Category Archives: camping

On the Road with Students

Last call for the restrooms then faculty, students and tag-alongs piled into the university vans. Our April 2017 Paleogeology field trip to Death Valley was off at last.

4 of crew good

How many years since I went on one of these trips? Too many. I went on one to the Goler Formation when our kid was in elementary school but she’s in graduate school now. Sure, we’d done summer trips to various sites but none had been quite like this, where you set off with a batch of strangers and after three days know each other well enough to be friends, or not….

We found a cottonwood camp site by a dried out arroyo, not a problem since each vehicle had several great jerrycans (bottles these days) of potable water–in fact we carried so much that we dumped several before we set off for home again. I’m sure the cottonwoods enjoyed that. Students had each brought their own tents and sleeping bags, or borrowed from the faculty before we set off. You can see that our own drawtight, a relic from a British arctic expedition, fit right into the landscape. Yes, we do possess something lighter weight and more modern, but in April in the Death Valley desert it can get pretty cold at night and this little friend of ours is a cozy construct.

our tent

My husband and I defined ourselves as camp guards. Outside of the national parks or official national campgrounds, there are of course no stations, no officialdom to protect your possessions, so we pledged to watch over the kit while the students and other faculty went off on site visits. The main purpose of the trip was to give these students a treat– let them camp in the desert and see pre-Cambrian and Cambrian trace fossils and real fossils. Think of burrow traces in mud, and stromatolites, with perhaps occasionally a trilobite in the younger strata.

on a spring evening copy

Wonderful group of students, all obsessed with the mysteries of past life and ecosystems, all willing to recite at the drop of a pen, a list of favorite taxa. I have some familiarity with past life forms, but these kids could describe in passionate detail, creatures I’d never even read about. They were true fans. However I must say that later that night around the little propane ‘firepit’, (the safest source of a bit of warmth and cheer we could manage on a windy night,) the students veered off into realms of the internet, and left the faculty far behind. I noted it with a certain regret, for the other trips I’d been on with department students long years back had students so hungry for more science that they spent the night begging stories and illuminations from the faculty, because they realized that they had a unique opportunity to tap those older brains to their content. Nowhere for the faculty to run away while out camping!

For the first time I cheated over the dinners, and I’d recommend this to any of you going out for a very short trip like this with a sizeable and impatiently hungry group. I pre-cooked. For the first night I had a beef stew, long-simmered well–spiced beef until it was fall-apart tender, plus a load of yesterday’s soft-baked yeast rolls. That with salad, made for fast prep. For the next day I’d made and frozen a load of chicken curry, which with the swift boiling of a load of macaroni made for a good stomach-filler on the brisk second evening.

moon at eve copy

I’m not sure anyone, however tired, slept well that first night. The wind was a noisy companion, gusting and rising and falling almost all the night until dawn. There also came a mouse to our tent, scrabbling hopefully at one corner, so that we gave in and zipped the tent up. We came out of our tents at six thirty and everyone fed on good foods from bagels and muffins to instant oatmeal. Cups of coffee and tea, a scramble to make lunch sandwiches, and then the cry went out for a last visit to the bushes before take-off.

Again, my husband and I had set ourselves as camp guards, so all the kit could be left safely. Besides, husband had a lecture to write for the day after our projected return, and it was a gnarly one. I had paintings to paint, sketches to make, lizards and birds and insects to find, draw and identify.

For us it was an idyllic day. After the lecture was under control, we scrambled about the general area looking over the old mine sites with caution, eyes open for rattlers (I am surprised but we never saw even one, though I did spot some snake tracks in the soft sands of the arroyo.) Old settling ponds, deserted collapsed mine shafts and old slag, what had been the site of a town, and remarkable long views across desert and mountains. Phainopeplas whistled incessantly, and the soft wheep wheep of quail erupted with concern every time they came across us and realized we were alive.

The students and other faculty returned and we warmed up food for the team. Another evening around the propane firepit, less wind this time, then all fell into bed and had that good sleep that one often does the second or third night out.

