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On a brief detour on our way to visit Carlsbad, New Mexico, Venue swung through the northwest extremity of Texas, within shooting distance of the 10,000 Year Clock of the Long Now Foundation and through the looming mountainous remains of an ancient coral reef.

What was once a seabed is now desert, lifted far above the distant Gulf and criss-crossed with exploratory hiking paths.



The Guadalupe Mountains, subject to federal land preservation as the Guadalupe Mountains National Park since 1972, tower over the arid valley that first welcomed us on the drive.

"From the highway," National Geographic writes, "the mountains resemble a nearly monolithic wall through the desert." Indeed, the huge and looming landforms to our north—a landscape made from billions of dead marine organisms, compressed and laminated over millions of years into geology—seemed to hold back, for the entirety of our hike, an ominous weather front that was all but pinned there in the sky like a dark butterfly threatening a rainstorm that never arrived, unable to cross over the jagged hills.



"But drive into one of the park entrances," the magazine continues, "take even a short stroll, and surprises crop up: dramatically contoured canyons, shady glades surrounded by desert scrub, a profusion of wildlife and birds." That's exactly what we did, on a short diversion from our drive into Carlsbad.

Humans have been living in the area for at least 12,000 years, often leaving behind pictographs. They had settled what is, in reality, an ancient shoreline, an ocean coast produced tens of millions of years ago, primarily during the late Cretaceous. Indeed, the region has passed through several instances of flooding, including a Pleistocene-era salt lake 1.8 million years ago that left behind the El Paso dune field, salt flats that actually led to a brief war in the 1870s.



In any case, as can be seen in the maps of geologist Ron Blakey, who Venue interviewed at his home in Flagstaff, Arizona, about the challenge of visually representing the large-scale terrestrial changes that produced landscapes such as the Guadalupe Mountains, the region was one maritime, more like the Bahamas or Indonesia than the dry uplands of the U.S. southwest.

Map of North America during the Cretaceous-Tertiary by Ron Blakey.

At that point, warm and shallow seas extended deep into what is now northwest Texas, leaving behind uncountable billions of sea creatures whose remains later became soft limestone. This limestone, easily eroded and well-known for its propensity to form mammoth caves, is also the reason why this region is riddled from within with truly huge caverns—including Carlsbad Caverns, located at the northeastern edge of the same mountain range that forms the Guadalupes.

The possibility that equally massive, as yet undiscovered caverns might extend deep beneath the monumental cliffs and ridges we hiked along was something that lurked in the back of our minds as walked along.

In the end, our hike was uneventful but visually expansive, more a quick way to stretch our legs during a long road-trip, and an excuse to talk about lost oceans and inland seas before we headed underground into Carlsbad Caverns a few days later, than an extended visit to this truly huge National Park. But, luckily, the park will still be there when we return to Texas someday with more time our hands

Lead image courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service
A landscape painting above Penny Boston's living room entryway depicts astronauts exploring Mars.

Penelope Boston is a speleo-biologist at New Mexico Tech, where she is Director of Cave and Karst Science. She graciously welcomed Venue to her home in Los Lunas, New Mexico, where we arrived with design futurist Stuart Candy in tow, en route to dropping him off at the Very Large Array later that day.

Boston's work involves studying subterranean ecosystems and their extremophile inhabitants here on Earth, in order to better imagine what sorts of environments and lifeforms we might encounter elsewhere in the Universe. She has worked with the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program (NIAC) to develop protocols for both human extraterrestrial cave habitation and for subterranean life-detection missions on Mars, life which she believes is highly likely to exist.

Over the course of the afternoon, Boston told Venue about her own experiences on Mars analog sites; she explained why she believes there is a strong possibility for life below the surface of the Red Planet, perhaps inside the planet's billion year-old networks of lava tubes; she described her astonishing (and terrifying) cave explorations here on Earth; and we touch on some mind-blowing ideas seemingly straight out of science fiction, including extreme forms of extraterrestrial life (such as dormant life on comets, thawed and reawakened with every passage close to the sun) and the extraordinary potential for developing new pharmaceuticals from cave microorganisms. The edited transcript of our conversation is below.

• • •


The Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (FMARS) on Devon Island, courtesy the Mars Society.

Geoff Manaugh: As a graduate student, you co-founded the Mars Underground and then the Mars Society. You’re a past President of the Association of Mars Explorers, and you’re also now a member of the science team taking part in Mars Arctic 365, a new one-year Mars surface simulation mission set to start in summer 2014 on Devon Island. How does this long-term interest in Mars exploration tie into your Earth-based research in speleobiology and subterranean microbial ecosystems?

Penelope Boston: Even though I do study surface things that have a microbial component, like desert varnish and travertines and so forth, I really think that it’s the subsurface of Mars where the greatest chance of extant life, or even preservation of extinct life, would be found.

Nicola Twilley: Is it part of NASA’s strategy to go subsurface at any point, to explore caves on Mars or the moon?

Boston: Well, yes and no. The “Strategy” and the strategy are two different things.

The Mars Curiosity rover is a very capable chemistry and physics machine and I am, of course, dying to hear the details of the geochemistry it samples. A friend of mine, for instance, with whom I’m also a collaborator, is the principal investigator of the SAM instrument. Friends of mine are also on the CheMin instrument. So I have a vested interest, both professionally and personally, in the Curiosity mission.

On the other hand, you know: here we go again with yet another mission on the surface. It’s fascinating, and we still have a lot to learn there, but I hope I will live long enough to see us do subsurface missions on Mars and even on other bodies in the solar system.

Unfortunately, right now, we are sort of in limbo. The downturn in the global economy and our national economy has essentially kicked NASA in the head. It’s very unclear where we are going, at this point. This is having profound, negative effects on the Agency itself and everyone associated with it, including those of us who are external fundees and sort of circum-NASA.

On the other hand, although we don’t have a clear plan, we do have clear interests, and we have been pursuing preliminary studies. NASA has sponsored a number of studies on deep drilling, for example. One of the most famous was probably about 15 years ago, and it really kicked things off. That was up in Santa Fe, and we were looking at different methodologies for getting into the subsurface.

I have done a lot of work, some of which has been NASA-funded, on the whole issue of lava tubes—that is, caves associated with volcanism on the surface. Now, Glenn Cushing and Tim Titus at the USGS facility in Flagstaff have done quite a bit of serious work on the high-res images coming back from Mars, and they have identified lava tubes much more clearly than we ever did in our earlier work over the past decade.

Surface features created by lava tubes on Mars; image via ESA

Twilley: Are caves as common on Mars as they are on Earth? Is that the expectation?

Boston: I’d say that lava tubes are large, prominent, and liberally distributed everywhere on Mars. I would guess that there are probably more lava tubes on Mars than there are here on Earth—because here they get destroyed. We have such a geologically and hydro-dynamically active planet that the weathering rates here are enormous.

But on Mars we have a lot of factors that push in the other direction. I’d expect to find tubes of exceeding antiquity—I suspect that billions-of-year-old tubes are quite liberally sprinkled over the planet. That’s because the tectonic regime on Mars is quiescent. There is probably low-level tectonism—there are, undoubtedly, Marsquakes and things like that—but it’s not a rock’n’roll plate tectonics like ours, with continents galloping all over the place, and giant oceans opening up across the planet.

That means the forces that break down lava tubes are probably at least an order of magnitude or more—maybe two, maybe three—less likely to destroy lava tubes over geological time. You will have a lot of caves on Mars, and a lot of those caves will be very old.

Plus, remember that you also have .38 G. The intrinsic tensile strength of the lava itself, or whatever the bedrock is, is also going to allow those tubes to be much more resistant to the weaker gravity there.

Surface features of lava tubes on Mars; image via ESA

Manaugh: I’d imagine that, because the gravity is so much lower, the rocks might also behave differently, forming different types of arches, domes, and other formations underground. For instance, large spans and open spaces would be shaped according to different gravitational strains. Would that be a fair expectation?

Boston: Well, it’s harder to speculate on that because we don’t know what the exact composition of the lava is—which is why, someday, we would love to get a Mars sample-return mission, which is no longer on the books right now. [sighs] It’s been pushed off.

In fact, I just finished, for the seventh time in my career, working on a panel on that whole issue. This was the E2E—or End-to-End—group convened by Dave Beatty, who is head of the Mars Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory [PDF].

About a year ago, we finished doing some intensive international work with our European Space Agency partners on Mars sample-return—but now it’s all been pushed off again. The first one of those that I worked on was when I was an undergraduate, almost ready to graduate at Boulder, and that was 1979. It just keeps getting pushed off.

I’d say that we are very frustrated within the planetary and astrobiology communities. We can use all these wonderful instruments that we load onto vehicles like Curiosity and we can send them there. We can do all this fabulous orbital stuff. But, frankly speaking, as a person with at least one foot in Earth science, until you’ve got the stuff in your hands—actual physical samples returned from Mars—there is a lot you can’t do.

Looking down through a "skylight" on Mars; image via NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Image via NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Twilley: Could you talk a bit about your work with exoplanetary research, including what you’re looking for and how you might find it?

Boston: [laughs] The two big questions!

But, yes. We are working on a project at Socorro now to atmospherically characterize exoplanets. It’s called NESSI, the New Mexico Exoplanet Spectroscopic Survey Instrument. Our partner is Mark Swain, over at JPL. They are doing it using things like Kepler, and they have a new mission they’re proposing, called FINESSE. FINESSE will be a dedicated exoplanet atmospheric characterizer.

We are also trying to do that, in conjunction with them, but from a ground-based instrument, in order to make it more publicly accessible to students and even to amateur astronomers.

That reminds me—one of the other people you might be interested in talking to is a young woman named Lisa Messeri, who just recently finished her PhD in Anthropology at MIT. She’s at the University of Pennsylvania now. Her focus is on how scientists like me to think about other planets as other worlds, rather than as mere scientific targets—how we bring an abstract scientific goal into the familiar mental space where we also have recognizable concepts of landscape.

I’ve been obsessed with that my entire life: the concept of space, and the human scaling of these vastly scaled phenomena, is central, I think, to my emotional core, not just the intellectual core.

The Allan Hills Meteorite (ALH84001); courtesy of NASA.

Manaugh: While we’re on the topic of scale, I’m curious about the idea of astrobiological life inhabiting a radically, undetectably nonhuman scale. For example, one of the things you’ve written and lectured about is the incredible slowness it takes for some organisms to form, metabolize, and articulate themselves in the underground environments you study. Could there be forms of astrobiological life that exist on an unbelievably different timescale, whether it’s a billion-year hibernation cycle that we might discover at just the wrong time and mistake, say, for a mineral? Or might we find something on a very different spatial scale—for example, a species that is more like a network, like an aspen tree or a fungus?

Boston: You know, Paul Davies is very interested in this idea—the concept of a shadow biosphere. Of course, I had also thought about this question for many years, long before I read about Davies or before he gave it a name.

The conundrum you face is how you would know—how you would study or even conceptualize—these other biospheres? It’s outside of your normal spatial and temporal comfort zone, in which all of your training and experience has guided you to look, and inside of which all of your instruments are designed to function. If it’s outside all of that, how will you know it when you see it?

Imagine comets. With every perihelion passage, volatile gases escape. You are whipping around the solar system. Your body comes to life for that brief period of time only. Now apply that to icy bodies in very elliptical orbits in other solar systems, hosting life with very long periods of dormancy.

There are actually some wonderful early episodes of The Twilight Zone that tap into that theme, in a very poetic and literary way. [laughs] Of course, it’s also the central idea of some of the earliest science fiction; I suppose Gulliver’s Travels is probably the earliest exploration of that concept.

In the microbial realm—to stick with what we do know, and what we can study—we are already dealing with itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny things that are devilishly difficult to understand. We have a lot of tools now that enable us to approach those, but, very regularly, we’ll see things in electron microscopy that we simply can’t identify and they are very clearly structured. And I don’t think that they are all artifacts of the preparation—things that get put there accidentally during prep.

A lot of the organisms that we actually grow, and with which we work, are clearly nanobacteria. I don’t know how familiar you are with that concept, but it has been extremely controversial. There are many artifacts out there that can mislead us, but we do regularly see organisms that are very small. So how small can they be—what’s the limit?

A few of the early attempts at figuring this out were just childish. That’s a mean thing to say, because a lot of my former mentors have written some of those papers, but they would say things like: “Well, we need to conduct X, Y, and Z metabolic pathways, so, of course, we need all this genetic machinery.” I mean, come on, you know that early cells weren’t like that! The early cells—who knows what they were or what they required?

To take the famous case of the ALH84001 meteorite: are all those little doobobs that you can see in the images actually critters? I don’t know. I think we’ll never know, at least until we go to Mars and bring back stuff.

I have relatively big microbes in my lab that regularly feature little knobs and bobs and little furry things, that I am actually convinced are probably either viruses or prions or something similar. I can’t get a virologist to tell me yes. They are used to looking at viruses that they can isolate in some fashion. I don’t know how to get these little knobby bobs off my guys for them to look at.

The Allan Hills Meteorite (ALH84001); courtesy of NASA.

Twilley: In your paper on the human utilization of subsurface extraterrestrial environments [PDF], you discuss the idea of a “Field Guide to Unknown Organisms,” and how to plan to find life when you don’t necessarily know what it looks like. What might go into such a guide?

Boston: The analogy I often use with graduate students when I teach astrobiology is that, in some ways, it’s as if we are scientists on a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri and we are trying to write a field guide to the birds of Earth. Where do you start? Well, you start with whatever template you have. Then you have to deeply analyze every feature of that template and ask whether each feature is really necessary and which are just a happenstance of what can occur.

I think there are fundamental principles. You can’t beat thermodynamics. The need for input and outgoing energy is critical. You have to be delicately poised, so that the chemistry is active enough to produce something that would be a life-like process, but not so active that it outstrips any ability to have cohesion, to actually keep the life process together. Water is great as a solvent for that. It’s probably not the only solvent, but it’s a good one. So you can look for water—but do you really need to look for water?

I think you have to pick apart the fundamental assumptions. I suspect that predation is a relatively universal process. I suspect that parasitism is a universal process. I think that, with the mathematical work being done on complex, evolving systems, you see all these emerging properties.

Now, with all of that said, the details—the sizes, the scale, the pace, getting back to what we were just talking about—I think there is huge variability in there.

Caves on Mars; images courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/USGS.

Twilley: How do you train people to look for unrecognizable life?

Boston: I think everybody—all biologists—should take astrobiology. It would smack you on the side of the head and say, “You have to rethink some of these fundamental assumptions! You can’t just coast on them.”

The organisms that we study in the subsurface are so different from the microbes that we have on the surface. They don’t have any predators—so, ecologically, they don’t have to outgrow any predators—and they live in an environment where energy is exceedingly scarce. In that context, why would you bother having a metabolic rate that is as high as some of your compatriots on the surface? You can afford to just hang out for a really long time.

