwood was not the only person to explore this Art and Science relationship with the group. We also met with Carlos, another professor from the University of Wyoming School of Ecology. His presentation opened our eyes to opportunities on the frontier for sustainable ecology research. He described a future project that will commission beautiful sculptures of important animals in the local ecosystem around campus. The sculptures will show each creature’s true viewpoint of the world. What’s it really like to be a hawk flying above the prairie compared to the snake slithering through the rhizomatous wheat grasses?
“What an intriguing concept, if only I were going to be around when these were to be complete. Of course, I can always come back, and perhaps I will come back, perhaps I will have the opportunity to collaborate with artists back here in this wild, unruined, western part of the world. I hate to sound pessimistic, because I do indeed love the East and I love the rebounds being made in Pittsburgh, and other similar cities as well. But it is undeniable that we (humans/civilizations) have screwed up a multitude of things. Carlos expressed the sentiment properly, “Wyoming, we can still get this [place] right.””
It was not only brilliant professors that brought out the connections between Art and Science. The 18 students of Reading the Earth were lucky enough to have fellow Studio Arts students on a similar journey in the same region of Wyoming. They combined their creative skills with the beauty of Nature in incredibly simple, yet profound exhibits. We utilized our opportunity to ask questions to the Studio Arts students and received unparalleled insight into their great work. Each artist presented their capstone project to our group, and the sharing of perspectives concluded handsomely
“This is absolutely brilliant. I am so lucky to have this opportunity, to have this chance to apply the connections explained throughout the week, and throughout the course, firsthand as a scientist with these artists.”
“The stress of the work load, the incessant planned activities, allow me to appreciate the greatest luxury in life, time. Time, and in particular ‘free-time’ often is wasted and even more often is taken for granted. While hiking the beautiful areas of Crater Lake and Rock Creek, my stress dissipated, my emotions came out. Nature reached out and touched us all.”
— The Wild Wild West —
Never Ending Sky
Holster of the Sun and Moon
Beneath You I Sleep
I’ve Got it All(most)
12,013 feet above sea level…6.5 miles of hiking…Swimming in tarn lakes…Pictures…Jokes…Frustrations…Meals…Stars…Sunrises…Readings…Statistics…Dinosaur Bones…Ammonite Fossils…Morrison…Jurassic…Cretaceous…Larmide Erogogny…Rifts…Rocks…Sweat…Mud…Bentonite…Lightning…Clouds…Water…Dirt…
It’s just a list of things. But it’s also much more than that. Anyone can read that list and think different things. It is all a matter of context. Everything is a matter of context.
The group of students took one last hike as an entire group of 18. The destination was Medicine Bow Peak, one of the highest points in Wyoming and the tallest peak in the Snowy Range, on the outskirts of the small town of Centennial, Wyoming. They ate lunch 12,013 feet above sea level. There isn’t much oxygen at 12,013 feet. There aren’t any trees at 12,013 feet. There are rocks. There are moths. There are views, oh the views. The hike was 6.5 miles round-trip and every inch was exhausting. And every inch was worth it. There was no swimming in the tarn lakes on this occasion. But there was ice cream. There were pictures. And there were jokes.
The hike differed quite vastly from most of the other hikes our group had taken. The composition of the mountain was metamorphosed quartz sandstone – quartzite. There were neither dinosaur bones, nor ammonite fossils. The final few days of the course had involved groups determining the taphonomy of fossilized dinosaur bones, AKA reading the story written within the Earth. The Earth has so many stories to tell, billions of years worth of stories. Which ones are important? Which ones are irrelevant? Which ones are masterpieces? Which ones were just practice?
The brilliant instructors of our course chose several invaluable stories to best lead us toward the Wisdom that one may gain from Reading the Earth. They didn’t pick easy stories to read. They in fact picked difficult stories, the puzzling, fascinating ones.
One of the greatest stories the Earth has to share is the dinosaurs. But long before these Great Lizards left their footprints, life had taken root on Earth. That was the purpose of exploring these billion-year-old metamorphosed outcrops. The story they tell is abstract. Long ago, there were salty oceans and sandy beaches of quartz. Somewhere in the vicinity of 2.5 billion years ago, the sandstones from these Archean beaches were eventually subjected to intense heat and pressure, changing their composition, while maintaining the important pieces of the story they held within.
Slightly North of Medicine Bow Peak held another fascinating story. Long before an oxygen rich atmosphere paved the way for evolutionary processes bringing forth mankind, there was the same Earth, recording a story of a world where anaerobic organisms had dominion over the vast oceans. The ever-present sun passed on its energy to these organisms in these ancient oceans. They learned to use the energy in photosynthesis and alas the Proterozoic life forms produced an abundance of oxygen, enough to oxidize all of the soluble iron within the oceans and also to transpire into the atmosphere. These stromatolites lived and died. And the Earth held onto this story to always be remembered by those keen enough to notice.
“I’m a bottomless knowledge pit. That’s what I’ve realized. Like the Hanna Basin, the Rocky Mountains, or the Laramide Erogony, I hope to have my soft spots eroded away, but not forgotten. They can fill in the rift of knowledge, left as a gap between these massive uplifts. I may get built up to elevated peaks, but I know I am never impervious to being torn down to the ground again and again. However many times I get torn down, however many times my knowledge pit fills. I will persevere. Deep beneath my core is an ocean of sediment, melting into magma soon to be spewed to the surface either quickly or slowly depending on the circumstances. It will harden, crystallize and under enough pressure, will metamorphose. Regardless of what happens, the ups, the downs, the mistakes, the triumphs, my story will be told. The Earth’s story will be told. Read it if you please.”
Wild Wild Western World
Incredibly Empty, Open, Free
Wise, Crowded, Stunning
“Wilderness fills man’s need for places where he can be reminded that civilization is only a thin veneer over the deep evolutionary flow of things that built him.”