I realize I went on this mindblowing trip with MIT 3 years ago and never blogged about it.
Well, I’m going to now, because someone asked me if I thought DEAPS would be fun. Would it be fun or would it be a waste of time/money? they ask. As someone who they’d heard had participated in a pre-orientation program they thought I’d be able to help. Instead, I wrote back, dude hang on I’m totally going to blog about this, and didn’t for a few days.
That’s because I actually got busy with my UROP. Blah blah blah motor trouble turns one way but not the other why me don’t leave me alone with this oh for god’s sake watch out for the 1000 dollar star plate. It was all resolved and put back together, at least all the screws appear to be in their right holes, in a 10 hour marathon lab day, which was today, and that’s why I sit down and write this. The motor is turning. I’ve destroyed nothing. That’s a good day.
3 years ago at this time, life couldn’t have been moving faster. Who was I? I was a recent graduate of Hamden High School, #6 in my class, good grades fine scores, decent essays, and for some unknown cosmic reason, MIT bound. And from then on, bound to MIT. I say this cause I don’t think anyone ever escapes the tether of this place, there’s something about these walls, something homely and subtle that just so gently enough creeps its way under your skin, without notice over the course of years, fuses with your bones, phases through the walls of your veins, until at some point you don’t know any more where you end and this place begins. Sometimes it’s so quiet here, or nothing is moving, or everything is moving, or the rush of people you wouldn’t believe. I haven’t decided which of these MITs feels most like home to me.
I didn’t know all this then. My perception of MIT was all fire and lights. (I was temp’ed in EC during CPW) How much is the real MIT like that? Maybe 5%. And it’s a good thing, I think. Because, really, you will find your niche. Freshman year I considered an EAPS major (course 12), DEAPS was going to Yellowstone and I was going with them. If you’re taking a trip with an Freshman Pre-Orientation Program this year, several factors will probably combine to make this one of the more exhilarating, memorable experiences of your life.
I. Everything was a new thing and it lasted forever. 16 kids or so went to yellow stone with me and several professors and graduate students. I was amazed by the most mundane exchanges because they were with MIT students. They were elite company, they were just like me, and I was sure each one of them was smarter than I was. 9 days and 8 nights was the itinerary, if I recall correctly. We would camp in the park, at an altitude of about 8000 feet, near Yellowstone Lake, days would be dry and sweaty, nights would be near freezing. We brought gear. On the first day we flew into bozeman montana felt small against the wide flat terrain and packed into several white vans (to be later christened with various yellowstone-related names, “Bison Without A Cause” is the one I always tried to ride in) and drove toward the distant mountains. On the way there a flat tire.
II. I shared a tent with Tamara and Danielle. It was something like a 6 person tent occupied by 3 people which sounded great at sundown when we were pitching but turned on us right quick as soon as the temperatures plunged and boy did it ever. We coped by huddling in one corner of the tent and leaving the rest empty and cold and air. Some nights I woke up miserable. One night I had to pee and oh how I tried to fall back to sleep and hold it til morning, grappled terribly with the decision and finally moving as little as possible, switched on the flashlight by my pillow and watched my breath in the air for a while working up the nerve. Another night I was sure my head was on fire and I sat up in my sleeping bag and scratched and scratched and I could swear 1000 bugs couldn’t have made it itch so bad. A few nights it rained and after the first I never laid out my clothes to dry on the ground outside again.
III. Our first full day at the park we walked through a marsh. We were headed to Sylvan Springs, an off-the-map site at Yellowstone gained access to only with a research license (which was pretty awesome for a prefrosh). Getting there sucked. Taking their advice I’d dressed in layers. The early morning hours (6am wakeup time) called for sweatpants, 2 sweatshirts and a jacket. Under that I skeptically slipped in a pair of shorts and a black tanktop. We left before 8am. I brought my backpack, which before we even parked our vans (at around 10am), became home to the jacket and both sweatshirts. We were an impressive sight, a 4-van caravan everywhere we went. We were told to keep on our long pants for walking through tall grass. The way there was hours of hiking. Here I’ll post a couple pictures I took during the hike.
Sylvan Springs had been a lush green tourist mecca. A geological change a few decades ago caused the water in the hot springs to turn into sulfuric acid. Ever since it’s been oozing down the sides of the hills, killing all the vegetation in its way. Sylvan Springs as we saw it was a whitewashed ghost of its former self.