We have recently isolated a lot of strains from these fluid inclusions in the Naica caves—the one with those gigantic crystals. It’s pretty clear that these guys have been trapped in these bubbles between 10,000 and 15,000 years. We’ve got fluid inclusions in even older materials—in materials that are a few million years old, even, in a case we just got some dates for, as much as 40 million years.


Naica Caves, image from the official website. The caves are so hot that explorers have to wear special ice-jackets to survive.

One of the caveats is, of course, that when you go down some distance, the overlying lithostatic pressure of all of that rock makes space impossible. Microbes can’t live in zero space. Further, they have to have at least inter-grain spaces or microporosity—there has to be some kind of interconnectivity. If you have organisms completely trapped in tiny pockets, and they never interact, then that doesn’t constitute a biosphere. At some point, you also reach temperatures that are incompatible with life, because of the geothermal gradient. Where exactly that spot is, I don’t know, but I’m actually working on a lot of theoretical ideas to do with that.

In fact, I’m starting a book for MIT Press that will explore some of these ideas. They wanted me to write a book on the cool, weird, difficult, dangerous places I go to and the cool, weird, difficult bugs I find. That’s fine—I’m going to do that. But, really, what I want to do is put what we have been working on for the last thirty years into a theoretical context that doesn’t just apply to Earth but can apply broadly, not only to other planets in our solar system, but to one my other great passions, of course, which is exoplanets—planets outside the solar system.

One of the central questions that I want to explore further in my book, and that I have been writing and talking about a lot, is: what is the long-term geological persistence of organisms and geological materials? I think this is another long-term, evolutionary repository for living organisms—not just fossils—that we have not tapped into before. I think that life gets recycled over significant geological periods of time, even on Earth.

That’s a powerful concept if we then apply it to somewhere like Mars, for example, because Mars does these obliquity swings. It has super-seasonal cycles. It has these little dimple moons that don’t stabilize it, whereas our moon stabilizes the Earth’s obliquity level. That means that Mars is going through these super cold and dry periods of time, followed by periods of time where it’s probably more clement.

Now, clearly, if organisms can persist for tens of thousands of years—let alone hundreds of thousands of years, and possibly even millions of years—then maybe they are reawakenable. Maybe you have this very different biosphere.

Manaugh: Like a biosphere in waiting.

Boston: Yes—a biosphere in waiting, at a much lower level.

Recently, I have started writing a conceptual paper that really tries to explore those ideas. The genome that we see active on the surface of any planet might be of two types. If you have a planet like Earth, which is photosynthetically driven, you’re going to have a planet that is much more biological in terms of the total amount of biomass and the rates at which this can be produced. But that might not be the only way to run a biosphere.

You might also have a much more low-key biosphere that could actually be driven by geochemical and thermal energy from the inside of the planet. This was the model that we—myself, Chris McKay, and Michael Ivanoff, one of our colleagues from what was the Soviet Union at the time—published more than twenty years ago for Mars. We suggested that there would be chemically reduced gases coming from the interior of the planet.

That 1992 paper was what got us started on caves. I had never been in a wild cave in my life before. We were looking for a way to get into that subsurface space. The Department of Energy was supporting a few investigators, but they weren’t about to share their resources. Drilling is expensive. But caves are just there; you can go inside them.

So that’s really what got us into caving. It was at that point where I discovered caves are so variable and fascinating, and I really refocused my career on that for the last 20 years.


Lechuguilla Cave, photograph by Dave Bunnell.


Penelope Boston caving, image courtesy of V. Hildreth-Werker, from "Extraterrestrial Caves: Science, Habitat, Resources," NIAC Phase I Study Final Report, 2001.

The first time I did any serious caving was actually in Lechuguilla Cave. It was completely nuts to make that one’s first wild cave. We trained for about three hours, then we launched into a five-day expedition into Lechuguilla that nearly killed us! Chris McKay came out with a terrible infection. I had a blob of gypsum in my eye and an infection that swelled it shut. I twisted my ankle. I popped a rib. Larry Lemke had a massive migraine. We were not prepared for this. The people taking us in should have known better. But one of them is a USGS guide and a super caving jock, so it didn’t even occur to him—it didn’t occur to him that we were learning instantaneously to operate in a completely alien landscape with totally inadequate skills.

All I knew was that I was beaten to a pulp. I could almost not get across these chasms. I’m a short person. Everybody else was six feet tall. I felt like I was just hanging on long enough so I could get out and live. I've been in jams before, including in Antarctica, but that’s all I thought of the whole five days: I just have to live through this.

But, when I got out, I realized that what the other part of my brain had retained was everything I had seen. The bruises faded. My eye stopped being infected. In fact, I got the infection from looking up at the ceiling and having some of those gooey blobs drip down into my eye—but, I was like, “Oh my God. This is biological. I just know it is.” So it was a clue. And, when, I got out, I knew I had to learn how to do this. I wanted to get back in there.

ESA astronauts on a "cave spacewalk" during a 2011 training mission in the caves of Sardinia; image courtesy of the ESA.

Manaugh: You have spoken about the possibility of entire new types of caves that are not possible on Earth but might be present elsewhere. What are some of these other cave types you think might exist, and what sort of conditions would have formed them? You’ve used some great phrases to describe those processes—things like “volatile labyrinths” and “ice volcanism” that create speleo-landscapes that aren’t possible on Earth.

Boston: Well, in terms of ice, I’ll bet there are all sorts of Lake Vostok-like things out there on other moons and planets.

The thing with Lake Vostok is that it’s not a "lake." It’s a cave: a cave in ice. The ice, in this case, acts as bedrock, so it’s not a lake at all. It’s a closed system.

Manaugh: It’s more like a blister: an enclosed space full of fluid.

Boston: Exactly. In terms of speculating on the kinds of caves that might exist elsewhere in the universe, we are actually working on a special issue for the Journal of Astrobiology right now, based on the extraterrestrial planetary caves meeting that we did last October. We brought people from all over the place. This is a collaboration between my Institute—the National Cave and Karst Research Institute in Carlsbad, where we have our headquarters—and the Lunar and Planetary Institute.

The meeting was an attempt to explore these ideas. Karl Mitchell from JPL, who I had not met previously, works on Titan; he’s on the Cassini Huygens mission. He thinks he is seeing karst-like features on Titan. Just imagine that! Hydrocarbon fluids producing karst-like features in water-ice bedrock—what could be more exotic than that?

That also shows that the planetary physics dominates in creating these environments. I used to think that the chemistry dominated. I don’t think so anymore. I think that the physics dominates. You have to step away from the chemistry at first and ask: what are the fundamental physics that govern the system? Then you can ask: what are the fundamental chemical potentials that govern the system that could produce life? It’s the same exercise with imagining what kind of caves you can get—and I have a lurid imagination.


From "Human Utilization of Subsurface Extraterrestrial Environments," P. J. Boston, R. D. Frederick, S. M. Welch, J. Werker, T. R. Meyer, B. Sprungman, V. Hildreth-Werker, S. L. Thompson, and D. L. Murphy, Gravitational and Space Biology Bulletin 16(2), June 2003.

One of the fun things I do in my astrobiology class every couple of years is the capstone project. The students break down into groups of four or five, hopefully well-mixed in terms of biologists, engineers, chemists, geologists, physicists, and other backgrounds.

Then they have to design their own solar system, including the fundamental, broad-scale properties of its star. They have to invent a bunch of planets to go around it. And they have to inhabit at least one of those planets with some form of life. Then they have to design a mission—either telescopic or landed—that could study it. They work on this all semester, and they are so creative. It’s wonderful. There is so much value in imagining the biospheres of other planetary bodies.

You just have to think: “What are the governing equations that you have on this planet or in this system?” You look at the gravitational value of a particular body, its temperature regime, and the dominant geochemistry. Does it have an atmosphere? Is it tectonic? One of the very first papers I did—it appeared in one of these obscure NASA special publications, of which they print about 100 and nobody can ever find a copy—was called “Bubbles in the Rocks.” It was entirely devoted to speculation about the properties of natural and artificial caves as life-support structures. A few years later, I published a little encyclopedia article, expanding on it, and I’m now working on another expansion, actually.

I think that, either internally, externally, or both, planetary bodies that form cracks are great places to start. If you then have some sort of fluid—even episodically—within that system, then you have a whole new set of cave-forming processes. Then, if you have a material that can exist not only in a solid phase, but also as a liquid or, in some cases, even in a vapor phase on the same planetary body, then you have two more sets of potential cave-forming processes. You just pick it apart from those fundamentals, and keep building things up as you think about these other cave-forming systems and landscapes.

ESA astronauts practice "cavewalking"; image courtesy ESA-V. Corbu.

Manaugh: One of my favorite quotations is from a William S. Burroughs novel, where he describes what he calls “a vast mineral consciousness at absolute zero, thinking in slow formations of crystal.”

Boston: Oh, wow.

Manaugh: I mention that because I’m curious about how the search for “extraterrestrial life” always tends to be terrestrial, in the sense that it’s geological and it involves solid planetary formations. But what about the search for life on a gaseous planet—would life be utterly different there, chemically speaking, or would it simply be sort of dispersed, or even aerosolized? I suppose I’m also curious if there could be a “cave” on a gaseous planet and, if so, would it really just be a weather system? Is a “cave” on a gaseous planet actually just a storm? Or, to put it more abstractly, can there be caves without geology?

Boston: Hmm. Yes, I think there could be. If it was enclosed or self-perpetuating.

Manaugh: Like a self-perpetuating thermal condition in the sky. It would be a sort of atmospheric “cave.”

Twilley: It would be a bubble.

ESA astronauts explore caves in Sardinia; image courtesy ESA–R. Bresnik.

Boston: In terms of life that could exist in a permanent, fluid medium that was gaseous—rather than a compressed fluid, like water—Carl Sagan and Edwin Salpeter made an attempt at that, back in 1975. In fact, I use their "Jovian Gasbags" paper as a foundational text in my astrobiology classes.

But an atmospheric system like Jupiter is dominated—just like an ocean is—by currents. It’s driven by thermal convection cells, which are the weather system, but it’s at a density that gives it more in common with our oceans than with our sky. And we are already familiar with the fact that our oceans, even though they are a big blob of water, are spatially organized into currents, and they are controlled by density, temperature, and salinity. The ocean has a massively complex three-dimensional structure; so, too, does the Jovian atmosphere. So a gas giant is really more like a gaseous ocean I think.

Now, the interior machinations that go on in inside a planet like Jupiter are driving these gas motions. There is a direct analogy here to the fact that, on our rocky terrestrial planet, which we think of as a solid Earth, the truth is that the mantle is plastic—in fact, the Earth’s lower crust is a very different substance from what we experience up here on this crusty, crunchy top, this thing that we consider solid geology. Whether we’re talking about a gas giant like Jupiter or the mantle of a rocky planet like Earth, we are really just dealing with different regimes of density—and, here again, it’s driven by the physics.

ESA astronauts set up an experimental wind-speed monitoring station in the caves of Sardinia; image courtesy ESA/V. Crobu.

A couple of years ago, I sat in on a tectonics class that one of my colleagues at New Mexico Tech was giving, which was a lot of fun for me. Everybody else was thinking about Earth, and I was thinking about everything but Earth. For my little presentation in class, what I tried to do was think about analogies to things on icy bodies—to look at Europa, Titan, Enceledus, Ganymede, and so forth, and to see how they are being driven by the same tectonic processes, and even producing the same kind of brittle-to-ductile mantle transition, but in ice rather than rock.

I think that, as we go further and further in the direction of having to explain what we think is going on in exoplanets, it’s going to push some of the geophysics in that direction, as well. There is amazingly little out there. I was stunned, because I know a lot of planetary scientists who are thinking about this kind of stuff, but there is a big gulf between Earth geophysics and applying those lessons to exoplanets.

ESA astronauts prepare for their 2013 training mission in the caves of Sardinia; image courtesy ESA-V. Crobu.

Manaugh: We need classes in speculative geophysics.

Boston: Yeah—come on, geophysicists! [laughs] Why shouldn’t they get in the game? We’ve been doing it in astrobiology for a long time.

In fact, when I’ve asked my colleagues certain questions like, “Would we even get orogeny on a three Earth-mass planet?” They are like, “Um… We don’t know.” But you know what? I bet we have the equations to figure that out.

It starts with something as simple as that: in different or more extreme gravitational regimes, could you have mountains? Could you have caves? How could you calculate that? I don’t know the answer to that—but you have to ask it.

ESA astronauts take microbiological samples during a 2011 training mission in the caves of Sardinia; image courtesy of the ESA.

Twilley: You’re a member of NASA’s Planetary Protection Subcommittee. Could you talk a little about what that means. I’m curious whether the same sorts of planetary protection protocols we might use on other planets like Mars should also be applied to the Earth’s subsurface. How do we protect these deeper ecosystems? And how do we protect deeper ecosystems on Mars, if there are any?

Boston: That’s a great question. We are working extremely hard to do that, actually.

Planetary protection is the idea that we must protect Earth from off-world contaminants. And, of course, vice versa: we don’t want to contaminate other planets, both for scientific reasons and, at least in my case, for ethical reasons, with biological material from Earth.

In other words, I think we owe it to our fellow bodies in the solar system to give them a chance to prove their biogenicity or not, before humans start casually shedding our skin cells or transporting microbes there.

That’s planetary protection, and it works both ways.

One thing I have used as a sales pitch in some of my proposals is the idea that we are attempting to become more and more noninvasive in our cave exploration, which is very hard to do. For example, we have pushed all of our methods in the direction of using miniscule quantities of sample. Most Earth scientists can just go out and collect huge chunks of rock. Most biologists do that, too. You grow E. coli in the lab and you harvest tons of it. But I have to take just a couple grams of material—on a lucky day—sometimes even just milligrams of material, with very sparse bio density in there. I have to work with that.

What this means is that the work we are doing also lends itself really well to developing methods that would be useful on extraterrestrial missions.

In fact, we are pushing in the direction of not sampling at all, if we can. We are trying to see what we can learn about something before we even poke it. So, in our terrestrial caving work, we are actually living the planetary protection protocol.

We are also working in tremendously sensitive wilderness areas and we are often privileged enough to be the only people to get in there. We want to minimize the potential contamination.

That said, of course, we are contaminant sources. We risk changing the environment we’re trying to study. We struggle with this. I struggle with it physically and methodologically. I struggle with it ethically. You don’t want to screw up your science and inadvertently test your own skin bugs.

I’d say this is one of those cases where it’s not unacceptable to have a nonzero risk—to use a double negative again. There are few things in life that I would say that about. Even in our ridiculous risk-averse culture, we understand that for most things, there is a nonzero risk of basically anything. There is a nonzero risk that we’ll be hit by a meteorite now, before we are even done with this interview. But it’s pretty unlikely.

In this case, I think it’s completely unacceptable to run much of a risk at all.