Morning saw us packing out, but on our way headed out of the region we had a morning site visit to some outcrops that gave us all good views of some trace fossils, and an overview of a Tesla commercial being filmed. I noted that the photographer stopped at one point and took a few frames of us time travellers clambering about the slopes of rock. Maybe he or she was envious.


Long drive home, all arrived safe and weary, but full of conversation. I know our vehicle’s talk covered everything from the ethics of diet and alternative medicine to the depiction of science in film.

I hope to work up a few paintings out of my notebook, and if I do, I shall hope to share them here.




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sun struck

            I ‘ve been silent longer than intended and here’s why. I’ve been off these past few weekends teaching landscape painting. En plein air has been much misunderstood – in my book it is one of many ways to face the process of painting, not the one holy path to truth.


But en plein air is a healthy correction to studio perceptions, and forces the painter to face the fact that the job of painting landscape is impossible. You will only, at best, seize an abstraction of the world where you place your feet. How do you humbly distill, how do you take some powerful essential from the amazing extravagance the outdoors offers? How do you pick your time – because the world changes as you stand and breathe, the shadows flicker in and out of existence. There is no single truth ever. Instead, each movement of your eye, each shift of a nanosecond, reveals another.

Time is often likened to a wind in restless motion, tugging at us and thrusting us off our feet. The world itself is changing and we don’t approve, not one little bit. It means the loss of a friend, a question about who and what we are that we thought was settled long ago. En plein air puts us in the way of such thoughts and such disturbing currents.

 For this course we run brutal painting marathons in the Sedgwick Reserve of the University of California. We get up at six AM (and I am no morning person,) paint and teach until nine before I take breakfast then go back to the painting, come in for the critique around eleven, eat lunch, go back out by around three depending on whether it’s a really brutal temperature, paint until eight or nine, come in to eat dinner and critique and fall into the tent around midnight. The coyotes can usually be counted on for matins before dawn.

Fridays and Sundays are, thank God, long half-days, but Saturdays are always a thing. Husband teaches the geology and ecology of the landscape, giving lectures about the nature of the plants and earth, I teach painting with Hank Pitcher, a marvelous fellow artist whose work can be seen at . I usually come back with at least eight paintings each weekend, sometimes really big ones — those eight-footers you can see on the Sullivan Goss gallery’s website under my painting name of Robin Gowen at


So we’re estimating that temperatures the first of the weekends at Sedgwick hovered around 105 F. Roasted and toasted and blasted as well. The second was balmy by contrast – merely in the nineties. But I’m happy with the paintings.

 I’m even happier with the students. I love seeing people testing assumptions and techniques in order to add to their tools and skills, and the only way to do that, is to take risks. I’ve deliberately stretched and taken many a pratfall in public to prove the point that if you do what is safe, stay upon the lines of what you already know, you cannot grow. Indeed, if you play safe within your mastery, you die.

We all move back from change, eye it with suspicion, with something that can even become fear if we don’t step into it, don’t seize upon it. But change has another meaning, and you’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again, because it’s true. Turned on its head change is opportunity. Out there under a blazing sun, or in the chill fog, lies opportunity.

A bird must move into the changing surge of wind; there’s a point when hesitation means destruction, where hovering is not an option. To turn back into the power of the wind is to fall.

Do I think this way when painting? You may be sure of it. The work that earns immortality doesn’t know about repetition, nor safety. It doesn’t depend upon old solutions and comfort zones. There is no ceiling and no end to it, because the work goes on forever, like the sky itself.Image


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updates and smoke in the air

Splendid day with John and Carmen who arrived at nine AM. We talked so much it was hard to get us out the door to hike in to one of our old sites. Upper Dutch Diggins yielded a fine day of fossils, leaves and fruits and seeds all original organic material, and a renewal of a delightful friendship between families. Sun and sweat and discoveries are the finest of things to share. We were so sorry to say goodbye after dinner and watch John and Carmen head off home, a good couple of hours drive for them. John said he might be back in a couple of days but we weren’t quite sure how long we’d stay, with our own work calling us home.

Kid woke us at 3AM. “Sorry,” she said, looming out of the black night with her headlamp in hand, “but I had to wake you. Don’t you smell smoke?”

