Early in 2007 I received a surprise telephone call from Gregor Eberli informing me that I’d been selected by AAPG as one of the potential Distinguished Lecturers to tour North America in the coming season, who asked if I would I like to do that.
After a year’s traffic of e-mails planning the schedule – and frantic packing late on Saturday night following a local choral society concert in which my wife, Vanessa, and I were singing – the adventure begins.
Vanessa takes me to Bletchley station to start out for the airport, where I find that the train is delayed, though I am helpfully re-assured by the lady in the ticket office that “planned engineering works usually do overrun on Sundays.”
Despite this inauspicious start, I arrive at Heathrow in reasonable time. There, thanks to AAPG’s generous travel arrangements, I find respite in the business class lounge, away from the milling, bored throngs abandoned to the clutches of Gucci, Harrods et al., in the “Departures Purgatory.”
My flight is delayed by an hour, apparently because the flight crew have likewise suffered delays in getting to the airport, but we arrive in Ottawa, Canada, only some 20 minutes late, leaving sufficient time after all for me to catch my connecting flight to the first venue, St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Surprise on arrival: this is one of the few places on Earth in a time zone with a half-hour difference from everyone else – hence, three-and-a-half hours behind U.K. time (good quiz question there).
A foot of snow already mantles the landscape, with walls of the stuff banked up on the sides of the roads. My Newfie taxi-driver, hurtling around at unnerving speed (they have special tires for it, apparently) cheerily warns me that I won’t get out of St. John’s on Tuesday, as planned, because of a forecast storm.
I am delivered to a splendid B&B, gloriously cluttered with Victorian bric-à-brac, for a much-appreciated night’s rest, relieved to have got this far at least.
My host from Memorial University, Greg Dunning, picks me up at 10:30 a.m. and we head for his department, where Rick Hiscott (who collaborated in an OU-based Lusitanian Basin project in Portugal directed by Chris Wilson back in the 1980s) shows me around and introduces me to various colleagues, some of whom give further warnings about the impending storm.
My talk at 1 p.m. on “The Episodic History of Cretaceous Carbonate Platforms: An Aptian Case Study,” is attended by a responsive audience of 42, after which the threatened snowstorm begins, with winds later gusting to 90 mph. We decide to drive straight to the airport to see if I can get out before it closes, but the last flight out has just left when we arrive and the evening flight is already cancelled.
Rick drives me back through the swirling snow to my B&B, where I await developments. The blizzard blows on through the evening, with the dry powdery snow providing an instructive speeded-up demonstration of dune migration.
Elliott Burden kindly calls by to take me out for dinner nearby. Being St. Patrick’s Day – a state holiday here – we dine on a fine Irish stew washed down with Guinness.
As expected, everything is closed in the morning – the university included – buried under two to three feet of snow. Cocooned in my B&B, I log onto the Internet … (and) the rest of the morning is taken up with a flurry of e-mails, both with Vanessa and my family and also with my “guardian angel” at AAPG, Karen Dotts, about ‘Plan B” for my schedule.
Later, Greg and Elliott kindly dig me out of the B&B and take me to lunch, the snowstorm having at last abated. We go to a little seaside restaurant in Portugal Cove, to the west of St. John’s.
Apparently there were strong historical links with Portugal for the export of cod, which presumably explains the presence of a splendid old Victorian table at the B&B with a top that I recognize as being made of Cenomanian rudist limestone from near Lisbon.
On returning, I learn that Karen … has succeeded in booking me onto a flight to Halifax that evening so that I can at least get back on track for my schedule the next day – so, after a quick pack, it’s off to the airport again, kindly chauffeured by Greg (they must have been beginning to wonder if they would ever get rid of me!).
Yes! It’s up at 5:15 a.m., in time to get to the airport for my flight to Boston, en route for Bowling Green, Ohio. U.S. Immigration and Customs do their bit at the Halifax airport, which saves time at the other end.
I have the usual slightly bizarre conversation that not-quite-normal people, such as geologists, have with the Immigration officer:
“Why are you going to Ohio?