That said, the truth is that pathogens co-evolve with their hosts. Pathogenesis is a very delicately poised ecological relationship, much more so than predation. If you are made out of the same biochemistry I’m made of, the chances are good that I can probably eat you, assuming that I have the capability of doing that. But the chances that I, as a pathogen, could infect you are miniscule. So there are different degrees of danger.

There is also the alien effect, which is well known in microbiology. That is that there is a certain dose of microbes that you typically need to get in order for them to take hold, because they are coming into an area where there’s not much ecological space. They either have to be highly pre-adapted for whatever the environment is that they land in, or they have to be sufficiently numerous so that, when they do get introduced, they can actually get a toehold.

We don’t really understand some of the fine points of how that occurs. Maybe it’s quorum sensing. Maybe it’s because organisms don’t really exist as single strains at the microbial level and they really have to be in consortia—in communities—to take care of all of the functions of the whole community.

We have a very skewed view of microbiology, because our knowledge comes from a medical and pathogenesis history, where we focus on single strains. But nobody lives like that. There are no organisms that do that. The complexity of the communal nature of microorganisms may be responsible for the alien effect.

So, given all of that, do I think that we are likely to be able to contaminate Mars? Honestly, no. On the surface, no. Do I act as if we can? Yes—absolutely, because the stakes are too high.

Now, do I think we could contaminate the subsurface? Yes. You are out of the high ultraviolet light and out of the ionizing radiation zone. You would be in an environment much more likely to have liquid water, and much more likely to be in a thermal regime that was compatible with Earth life.

So you also have to ask what part of Mars you are worried about contaminating.

ESA teams perform bacterial sampling and examine a freshwater supply; top photo courtesy ESA–V. Crobu; bottom courtesy ESA/T. Peake.

Manaugh: There’s been some interesting research into the possibility of developing new pharmaceuticals from these subterranean biospheres—or even developing new industrial materials, like new adhesives. I’d love to know more about your research into speleo-pharmacology or speleo-antibiotics—drugs developed from underground microbes.

Boston: It’s just waiting to be exploited. The reasons that it has not yet been done have nothing to do with science and nothing to do with the tremendous potential of these ecosystems, and everything to do with the bizarre and not very healthy economics of the global drug industry. In fact, I just heard that someone I know is leaving the pharmaceutical industry, because he can’t stand it anymore, and he’s actually going in the direction of astrobiology.

Really, there is a de-emphasis on drug discovery today and more of an emphasis on drug packaging. It is entirely profit-driven motive, which is distasteful, I think, and extremely sad. I see a real niche here for someone who doesn’t want to become just a cog in a giant pharmaceutical company, someone who wants to do a small start-up and actually do drug discovery in an environment that is astonishingly promising.

It’s not my bag; I don’t want to develop drugs. But I see our organisms producing antibiotics all the time. When we grow them in culture, I can see where some of them are oozing stuff—pink stuff and yellow stuff and clear stuff. And you can see it in nature. If you go to a lava tube cave, here in New Mexico, you see they are doing it all the time.

A lot of these chemistry tests screen for mutagenic activity, chemogenic activity, and all of the other things that are indications of cancer-fighting drugs and so on, and we have orders of magnitude more hits from cave stuff than we do from soils. So where is everybody looking? In soils. Dudes! I’ve got whole ecosystems in one pool that are different from an ecosystem in another pool that are less than a hundred feet apart in Lechuguilla Cave! The variability—the non-homogeneity of the subsurface—vastly exceeds the surface, because it’s not well mixed.

ESA astronauts prepare their experiments and gear for a 2013 CAVES ("Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behaviour and performance Skills") mission in Sardinia; image courtesy ESA–V. Crobu

Twilley: In your TED talk, you actually say that the biodiversity in caves on Earth may well exceed the entire terrestrial biosphere.

Boston: Oh, yes—certainly the subsurface. There is a heck of a lot of real estate down there, when you add all those rock-fracture surface areas up. And each one of these little pockets is going off on its own evolutionary track. So the total diversity scales with that. It’s astonishing to me that speleo-bioprospecting hasn’t taken off already. I keep writing about it, because I can’t believe that there aren’t twenty-somethings out there who don’t want to go work for big pharma, who are fascinated by this potential for human use.

There is a young faculty member at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, whose graduate student is one of our friends and cavers, and they are starting to look at some of these. I’m like, “Go for it! I can supply you with endless cultures.”

Twilley: In your “Human Mission to Inner Space” experiment, you trialed several possible Martian cave habitat technologies in a one-week mission to a closed cave with a poisonous atmosphere in Arizona. As part of that, you looked into Martian agriculture, and grew what you called “flat crops.” What were they?

Boston: We grew great duckweed and waterfern. We made duckweed cookies. Gus made a rice and duckweed dish. It was quite tasty. [laughs] We actually fed two mice on it exclusively for a trial period, but although duckweed has more protein than soybeans, there weren’t enough carbohydrates to sustain them calorically.

But the duckweed idea was really just to prove a point. A great deal of NASA’s agricultural research has been devoted to trying to grow things for astronauts to make them happier on the long, outbound trips—which is very important. It is a very alien environment and I think people underestimate that. People who have not been in really difficult field circumstances have no apparent understanding of the profound impact of habitat on the human psyche and our ability to perform. Those of us who have lived in mock Mars habitats, or who have gone into places like caves, or even just people who have traveled a lot, outside of their comfort zone, know that. Your circumstances affect you.

One of the things we designed, for example, was a way to illuminate an interior subsurface space by projecting a light through fluid systems—because you’d do two things. You’d get photosynthetic activity of these crops, but you’d also get a significant amount of very soothing light into the interior space.

We had such a fabulous time doing that project. We just ran with the idea of: what you can do to make the space that a planet has provided for you into actual, livable space.

From Boston's presentation report on the Human Utilization of Subsurface Extraterrestrial Environments, NIAC Phase II study (PDF).

Twilley: Earlier on our Venue travels, we actually drove through Hanksville, Utah, where many of the Mars analog environment studies are done.

Boston: I’ve actually done two crews there. It’s incredibly effective, considering how low-fidelity it is.

Twilley: What makes it so effective?

Boston: Simple things are the most critical. The fact that you have to don a spacesuit and the incredible cumbersomeness of that—how it restricts your physical space in everything from how you turn your head to how your visual field is limited. Turning your head doesn’t work anymore, because you just look inside your helmet; your whole body has to turn, and it can feel very claustrophobic.

Then there are the gloves, where you’ve got your astronaut gloves on and you’re trying to manipulate the external environment without your normal dexterity. And there’s the cumbersomeness and, really, the psychological burden of having to simulate going through an airlock cycle. It’s tremendously effective. Being constrained with the same group of people, it is surprisingly easy to buy into the simulation. It’s not as if you don’t know you’re not on Mars, but it doesn’t take much to make a convincing simulation if you get those details right.

The Mars Desert Research Station, Hanksville, Utah; image courtesy of bandgirl807/Wikipedia.

I guess that’s what was really surprising to me, the first time I did it: how little it took to be transform your human experience and to really cause you to rethink what you have to do. Because everything is a gigantic pain in the butt. Everything you know is wrong. Everything you think in advance that you can cope with fails in the field. It is a humbling experience, and an antidote to hubris. I would like to take every engineer I know that works on space stuff—

Twilley: —and put them in Hanksville! [laughter]

Boston: Yes—seriously! I have sort of done that, by taking these loafer-wearing engineers—most of whom are not outdoorsy people in any way, who haunt the halls of MIT and have absorbed the universe as a built environment—out to something as simple as the lava tubes. I could not believe how hard it was for them. Lava tubes are not exactly rigorous caving. Most of these are walk-in, with only a little bit of scrambling, but you would have thought we’d just landed on Mars. It was amazing for some of them, how totally urban they are and how little experience they have of coping with a natural space. I was amazed.

I actually took a journalist out to a lava tube one time. I think this lady had never left her house before! There’s a little bit of a rigorous walk over the rocks—but it was as if she had never walked on anything that was not flat before.

From Venue's own visit to a lava tube outside Flagstaff, AZ.

It’s just amazing what one’s human experience does. This is why I think engineers should be forced to go out into nature and see if the systems they are designing can actually work. It’s one of the best ways for them to challenge their assumptions, and even to change the types of questions they might be asking in the first place.


Inspired by our conversation with Penelope Boston, in which she described to Venue the possibility of extraordinarily ancient lava tubes on Mars (and even the Moon), we decided to visit an earthly example ourselves.



As we looped through Arizona, from the virtual fences of Las Cruces to the lunar training ground of Cinder Lake, we detoured to explore a mile-long lava tube cave in the Coconino National Forest, just outside Flagstaff.

The Lava River Cave, as it's known, was formed roughly 700,000 years ago, when the top and sides of a stream of molten lava cooled while the interior continued to flow, hollowing out the smooth-walled, arched tunnel that still exists today.

The cave is accessible, although not easily: it's on public land and it is well-signposted, but it requires driving on unpaved roads for 15 or 20 minutes through a pine forest, at least part of which appears to be common grazing land, as we drove through a herd of slowly meandering cattle at one point, bovinely eyeing our vehicle as we rolled past, taking photos of them.

Another family were already scrambling out as we began our descent, in a light rain, into the lava tube. We negotiated the basaltic boulders and low, condensation-covered ceiling at the entrance.



Sadly, after just a few minutes spent admiring the extraordinary darkness when we switched off our flashlights, one of us slipped, hit her head, and bruised her tailbone, thus fully living up to Penelope Boston's stereotype of bumbling urban journalists, and handily demonstrating just one of the challenges future Martian explorers might face working and living in subsurface environments.


Photograph of the cave's Y-intersection, where two tubes combine into one, by Flickr user Alan Grosse.

Chastened, we retraced our steps, missing the cave's reportedly spectacular flow ripples (left behind by the last trickles of molten rock), its cooling cracks and unusual Y-shaped split, and we continued on to the roads, motels, farms, mines, landfills, and archives of Venue's onward travels.
While passing through Wisconsin, Venue made sure to hike part of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. The trail both marks and follows the outer edge of the huge glacier that once covered nearly all of what is now the U.S. Midwest and Northeast: a wall of ice that squashed and deformed the ground below, from the Plains to Long Island. This lost, near-permanent winter left deep traces, at all spatial scales, still visible in the existing landscape today.



The Trail, as described by its National Park Service curators, is "a thousand-mile footpath—entirely within Wisconsin—that highlights these Ice Age landscape features while providing access to some of the state's most beautiful natural areas."

It stretches from the waters of Lake Michigan (itself a glacial feature) in coastal Door County down nearly to Illinois, then back up again, circumventing the hauntingly named "Driftless Area," before cresting mid-state, where it cuts an abrupt and jagged westerly line all the way to the border with Minnesota.



The small section Venue was able to visit—just one tiny sliver of the thousand-mile trail, with literally hundreds of trailheads scattered throughout the state—was the Baraboo Hills Chapter at Devil's Lake State Park. It is roughly one hour east-northeast from the state capitol in Madison.

The park is part of what is known as a "National Scientific Reserve," set aside not for preservation, but for its taxonomic value in cataloging the various edge-conditions of a now-vanished glacier.



It is an often surreal landscape, with sudden hills, standing stones, and deeply crevassed cliffs coming out of the ground for no apparent geologic reason. There are eskers and drift plains, chimneys and outwash aprons, erratics and bluffs.


From Geology of Ice Age National Scientific Reserve of Wisconsin, NPS Scientific Monograph No. 2 by Robert F. Black

For good or for bad, we arrived on a cloudy, quite humid day, and we were by no means alone. The park was full of families and other hikers, including a few small groups of rock climbers who had come out to scale the pinnacles of hills that sprayed upward with finger-like columns of lichen-covered stone.



This was the very edge of the glacier, a limit point where one landscape condition—and one very different climate—hit another.



While it offered a nice-enough hike—Wisconsin is an extraordinarily beautiful state, but its vistas suffer from comparison to the National Parks further west—the trail was far more interesting from the point of view of its curatorial intentions, rather than, say, its athletic possibilities or even its perfectly charming views.



In other words, it's the idea of assembling the outer edge of a lost landscape—an entire lost glacial era—into a contemporary narrative trail way that is so compelling. The Ice Age Trail, like other super-trails in the U.S, such as the Appalachian or the Pacific Crest, could conceivably be hiked over the course of weeks, but it comes with the explicit notion that hikers would thus experientially familiarize themselves with the topography of the Ice Age.


From "The Pleistocene of Wisconsin" by Robert F. Black, Geology of Ice Age National Scientific Reserve of Wisconsin, NPS Scientific Monograph No. 2

The terrain itself becomes an exhibition you wander through, an outdoor museum of moraines, drumlins, lakes, forests, and hills. Some of the lone rocks are totemic or pagoda-like, overlooking the thickets and small ponds below like earthen sentinels.

From Geology of Ice Age National Scientific Reserve of Wisconsin, NPS Scientific Monograph No. 2 by Robert F. Black

The Ice Age Trail Alliance hosts hiking maps on their website, including information for local landowners who might be interested in allowing access to their property in order to host part of the still-expanding networks of trails.



Venue took a detour north into the periphery of greater Los Angeles to drive across, through, and back again over the San Andreas Fault, a slow motion crash between continents. Rocks roil like rough seas in an engraving by Hokusai, a great wave of planetary energy curling stone into ribbons and bending whole landscapes toward the sky.



Though several guidebooks exist for would-be fault explorers, the San Andreas is not the giant, Grand Canyon-esque crack in the ground of our James Bond-fueled imagination. For most of its length, indeed, the fault is only visible through its traces: offset streams and channels, ridges, scarps, discontinuities, sags, and even mudpots.

The Palmdale Road Cut—a 90-foot slice through lakebed sediments that have spent millions of years being squeezed and torqued by the fault's slips and shear—is thus a rare window onto geologic force, frozen in motion.

The drive itself is very easy, heading up the 14—the Antelope Valley Freeway—from Los Angeles, where, just north of the junction with Avenue S, there it is: the San Andreas, inadvertently peeled open and revealed to the world by road crews as they blasted through rock to make the freeway.



The easiest way to visit on foot, we found, was to exit there, head up to the nearby Pelona Vista Park, and leave our car in the parking lot.

Then—admittedly trespassing, so please beware should you try this yourself—it's just a short, uneven walk down a well-worn network of trails and skirting some ineffectual, sagging barbed wire to overlook the freeway, where you can stand above this artificial chasm between continents as if in a Casper David Friedrich painting.



You can look down at and listen to cars droning by, seemingly unaware of their regal surroundings.

If you don't know what you're looking for, you could drive though this extraordinary spot without ever knowing what you've missed.



Standing amidst this wonderfully detailed incision, cut straight through the arid scar tissue of continental jostling, it has the feel of a tectonic amphitheater—more stunning than anything at Delphi—oracular in its revelation of how the earth moves, heaves, and behaves, the planet always rushing toward future arrangements that geologists can only try, approximately, to predict.



