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Geology comes to life for class in New Mexico and Texas

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. -- The geology interterm trip encompassed nine days, three states and 2700 miles of driving. The first major attraction was Carlsbad Caverns in southeast New Mexico. The cave had massive stalactites and stalagmites, a bottomless pit and a "big room" covering 14 acres and containing formations with names like Hall of Giants, Temple of the Sun and Whale’s Mouth.

Carlsbad Caverns is located under the Guadalupe Ridge, an ancient reef that bordered a shallow sea, formed when sulfuric acid dissolved the limestone rock. It was a 750-foot descent to the "big room" but luckily there was an elevator to take the group back up.

The second major stop was at Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas, where we stayed four days. The park is surrounded by the Chihuahua Desert, with the Chisos Mountains rising to 7800 feet in the park’s center. Its southern border is marked by the Rio Grande and beyond that, Mexico. The Native American people who once inhabited this area say that when the Great Spirit finished creating the world, he piled up the leftover rock to form the Chisos Mountains.

The Chisos Mountains were formed when Texas was a much more--geologically speaking--exciting place. They are composed of volcanic rock such as rhyolite, andesite, breccia and basalt. These mountains are home to cacti, pines and junipers and are inhabited by deer, foxes, rabbits, mountain lions, bears and pig-like creatures called javelinas. These plants and animals survive on water from many natural springs and the extra rainfall the mountains receive.

One the first day, we hiked Lost Mine Trail and saw the first of many spectacular views overlooking the park. On day two, we hiked along the Rio Grande and into the Boquillas Canyon, where we got an up-close view of Mexico.

Under new law, it is illegal and punishable by a $5,000 fine to cross into Mexico so instead of doing that, as in years past, some members of the group had to be satisfied with throwing rocks into Mexico. Along the Rio Grande, you can find evidence of the park’s volcanic past in the hot springs that do its shores.

On the third day, a free day, most of us decided to take the 14.5-mile hike up and along the south rim of Boquillas Canyon. At the end, a straight drop of hundreds of feet, we could see the entire southern portion of the park and into Mexico. The pristine and tranquil scene was interrupted only by a couple of group members yelling, "Hey, Mom, where’s the meat loaf?"

"The hikes were amazing," said Heather Palmateer. "I just wish I could have gone on the long one instead of braving mountain lion territory with Julie [Waldschmidt]." Instead of lions, the two encountered javelinas on the Window View Trail.

On the last day in the park, we hiked into the Santa Elena Canyon on the Rio Grande before leaving for the big city of San Antonio. Here, we toured the Alamo and walked, dined and shopped along the famous Riverwalk.

Our last stop was in the hill country north of San Antonio, where we hiked to Enchanted Rock, hunted fossils along the Blanco River and visited President Lyndon B. Johnson’s boyhood ranch.

"We had a great geology field trip," said Richard Zerger, professor of chemistry. "The combination of a wonderful group of students and excellent weather made the trip particularly enjoyable. It is always exciting to see the classroom images and explanations take on real meaning before the eyes of students."

The students who participated in the geology class and trip, led by Zerger and Gary Histand, associate professor of chemistry, were Ben Clinkscales, freshman from Hays; Rosanna Hamman-Hartkop, freshman from Lima, Ohio; Braden Hiebner, junior from Hampton, Neb.; Heather Palmateer, sophomore from Topeka; Leah Rapp, senior from Colorado Springs, Colo.; Joe Schrag, sophomore from Wichita; and Julie Waldschmidt, junior from Waldron.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel web site at

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