The Mars Crew
In Owens Valley
Notes on traveling with planetary scientists during a crucial moment in the search for extraterrestrial life.
Updated May 5, 2015
We drove the farthest winding roads of Sierra Madre to the base of Mt. Wilson, where we parked, crossed a bridge, over a babbling gully, and into the greenhouse of Antonin.
Antonin is a planetologist who divides his time between the observatories of Hawaii, Alaska, Arizona and California. In a few weeks, he is off to the Keck Observatory on the Big Island. Then, to San Jose for NASA, where he will spend 120 nights watching Io, a moon of Jupiter, and studying its volcanology.
"You can't actually see an eruption," he says, "I'll be looking for gray rings of sulfur, and watch how they disperse." Soon, we were passing through the Northern Mojave. Somewhere past Lancaster, Antonin pointed out a steep ledge, "The Garlock fault," he said, "was just discovered a few years ago."
Past Acton, we climbed a slight incline, dotted by new homes and billboards with fancy names for new developments. "This is the San Andreas Fault," Antonin said, and we stared out the window at the roadcut. It was contorted rock - swirled and shaken and molten and reshaped. Lily said, "I bet none of these people have a clue about what they're standing on."
In Red Rocks State Park, where we lounged for a few minutes under the spectacular mars-like red formations, I said, "Does anybody know the history of these rocks? I'll give it a try. Okay, this is petrified sand from the Triassic and."
"Unlikely." Antonin said. "There is hardly any Triassic rock in California and this looks more like lake sediments."
He then went on to describe how the JPL Mars airplane team was testing their equipment here just a few weeks ago.
"They tested their airplane here because it looks like Mars," he said.
The airplane, he described, is a model for a NASA bid that would fall out of a pod like a ball, detach from a parachute and unfold wings, and will be able to film more surface area than ever before. As we neared the Owens Valley in Central California, we all began talking about how it was formed into what it is today.
The Owens Valley is a giant lowland greeted by two unrelated mountain ranges - the Sierra Nevada's to the west and the Inyo mountains to the East. This is North-Central California; the Eastern rift that separates this state from Nevada. The Inyo mountains were the ancient Coastline of America. As the Atlantic tectonic plate pushed west, all of America was pushed west, created an uplift and a new coast.
The Sierra Nevada's were the result of these separate blocks of land churning up against each other. In Lone Pine, a frontier town at the base of some of the highest mountain ranges in the world, we drove up the Whitney Portal and into the contortions of the Alabama Hills. We circled through the intense rock formations until I feared for the Jeep. Then it was up, to the base of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the forty-eight contiguous states.
We turned the heat on the car, so as to suck the heat out of the engine, and poured more water over the grille. The Jeep started with a hiss and whiz, and soon we were braking downhill, the engine puffing and whirring, towards the city of Independence.
We talked about the history of Sierra Nevada's. It is one of America's most famous bits of iconography: the 49ers, guns, rough living and murder. Songs influenced by the era have always painted the picture:
".Daddy made whiskey and he made it well. Cost two dollars and it burned like hell. I cut hick'ry just to fire the still, Drink down a bottle and be ready to kill." (Robert Hunter)
In Independence, we visited the museum: A mammoth bone. Pistols. Paiute baskets. And a collection of small bottles, one of which was labeled 'chocolate-covered nitroglycerin tablets.'
passed the Cal-Tech radio observatory, and into Mono County. "We're everywhere,"
Antonin said. This was the rugged land of the Eastern Sierra's, America's
wildest mountain ranges; gnarled pines gripping for life, year-round snowcaps
and countless jagged spires.
This was the land that never fit into Sequoia or Yosemite, just endless public acres. It was the poster-child for the Turner Thesis, a turn of the century notion that purported that America's success as a practical, creative nation developed as individuals moved west; constantly reinventing old ideas and tools into new ones to adapt to a changing environment.
As society reached the west coast, and the frontier became civilized, America would complete its creative development. Sierra Nevada history was all gold. Over a third of all gold ever found in the United States was mined here. It all began in the Sierras - first with the sheath knife jabbing at rocks. As Turner's thesis progressed, the pan was developed, then a rocker and finally a sluice. Prospectors came from everywhere; China, France, Mexico, free blacks from the South and Scandinavians from the north.
Without law, there was only vigilance. A man could be noosed and dragged in plain sight of town, for stealing flour or wheat.