Immeasurably massive forces strain upward, bulging the ground itself and reducing a million years' worth of sedimentary accretion to dust and gravel. Small rocks pop out from cracks and roll down the hillside, where plants struggle to grow along the dry and irregular terrain.



Hopping back in the car, Venue continued to drive the fault, passing the California Aqueduct, a megastructural monument to water, another of the powerful natural forces whose movements have redesigned the state's landscape wholesale.



About forty minutes southwest of Palmdale, two tiny signs, all but literally in the middle of nowhere, stand on the side of a road so uncrowded we passed only one other car the entire time we drove on it, announcing the fault's subterranean presence.



Here, the fault spreads out into a broad and picturesque valley—



—where the signs marking this geologic feature look both absurd and suitably poetic, as if tourists from all over the country or world might, just might, come to California in search of its signature geologic landmark.



We pulled over here to walk around for a while, at a small bend in Pallet Creek Road, taking pictures and wandering up the nearby hills. A ruined farmhouse of some kind stood off the road to the north, and the wind picked up considerably as we looked over the vista.

The weather began to change and the looming masses of clouds blowing down from the San Gabriels seemed to mimic, in their own convolutions and shapes, the weird geologies we knew were below us somewhere, an earth layered like a deck of cards that, at any moment, might reshuffle themselves in a coming earthquake.

Oddly enough, there is a Benedictine monastery built right here on the Fault: the coincidentally named St. Andrew's Abbey, where, of all things, the monks specialize in ceramics, molding and firing the crumbled clay of a tectonic fault into objects.

There is something truly remarkable in this notion—whether or not the monks, in fact, use local clay—of transmuting the negative space of a fault line into positive things with mass that you can hold and look upon, as if extracting material objects from the void and turning this vulnerability into a generator for new forms yet to come.

Top image: Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, via Wikipedia.
The paleo-tectonic maps of retired geologist Ronald Blakey are mesmerizing and impossible to forget once you've seen them. Catalogued on his website Colorado Plateau Geosystems, these maps show the world adrift, its landscapes breaking apart and reconnecting again in entirely new forms, where continents are as temporary as the island chains that regularly smash together to create them, on a timescale where even oceans that exist for tens of millions of years can disappear leaving only the subtlest of geological traces.

With a particular emphasis on North America and the U.S. Southwest—where Blakey still lives, in Flagstaff, Arizona—these visually engaging reconstructions of the Earth's distant past show how dynamic a planet we live on, and imply yet more, unrecognizable changes ahead.

The following images come from Ron Blakey's maps of the paleotectonic evolution of North America. The first map shows the land 510 million years ago, progressing from there—reading left to right, top to bottom—through the accretion and dissolution of Pangaea into the most recent Ice Age and, in the final image, North America in its present-day configuration.



Venue met with Blakey in his Flagstaff home to talk about the tectonic processes that make and remake the surface of the Earth, the difficulty in representing these changes with both scientific accuracy and visual panache, and the specific satellite images and software tools he uses to create his unique brand of deep-time cartography.

Like film stills from a 600-million year-old blockbuster, Blakey's maps take us back to the Precambrian—but there are much older eras still, stretching unmapped into far earlier continents and seas, and there are many more billions of years of continental evolution to come. Blakey talked us through some of the most complex changes in recent geological history, including the opening of the North Atlantic Ocean, and he allowed himself to speculate, albeit briefly, about where Earth's continental crust might yet be headed (including a possible supercontinent in the Antarctic).

Many of Blakey's maps are collected in the book Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau, written with Wayne Ranney, where Blakey also describes some of the research and methods that went into producing them. Blakey also contributed to the recent, new edition of a textbook by Wolfgang Frisch and Martin Meschede, Plate Tectonics: Continental Drift and Mountain Building, a thorough exploration of landscapes disassembling and colliding over vast spans of time.

• • •

The west coast of North America, depicted as it would have been 130 million years ago; the coast is a labyrinth of islands, lagoons, and peninsulas slowly colliding with the mainland to form the mountains and valleys we know today. Map by Ron Blakey.

Geoff Manaugh: When I first discovered your maps showing the gradual tectonic re-location of the continents over hundreds of millions of years, I thought this was exactly what geologists should be doing: offering clear, step-by-step visual narratives of the evolution of the earth’s surface so that people can better understand the planet we live on. What inspired you to make the maps, and how did you first got started with them?

Ronald Blakey: Well, the very first maps I made were in conjunction with my doctoral thesis, back in the early 1970s. Those were made with pen and ink. I made sketches to show what the paleogeography would have looked like for the specific formation I was studying with my doctorate. Three or four of those maps went into the thesis, which was then published by the Utah Geologic Survey. I’ve also done a number of papers over the years where I’ve made sketches.

But I was late getting into the computer. Basically, during my graduate work I never used a computer for anything. I kind of resisted it, because, for the kind of work I was doing, I just didn’t see a need for it—I didn’t do quantifiable kinds of things. Then, of course, along comes email and the Internet. I actually forget when I first started with Photoshop—probably in the mid-1990s. When I found that, I just thought, wow: the power of this is incredible. I quickly learned how to use the cloning tool, so that I could clone modern topography onto ancient maps, and that made things even simpler yet.

Another thing I started doing was putting these maps into presentations. There were something like five different programs back there, in the late 90s, but the only one that survived was PowerPoint—which is too bad, because it was far from the best of the programs. I was using a program called Astound, which was far superior, particularly in the transitions between screens. I could do simple animations. I could make the tectonic plates move, create mountain belts, and so forth.

I retired in May of 2009, but all of my early maps are now online. With each generation of maps that I’ve done, there has been a noted improvement over earlier maps. I find new techniques and, when you work with Photoshop as much as I do, you learn new ideas and you find ways to make things that were a little clumsy look more smooth.

Manaugh: Where does the data come from?

Blakey: It comes from various publications. You can get a publication and have that PDF open, showing what something looked like in the past, and work from that. Usually, what I’m working from are fairly simple sketches published in the literature. They’ll show a subduction zone and a series of violent arcs, or a collision zone. What I do is take this information and make it more pictorial.

If you create a series of maps in sequence, you can create them in such a way that certain geologic events, from one time slice to the next, to the next, to the next, will blend. It depends a lot on the scale of what you’re trying to show—the whole world versus just four or five states in the West.

Now, throughout the years from, let’s say, 2004 until I retired in 2009, I kept improving the website. I envisioned most of this as educational material, and I didn’t pay much attention to who used it, how they used it, and so forth. But, then, shortly before I retired, various book companies and museums—and, most recently, oil companies—have approached me. So I started selling these and I tried very diligently not to allow this to overlap with what I was doing for my teaching and my research at the University.

In the following long sequence of images, we see the evolution of the west coast of North America, its state boundaries ghosted in for reference. Sea levels rise and fall; island chains emerge and collide; mountains forms; inland seas proliferate and drain; and, eventually, modern day California, Vancouver Island, and the Baja peninsula take shape, among other recognizable features. The time frame represented by these images is approximately 500 million years. All maps by Ron Blakey.



Nicola Twilley: What do the oil companies want them for?

Blakey: They’re my biggest customers now. Usually, the geologists at oil companies are working with people who know either much less geology than they do or, in some cases, almost no geology at all, yet they’re trying to convince these people that this is where they need to explore, or this is what they need to do next.

They find these maps very useful to show what the Devonian of North Dakota looked like, for example, which is a hot spot right now with all the shales that they’re developing in the Williston Basin. What they like is that I show what the area might have really looked like. This helps, particularly with people who have only a modest understanding of geology, particularly the geologic past.

Manaugh: What have been some of the most difficult regions or geological eras to map?

Blakey: The most difficult thing to depict is back in the Paleozoic and the Mesozoic. Large areas of the continent were flooded, deep into the interior.

During certain periods, like the Ordovician, the Devonian, and parts of the Jurassic—especially the Cretaceous—as much as two-thirds of the continents were underwater. But they’re still continents; they’re still continental crusts. They’re not oceans. The sea level was just high enough, with respect to where the landscape was at the time, that the area was flooded. Of course, this is a concept that non-geologists really have problems with, because they don’t understand the processes of how continents get uplifted and subside and erode and so forth, but this is one of the concepts that my maps show quite nicely: the seas coming in and retreating.

But it’s very difficult—I mean, there is no modern analog for a seaway that stretched from the Mackenzie River Delta in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and that was 400 miles wide. There’s nothing like that on Earth today. But the styles of mountains have not dramatically changed over the last probably two billion years—maybe even longer than that. I don’t go back that far—I tend to stick with the last 600 million years or so—but the styles of mountains haven’t changed. The nature of island arcs hasn’t changed, as far as we know.

What has changed is the amount of vegetation on the landscape. My maps that are in the early part of the Paleozoic—the Cambrian and the Ordovician early part of the Silurian—tend to be drab-colored. Then, in the late Silurian and in the Devonian, when the land plants developed, I start bringing vegetation colors in. I try to show the broad patterns of climate. Not in detail, of course—there’s a lot of controversy about certain paleoclimates. But, basically, paleoclimates follow the same kinds of regimens that the modern climates are following: where the oceans are, where the equator is, where the mountain ranges are, and so forth.

That means you can make broad predictions about what a paleoclimate would have been based on its relationship to the equator or based on the presence or absence of nearby mountains. I use these kinds of principles to show more arid areas versus more humid areas.

The next three sequences show the evolution of the Earth's surface in reverse, from the present day to, at the very bottom, 600 million years ago, when nearly all of the planet's landmasses were joined together in the Antarctic. The first sequence shows roughly 90 million years of backward evolution, the continents pulling apart from one another and beginning a slow drift south. They were mapped using the Mollweide projection, and, in all cases, are by Ron Blakey.



Twilley: And you paint the arid area based on a contemporary analog?

Blakey: Right. I know the modern world reasonably well and I’ll choose something today that might have matched the texture and aridity of that older landscape.

I use a program called GeoMapApp that gives me digital elevation maps for anywhere in the world. Most recently, they have coupled it with what they call the “Blue Marble.” NASA has stitched together a bunch of satellite photos of the world in such a way that you can’t tell where one series of photos come in or another. It’s a fairly true-color representation of what Earth would look like from space. So this Blue Marble is coupled with the GeoMapApp’s digital elevation topography; you put the Blue Marble over it, and you use a little slider to let the topography show through, and it gives you a fairly realistic looking picture of what you’re looking for.

For example, if I’m working with a mountain range in the southern Appalachians for a Devonian map—well, the southern Appalachians, during the Devonian, were probably far enough away from the equator that it was in the arid belt. There are some indications of that, as well—salt deposits in the Michigan Basin and in parts of New York and so forth. Plus, there are red-colored sediments, which don’t prove but tend to indicate arid environments. This combination tells me that this part of the world was fairly arid. So I’m going to places like modern Afghanistan, extreme western China, northern Turkey, or other places where there are somewhat arid climates with mountain belts today. Then I clone the mountains from there and put them in the map.

But you have to know the geologic background. You have to know how the mountains were formed, what the grain of the mountains was. That’s not always easy, although there are ways of doing it. To know the grain of the mountains, you need to know where the hinterland and the center of the mountains were. You need to know where the foreland area is, so that you can show the different styles of mountains. You have to move from foreland areas—which tends to be a series of parallel ridges, usually much lower than the hinterlands—to the center and beyond.

I use this kind of information to pick the right kind of modern mountain to put back in the Devonian, based on what that Devonian landscape probably had a good chance of looking like. Do we know for certain? Of course not. We weren’t around in the Devonian. But we have a good rock record and we have a lot of information; so we use that information and, then, voilà.

To give another example, let’s look at the Devonian period of the east coast. The big European continent that we call Baltica collided with Greenland and a series of micro-continents collided further south, all the way down at least as far as New Jersey, if not down as far the Carolinas. We know that there are places on Earth today where these same kinds of collisions are taking place—in the Alps and Mediterranean region, and the Caucasus region, and so forth.

We can use the concept that, if two plates are colliding today to produce the Caucasus mountains, and if we look at the style of mountains that the Caucasus are, then it’s reasonable to think that, where Greenland and Baltica collided in the Silurian and the Devonian, the mountains would have had a similar style. So we can map that.

This second sequence shows the continents drifting apart, in reverse, from 105 million years ago to 240 million years ago. They were mapped using the Mollweide projection, and, in all cases, are by Ron Blakey.



Manaugh: That collision alone—Baltica and Greenland—sounds like something that would be extremely difficult to map.

Blakey: Absolutely. And it’s not a one-to-one relationship. You have to look at the whole pattern of how the plates collided, how big the plates were, and so forth.

Then there’s the question of the different histories of particular plates. So, for example, most of Scotland started out as North America. Then, when all the continents collided to form Pangaea, the first collisions took place in the Silurian-Devonian and the final collisions took place in the Pennsylvanian-Permian. By, say, 250 million years ago, most of the continents were together. Then, when they started to split apart in the Triassic and Jurassic—especially in the Triassic and Cretaceous—the split occurred in such a way that what had been part of North America was actually captured, if you will, by Europe and taken over to become the British Isles.

Scotland and at least the northern half of Ireland were captured and began to drift with Europe. On the other hand, North America picked up Florida—which used to be part of Gondwana—and so forth.

One of the things that is interesting is the way that, when mountains come together and then finally break up, they usually don’t break up the same way that they came together. Sometimes they do, but it has to do with weaknesses, stress patterns, and things like this. Obviously, all time is extremely relative, but mountains don’t last that long. A given mountain range that’s been formed by a simple collision—not that there’s any such thing as a simple collision—once that collision is over with, 40 or 50 million years after that event, there is only low-lying landscape. It may have even have split apart already into a new ocean basin.

But here’s the important part: the structure that was created by that collision is still there, even though the mountains have been worn down. It’s like when you cut a piece of wood: the grain is still inherited from when that tree grew. The pattern of the grain still shows where the branches were, and the direction of the tree’s growth in response to wind and sun and its neighbors. You can’t reconstruct the tree exactly from its grain, but, if you’re an expert with wood, you should be able to look and say: here are the tree rings, and here’s a year where the tree grew fast, here’s a year where the tree grew slow, here’s where the tree grew branches, etc.

In a sense, as geologists, we’re doing the same things with rock structure. We can tell by the pattern of how the rocks are deformed which direction the forces came from. With mountains, you can tell the angle at which the plates collided. It’s usually very oblique. What that tends to do is complicate the geologic structure, because you not only get things moving one way, but you get things dragging the other way, as well. But we can usually tell the angle at which the plates hit.

Then, in many cases, based upon the nature of how the crust has been deformed and stacked up, we can tell the severity of the mountain range. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we can say: oh, this structure would have been a twenty-thousand-foot high mountain range. It’s not that simple at all, not least of which because rocks can deform pretty severely without making towering mountains.

