Wyoming has many ways of defining “road.” There are highways, dirt roads, fire roads, ranch roads, and last but not least, the jeep trail—a boulder strewn, washed out route over which no one in their right mind would drive a jeep. Fortunately, we’ve rented ATVs.
The two-seater, called a Rhino, drives sort of like a car, except that it can bounce over a 1.5 foot high rock, no problem. The blue Kodiak has less of a resemblance—a sticker on the front warns against driving the vehicle on pavement. The first time I try the Kodiak, it feels like it’ll tip at any moment, but Joe, who grew up driving a similar model, tells me that my center of gravity is bouncing much more than the vehicle’s.
With the help of our new wheels, we navigate through spiky pines damaged by forest fire and swampy fields lined with aspens. After an hour and 45 minutes, we arrive at our campsite with our feet wet from splashing through puddles. As we take a look around, Taylor realizes that the jagged hill above us is actually a dike that wasn’t marked on the map. However, since we’re working backwards toward camp, it’s still a hike to our first sampling site.
There are six dikes in the area, not including one by the side of the road labeled “granite mafic dike,” which Taylor and Joe point out is neither mafic nor a dike.
Our first two real sites go smoothly, and Taylor christens them the “French Creek Swarm.” As Taylor uses his compass to measure the direction of the second dike, he notices that the rock is so magnetic, it’s throwing off the compass needle.
There is a ridge of rock at the third site, and though it is marked as a dike on the map, Taylor and his hammer aren’t fooled. The rock is green and metamorphosed, and though it might once have been useful, the slabs are no longer in their original position, meaning that their magnetic reading will not tell us anything about the position of the crust. Taylor explains that sometimes geological features like this one are grandfathered into maps without anybody actually checking the site. After the road to get here, I can’t say I blame them. The fourth dike on the map is nowhere to be found.
As we hike back to camp, we notice big paw prints in the ground. There are no nail marks, so it can’t be a coyote or a bear, but it could be some kind of cat. After the sun sets and the full moon rises, the temperature drops down almost to freezing. Walking back to my tent, I half expect to find a lynx or a bobcat curled in my sleeping bag.
We don’t encounter any cats, but our next target is covered with caterpillars. Black with orange tufts of hair on the back, they crawl all over us as we collect samples. Taylor decides to name the site after them, circling caterpillar dike on the map.
When we return the ATVs, the man who runs the rentals asks us what the research is hoping to find. Taylor explains that we’re looking for samples that can help to determine where Wyoming was 2.6-1.7 billion years ago. The man stops checking the ignition of the Rhino and looks at us again. “Well I’ll be,” he says.