We passed into a giant caldera, miles wide. "See that pinkish-white rock on the side of the road," Antonin said. "That's famous among geologists. Its called 'bishop tuff'. When this volcano blew 760,000 years ago, it was the size of Mauna Kea. The magma was so hot, it turned into gas, and hardened all over this area. You can find it as far away as Nebraska, the wind just picked it up and deposited it there."
In the heart of Long Valley; the giant caldera, we turned east, along winding BLM roads, to the Mono River, where we met up with two Berkeley graduate students. One studies Latin American literature, and on the surface, it is easy to notice her soft demeanor and intelligence. She is also a skilled outdoorswoman. Just a year before, she rode a tandem bicycle with a friend, from San Jose to Colorado.without a tent.
Her companion is also a Berkeley graduate student, although according to Antonin, its "not difficult to find him hiking around out here in the Sierra's." We passed the signs that said, "Warning, scalding water" and jumped in the hot thermal springs of the upper Mono River. The water was hot as a bath, the winding river, beautiful. Antonin said, "Its just not a good idea to be here if there's an earthquake."
We headed out, on a narrower, rockier road, to a remote grassy valley, a bureau of land management cattle passage. A thermal creek ran through it like a steaming spine. After all, we were inside a crater. At one point, the high ledges above this valley were one of the local hunting spots for elk. Obsidian Paiute arrowheads are common here.
We set camp in the valley grass, while various members of the Cal-Tech Mars Research division rambled in, carrying beer, port wine, sausages and curry. To them, camping was a sleeping bag in the grass. "All the better to see the stars," The Englishman said. The Englishman, who had arrived in America only a week before, was a student at Cambridge University, and had never been to the west coast before.
This fact interested the other astronomers. The weather man explained to him the purpose of S'Mores.
"'Some more', get it?"
"Yes" he said in a British accent, "But what are 'Graham crackers'?"
"Graham was actually a Quaker, a really religious protestant type," the Weather man said,
"And he developed these crackers as a way to stunt sexual needs."
"They're that good?" the Englishman asked.
"Well, Graham thought so anyway."
Leya and I left the campsite and drove off to hike along the Mono River at sunset, and watching a lone white-bearded fly-fisherman cast a thread through the air. 'What a stereotype', I thought, and asked him if he ever caught anything. "They'll start biting in half an hour."
Returning to camp, we passed a troupe of aging naked hippies loitering in a makeshift jacuzzi, diverted from the hot creek.
I asked, "If you do find life on Mars, it doesn't really prove anything about life in outer space, right?"
"Right, that's becoming more apparent." I said, "I mean, isn't it obvious that if we find life on Mars, it comes from the same source as life on Earth?"
"Absolutely, unless we find the DNA makeup to totally different. But we just completed some tests on a satellite that was in space for ten years. The bacteria on the exterior survived! Also, we've concluded that a rock cast from Mars could maintain room temperature. Since Mars has a thin atmosphere, it would be more likely that life would exist underground."
"So life on Earth may come from Mars?"
"Or vice-versa. Bacteria can be dormant for thousands of years." At the barbecue, I asked the weather man what we thought of the movie, 'Contact." He said it is an accurate description of the scientific community. The passion, the politics, the fights for grant money. The egos.
The weather man is a meteorologist. He predicts weather on Mars. In the morning, I walked up the winding creek, jumping the boiling water until I made it to the source, a parched spot with a strong sulfurous smell and blowholes of steam. After that, our caravan drove south, then up, into the Eastern Sierras. On the way, we passed a river below us. Every 100 yards or so, maybe there were 10 of them, a flyfisherman was casting his line, alone. It was a strange sight. I said, "You know my problem with fly-fishing, there's just something about it where they are trying a little too hard to have that�thing�about themselves." "Well, actually, flyfishing was a quarter what it was before that movie (A River Runs Through It)."
"Makes sense. Bonefishing is the last fishing sport with some integrity to it."
"The worst is deep-sea fishing. All those power engines and on-board uniforms�automated lines."
"I agree one hundred percent. What kind of a sport is trying to kill the biggest fish when all the big ones have already been killed?"
We began our hike at the base of a giant lake and a towering snowy peak. We followed the group for a short while, our workweek legs weren't ready for that. We parted, and soon, we were driving to Los Angeles, through the hot Mojave.