This final of the three global sequences shows the continents drifting apart, in reverse, from 260 million years ago to 600 million years ago. There was still nearly 4 billion years of tectonic evolution prior to where these maps begin. They were mapped using the Mollweide projection, and, in all cases, are by Ron Blakey.



Manaugh: Are you able to project these same tectonic movements and geological processes into the future and show what the earth might look like in, say, 250 million years?

Blakey: I’ve had a number of people ask me about that, so I did make some global maps. I think I made six of them at about 50-million-year intervals. For the fifteen to 100-million-year range, I think you can say they are fairly realistic. But, once you get much past 75 to 100 million years, it starts to get really, really speculative. The plates do strange things. I’ll give you just a couple of quick examples.

The Atlantic Ocean opened in the beginning of the Jurassic. The actual opening probably started off the coasts of roughly what is now Connecticut down to the Carolinas. That’s where the first opening started. So the central part of the Atlantic was the first part to open up. It opened up reasonably simply—but, again, I’m using the word simple with caution here.

The north Atlantic, meanwhile, didn’t open up until about 60 to 50 million years ago. When it opened up, it did a bunch of strange things. The first opening took place between Britain and an offshore bank that’s mostly submerged, called Rockall. Rockall is out in the Atlantic Ocean, northwest of Ireland—near Iceland—but it’s continental crust. That splitting process went on for, let’s say, ten million years or so—I’m just going to talk in broad terms—as the ocean started opening up.

Then the whole thing jumped. A second opening began over between Greenland and North America, as Greenland and North America began to separate off. That lasted for a good 40 or 50 million years. That’s where you now get the Labrador Sea; that is actual ocean crust. So that was the Atlantic Ocean for thirty or forty million years—but then it jumped again, this time over between Greenland and what is now the west coast of Europe. It started opening up over there, before it jumped yet again. There’s an island in the middle of the North Atlantic, way the heck up there, called Jan Mayen. At one time, it was actually part of Greenland. The Atlantic opened between it and Greenland and then shifted to the other side and made its final opening.

The following two sequences show the evolution of Europe from an Antarctic archipelago to a tropical island chain to the present day Europe we know and recognize. The first sequence starts roughly 450 million years ago and continues to the Jurassic, 200 million years ago. All maps by Ron Blakey.



So it’s very complicated. And that’s just the Atlantic Ocean.

The Northern Atlantic took at least five different paths before the final path was established, and it’s all still changing. In fact, the south Atlantic is actually even worse; it’s an even bigger mess. You’ve got multiple openings between southwest Africa and Argentina, plus Antarctica was up in there before it pulled away to the south.

These complications are what makes this stuff so interesting. If we look at events that we can understand pretty well over the last, let’s say, 150 or 200 million years of time—where we have a good indication of where the oceans were because we still have ocean crusts of that age—then we can extrapolate from that back to past times when oceans were created and destroyed. We can follow the rules that are going on today to see all of the oddities and the exceptions and so forth.

These are the kinds of things I try to keep track of when I’m making these maps. I’m always asking: what do we know? Was it a simple pull-apart process? There are examples where continents started to split across from one another, then came back together, then re-split in a different spot later on. That’s not just speculation—there is geologic evidence for this in the rock record.

So, when it comes to extrapolating future geologies, things become very complicated very quickly. If you start thinking about the behavior of the north Atlantic, creating a projection based on what’s going on today seems, at first, like a fairly simple chore. North America is going on a northwesterly path at only one or two centimeters a year. Europe is moving away, at almost a right angle, at about another centimeter a year. So the Atlantic is only opening at three centimeters a year; it’s one of the slowest-opening oceans right now.

OK, fine—but what else is happening? The Caribbean is pushing up into the Atlantic and, off South America, there is the Scotia Arc. Both of those are growing. They’ve also identified what looks like a new island arc off the western Mediterranean region; that eventually would start to close the Atlantic in that area. Now you start to speculate: well, these arcs will start to grow, and they’ll start to eat into the oceans, and subduct the crusts, and so forth.

Again, for the first 50, 75, or even 100 million years, you can say that these particular movements are fairly likely. But, once you get past that, you can still use geologic principles, but you’re just speculating as to which way the continents are going to go.

For instance, the one continent that does not seem to be moving at all right now, relative to anything else, is Antarctica. It seems to be really fixed on the South Pole. That’s why some people think that everything will actually coagulate back towards the South Pole. However, there are also a bunch of subduction zones today along southern Asia, and those are pretty strong subduction zones. Those are the ones that created the big tsunami, and all the earthquakes off of Indonesia and so forth. Eventually, those could pull either parts of Antarctica or all of Antarctica up toward them.

But I’m more interested in reconstructing the past than I am the future, so I’ve only played around with those five or six maps.

This second sequence, showing the next phase in the evolution of Europe, begins approximately 150 million years ago and extends to the present day. All maps by Ron Blakey.



Manaugh: To ground things a bit, we’re having this conversation in Flagstaff, on the Colorado Plateau, which seems like a great place to teach geology. I wonder whether there might be another Colorado Plateau, so to speak, elsewhere in the world—something geologically similar to the extraordinary landscapes we see here that just hasn’t had the chance to emerge. Maybe the tectonics aren’t right, and it’s still just a crack, rather than a canyon, or maybe it’s covered in vegetation or ice so we can’t see it yet. Conversely, I’m curious if you might have found evidence of other great geological districts in the earth’s past—lost Grand Canyons, other Arches National Parks—that have been lost to time. How could we detect those, and where are they?

Blakey: This is indeed a great place to teach geology. It’s a great place to live.

As for Colorado Plateau analogs—it’s an interesting question. There’s an area in South America that I’d say is fairly similar. It’s got a couple of famous national parks that I can't remember the name of. It’s a smaller version, but it’s very similar to the Colorado Plateau. It’s between the Andes and the Amazon basin, part of the general pampas region there of South America. It even has similarly aged rocks. Parts of northern Africa would also be similar.

But you have to look at all the characteristics of the Plateau. Number one: the rocks are flat. Number two: the rocks have been uplifted. Number three: the rocks are dissected by a major river system. Number four: it’s a semi-arid climate. There are probably five or six defining characteristics in total, and I’ve heard many people say that there is no other place else on Earth that has all those characteristics in exactly the same way. But I went to an area in eastern Mauritania many years ago, where, for all the world, it looked like the Grand Canyon. It wasn’t as colorful, but it was a big, deep canyon.

In fact, the Appalachian Plateau would be somewhat similar, except it’s in a humid climate, which means the land has been shaped and formed differently. But the Appalachian plateau has flat-lying rocks; it’s dissected by some major rivers; it’s experienced uplift; and so forth.

The next two sequences of images, followed from left to right, top to bottom, illustrate the gradual evolution of the Colorado Plateau, where, in its modern day incarnation, this interview with Ron Blakey took place (specifically, in Flagstaff, Arizona. The earliest map included here depicts the Proterozoic; the first sequence ends in the Triassic. All maps by Ron Blakey.



Twilley: I’m interested in the representational challenges you face when you decide to make a map, and, specifically, when you’re in Photoshop, what your most-used tools might be. I thought it was fascinating when you said that the cloning tool really changed how you make geological maps. What other techniques are important to you, in order to represent geological histories?

Blakey: Oh, the cloning tool is the most important, by far—at least when I’m actually painting. Of course, I use the outline tool to select areas, but, when I’m actually painting, it would be impossible to paint these different maps pixel by pixel. I couldn’t do it. Occasionally, I will actually hand-draw some things in the flatlands, where I want to put a river system, for example, but, at least for mountains and rugged terrain, I clone everything.

Some times, I’ll cut and paste. I’ll select an area in the GeoMapApp, I save it as a JPEG, and then I can select it and copy it and paste it in, and I can rotate and deform it a little bit. Are you familiar with the warp tool in Photoshop? I use that a lot, because you can change the shape of mountains a little. If you do it too dramatically, it really looks flaky. But, if you do it right, it still looks pretty realistic.

This second sequence, also showing the evolution of the Colorado Plateau, begins with the Triassic and ends roughly 5 million years ago—basically the present day, in geological terms. All maps by Ron Blakey.



Twilley: And do you have certain filters you rely on for particular geological effects?

Blakey: A little bit. I like to use the craquelure filter. It actually gives you little bumps and valleys and so forth. I use that especially for continental margins. Continental margins are anything but regular slopes, going down to the abyssal depths. They’re very irregular. There are landslides and all kinds of things going on there at the margins, so I add a little texture with craquelure.

It can be difficult to use, though, and it doesn’t work at really high resolutions—so, what I actually have to do some times, is that I will actually copy a part of my map, take it out, make it smaller, do the craquelure on it, and then blow it back up and paste it in again.

A painting by Ron Blakey depicts a geological landscape near Sedona, Arizona.

Dee Blakey, Ron's Wife: I think the other reason that he can do what he does is that he paints. That’s one of his paintings, that one over there [gestures above fireplace].

Blakey: Well, I guess I should have said that right away, when you asked me why I got interested in this, because I am interested in the artistic aspect of geology. The artistic aspect of science, in general, but especially geology. Astronomy, for example, would be another field where artistic visualizations are useful—any time you’re trying to show things that can’t easily be visualized with something comparable here on present-day planet Earth, you have to use an artistic interpretation.

Anyway, I can’t explain it, but I understand color pretty well. I use the hue saturation tool a lot. I’ll select an area and then I’ll feather it, let’s say, because you don’t want the edges to be sharp. I’ll feather it by thirty, forty, fifty pixels. Then I'll take the slider for hue saturation, where, if you go to the left, you make things redder and, if you go to the right, you make things greener. If I’ve got a landscape that looks a little too humid, I’ll just slide it slightly to the left to make it a bit redder. You can also change the lightness and darkness when you do that. There’s also regular saturation. By killing the saturation, you can really kill the nature of a landscape quite a bit.

And I use hue saturation a lot. That took me a long time to master, because it’s really easy to screw things up with that tool. You start sliding things a little too far and, whoa—wait a minute! All of a sudden, you’ve got purple mountains.
Looming over and behind the town of Butte, Montana, is the extraordinary sight of an abandoned copper mine called the Berkeley Pit.



Like something from a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, the massively altered, red-stained excavation forms a stepped and sculpted backdrop for the old brick buildings on the hill downtown.

The landscape is made almost uncomfortably spectacular, precisely by this state of post-industrial abandonment, a Gothic ruin in geologic form, where the planet has been forced to reveal its inner structure and grain, the sublime whorls of a continent stripped of their surface covering.



The current managers of the pit, as if in recognition of its Romantic appeal, greet you with a small gift shop selling postcards and trinkets.

Then, after walking through an eerie, steel-lined tunnel that feels as if you might be stepping into an antique submarine, you emerge onto—what else—a panoramic viewing deck. It's a widescreen porch overlooking the toxic vista, complete with interpretive panels and a handrail to lean on in anaesthetic rapture at the brown, rising waters below.



This is both appropriate—the grandeur of the flooded mine is almost impossibly, darkly beautiful—and seemingly an act of spatial sarcasm, as the mine is one of the nation's largest Superfund sites.

Indeed, the Berkeley Pit became briefly infamous in the 1990s when a flock of migrating geese landed on the waters and, as public understanding would have it, died shortly thereafter, possibly in minutes, possibly the very instant they touched the water.

The reality of the story is just as fatal but not nearly as immediate, mirroring the slow-motion menace of the pit's still-rising waters.


"Butte, Montana, Richest Hill on Earth; 100 Years of Underground Mining,” map by Ted Duaime, Patrick J. Kennelly, and Paul Thale of the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology

During its operation, the mine extracted 1.5 billion tons of material from what was then known as "the richest hill on earth," in the process consuming several communities on Butte's east side. Following its closure in 1982, a new threat emerged: with the pumps in an attached shaft switched off, contaminated groundwater began gradually filling the 1,600-foot deep maw.

Laden with arsenic as well as dissolved copper and zinc, and with a highly acidic pH of 2.5, the pit water is expected to reach the natural water table by 2020—at which point, the rust-brown soup would, theoretically, stop rising. Instead, it will flow out into the surrounding groundwater, poisoning the town it once both consumed and sustained.



A local group called PitWatch, which keeps its eye on the ominous lake, provides the interpretative signage on the viewing platform. They explain that a water-treatment plant has been built in anticipation of this moment, ready to begin treating and diverting pit water as it approaches "Critical Water Level."

"The plant." the boards promise, "is designed to operate forever," siphoning off just enough water to maintain the toxic lake in an uneasy, eternal equilibrium—within sight of disaster, but never, scientists promise, actually reaching it.

The Berkeley Pit from space, courtesy of NASA.

A second claim to fame came to this abyss in Butte when local biochemists Andrea and Don Stierle found that tiny extremophile organisms—that is, organisms that love (-phile) extreme (extremo-) thermal or chemical conditions—thrive in the polluted waters.

Even better, the Stierles found, these extremophiles could potentially help to decontaminate the site—and, by extension, other such heavy metal mines around the world—but also, in the process, lead to the design of new human medicines based on their novel biochemistries. Indeed, New Scientist reported back in 2006, the mine is "a source of novel chemicals that could help fight migraines and cancer."

The idea of extracting new medical treatments from creatures living in a contaminated mine in the foothills of the northern Rockies adds a strange, sci-fi sheen to the otherwise matte, unreflective waters steadily swelling over Butte.



As we drove onward to Missoula along one of the city's many mineralogically-named roads, Iron Street, the looming rock wall of the mine followed us in the rear-view mirror till we got back onto the highway and left this town, nestled underneath its namesake hill's hollowed-out shell, behind.


On our way west across Arizona, Venue read about—and made a spur of the moment detour for—Grand Canyon Caverns, a once-landmark tourist site found just off historic Route 66, now somewhat left behind and forgotten after the construction of the I-40 highway bypass.



Our interest was piqued by one anecdote in particular: the story that explains how the caverns—which are not very close to the Grand Canyon at all—originally got their name.

"The caverns went through many names until 1962," reports Arizona Central, "when an experiment was performed to determine their size." It turns out there is quite a strong internal breeze in the cave, as tides of air move through the underground cavities in tune with daily atmospheric temperature changes outside. This is sometimes referred to as "cave breathing."

But one passage that was far too small for human exploration appeared to be where the air was originating from and then disappearing into again everyday. This presented a bit of an impasse. Would it be possible to determine where the air was coming from and whether or not the capillary-like series of passages too small for humans to enter might not reach the surface again nearby? This would not only help to determine how large the caves really were, but could potentially lead to the discovery of other explorable subsections and entry points.



Serving as tracers, "[r]ed smoke bombs were set off in the caverns," Arizona Central adds. "Two weeks later, red smoke was spotted wafting from a crack in the Grand Canyon, 63 miles away."

This vision of the earth's surface as an unmappable labyrinth of lungs, smoking 63-miles' worth of passages from the Grand Canyon to these caves, as underground red clouds slowly worked their way through invisible passages of geologic space, was too much for us to resist. Venue thus pulled off the highway to visit this old mainstay of western road trips, now slightly past its prime, its unpaved parking lot lined with sun-bleached dinosaur statues and cowboy figurines.