“To give a talk.”
“They found some fossils here, you know.”
“Oh yes – what sort? Dinosaurs?” (Whoops! Dumb response; will they arrest me?)
“No, trilobites.” (Better watch it – he knows his stuff!)
“Ah, well, I work on clams.”
“But there ain’t no clams in Ohio.” (Ah! Trapped! Freshwater mussels may sound like wriggling)
“Er, they have fossil clams – but I’m not talking about them.”
“OK, have a nice day!” (Phew – escaped the orange jumpsuit after all!)
I arrive in Boston to find that my connecting flight to Cincinnati is canceled; I am booked on a later flight, though it’s going to be tight getting to Bowling Green in time for my talk there at 7 p.m.
I telephone Karen to update her – she’ll advise Bowling Green accordingly.
So, nothing else to do but settle down to a nice clam chowder while I wait at Boston airport (plenty of clams there!).
On, then, to Cincinnati, where I am amused by one of those ubiquitous video ads for some anti-septic stuff that “kills 99.9 percent of all known germs: “Imagine a touchable world!” If only they knew that every cell in our bodies is fuelled by the activities of one-time (in the early Proterozoic) bacteria – mitochondria – without which we’d be dead.
But, hey! That’s evolution and we’re in Cincinnati – home of ‘that’ museum – so hush!
Next stop – Toledo (pronounced “Toleedo” here), with planes getting smaller (and bouncier) with each next leg of the journey.
I land at 5:38 p.m., hastily pick up my car and set off for Bowling Green, learning on the hoof how to manage its frighteningly sharp brakes without upsetting the “Duel” look-alike trucks behind me – and how to hold the freebie map.
Arriving at the campus with literally five minutes to go, I coolly enter the classroom bang on 7 p.m. (eat your heart out, 007!) to find 30 eager faces waiting for my talk. Afterwards there’s a small reception with a welcome assortment of nibbles and dips and lively chats with staff and students about their work (including some nice vertebrate palaeo studies).
Up at 4:45 a.m. to catch the early flight back to Cincinnati, for which we at last have some clear skies. From Cincinnati, it’s on to State College, Pennsylvania, where I’m due to talk at Penn State at 4 p.m.
What a place! Set in a valley between impressively long fold-limb hills, the airport basically serves the university, which, with some 38,000 students, is the main thing hereabouts. The grand old 1930s hotel in which I am booked is owned and run by the university.
My talk (the ‘Aptian’ title once more) is well attended by about 40 people, with an interesting discussion of palaeoclimate following on.
Mike Arthur, a former “DL” speaker, confides to me that the title “Extinguished” Lecturer program might be more apposite – and by now, I know what he means. I find myself at a loose end in the evening, but no matter, as I notice that the first performance of the ‘live animatronic’ version of “Walking with Dinosaurs” is scheduled for 7:30 at the university baseball stadium, so, together with some 10,000 wildly excited kids and their parents, I enjoy a great show there.
I can thoroughly recommend it if it comes your way (especially if you have, or have an inner, six-year-old).
At last, I am able to get up at a decent time and have a relaxed breakfast before my flights onward to Washington, D.C. Lovely weather, again, with a strategic window seat providing some spectacular views of folds in the Pennsylvanian as we take off.
At Washington, a short taxi-ride takes me to the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, where I am met by Tom Waller, one of my old academic advisors from my days as a post-doc there 30 years ago. We catch up on old times, chat with another long-time bivalve buddy, John Pojeta, check through some rudist specimens in the collections and then set off for Tom’s home in Bethesda, for a welcome Easter weekend break with his family.
Thoroughly refreshed (and royally fed), I am ready to tackle week two of the tour.
This time, it’s my other talk, “Rudist Evolution, Ecology and Environments” that I give to a select audience of about 20 palaeobiologists, though I also briefly run through the “Aptian” talk a little later for some with particular interests in that topic, including Brian Huber, who has been conducting extensive isotopic studies of Cretaceous palaeotemperatures. We discuss the climatic effects of feedbacks associated with varying carbonate-, versus organic-carbon burial.