That’s me in the black tanktop.
It was still beautiful, as only a sight like that could be. We took some measurements, which even then I saw as symbolic but still made you feel like a bit of a budding scientist.
My shoes were soaked, the kids with boots that day were the clear winners, and my pants up to my knee. That’s why I laid them out that night. To dry. I found them in the morning about 20 feet down hill in a wet, muddy, pile. I threw them in the dumpster. My shoes were never rescuable either. They started stinking unbelievably that next night and just only got danker and more horrible as time went on.
We cooked at night, vegetarian meal because of the vegetarian in the group. Pasta and corn and all kinds. Lit a fire to keep warm. Bed time was whenever the fire went out.
IV. One night it was a clear lovely night and a group of us drove down in a van to the widest open space we could find in the dark (which was, funny enough, a parking lot down by the lake) and looked up. I was seeing the milky way the cross-section of our own galaxy like a broad stroke of a paint brush across the sky and I couldn’t believe it. There were more stars than I could take in at once. I stared and stared. It made me dizzy so I laid down on the ground and I kept on staring. It’s weird thinking back. Maybe it was then that I developed the love for telescopes, that I decided I could be an astrophysicist.
V. We drove by the lake on our way anywhere, every evening it was a dark void and every morning it was brilliant light.
V.(a) Sometimes buffalo crossings stopped traffic for hours.
VI. I was petrified on the slopes of the petrified forest. We climbed a vertical 1000 feet, some of the way on our hands and knees on loose rocks. The slope was enough to give you vertigo. I was sure I was going to die. I found a fossil.
Below us were wide valleys carved out by glaciers during the ice age. They left huge rocks scattered around like dust on the valley floor.
On our way up we saw far below us a black bear roaming the clearings. On the way back down after our picnic lunch I got separated from the group and as I passed through the region of the sighting I made as much noise as possible and fashioned a weapon out of sticks.
Some time later I slipped on a loose rock on my way down and slid some 20 feet on my butt down the mountain. That night I spent a couple of minutes being really thankful for being alive.
VI. Wednesday halfway through the week we each took a $2 shower. The girls got to wash their hair, back in the vans everyone looked beautiful. Smelled great. Laughed a lot.
VII. Day trip to the Grand Tetons.
A lift took us from 6000 to elevation 10,000 ft. The temperature dropped from 65 to 27 degrees in the broad day. Hiking around up there was tough. A bit of ill-advised running knocked me straight to the ground, I took way longer than I thought possible recovering.
The view was unreal.
VIII. We climbed to the top of a hill to look down on Grand Prismatic Spring. Later, we found ourselves on another hill facing a beautiful, snaking river. We learned about the microbes that give the hot spring color and mark it out in isothermals, the flood pattern of rivers, the migration of waterfalls, rhyolite rocks and flows, volcanic breccia, kinematic shock patterns… by the time we headed back it was starting to look like rain.
Sliding down a fault:
IX. I snapped pictures here and there. Sometimes it was all I could do to just take it in. The age of the place was written plainly on everything we could see and touch. The gravity of it all was overwhelming. If you stayed really still you could almost feel the earth shift and the mountains turn.
Here’s something truly impressive. I love this picture: you can see the two layers of deposits one on top of the other put there by 2 giant eruptions, the first of which formed the yellowstone caldera and the yellowstone lake. The bottom layer is 2.1 million years old, the top 650,000. Like a huge, slowly morphing, rocky birthday cake.
X. You know, memories are all we have to remind us that we’ve lived. You don’t need to find it in an FPOP, of course. But I always advise freshmen to sign up for them anyhow. Because sometimes it’s putting MIT in context, sometimes it’s that feeling of getting out there, sometimes it’s just what you need for your beginnings on the world stage. And because it is probably just so much better than whatever else you could have planned for the week before orientation. Because, what if it does change your life?
I’m so excited for you. Now is the best time to be alive. As I said the trip was 9 hot days and 8 cold cold nights. It had begun with a 4 van procession on the wide open roads of the high plains and so that’s where it ended. We were so tired we were napping on the floor of the airport. We were so dirty, too. But coming back to Boston to my penguin patterned temp room in EC and showers and beds and classes and changes, I kinda knew instinctively that I’d never be the same for it. And I haven’t. I truly haven’t.