Of course, Venue has spent a great deal of time over the past year of travel visiting mines and caves, hiking or riding elevators deep underground more or less whenever possible. But Grand Canyon Caverns was unique for our subterranean visits in several unexpected ways, as the site had a few surprises in store for us.

The most obvious of these was the fact that Grand Canyon Caverns had actually been chosen to serve as a civil nuclear shelter for emergency use during the Cuban Missile Crisis.



The site is thus as much a show cave as it is a disused bunker, this dual-use made explicit by a surreal, stadium-sized room stacked full with old barrels of crackers. Yes, crackers—this would have been the food of the post-apocalypse.

Our guide here seemed understandably dumbfounded by the idea that anyone at all would want to survive a planet-irradiating nuclear war by hiding underground with hundreds or perhaps thousands of others, eating Saltines, praying for the batteries not to go out, and using the cave itself as a giant latrine.

The desperate absurdity of it all was only heightened by her claim that the planners responsible for stocking the cave with sufficient food provisions and fresh water to sustain 2,000 people for two weeks had only included three rolls of toilet paper.



As it happens, there is also an open-air hotel room in the middle of the cave (it can be rented for a mere $700 a night).



The room—really just an elevated platform with waist-high walls and no ceiling—comes complete with heated shower, emergency telephone (whose primary purpose seems to be to warn you when tourists are on their way down the next morning), TV/VCR, and several shelves' worth of old VHS tapes for your viewing pleasure.

Apparently, comedian Billy Connolly has slept there.



Because the cave is privately owned, there is no legal compulsion for, and seemingly no owner interest in, preservation of the cave as such. This is a shame, because it is one of the largest dry caverns in the world (shortly after Venue's visit, explorers broke through to a new, never-before-seen cave), and filled with gorgeous flowstone formations and selenite crystals.

Instead, Gertie the Ground Sloth, a laser show, and a New York City fire escape compete with their astonishing surroundings.



Having said that, though, the over-riding effect of all this—a kind of Brady Bunch Baroque, or suburbanized faux-extravagance installed below the surface of the earth—is historically and spatially interesting in its own right, if for no other reason than to see how one generation of human owners tried to make sense of, and inspire popular interest in, their subterranean holdings.



Indeed, the colored lights and dusty VHS tapes perhaps make the lifeless, breathing silence of the cave itself, and its 63 miles or more of invisible passages, stretching all the way to the Grand Canyon, all the more extraordinary.

While the ticket-holding public stands there, thinking of Billy Connolly on an emergency telephone in the darkness, eating Saltines, the planet itself calmly inhales and exhales through huge and unmappable lungs successfully disguised as the disco-lit underground space all around them.


Arriving much earlier than expected for our tour of Fort Irwin, detailed in another post, Venue spent a half-hour wandering around the so-called Painted Rocks, where outgoing troops memorialize their time at Fort Irwin by painting unit insignias on an ever-larger swath of desert scrabble.

"We have a tradition at the National Training Center of painting rocks with unit patches and insignias," Command Sgt. Maj. Victor Martinez explains in an article posted at army.mil. They are "symbols of pride and allegiance."



The results are colorful, more self-mockingly macho than threatening, and highly photogenic; skulls, serpents, sharks, and dragons join bombs, arrows, spears, castles, and silhouettes of assault rifles, all of which gradually fade in the desert sun and need to be repainted when the unit responsible circles back to the desert base.

Unexpected cousins of Newspaper Rock, which Venue visited in Utah on a separate trip, the Painted Rocks turn geology into media, not as long-lasting as petroglyphs but still a semi-superstitious message left by humans on a thin layer of the earth's surface.
Photo courtesy Scott McGuire.

Several years ago, when half of Venue worked on the editorial staff at Dwell magazine, we took a daytrip down to the head office of The North Face to visit their equipment design team and learn more about the architecture of tents.

"As a form of minor architecture," the resulting short article explained, "tents are strangely overlooked. They are portable, temporary, and designed to withstand even the most extreme conditions, but they are usually viewed as simple sporting goods. They are something between a large backpack and outdoor lifestyle gear—certainly not small buildings. But what might an architect learn from the structure and design of a well-made tent?"

Amongst the group of people we spoke with that day was outdoor equipment strategist Scott McGuire, an intense, articulate, and highly focused advocate for all things outdoors. As seen through Scott's eyes, the flexibility, portability, ease of use, and multi-contextual possibilities of outdoor equipment design began to suggest a more effective realization, we thought, of the avant-garde legacy of 1960s architects like Archigram, who dreamed of impossible instant cities and high-tech nomadic settlements in the middle of nowhere.

Scott McGuire talks to Venue in Lee Vining, California; Mono Lake can be seen in the background.

Intrigued by his perspective on the ways in which outdoor gear can both constrain and expand the ways in which human beings move around in and inhabit wild landscapes, Venue was thrilled to catch up with Scott at a deli in Lee Vining, California, near his Eastern Sierra home.

McGuire, who recently left The North Face to set up his own business, called The Mountain Lab, was beyond generous with his time and expertise, happily answering our questions as the sun set over Mono Lake in the distance. His answers combined a lifelong outdoor enthusiast's understanding of the natural environment with a granular, almost anthropological analysis of the activities that humans like to perform in those contexts, as well as a designer's eye for form, function, and material choices.

Indeed, as Scott's description of the design process makes clear in the following interview, a 40-liter mountaineering pack is revealed literally as a sculpture produced by the interaction between the human body and a particular landscape: the twist to squeeze through a crevasse, or the backward tilt of the head during a belay.

Our conversation ranged from geographic and generational differences in outdoor experiences to the emerging spatial technologies of the U.S. military, and from the rise of BMX and the X Games to the city itself as the new "outdoors," offering a fascinating perspective on the unexpected ways in which technical equipment can both enable and redefine our relationship with extreme environments.

• • •

Geoff Manaugh: I’d like to start by asking you about the constraints you face in the design of outdoor athletic equipment, and how that affects the resulting product. For instance, in designing architecture, you might think about factors such as a building’s visual impact, its environmental performance, or the historic context of where your future structure is meant to be. But if you’re designing something like a tent—a kind of athletic architecture, if you will—then you’re talking about factors like portability, aerodynamism, cost, weather-proofing, etc.. What design constraints do you face, and how do you prioritize them?

Scott McGuire: The first thing is always the user. Everything has to be very user-centric, in a way that’s perhaps unlike conventional architecture. You might say, “I’m building a house; it’s about this site; it’s about this view; people are going to live in it in a certain way,” but you would rarely design a house based on whether or not someone has a propensity, for example, to use their kitchen utensils with their left hand or their right hand. But when you’re creating a technical product, you become really myopically focused on how that product interacts with an individual. It’s about establishing who that person is.

Of course, if I’m talking about doing a small technical pack that will hold 40 liters for someone who’s going mountaineering—well, I know that same pack may very well be used by someone riding on a bike as a commuter in New York City. Still, when we’re talking about that product, it’s very much about things like: what’s the person who’s going mountaineering wearing? What are they carrying? Where are they going? What environment are they going to be in? How much wear and tear is their pack going to get? As you study the user, you usually end up discovering a lot of nuances about the way they’ll use the product, and they’re often things you wouldn’t normally think about.

"Mt. Blanc from Le Jardin"; "The Finsteraarhorn"; another view of the Finsteraarhorn; and "Glacier of the Rhone." All photos taken between 1860 and 1890. Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

I’ll give you some examples of how that would work. I’ll stick with the 40-liter technical pack, which is the one you usually find in an area that’s high alpine, above 8000 feet, with year-round glaciers, where there’s lots of climbing and mountaineering. What you’re going to find, obviously, is that people are carrying it. They’re moving at a relatively athletic pace. They want to have the ability to fit the pack.

When we think about fit, it’s not as simple as saying: “This person’s got a 34" waist, a 19" back, a 42" chest, and that’s what we need to focus on.” It’s also the fit based off the way someone moves—what I would call the interaction between the user and the device. The way a 65-liter pack fits someone who’s walking down a manicured trail, doing eight miles a day—the height that their knee climbs and the amount that their body twists—is different than the fit of a 40-liter pack for somebody who’s going up a mountain, where they might be climbing a 45-degree slope. Or they might have somebody on belay and they need to be able to look up, so they need to have a tiny pocket of space so that, with a helmet, they can crane their head back and look up at their partner. The pack can’t get in the way of that.

Three 65-liter packs by The North Face, High Sierra, and Kelty, respectively.

Then you add to all that not just an ability to carry weight, but questions like: what does it feel like when an arm comes up to reach for a hold? Or: what happens when you’re trying to twist through a crevasse? There’s a fair amount of time spent really thinking about all of those elements on the body.

And then you run into some really interesting places when you start thinking about how the pack comes off the body. What does everybody do when they come to a stop? They take their packs off, throw them on the ground, and sit on them. So you have to think about how your frame system can carry the load one way, while being carried on someone’s back, but also what happens to that frame system when someone sits on it when it’s on the ground. That really nice zipper pocket on the face, the one that’s so great for getting access at the front of the pack—well, what happens when that thing spends a year lying zipper-down, crammed full of mud, with 150 to 200 pounds of person sitting on top of it? A lot of these observations need to take place in the very beginning, to think through these things.

Mountain climbers, Zermatt, Switzerland (1954); photograph by Toni Frissell, courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

That’s basically the fit component of the interaction to the person. The second element is really going to be: what goes into the product? What is the user carrying, and how do they access it? Those two questions live in a symbiotic relationship with each other. It’s also not just about what goes in the pack, but when it goes in, when it comes out, and how it goes back in again.

Taking a conventional top design, you have an open bucket; you open the lid; and you put stuff inside. There are shapes that inherently lend themselves to technical packs: they’re slightly tapered at the bottom, so they stay within the lumbar area, keeping the weight centered over the sacrum. That makes it a little easier when those narrow slots are on your waist, and the V-shape of the pack mimics the shape of your shoulders and chest. What it also does is it creates a bucket that can feed stuff down into the bottom. You want to keep your heavier stuff near your center of gravity—you want to keep it low and tight—preferably right underneath the shoulder blades.

But you also need to think about what’s going in there, in what order. Things like an extra shell, or your spare jacket, or the rope you may or may not need—those can all go in the bottom. But what are the things that are coming on and off, all the time? On a technical climb, if you’re wearing a puffy jacket, well, every time you’re hot, that jacket’s going to come off—maybe ten or fifteen times a day. So how does that go in and how do you maintain access to it in the easiest possible way? How do you make sure you’ve got easy access to things like a first aid kit, in case you’ve got to get to it quick? Where does your headlamp sit so that, when it’s late and you’re finally getting the headlamp out, and it’s probably already dark, you know, intuitively, that it’s in this pocket right here and you don’t have to fumble around and find the headlamp and risk having everything else dump out?

The view from Scott McGuire's back porch; photo courtesy Scott McGuire.

And then there are even simpler things, like small pockets for access to things like a point-and-shoot camera that can go in and out quickly, or your lip balm, or that nutritional bar that allows you to get a shot of quick energy. A lot of thought needs to go into where those things go—where pocketing and storage should be, both from an organizational standpoint but also from a load-dispersion standpoint. These are all maybe a little comparable to how an architect might think: it’s about organizing the space, but down to a level of detail that takes into consideration very different people doing very different things with their gear.

Once you’re talking about the load—about what you’re carrying and how that gets managed—the next thing is going to be materials. The materials are so important. Like in conventional architecture and design, materials obviously have an aesthetic appeal. On the business side of it, the value equation is always about cost versus value. For example, there are things that can cost very little but have a very high value based off their perceived benefit: they’re lightweight, durable, attractive. Things can also have a very high cost but not necessarily have a value that the customer perceives, such as highly technical specialized fabrics that may not really contribute a benefit to your average end user. The benefit’s lost. It’s as if you build a house and you install gold pipes—no one sees it. Do they really make the water taste better?

You need to be really careful about those decisions. When you’re talking about the material selection and if somebody has to carry it, then there’s a balance not only in terms of cost versus value, but also around weight versus durability. In a general analysis, you’ve got price, weight, and durability—and, usually, you only get to pick two. You want something that’s really cheap and super lightweight? You give up durability. You want something that’s super durable and incredibly lightweight? It’s going to cost you a lot of money—you give up price.

"Ascension of Mt. Blanc" and Glacier of the Rhone." Photos taken between 1860 and 1890. Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

To get back to the example of a 40-liter mountaineering pack, that customer typically is investing in a product that is high-quality, with high-durability, designed to take a lot of abuse. And there’s an expectation there that a slightly more expensive product, with greater durability and less failure potential, has higher value. It’s worth the extra money. There’s a huge difference between someone who’s going for their very first backpacking trip versus the person who’s been training for an objective for the last year. That person doesn’t want, after all the hours spent planning, looking at topo maps, and waiting for the weather window, to be hampered by gear. That person’s going to choose quality and durability over price.

Photo courtesy Scott McGuire.

Manaugh: When it comes to materials, I’m curious if there are things that you or the designers you work with are aware of, that are perfect for certain functions, but they’re so expensive or simply so foreign to the average consumer that the market can’t bear them. In other words, how do you navigate the market with new materials and new designs?

McGuire: One of the Holy Grails here, from a design standpoint, is the side-release buckle. From a functional standpoint, the ability to have a buckle, pop it, have it separate, put it back together, click it, including that audible signal that it’s now secure—that has a simplicity and intuitiveness to it. I think a lot of people in design still look at that and say, gosh, that’s one of the things that’s been around for a long time. But is it the best solution?



It’s always a question of whether you’re building a better mouse trap, or if you’re just trying to do something that’s different—something that’s gimmicky. You’re always balancing what’s unique for the sake of being unique—not necessarily because it’s providing a better solution—versus what’s unique because it’s actually offers a functional improvement.

There are a couple of examples like that. Nobody’s really figured out a better solution than a zipper. But zippers fail; they wear out over a certain period of time. The side-release buckle is a design that is ubiquitous across all packs, and there are different aesthetic treatments to it, but, functionally, they all do the same thing: a two-part click. But there are always people exploring what could be better in that space.

Manaugh: One of the things we talked about a few years ago when I first met you at The North Face was that there are differences in tent design between the North American and the European markets. You mentioned then that, in Europe, campgrounds are so crowded that a different level of privacy is expected from a tent, whereas, in the U.S., you can get away with using much more transparent materials, because you might be the only people at a certain campsite for two or three nights in a row and you don’t need as much privacy.

The REI Half Dome 2 Plus Tent, with and without cover; via REI.

I’m curious, now that you’re doing consulting with different companies, different regions, and different markets, how these sorts of cultural differences play out in the design of outdoor equipment in general.

