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UNCP students trek the Desert Southwest

Scott Ammons
Pine Needle Editor

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Students hike through Bryce Canyon
UNCP students hike Bryce Canyon in May 2005.
Photo by Scott Ammons

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Whether it is the Pacific Northwest or the Desert Southwest, neither Meriwether Lewis nor William Clark could have explored the West with more awe than the nine UNCP students enrolled in Dr. Lee Phillips' geology field trip in May 2005.

It has been said that experience is the best teacher. If that is the case, then these nine students experienced and learned first hand about Mother Nature's awesome power and the beauty she creates over time.

And what better academic setting could there be than the Colorado Plateau?

Stretching across Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, the Colorado Plateau showcases its ever-changing geological wonders through its scores of amazing state and national parks, monuments and national recreational areas.

Mother Nature unveils her beauty and power in many different forms:

  • the roaring virgin river of Zion Park in Utah, the fastest flowing river in the world;
  • the colorful Hoodoos rock shapes and eroding fans of Bryce Canyon;
  • a sunset and a moon rise almost simultaneously from Bright Angel Point at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon;
  • lava tubes from a volcano that erupted more than 900 years ago at Wupatki Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument;
  • the Colorado River, which carved the canvas that sets the back drop for Glen Canyon National Recreational Area;
  • the great unconformity of the Frenchman Mountains; or
  • the glowing sandstones of The Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.

Video by Dart McAdoo

Students trekking the western desert
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"My desire for the course from the beginning," according to Phillips, "has been to provide an opportunity for UNCP students to see a different part of the world, to learn about the geology that makes up our home and to develop an appreciation for the differences in bio-diversity while gaining some cultural insight."

Micro-climates. Students witnessed the combined beauty and splendor of these natural areas, the many micro-climates that form its foundations and the different species of plant and wildlife that call the Colorado Plateau home.

Students were humbled by standing under a starry western sky, connecting the constellations and looking at the planets Jupiter and Saturn.

The vast night sky was not only breath taking but thought provoking, helping them to see how insignificant man really is.

Books were not mandatory for the class, only a pen and notebook, a good pair of hiking boots, comfortable socks, canteens full of water and an inquisitive mind. Before the class headed West, Phillips gave the students a refresher course on sedimentary and metamorphic rocks, limestones, unconformities and the Colorado Plateau.

First stop. Frenchman Mountain and Las Vegas, Nev., was the students' first stop.

There, the class was joined by three more adventurers. Dr. Steven Singletary, a 1994 UNCP alumnus currently doing post-doctoral work at the University of Arizona, made the entire trip.

Dr. Bret McLaurin, a post-doctoral scholar at University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV), and Melissa Hicks, a Ph.D. candidate at UNLV, joined the class for the Frenchman Mountain expedition.

UNCP students out West
UNCP students take a photo break Out West.
Dr. Lee Phillips, Pine Needle editor Scott Ammons and UNCP alumni Dr. Steven Singletary at Bryce Canyon
Left to right, Dr. Lee Phillips, Pine Needle editor Scott Ammons, and UNCP alumnus Dr. Steven Singletary at Bryce Canyon
Photo by Dart McAdoo

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McLaurin explained that Frenchman Mountain is actually a block of Earth's crust turned on its side. The layers exposed between Las Vegas and Lake Mead represent about 1.7 billion years of Earth's history.

McLaurin called these mountains "the great unconformity." Some great fossils can be found among the rocks of Frenchman Mountain, he said.

Students grilled the instructors to reap their knowledge as they all spent the day hiking over the mountain.

Hiking. The next day began the six-day hiking and camping part of the trip where the fun really began.

What could be better than being in the largest classroom on Earth constantly for six days? One answer is camping and hiking the state and national parks with geology professors as personal tour guides. Learning doesn't get much more personal than this.

This class was not just a 10-day crash course on rocks. While soaking up the splendor of the Colorado Plateau, students experienced the importance of teamwork and, in doing so, forged new bonds with classmates and professors.

This class will be embedded forever in the minds of those nine students and the professors that made up this expedition.

Campfire. Phillips and Singletary were like two kids in a giant candy store, with iron stomachs and bottomless pockets. Their passion for teaching earth science was evident.

Their desire to help students obtain the most from this class spilled over into the nights around the campfire when students generated more in-depth discussions and asked more questions. No question was overlooked, and answers generally led to more probing questions about the marvelous beauty that surrounded us. As long as there were questions, thoughts or comments, time didn't seem to matter when these reflective camp fire sessions started.

"We had a great time together. Not only did we have good physical interaction, but we had great social interaction, and that is what you need to make a trip as successful as this one," Phillips said. " I'm already looking forward to, and starting to plan, next year's expedition."

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  The University of North Carolina at Pembroke Updated: Wednesday, October 12, 2005
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