Brian and I also use the opportunity to review plans for a new exhibit on rudists that is to form part of their ocean history gallery.
Tom then drives me to the airport, where I later discover that my flight to Dallas is delayed, so the lady at the check-in desk puts me onto a later flight from Dallas to Tulsa as a precaution. I indeed arrive late in Dallas, as expected, getting there at the time my original connection had been due to leave, but then find that the latter has itself been delayed, so I could have caught it, but cannot now, as I’ve been re-booked on a later one.
Flight times in America seem to be about as reliable as train times in Britain. My rudist colleague of long-standing, Bob Scott, is patiently awaiting my arrival at Tulsa airport near midnight and we head off to his house for the night.
Fuelled on a magnificent breakfast chez Scott, we briefly survey the impressive destruction of local trees by a recent, devastating ice storm in the Tulsa area (interesting – not something I’d seen in Britain. Bob has fixed a schedule for me to meet with all the staff members of the AAPG geosciences department, with each of whom I have plenty of time to chat and learn about their wide-ranging interests, including a developing research strand in microbial geobiology.
My talk (the “general” rudist one) is well attended by an enthusiastic gathering of 42 students and staff, including Karen Dotts, who has dropped in from the local AAPG office, and Paul Enos, the host for my next venue, who has driven over from Lawrence, Kan.
After lunch, Paul drives me north to Lawrence, providing both a welcome respite from flying and a fascinating transect gently up-sequence through Pennsylvanian strata and into more distal facies, with occasional limestones capping long, low plateaux.
Scattered along the way are little nodding donkeys and occasional collecting tanks.
We pass the “small house on the prairie” and make a gastro-cultural stop for dinner in a small town restaurant – where the waitress has a little trouble adjusting to my strange habit of drinking beer out of a glass.
We arrive latish at Paul’s house, where I am again welcomed to five-star home comfort.
Another splendid breakfast and then it’s off to Paul’s department at the University of Kansas – with plenty of time to meet with staff and grad students, who come from all over and work on an impressively wide variety of topics.
A notable feature is a gleaming new interdisciplinary research facility, where, among other topics, I find a considerable focus of attention on Aptian/Albian climates. So it’s the Aptian talk for them, attended by a keenly interested audience of 23.
A pleasant evening follows, dining with my compatriot chum, Paul Selden, and his colleague Tony Walton. Then it’s back to the Enos household, in time for a brief home-spun recital of favorite songs with Carol and Paul before I retire to bed.
Another sterling stint of driving by Paul gets me to the airport at Kansas City (which, like half the city itself, is apparently not in Kansas, but in Missouri – another good quiz question in there!), in time for my flight to Oakland, Calif. A judiciously picked window seat on the northern side of the plane gives me some spectacular views over the mountains en route.
Then it’s off, on arrival, by taxi to the Chevron building, where I am closely quizzed at the front reception on such matters as the health of the Queen, before I am rescued by Jean Hsieh, who takes me to lunch and to meet the leader of their carbonate group, Mitch Harris – who, like Rick Hiscott, also visited our OU group in Portugal way back in the 1980s.
A responsive audience of about 25 attend my Aptian talk, after which I have an extensive and interesting discussion with some members of Mitch’s group who are working on modelling carbonate systems, focusing on studies of the Arabian Cretaceous.
Then it’s beer-time at an excellent local microbrewery – a nice reminder of my next venue, home. Ever-helpful Jean has sorted a taxi to take me to the airport the next day, so all that remains is for me to get a good night’s sleep at the hotel before the great trek back, via Vancouver (now, there’s an impressive airport!).
All in all an interesting, if somewhat exhausting, trip, meeting up with many new faces as well as old friends, learning lots about what they’re up to and, I hope, giving them in return some food for thought from my own work.
Many thanks indeed to AAPG for sponsoring the trip – and especially to Karen Dotts for organizing it, as well as to all my kind hosts along the way who welcomed me with such warmth and generosity.