McGuire: The commercial world has gotten a lot smaller, and the ability now to connect with people in those very different cultures has become much more commonplace. That’s true everywhere, I think. I mean, sitting where we are today, we have a lot of people coming through the Eastern Sierra who have traveled all the way from Europe.

I actually just talked to a guy over there in the parking lot on a motorcycle who’s over here from Germany, on his way to Jackson Hole. He said he happened to be swinging by here on his way from Atlanta. I still haven’t figured out the geographical connection to Atlanta, if you’re on your way to Wyoming, but…

Manaugh: [laughs] He was too embarrassed to ask for directions.

McGuire: But it is interesting to see a foreign product in a local environment—you can see where it seems a little odd, and you can try to find out why those little moments are there in the design. There’s also a need to expose yourself to those other places. That means being in Europe and seeing that user; it means being in Japan and seeing that user.

The Big Agnes Copper Spur UL1 Tent with and without cover; via REI.

Oftentimes, there are unique, local solutions to global problems, and these can influence global gear designs and become ubiquitous. Just as often, there are very specific needs to solve a local issue that are non-transferable. I’ll give you a classic case in point. We just talked about mountaineering in the Eastern Sierras. Well, all of our access is car-based. Everybody drives to a trail head, gets out of their car, and walks up a trail that is highly likely to have no one else on it, and, from there, they end up at the place they’re climbing, and so on. It’s not uncommon for people here to go out and, from the time they leave their car until they bag their peak and come back, they never see anybody—not even a trace of another person.

But in Chamonix, over in France, there’s a parade from 7:00 am every morning. If you sit at the base, where the trail goes up Mont Blanc, you can watch people coming down with their coffee and their croissant, and they’ve got their crampons in the back of their pack. They’ve got all of their gear. They’re going to climb into a tightly packed gondola with 50 or even 100 other people, and that’s all before they even start their climb.

Two photos of architecture on the Aiguille du Midi in Chamonix, France; uncredited; found via Google Image Search.

So, here, in the Eastern Sierra, you can just say, Jed Clampett-style, eh, my crampons are over here, my ice axe is here, and, as long as my hiking partner isn’t within five feet of me, well—hook, swing—who cares? But when people start getting into a packed tram system in Chamonix, and they’ve all got to scoot together, you really need to start thinking about how you protect all those sharp points. How do you make sure no one’s exposed to those? You’ve got to know where those are.

Those differences are where I think a lot of the challenges are. It’s not necessarily intuitive that something that’s highly successful in one region will automatically have traction in another. Creating a globalized product in a highly specialized market can be very challenging and, oftentimes, there has to be a tolerance. You either have to have tolerance for a broader product assortment to meet regional needs, or you have to accept the fact that you may have a product that’s not specialized enough to hit the local super-user, because you’ve traded off specificity for an ambiguity that will reach more people.

Nicola Twilley: It seems to me that, although in your work you’re responding to the user, the user is also responding to the landscape—so, in effect, you’re responding to the landscape, too. When you look at a landscape, do you more typically see it in terms of what sort of activities you might do there, or are you looking at the landscape from the perspective of the gear you might need?

McGuire: In terms of gear, you do see the differences. I mean, take the west coast of the United States. The climbing conditions for a 40-liter pack in the North Cascades involve a much wetter environment, with much wetter snow and a more volatile climate all around, as far as sudden changes in weather go. But, here in the Eastern Sierra, you can probably plan on the fact that it’s not going to get any precipitation for the next 90 days. You don’t really have to think about bringing a ton of rain gear with you, because we just don’t get storms that show up out of nowhere or weather patterns that suddenly convert. That nuance in meteorological conditions will change what the customer’s wearing, which will change how their pack fits, which will change what they’re carrying, which will change how they store things inside the pack, because of what comes on and off and what they need access to. All those things come into effect.

Then you have geographic nuances—the way the different physical characteristics of the environment that you’re in are going to damage the pack. For example, if you are in a volcanic area, where you’re doing a lot of chimneying, you’re going to end up with a high abrasion area. The impacts of a granite environment and a lot of scree will have a different impact on gear than someone in a classic glacier environment.

So there are geologic elements and there are meteorological elements—and both have an impact on the product itself and an impact on what the user does there. The gear you need in a landscape and the activities you are going to do in that landscape are always going to feed into one another.

Twilley: So you can’t optimize a technical pack for the Eastern Sierra and for climbing in Washington State simultaneously, right? That wouldn’t be the same pack?

McGuire: True. All design at some point is a compromise. If you use vehicles as an analogy, the SUV is the ultimate compromise. It doesn’t really carry everything and it doesn’t drive like a sports car, but it’s still managed to fulfill this niche for people. It does enough things pretty well that it allows them to find their solution in one product. That’s an elusive role for packs. It’s why people who end up being pretty active rarely own one pack—they own two, three, or four of different literages, different weights, different carrying capacities, and different materials.

An early U.S. Geological Survey field camp; photo courtesy of the USGS/U.S. Department of the Interior.

Manaugh: This is a fairly silly question, but I’m curious if, on a day where you have a lot of free time—you’re lying in a hammock in the mountains somewhere—you ever find yourself thinking that you could design a pack that would be absolutely perfect, but only for a very, very specific place. It would be the ultimate pack for a particular trail in Arizona—but for that trail only. It would be useless in Utah or on a trail in the Alps. And maybe it would cost $5,000—but it’s the perfect pack. Do you have dream gear like that?

McGuire: [laughs, pauses] At the end of the day, that’s what every gear head does. Not just the pack—they’re on the quest for the perfect kit. Unfortunately, what happens is that a large factor in enjoying the outdoor environment is wanderlust. As soon as your kit is perfect in one place, not only does the gear itself change over time or through use, but, usually, your reaction is, “Great! Now that I’ve experienced this, let me go to this other place…” And all of your metrics have been thrown off. You start building the perfect kit all over again. So, as soon as that’s obtainable, your own interest level changes, and it goes away.

Of course, I’m not actually a designer, in that I don’t really put pen to paper. I work on strategy and process, with people who do the pen-to-paper side of things—people who are highly creative and sometimes even have an arts background.

Courtesy Osprey Packs.

One of the best examples of that kind of designer, and one of the people I admire the most in this space, is Mike Pfotenhauer, who’s the owner and designer of Osprey Packs. Mike is classically trained as a sculptor so, when you look at Mike’s pack design, there’s an aesthetic to his product that speaks to his ability as a sculptor. It’s very rare that you see straight lines. I’m convinced that if Mike could get someone to weave for him a curved webbing, his packs would all have curved webbing on them. He wants things to have this organic flow, which means there’s a signature to his packs, because he’s only worked on one brand as an owner and designer for his entire career.

Courtesy Osprey Packs.

But, when you look at the actual function of his designs, he’s a real user. He’s a backpacker. He doesn’t let his aesthetic override the fact that, as a user, he knows his end product has to work. Case in point: take the webbing. At the end of the day, something needs to be able to pull and compress. If the pieces of webbing that are the most effective at doing that require straight lines to pull, then he knows the pack’s aesthetic needs to give way to the fact that there’s a functional need calling for something different.

Courtesy Osprey Packs.

Twilley: Given the importance of the user and the landscape, can you talk a little about how this gear is tested? Are there labs filled with simulated environments where packs are repeatedly rubbed against things, or sprayed with water and then flash-frozen to see what happens?

McGuire: There are three legitimate forms of testing. There’s the ASTM/EN, with the ASTM being the American Standard Testing Method and EN being the European Norm. These are scientific methodologies around proving whether something’s working in the right way. Those are usually at an item level. Then, there are ASTM things around complete packages like insulation warmth ratings for sleeping bags. There are rules around how to properly gauge the square footage and volume of a tent or the volume of the inside of a pack. So these are metrics that can be tested.

On the testing from a durability standpoint, oftentimes it’s specific devices that measure individual materials.

Twilley: Oh, so it’s not the complete pack. You just test a particular buckle, for example.

McGuire: Yeah. You might pull-test the buckle to make sure it can survive a 300-pound pull test. You might take a piece of material and put it on a Taber machine and see how many cycles it takes until the machine rubs a hole through it to see what the material’s abrasion durability is. Or you might do a tensile tear strength test to see how a tear would propagate in a rip-stop and how functional the rip-stop is.

These are functional tests that are relatively close to reality, but then there are also reality tests. The classic example of that is a lot of factories and companies will have access to things like very, very large commercial dryers; somebody has taken the time to open them up and bolt 2x4s and climbing holds and all kinds of stuff to the inside of the dryer. Then you throw a pack or a piece of luggage onto it, turn the dryer on, and let it just beat the daylights out of something till you see where your failures are.

Or you’ll have jerk tests on handles, where you’ll have a weight that—over and over again—will simulate the grabbing of a shoulder strap with a 60-pound pack and throwing it over your shoulder. What does that do to that seam? You’ll simulate it over and over again, and you’ll see, as you grab the shoulder strap and yank on it, if you yank a little this way or you yank a little that way, you end up putting different seam stresses on each place.

These sorts of reality-based testing devices are, oftentimes, custom manufactured. They’re not necessarily scientific. They’ll run through the cycles so that you see where there need to be improvements, but there’s not really a standardized test to measure it against.

But, still, today, in this industry, nothing beats human use.

Twilley: You mean field-testing?

McGuire: Product failures in this space are rarely attributable only to one thing. It’s almost always systematic. For instance, the shoulder strap didn’t fail because it was getting pulled up and down; the shoulder strap failed because of the way it was stitched, and then the way it was worn by the user, which created a spot where it sat on the shoulder blade, and that wore the stitching down over the course of a 600-mile trip, which then exposed the motion to a failure. An abrasion test on its own or a jerk test on its own wouldn’t expose that, but, in real world use, those two things combined expose a weakness. This is where human testing really is the quintessential component to make sure things work right.

This is also why so many people in design—in fact, every single person I know who was an inventor of an outdoor product in the 50s and 60s, during the real heyday of our industry—came into prominence not because they were designers. They were users who, by necessity, turned to design to solve a problem.

Image courtesy of Skipedia.

This is how Scot Schmidt created the original Steep Tech gear for North Face. Scot didn’t want to be a clothing designer—at least, from everything I heard from him. Scot just wanted to be a skier who didn’t have to deal with duct taping his knees and shoulders because he was skiing in such horrendous conditions and he kept tearing the fabric.

The original North Face Mountain Light jacket with its "iconic black shoulder"; photo courtesy ZONE7STYLE.

The iconic black shoulder of the original North Face Mountain Light jacket came about not because someone thought, “Wow, straight lines and bold blocking is going to look awesome.” It came about because someone said, “I need a super-durable material because, when I throw my skis over my shoulder to hike up this ridge, the straight skis of the 1970s and 80s rub a hole through my jacket”—and the only thing available at the time was a 1680 ballistic nylon that only came in black because it was for the military.

You end up with an iconic design that was never intended to be an iconic design. It just happened that way because of a specific need, and it evolved to become an icon.

Photo courtesy The North Face.

Twilley: Are there landscapes that gear innovation has opened up, in a way? Obviously, there are extreme landscapes, like Mt. Everest or Antarctica, where the right gear can be the difference between making it or not, but are other types of landscapes now opening up through innovations in outdoors gear?

McGuire: For sure. I think ever since people started pushing the limits of where they could survive, the types of landscapes available to people have changed. There are the extremes, like you mention, of being up in the Himalayas—up at high altitude—where gear has had an absolutely huge impact. But I would say that one of the challenges in our industry has actually been that, for the most part, for better or worse, most of the impacts on design from extreme environments happened more than a decade ago.

What’s happening today, I think, that’s now driving some of the greatest innovation aren’t the extremes of the environment, but what people are trying to do in that environment on either end. It’s the book-ends of either extreme. In other words, design is being driven now by people who are going much farther, much faster, and much harder than they ever did before.

Take the idea of building a product for hiking the Pacific Crest Trail—which is 2,400 miles. Typically, that would take four to six months—and, in 1970 or 1980, that was a pretty extreme environment. Now, that environment hasn’t really changed—there’s global warming, of course, so there have been changes in the glaciers and so on—but, effectively, that trail is the same as it was for the past forty or fifty years. What has changed now is that people are coming in and saying: “I want to do the entire Pacific Crest Trail, and I want to do it in ninety days. Instead of doing eight to ten miles a day, I want to do twenty-five or thirty miles a day.” In order to do that, people who were comfortable with carrying a 60-pound pack on the trip are now saying that there’s no way they’d go out there with more than 30 pounds. In fact, on the far end of that, people are saying they should be perfectly comfortable, and fully safe and functional, with only a 15-pound pack. Put all that together, and that necessitates a new kind of design.

"Aletsch Glacier"; "Lac des Morts, Grimsell"; and"Aletsch Glacier, Eggischorn." All photos taken between 1860 and 1890. Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

But there’s also the other extreme. We have a society that is spending less and less time in the outdoors. What we’re finding, on the other end, is that the goal is to just make sure the approachability of the outdoors is simple enough, and convenient enough, and affordable enough, that, when people are trading a weekend in front of their Wii for a weekend taking their family camping on the side of a river, that it’s not intimidating. It’s not scary. For instance, how do you design a tent for someone who’s never set up a tent before, or who thinks a tent is so expensive that it’s a barrier to entry? A tent that’s not so complex that I can’t even imagine using it? Or a tent that’s not so small that I can’t stand up and change my clothes? What does that look like?

So you have these very divergent activities, these very different spaces, but, in each one, you have people who basically need something—they need a piece of gear or equipment—that can allow them to have this experience. That’s where I think most of the innovations have come from in the last decade. It’s not the middle ground. It’s these extreme fringes on either side.

Manaugh: Do you find, ironically, that the guy who wants to be home playing Wii all day in the suburbs is actually the more challenging design client?

McGuire: Well, let me back up a bit. If you go to a company like Procter & Gamble, for example, you find people there who are working as industrial designers, and they’re trying to think like a customer who they just might not be. But, in this industry, you have people who are really just trying to solve their own problems, in their own tinkering way.

Photos courtesy of the Outdoor Retailer show.

The Outdoor Retailer trade show is a very unique environment, in that regard. It’s like a tribe. You walk into that outdoor retailer environment and, if you’re in the outdoor industry, you can see straightaway who’s there and who’s not there—meaning, who’s part of the tribe and who’s a visitor. It’s a group of a lot of the same people, over decades now, doing a lot of the same things. You might see different companies and different brands over time, but what you don’t see is a lot of people from outside of that space showing up there. If you’re an outsider and you show up—if you’re trying to pose like you’re there, and trying to sell into that space—that group smells your inauthenticity right away. But, now, this tribe mentality is starting to recognize that the future of the industry is outside of our own doors. In fact, not enough people are finding their way into the tribe on their own and we have to bring in more people.

Photos courtesy of the Outdoor Retailer show.

So the industry itself has been wrestling with this. How do we go out and approach someone? I’ll use an analogy. In the industry, there have been three rings of people: there’s your hardcore ring of people who are absolute purists: “I make it all myself. And I’m so badass, no one even knows where I go.”

