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An interview with Mary Caperton Morton of Aerial Geology

by Timber Press on January 2, 2018

in Natural History

Images courtesy of the author.

“Just remember, traveling doesn’t have to be exotic or expensive. All you really need is time and a good pair of shoes.” —Mary Caperton Morton

Aerial Geology can be read as a kind of natural wonder bucket list. What are a few of the places you’d most like to see in the next year?

So far, I’ve visited 89 out of the 100 sites featured in Aerial Geology. The last nine are all pretty far-flung, from the Arctic to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, and I’d love to expand my range! The granite spires of the Bugaboos in British Columbia are probably at the top of my list. I’ve actually seen the Bugaboos off in the distance, but I haven’t set foot on them yet. I have my eyes on a 9-pitch climb up the Northeast ridge of Bugaboo Spire.

Out of the places you highlight in Aerial Geology, is it possible to pick a favorite?

I get this question a lot when people hear how much I travel, and I generally have two answers: My favorite place is either 1. Wherever I am right now, or 2. The Grand Canyon. I’ve been on four multi-day backpacking trips in the Grand Canyon, and that glorious ditch never ceases to thrill me as a hiker and a geologist. When you start on the rim and hike to the bottom, with every downward step you go back 60,000 years in geologic time, all the way down to the Colorado River, where the rocks are nearly two billion years old. Thinking about geologic time on this kind of human scale is one of the best ways I’ve found to wrap my mind around how staggeringly grand our Earth really is!

You say your favorite geologic term is “Christmas tree laccolith.” What is a Christmas tree laccolith, and what is your favorite example of this formation?

Aerial Geology is dedicated to “My Big Sky family and my favorite Christmas tree laccolith” which is our much-beloved beacon of Big Sky: Lone Peak! This impressive 11,166-foot mountain—the centerpiece of Big Sky Ski Resort—is actually a failed volcano. The eruption never reached the surface but instead shot out sideways underground, into existing layers of sedimentary rock.

In profile, a Christmas tree laccolith looks like a central trunk with radiating arms, much like a pine tree with branches. These radiating arms are part of what make Lone Peak a world-class ski mountain!

What inspired you to become a science writer?

As a double science major in college, I always enjoyed writing, but the idea of making a living as a science writer didn’t come to me until later, in a eureka moment I had while reading the classic popular science book The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. That book inspired me to pursue a master’s degree in science journalism at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 2007, and I’ve been writing for a living ever since. My favorite thing about my job is that I get to learn something new every day. I write five to ten stories a month for EARTH magazine, where I cover the geophysics beat (think volcanoes, earthquakes, and plate tectonics). The more I learn about the natural world, the more I appreciate my experiences as a hiker, climber, skier, and mountaineer.

You must have learned so much researching the book and traveling across North America—the most geologically diverse continent on Earth. What was one of the things that surprised you the most?

For ten years, between the ages of twenty-three and thirty-three, I lived on the road with my two dogs Bowie and D.O.G. We crisscrossed the continent dozens of times, hiked in all 50 states and much of Canada, and learned how to feel completely at home in the world, everywhere we went. One of the most surprising lessons I learned along the way is that North America offers more free camping than anybody could need in a lifetime. I went entire seasons and sometimes years without paying for a single night’s accommodation: no campgrounds, no KOA’s, no hotel rooms. The USA is blessed with 450 million acres of national forest and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, where anybody can set up camp for up to two weeks at a time. These “dispersed camping” sites are found along dirt- and gravel-forest roads and BLM roads, often designated by nothing more than a ring of rocks used for a fire pit. Some of these campsites have been used by Native Americans, cowboys, migrants, and wanderers for centuries, especially those situated near water or under a welcoming tree or on the edge of a spectacular vista. People often ask me for camping recommendations, but I never give away directions to these places. You have to follow your traveler’s intuition and go find them yourself!

Tell us about the process of writing your book. Were you traveling while writing? If so, what was your environment like?

Nowadays I tend to stick close to Big Sky, Montana, in the winter and travel by car and on foot spring, summer, and fall. I wrote and edited some of the book on the road in my rolling office: a homemade teardrop trailer outfitted with a solar panel and a Wi-Fi booster on the roof. With this set up, I can work from anywhere, but I prefer national forest or BLM land, where the camping is free and the hiking is plentiful.

What do you hope your readers get out of Aerial Geology?

My ultimate goal is to inspire people to see more of the world! For some readers that will involve simply turning the pages and setting eyes on a place they have never seen before, but I hope some will find a site or two they just have to visit in person. My own travels were kickstarted in part by a coffee table book my grandmother had on the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado, so I know well that thrilling process of seeing a compelling place in a book and making the leap to go experience it firsthand. Just remember, traveling doesn’t have to be exotic or expensive. All you really need is time and a good pair of shoes.

What’s next for you?

This will be my fourth winter living and skiing in Big Sky, Montana. When I landed here in 2014, I had only skied a handful of times in my life, and now I’ve skied every aspect of Lone Peak and even volunteer with Big Sky ski patrol and backcountry search and rescue. Last winter, on my thirty-fifth birthday, I skied the Big Couloir, one of the most extreme double black diamond ski runs in North America. I’m not sure where my skis will take me this winter, but I can’t wait to find out!

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, Mary also inspires people to “See More of the World” with her blog Travels with the Blonde Coyote.


Click image for a look inside this book.


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