Geology professor Nicholas Van Buer, on a field trip with his GSC 4000L Tectonics class, climbs atop the El Paso mountains. (Courtesy of Jonathan Nourse)

Geology professor embarks on 500-mile Mojave Desert hike

By Aaliyah M. E. Murillo and Samantha Padilla, Feb. 22, 2022

Nicholas Van Buer, an associate professor in the Department of Geological Sciences, will be making Cal Poly Pomona history as he completes a 500-mile hike across the Mojave Desert from Algodones, New Mexico to Olancha, California during his sabbatical to raise awareness for the university’s geology department.

Jonathan Nourse, chair of the department, explained that Van Buer’s journey is the most miles any professor has trekked during their sabbatical, including Nourse’s two in Mexico. Van Buer will also be doing this completely alone.

Geology professor Nicholas Van Buer, on a field trip with his GSC 4000L Tectonics class, climbs atop the El Paso mountains. (Courtesy of Jonathan Nourse)

“I was just generally impressed,” said Nourse. “It was a good geology project. This one was one of the ones that really stood out. I mean, I probably reviewed maybe eight or nine of these over the years, and now this one stood out.”

For five weeks, Van Buer will travel through the remote areas of the Mojave Desert to explore and collect research materials. His diet will consist of purified natural spring water and bread he bakes on site.

Since he will be occupying remote trails, Van Buer is expanding the geological knowledge of the Mojave and with technological help, will be able to bring back a new form of geological research — video.

Beginning late March, Van Buer will post a series of episodes on his YouTube channel, TectoNick, to share his hiking journey and new knowledge of the desert; the videos were proposed by Van Buer.

Before beginning the trip, Van Buer hiked and filmed a trial route to scope the type of trails he will encounter. He crossed patches of cacti, climbed rigid rocks and tested his bread baking method and the natural spring waters.

In the trial video, Van Buer uses a nonelectric portable water purifier, sits on a log and transfers his water into a plastic canteen. He describes there being an underlying “rotten egg” taste. Jokingly, he refers to the current smell from his water bottle and how this smell will be able to mask it.

Through the lens of his GoPro, Van Buer filmed cacti covering the pathway and coming in through the microphone. The audience can hear a noise that is closed captioned as “high pitched screams of pain.”

Van Buer crossed the cacti patch and was poked by several needles coming from multiple angles. This preview hike was cut short after speculating the mountain terrane,— an area different from its surrounding material and separated by a fault line — mentioning how excessive and dangerous it appears.

“In some ways it is old school, involving hiking and camping,” said Nourse. “It is an ambitious trip … Dr. Van Buer, basically, dreamt of on his own.”

Van Buer began his sabbatical in late January; he has arranged for two meeting points with his parents to provide him with fresh clothing and other basic needs.

Alumnus Mark Thompson (’20, geology), a former student of Van Buer, said, “I would like to commend him for following through with a passion of his.”

Thompson was skeptical when he first heard Van Buer mention his desires to do this hike saying, “I did not believe he would do it and here I stand, two years later, watching him post updates about his journey.”

Whenever he has signal, Van Buer will post short films on his YouTube channel with updates of his location and any new discovery he has come across.

According to former student Alyssa Young (’18, bachelor’s in geology; ’21, master’s in geology), Van Buer is “immensely intelligent” and is the smartest person she has ever met.

Van Buer received his doctorate in geology at Stanford, taught at Harvard as a teaching assistant and completed his postdoctoral at MIT, before becoming a professor at CPP in 2014.

Young remembers Van Buer sharing his geological stories in his classes and recalled, “It is inspiring that he is doing it … We are all very amazed. … I am hoping we get more interest and more people going, ‘Wow, that is the guy who did the hike, and he teaches there.’”

Van Buer specializes in petrology, geochronology, field geology, tectonics and geographic information systems. His curriculum incorporates learning about the Mojave. This sabbatical will further his research and benefit the geology department.

Van Buer will post his 12-part series to YouTube late March. Subscribe to his channel to get updates from his travels.

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