Sunday, March 24, 2013

Lithium mines, volcanoes, and Death Valley... oh my!

I’m not as adept at accessing Wifi as my blogging compatriots, so although this may seem a bit redundant, I’m now posting my experiences from yesterday that I wrote in the van on the ride to Death Valley:
After 18 hours of travel yesterday, we woke up in a Best Western in Tonopah, Nevada this morning feeling refreshed and renewed. We were on the road by 8 am (8:03 to be precise) after grabbing a complementary breakfast (I indulged my morning appetite with a good helping of biscuits and gravy). I was stunned by the stark beauty of the mountainous desert landscape which had been too dark to appreciate the night before, except for a black outline of crooked rock against the navy blue sky. A wide flat expanse of sand, grayish brush, and an occasional, lonely tree extended away from the 2 lane road on which we were driving, giving way a few miles out to the roots of bare mountains and plateaus. 
Our parade of 4 white vans and Erin’s minivan was the only sign of civilization to be seen in any direction for the majority of our 2 hour trek. We were heading for the Rockwood lithium mine, the only site of lithium production in the United States. Most of us Terrascopers had read about this mine the night before in the booklet given to us with background information on all the locations we’re visiting, so we had some knowledge of how their mining process worked. Brine is pumped out of the earth from aquifers and brought the surface, where the solution becomes more and more concentrated as it is moved through series of evaporation pools, until salts have precipitated, undesired elements are removed and they are left with three sellable forms of lithium: LiCO3, LiCl, and LiOH. 

Though we had an idea of what to expect in terms of the mechanics of the mine, nothing could have prepared us for the scale. Massive evaporation bonds as large as a mile long spread out before us, each one more dazzlingly turquoise in color as salt concentrations increased. Our tour guide, Melissa, showed us how to perform water tests to monitor the state of the brine being pumped up from the earth, and also took us to the top of a huge mound of stockpiled sodium chloride (also known as halite, basically table salt, a byproduct of the lithium mining method) where we proceeded to taste-test the ground beneath our feet. It was quite savory. 
After that, it was back in the vans and off to a cinder-cone volcano we had spotted in the distance. We stood at the foot and marveled as Sam explained to us the geological origins of such a phenomenon (an explosive blast resulting from the interaction of magma and underground water tables)… and then we got to climb it! 
I was glad to be wearing hiking boots by the time we got to the top, as shifting and crumbling volcanic rock is not a great climbing surface while lacking ankle support. We took a few minutes to absorb the stellar view and then commenced our descent. At the bottom, we were feeling so victorious that a human pyramid spontaneously assembled before we got back in the vans. We visited a couple more geologic formations and then buckled up for the drive to Death Valley, which is where we’re heading now as I type. Apparently it’s going to be spectacular: it’s wildflower season and we’ll be driving in around sunset. Honestly, though, I’m having trouble imagining anything more beautiful than the stratified mountainsides zooming past us right now.
Everything in Nevada is so BIG. Wide empty desert, huge mountains and cloudless skies surround us, and I don’t believe I’m going to get used to their awe-inspiring majesty any time soon. But I’ll let you all know if I do.



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