I was pretty sure that the conditions could have been more miserable but I didn’t know exactly how. I was soaked to the skin and my pants were caked with smelly black organic muck–part soil, part sheep dung, and part rainwater–as I slogged up a muddy trail with a heavy pack through the seemingly endless South Asian monsoon and towards the Himalayan timberline. At least I was warm inside my rain jacket as long as I kept moving. The rest of the day would bring roiling streams, a disconcertingly flexible bridge of lashed saplings and pine boughs set across some raging rapids, and one last set of rocky switchbacks to the blustery crest of a moraine set in a remote glaciated valley. And tea. Hot masala chai for warmth at the end of the day’s trek.
A collection of geoscientists from the University of Cincinnati, Purdue University, and the University of Bayreuth, our group was spending two weeks on foot to collect samples for cosmogenic surface exposure and luminescence dating of glacial deposits high in the Garhwal Himalaya of north central India. We’d also take some soil and water samples to learn about carbon and nitrogen cycling in this remote region. For reasons that gave little comfort at the time, our trek coincided with the last gasp of the wettest monsoon season in anyone’s memory. Talk about drawing the short straw.
Meteorological vagaries aside, geology offers many of us the opportunity to travel to places like the Himalaya and do things like map landslides inside a collapsed caldera in Papua New Guinea. On another day, I might be using airborne laser scanner data to identify areas subsiding above abandoned underground coal mines or working with photorealistic 3-D computer models to help prevent rockslides along an interstate highway. Still later, maybe reading up on wavelet transforms or spherical statistics. Or, at a more elemental level, explaining to a homeowner why his house is cracking apart and what might be done to solve the problem.
Being useful is, at least to me, the most satisfying part of the compensation package. The variety, adventure, and intellectual challenges are fringe benefits. Sure, sometimes the conditions are miserable and the problems seem intractable, but in the end it’s quite a career and beats having a real job.
Our trek continued for another week and a half. I’d slip and fall, and fall again, walk up a glacier in a blizzard to cross a high pass, and then limp down in pain on a wobbly knee. We’d eat amazing food–fresh goat curry high in the mountains and spicy samosas in a tea house along the trail–and meet incredible people. We’d get soaked, spend a couple of nights in a wretchedly cold and damp unheated hostel, and surreptitiously buy a duffel bag full of cold beer in a holy city where alcohol is supposed to be forbidden (but can be had just around the corner from another questionable joint offering cooked chicken to anyone who’d made their way down the narrow unmarked alley). In the end, once the samples are analyzed and the papers written, we’ll know a little more about the glacial history, neotectonics, and environmental chemistry of the Garhwal Himalaya.
And the guy with the cracked house? He was the unwitting victim of expansive soil and a dry summer, a situation likely exacerbated by a neighbor’s large tree.