A great wake-up. Nothing like the jolt of adrenaline to get you going in the dark.

Yep. Not a little smoke, but when we went out walking about the bunkhouse, smoke you could see against the tall trees, fuzzing their outlines. Husband deliberated, so did I. He realized the wind direction was the issue, and I noted that although the smoke was present, we saw no glow and there were no ashes falling.

However we did go up the long rutted road and unlocked the gate to the mine, dragged it open, so that if an evacuation was in order it would be easier for the locals to see we were in residence and alert us, and so that our departure could be efficient and fast. We’ve felt fires closer than this and been spared evacuation. One more point, there wasn’t any traffic on the main highway up above the bunkhouse, and if the fire were drawing near there would be. Went back to bed. Can’t say it was a great sleep but we woke to a smoggy-looking morning.

Another day of fossil prospecting in the area with variable results, but we made sure to check in at the LaPorte Store, where scant news was available. Some reassurance that the fire wasn’t an immediate threat to our area. Despite the oppression of a long day filled with smoke from the Chip Fire, we saw it begin to rise at the end as the wind shifted again and we could see some blue sky by evening.

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water and refuge

We unlocked the gate at the Taber Mine and drove down the rutted road with our old 1972 Suburban clattering and creaking over the water bars. Drove into the cleared spot before the bunkhouse and scrambled out.

Quiet. Light in the towering firs and pines, the bunkhouse looming three stores overhead, its old stained sides the hue of bitter chocolate in the tree-dusk. Sound of water trickling out of an overflow to the mine pond below us. The mine and bunkhouse lie tucked into the upper point of a ravine, and as in so much of the Sierra, that means water runs down forever and you have that lovely sound so rare where we come from in So.Cal..

Birds in the branches, then the whir of a hummingbird. I never caught a good enough look to identify it to species.

We set to making up our sandwiches, mixed up iced tea,  ravenously ate every crumb. Last of the tomatoes from our home garden, dill pickes and good Dubliner cheese with ham.

Walked through the bunkhouse and it felt as if we’d just been there a couple of days before, the same sense of generosity giving grace to the painted wood of the kitchen with its old wood burning range, the old glass chimneys of kerosene lanterns waiting on the top shelves, cast iron pans and a mix of fine china. Upstairs that long wide room that runs the entire length of the bunkhouse, windows on both sides, couches and a particular table set under the window made of single giant plank of wood. “I want to write stories there,” said the kid, running her hand over the ridges that tell of hand-sawing. Tiny wood stove up at one end by another desk. Dead mouse under the bookcase.

We explored, read the notes John had left for winter visitors warning them of how they had to be careful of setting the stove-pipe right before lighting the stove. Not to worry — we would have no need of that. Not only did we have our own vintage Coleman, but John had set up what looked to be a brand new propane stove atop the old wood-burner. We would boil all our water, not being sure of our water source. Both husband and kid have had adventures with intestinal parasites from uncertain water sources.Image

It’s worth a digression on water-borne parasites. We talk of such things as giardia, but the possibilities of uninvited creatures taking up residence in your gut are legion. Brushing your teeth with the wrong water, or getting some in your eye are perfect opportunities. Used to be that there were places remote enough that you could drink a stream of clear lovely water down and never suffer. But people have spread these little parasites, other mammals including the wildlife have picked them up and they continue in an endless ripple to make nearly any surface water source you find, however remote it feels, a source of illness. Not grave illness in most cases, but misery enough. Husband’s last bout of giardia came from a municipal water source in an outlying town of Atlanta Georgia out of a nice chrome tap, so if you have symptoms (I won’t detail here — you can Google it for yourself) it’s worth suggesting parasitic assault to your doctor. And no, I don’t live in fear. I just don’t play with the water or drink without thought. For all I know I might be one of the lucky ones who carries extra visitors in my gut and never suffers a symptom. Given my past of living in West Africa, it’s a distinct possibility — therefore I am one of those hand-washing maniacs who can’t prepare a meal without washing my hands every time I turn around. The simple best interruptions to the rule of the microorganism gang? Hand-washing, and watch out for the water…

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