How did I make my way from mountains to mud? Well, I had just graduated high school and was celebrating my last summer before starting college by taking a cross-country road trip with my older sister. We were both young and poor and adventurous. As such, our days consisted of long hours behind the wheel, sprinkled with stops at free road side attractions and every national park we could squeeze into our circuitous route. Our nights were spent in the cheapest bed we could find – the back of our own car.
On the day my life trajectory was catapulted into serendipitous abandon, I woke up from a sweaty – but restful – summer night on a slab of memory foam in the back of my sister’s 4runner, just as I had done every morning for the last couple weeks. On that day, we visited the home of the iconic red giants, Sequoia National Park. Craning my neck just to attempt to fathom the vertical extent of these behemoths, I viscerally felt the saying by Bill McKibben: “You can still feel small here sometimes, which for me is the great antidote to despair”. But it wasn’t these iconic inhabitants towering over us that changed my life. It was the power held by the granite monolith that loomed beneath our feet.
To wind down our day at the park, we took a guided tour of Crystal Cave. As our spunky tour guide bounced down the path ahead of us towards the cavern, he drew our gaze to the sheets of sparkling grey rock all around us and shared with us the story of their origin. The material that formed these mountains was once magma deep inside the earth. As the scorching magma rose towards earth’s surface and cooled, tiny crystals within the magma slowly took shape, grew, intermingled, and solidified, parenting the granitic rocks that were hoisted upwards, sculpted by glaciers, and colonized by soil, trees, woodland creatures, and eventually us. Now, we were meandering down into the hardened belly of the beast, down into Crystal Cave.
I crawled back out of that cave mesmerized. I had laid my hands on the once molten heart of the earth and felt the smooth, hard crystals of the monolith with my fingertips. I had stood inside a mountain formed by extreme heat and felt coolness radiating from the now dark, solid walls. Walking back down to the parking lot, I tried to articulate what I had felt and place it into perspective. I had learned about the rock cycle in middle school, and I could name the three types of rocks (igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary). But this was the first time I had truly known and experienced them (well at least the igneous variety). I asked my sister, “Isn’t this kind of stuff a real thing that people do? I think it’s called geology… or maybe geography. Can you actually do something with it? Because I think I want to.”
After our road trip wound back around to its starting point in South Carolina, I headed to the College of Charleston to start as a spirited freshman. When I inevitably received the innocuous, but terrifying, question “What’s your major?”, instead of answering with a well-reasoned and well-rehearsed “Exercise Science”, I excitedly proclaimed “Geology!”, knowing that I was abandoning reason for visceral attraction.
So, that’s how my journey began deep inside the mountains in Sequoia National Park. And unlike many journeys led blindly by the heart, this one didn’t end in unforeseen struggle and desertion. I have instead blissfully followed the same path as those rocks that sparked my curiosity; I have been plucked from mountains, carried down rivers, and eventually landed on muddy coasts. But this is just the beginning. I’ll share more of how I made my way from mountains to mud, from naïve high school graduate to determined graduate student in Part 2 and Part 3 of this story in science.
This post was originally written for Stories in Science, a platform for “stories of success, failure, fear, discovery, serendipity, collaboration, separation, inspiration, mentorship, and so much more!”