They’re almost elitist in their pursuit of their sport. But then you have another side, which is a group of people who like the outdoors, but they’ve recognized that there’s commercial value there. They are mostly driven by the business side of it. They’re people who want to work in the outdoor company sector because they like the idea of going to work in a T-shirt and jeans, versus wearing a suit, and their skills lend themselves to this space, but you also kind of know that a person like that isn’t really from here because their core motivation is: “Wow, we can make money off of this!”

So the ex-suits don’t get the hardcores, and the hardcores resent the fact that all these ex-suits are showing up. Then there’s this tiny group in the middle who are interested in the business side, but they also come from the hardcore side at one point—and, what’s interesting is that all of these people in this group of three circles in the industry right now are wondering: “Who’s going to come in from outside our three circles? Who’s going to drive the business going forward? Who are those people?”

Photos courtesy of the Outdoor Retailer show.

There were some good industry numbers that came out recently where, for the first time, we’re seeing the number of young people getting exposed to the outdoors is on a slight uptick. I would say it’s encouraging news. It’s not good news, because we still have a long way to go. But, from a design standpoint in the industry, that’s something that appeals both to the suits—“Wow, new customers! More money!”—and also that center group, along with the old hardcores, who love seeing the interest and the energy grow. They all see that, from a culture standpoint, we need this: the stronger our tribe is—the more people who come into it—the better it’s all going to be.

But I have a love/hate relationship with some of the solutions that have come up in the past few years. Here, in the Eastern Sierras, we have a pretty robust program where you can get on the phone in Los Angeles and call a company that will deliver a camping trailer to a campground here for you. You drive up in your little economy car from the city, and you pull into a campground, and the there’s this 26-foot trailer sitting there waiting for you, with all the comforts of home. It’s got a mattress; it’s got running water; it’s got a toilet; the refrigerator is eve pre-stocked. The stoves are there. There’s propane in the tanks. It’s like a pop-up hotel.

The “love” part of me is that more people are now actually making the trip. It’s like a gateway drug. Somebody who might not have got in their car is at least opening their door at 6:00 in the morning and smelling trees and not being in a parking lot at a hotel somewhere. So it’s a start.

The difference, though—the “hate” part of me—is that there’s nothing like being out there in the dark, putting a tent up, finding a site. You know, maybe I’m a little bit of a sadomasochist in this regard. But, for me, when you’re in the outdoors, tripping over the picnic table and trying to figure out where the guylines go, and dropping stakes and wondering if you remembered to put them all in… Not that I want to see people suffer! But part of it is actually about the dirt under the fingernails—it’s that sharp rock under the tent that keeps you awake at night.

But, as long as people are making the trip, and, from a design standpoint, as long as we’re making a product that eases that transition for people as much as possible…

The LogPlug and RokPlug projects by Archigram, courtesy of the Archigram Archival Project at the University of Westminster.

Manaugh: It’s funny, your trailer example actually reminded me of this group of architectural designers in England in the 1960s/early 70s called Archigram. They were somewhere between science fiction and Woodstock. They had this one series of designs—and it was all totally speculative—for fake logs with electrical outlets that could be put out in the woods somewhere, and even fake rocks that could act as speakers, and so on.

The LogPlug and RokPlug projects by Archigram, courtesy of the Archigram Archival Project at the University of Westminster.

But the funny thing is that the intention of the project was to get more people in 1960s England out of their middle-class houses and into the wilderness, to experience a non-urban environment. Of course, though, the perhaps unanticipated side effect of a proposal like that is that they were actually just extending the city out into the woods, letting you take all these ridiculous things, like TVs and toasters, in the great outdoors with you, things that you don’t ever really need in that environment in the first place.

The LogPlug and RokPlug projects by Archigram, courtesy of the Archigram Archival Project at the University of Westminster.

In other words, it seems like an almost impossibly thin line between enticing people to go out into a new environment versus simply taking their ubiquitous home environment and infecting someplace new with it. The next thing you know, the woods are just like London and the Eastern Sierra are just like Los Angeles.

REI's portable, pop-up, outdoor Camp Kitchen. Are outdoor equipment manufacturers the true inheritors of Archigram's speculative design mantle?

In any case, I wanted to return to something you said earlier about ballistic nylon materials that had originally been developed by the military. Are you still finding materials and technical innovations coming out of the military that can be “civilianized,” so to speak, for use by outdoors enthusiasts? For instance, I recently read that the military has developed silent Velcro, which seems like it could be useful for backpackers.

McGuire: Definitely, yes. On the military side of things, what’s different now, is that, except on very rare occasions, people today are not humping huge loads over long distances to fight wars. Soldiers are now incredibly mobile. They’re vehicle-based; they move in; they move out; they carry just what they need; they get the job done; and they’re gone. We have a lot of people coming back from wars today—and I’m not at all taking away from what they’re doing—but their war experience is unlike even just a few generations ago, where you put your pack on and everything you needed was in your pack and you were gone out in the wilderness somewhere for a year. We increasingly have soldiers who get in a Humvee, go out for a day, maybe two days, and then they’re back at base.

"New York Central Issue Facility Strives to Get National Guard Troops Latest Gear." Image and caption courtesy of the U.S. Army.

What I think we’re seeing, culturally, is a lot like this. The patience for long-term adventures is waning. People want to go out and have an experience. They want it to be quick. They want it to be impactful. They want it to be memorable. And, to be honest, they want it to be easy. It’s the “I want to see Europe in five days and here are all my pictures” thing. It’s speed and efficiency. Well, one area where the military is lending some benefit is that they’re developing a lot of specialized gear for these in quick/out quick, intense experiences. You’re seeing things like the MOLLE system—what is it, Modular, Lightweight, Load-carrying Equipment?—and that modularity is seeping out of the military to influence outdoor gear design, where you’re able to have a base system that can increase or decrease in size, depending on the specifics of your day and what you’re going to go out and do. These are influences that that are now starting to show up.

"The Army is able to swiftly deploy soldiers where they're needed and part of that is ensuring soldiers are properly equipped. The materials they need-they need fast, and that's where a rapid fielding initiative team comes in." Image and caption courtesy of the U.S. Army.

And there are some strong crossovers, in things like hydration, that are now becoming much more ubiquitous. We aren’t seeing that crossover quite as influentially as the original A-frame tents, or the development of sleeping bags coming out of World War I and World War II, but we’re certainly still seeing it. But I would say that the most significant recent impact are things like GPS—highly specialized technical solutions that make things work much better and much easier, and that don’t take up a lot of space.

GPS is military-based, and the ability to know where you are, where you’re going, and how to get back, without having to rely on map knowledge, has opened up all kinds of confidence for people to get into new places. Personally, I love using a GPS, but I still think you ought to know which way north is and how to read a map—because batteries die.

We’re also still seeing new materials come out of the military, like super-lightweight parachute fabrics that are allowing people to have highly tear-resistant, lighter-weight equipment. And, even with helmets, the foams used in lighter-weight, highly protective helmets are changing, mostly as a result of IEDs.

So, yes, we are seeing elements of the military trickle into outdoor gear. I just think that, with the needs of the military being what they are today, and the way that wars are being fought now, it just happens to serendipitously fall in line with a cultural desire for short, fast, light outdoors experiences—you’re done and you’re back. It is a bizarre overlap, but you’d be hard-pressed to say it’s attributable to one or the other.

Manaugh: To build on that question of cultural shifts, when you said that more kids are starting to go outdoors, I immediately wondered if at least part of that is due to a pretty huge rise in popularity of things like alternative sports: X Games, BMX, skateboarding, and so on, all those urban subcultures that I grew up with, but that had no real media attention at the time. They’re now becoming more and more mainstream. I suppose my question is: is the city its own form of “outdoors” now, and are alternative urban sports a kind of indirect way of getting kids interested in forests, or rock-climbing, or going bouldering?

Twilley: I might even add to that, to speculate that kids exploring sewers or breaking into abandoned steel mills are perhaps experiencing the same kind of thrills that the first generation of outdoors enthusiasts did in the West. Is urban exploration the next big opportunity for gear in the future, given our increasingly urbanized world?

McGuire: I think I’d say yes to both. Something that’s endemic to the outdoor industry is, first and foremost, the idea of having an experience. It’s about stretching where your comfort level is. So I would say pick whichever sport you want—skate, snowboard, mountain bike—those sports have allowed people to stretch what they believe they’re capable of. Whether you think that what people are doing on the west shore of Vancouver with mountain biking, and pushing the mountain biking free-ride space, is good or not, at the end of the day what we have is a generation of people who are having an experience that’s not inside of four walls. They’re pushing their comfort levels, and they’re having an experience and a memory that involves fresh air.

Martin Söderström in a timelapse jump, courtesy of Red Bull.

What we’re seeing among the youngest generation today is there is much less identity around sport specificity. I’m almost 40. When I grew up, you were a surfer or you were a skater or you were a climber or you were a road biker. But kids today don’t think anything like that—they think, “I do all of those things!” Why would I not be someone who is a skier who’s also into bouldering who’s taking up trail running and who competes in Wii dance competitions? Why can’t I be that person? There’s a sense that I will be whoever I want to be, whenever, and of course I will be multifaceted.

When we start talking about trying to build gear for those kids, you want to make sure that the gear allows them to do the current activity—and that might be more urban-influenced, like skating and biking—but, as they grow and stretch, it isn’t a hindrance to their next thing. Does your free-ride hydration pack let you try trail running? I think people are discovering on their own where their next challenge is, but the way they’re discovering it, and the tools they’re using to discover it, aren’t yet in the view of the popular side of the industry.


Spanish freerider Andreu Lacondeguy from Where The Trail Ends; photo by Blake Jorgenson for the Red Bull Content Pool, courtesy of Red Bull.


I’ll give you an example. I live in a place just down the road from here called McGee Canyon. It’s a beautiful canyon. I was going for a trail run the other morning; it was relatively early, about 7:30 in the morning, and I see these kids walking toward me. The guy is in jeans, Vans, his hat’s cocked off to the side; he’s got a hoodie, a t-shirt. It’s got some outdoor qualities to it, but it’s got some hip graphics. Kind of unshaven. He could just as easily have been walking down the street in the Mission District. His girlfriend’s in Toms shoes with knee-high, super bright-colored stockings, board shorts, a hoodie, big sunglasses, a hat. A very, very unlikely couple to see walking down this trail at sunrise. It was kind of surprising.

Photos courtesy of Poler.

I actually stopped running and I said, “Hey, where are you guys from?” They’re from Los Angeles. What they’d done is they’d taken their iPhones and they’d decided to go for a hike up to a place and take some Instagrams of waterfalls and flowers with their phones to share with their friends.

Photo courtesy of Poler.

So, are they hikers? I mean, she’s hiking in a pair of Toms and knee-highs, which are not really hiking products. But this is a generation who don’t see why they can’t leave the trail, go to town, have lunch, and go to the skate park and skate all afternoon, and not change gear. But the outdoor industry is having a hard time reconciling that.

Photos courtesy of Poler.

How do you talk to a customer who is that different from us? There is, right now, in the industry, a huge generational gap where most of the people in the industry, culturally, simply don’t understand their audience. What we’re seeing out of that is that new brands are starting to emerge that are able to translate the surf-skater or the city-hipster culture into this interest in outdoor experience in unique ways. Brands like Poler out of Portland, or Alite in San Francisco, with Tae Kim: these guys are actually starting to create brand identities that appeal to a customer that the outdoor industry still doesn’t get… You know, the outdoor industry has always tried to say, “Come to us!” And Poler and these other guys are saying: “We make a product that’s coming to you and to your aesthetic.”

Photos courtesy of Poler.

Twilley: Is figuring out how to serve that new kind of customer part of the work you do with Mountain Lab?

McGuire: What I’ve been doing is working with companies that know they need something, but they aren’t quite sure what it is yet. Of course, I don’t necessarily have all the answers for them, but my job is to help assemble the right teams of people—to find the people who can work on and solve that problem. I rely very heavily on a vast network of people: people who are professors of ethnography and cultural anthropology, people who are designers in Sweden and have a background in a very clean aesthetic, and people who are, you know, hipster skaters into trail running who live in New York City.

How do you take those people and put them together on a team with a common problem? Here’s the designer who has the right aesthetic, something that matches the brand value, and here’s the ethnographer who can say that this is who the customer is today, and this is what the design experience will need to look like, from a marketing standpoint, to communicate something to that customer.

The “lab” part of Mountain Lab is really the assembly. What are all the things that go in the pot to make the special sauce? It’s putting those things together.

Twilley: And what’s the product at the end? A recommendation? A prototype?

McGuire: It’s a mix of things. We’ve done things as simple as assembling business plans for startup companies, so they can go out and receive their second or third level of funding, to actually creating design briefs and pricing metrics, all the way through to completed design packages presented back for line review. Our main focus is not just what the solution is now, but what the solution will be—how things are changing, and how you know what customers need—that incremental step of asking “What does this look like in phases A, B, C and D?”

Manaugh: Finally, how does the internal structure of Mountain Lab work?

McGuire: It’s a revolving door. I’m the only constant within the Mountain Lab today. I would say that there are eight to ten people who, on any given week, are part of my regular repertoire of who I go to. Some I go to more than others, but, at this point, everyone is independent.

In Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From, he talks about the coffee shops of the Renaissance period. For me, a lot of what Mountain Lab is about is having that kind of network of people—I know that I want to have these eight people around the coffee table to share ideas. And, on the next project, or even the next phase of the same project, it might be that these four need to stay, but then we need fresh insight from these other four. And we keep changing it up. There are times where I’m not part of the conversation at all. I may be introducing two or three people, setting the stage for their dialogue, but then just taking what they’ve reported back out and adding it into another dialogue next year.



That’s part of what allows me to live in the Eastern Sierra. I live in the middle of nowhere, where nobody I work with lives, but I also live in a place that, in my industry, is deeply rooted with all the customers I work with. So technology allows me to move well beyond the Eastern Sierra, but my proximity to the end-user here allows me to stay really focused on being close to what they do and what they need.

I didn’t think, though, when I started the Mountain Lab, that it was going to be quite the way it’s been. I thought there would be a lot more design work being done in-house with people. The virtual nature of the teams, and the success we’ve found in that virtual collaboration, has surprised me. I’ve also been really surprised—pleasantly surprised—by the people I’ve been able to connect with. I didn’t, in my wildest dreams, ever think I was going to have some of these opportunities twenty years ago, when I first got into the outdoor industry.

I remember going to the very first Outdoor Retailer show with a close friend of mine, walking through the doors, and looking around, and feeling like a kid in a candy store. Now I have friends in those companies, and I can call up these industry legends and say, “Hey, I’m working on this new idea. What do you think?” Or, “Do you know the right person? Where would you go?” I’m so grateful for that opportunity, and for being able to keep that creative stoke alive.
 
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