It is an honor to be invited to write a submission for Faces of GSN, because for the last couple years I‘ve been a Faceless member of GSN working in West Africa for Newmont. In spite very minimal commitment to GSN on my part, the organization has proven quite important in my career.
A tale of four oaths broken
My father was a petroleum geologist, and as a child I remember visiting drilling rigs in western Oklahoma. Following his example, I am a little embarrassed to mention that I also remember drawing cartoon cross sections with oil derrick and drill trace always penetrating some spongy looking thing full of holes that was supposed to be the reservoir. With so-so grades in high school, I was surprised to be admitted to my “stretch school,” Rice University in Houston. I attribute that in part to most likely being the only applicant that indicated an interest in earth sciences on their application. Rice certainly turned down more talented applicants that wanted to study electrical engineering.
Geology may have been my stated area of interest, but I had not settled on it as a major when I embarked on my first geology fieldtrip freshman year. It was a camping trip. The undergraduates and graduate students drank beer around a campfire, and then we all went skinny dipping in Lake LBJ. I believe I picked geology as my major that weekend.
One of my jobs as a part-time employee in the Geology Department was to help a new Assistant Professor of structural geology and tectonics, John Oldow move into his office. He seemed the epitome of a field geologist, and formed the basis of my aspiration to be a field geologist myself. Well, that and the skinny dipping.
About this time, probably in one of John’s classes, I became fascinated by the idea that rocks could flow. I found the concept extraordinary that the very definition of stasis and immutability, could bend and even flow like syrup given enough time. The concept still intrigues me. Good fortune got me out of Houston and into the office of Carl Jacobson at Iowa State where I would get a strong dose of ductile, folded rocks. He was another new faculty of structural geology and metamorphic petrology. Carl was researching the Pelona-Orocopia Schists in southern California. I did my work on the Rand Schist, a transitional greenschist/blueschist package of sediments and mafic volcanics. Summer fieldwork in the Mohave Desert is not for everyone, but I did not know any better. Afterward, via John Oldow, I spent a summer as a field assistant for a Rice University grad student in the Brooks Range, Alaska. Different weather, altogether.
In the absence of job prospects in the oil business, I accepted an offer to do Ph.D. work in the eastern Mojave. It was difficult to refuse, including financial support and time in the USGS lab in Menlo Park, and even some helicopter time. Unfortunately, Reagan-era cuts to the USGS resulted in the cancellation of that program, and I found myself taking preliminary exams with no project. Plan B was structural analysis project on amphibolite-grade rocks in the Eastern Transverse Ranges in California. With minimal support, it was necessarily a low-budget enterprise. To minimize costs, I wrote my own stereonet plotting program, made my own XRF fusions and did the dark-room processing. My life was not all work, I was fortunate at this time to marry Joan Harpham, my wife of nearly 30 years.
Along the way, I attended a presentation on environmental science, and groundwater geochemistry. It seemed like such dreary stuff, compared to the reconstruction of plate margins, and microtectonics that were all the rage at the time. I swore to one of my committee members :
Oath #1: I will never work in environmental science
As I finished my Ph.D., I had the offer of a summer job with Mobil Oil in Denver to do fieldwork in the Sevier thrust belt. Two of us started in Las Vegas in May and ended up at Glacier National Park in September after a variety of mapping and sampling projects. It was great fun, but taught me that big oil contracts fieldwork rather than doing much itself. When that job ended, I found myself in Denver with no job prospects and still largely unaware of the minerals industry. After the GSA meeting there in October, I heard there was work to be found in Reno. In those days, you could buy a cheap ticket in Denver for a 3-day, two night gambler’s special flight to Reno and the Sands Hotel. In February, I went, rented car, and worked my way through the then-thriving geo-ghetto with resumes in hand. Tainted by my oil experience, I wore a coat and tie! I received no direct offers (the suit did not help), but was assured that when the field season kicked off in a month or two, I’d find work. Joan and I packed a U-Haul trailer, and without knowing a soul in Nevada, drove to Reno. I got work with GeoTemps soil sampling a week later, and was continuously employed for 12 years.
My first staff position was at Westmont, where Clancy Wendt and his team introduced me to the absolute basics of industry. We held ground that eventually became three mines, but soon Westmont was for sale, and with Steve Green’s help I found my way to Santa Fe. I found my more regional mapping experience and structural background allowed me to fill niches in both companies programs. But it was my time working at Twin Creeks in the mid-90s that was pivotal. We had a good team of geologists doing good work. We were finding gold. I gave a talk at the Reno GSN meeting on the structural geology there. Then, Santa Fe was purchased by Newmont, and the future seemed uncertain. The team would certainly be dissolved. So, I walked away from Twin Creeks angry and swore Oath #2:
Oath #2: I will never work for Newmont
Thanks to that GSN talk, I was offered job with Pittston Nevada Gold, along with my Santa Fe boss, Bob Felder. We had a good run at Pittston, doing a great deal reconnaissance stream sediment sampling and follow-up. But, even as Mark Whitney and I were taking the first rock chip samples from what is now Long Canyon in 1999, the financial realities were squeezing Pittston. It closed its doors in Reno a year later, just after our first round of drilling, which included one hole into the deposit. As the company wound-down, I recall our geochemist, born in Rhodesia (literally a man without a country) saying “There is always Africa for the not too bright.” Things were not so desperate as to work there, with all the malaria stories and so forth I had heard, so out came:
Oath #3: The situation will never be dire enough to work in Africa
Another functional team with successes was being shut down. I felt like my career was going nowhere. With Africa off the books, I decided a change was in order, and declared:
Oath #4: I will not work in mineral exploration (again)
Over some glum beers at a GSN meeting, Barney Mason told me the State of Nevada was hiring. I got a job there, and was working for NDEP when Rich DeLong and Opal Adams rescued me 16 months later. I had gotten to know Rich primarily while serving as Secretary to GSN, so a little volunteerism can pay off when you least expect it.
I cheerfully broke Oath #1 and worked in Rich and Opal’s environmental consulting firm for close to five years. It was very stimulating to work in a new industry and learn new job skills. The knowledge that I could do something besides mineral exploration took a lot of stress out of my life.
Even as the gold industry turned around in the mid-00s and friends were warning me I was missing my chance to get back in, I was quite happy where I was. I was watching my daughter grow up, and of course I had sworn an oath. Then in late 2006, Newmont posted some open positions in the Reno Gazette-Journal (yes, I found my next job in the newspaper). In neat alphabetical order, between Mechanic and Surveyor was a listing that read something like “Structural Geology specialist, 10 years of experience in mineral exploration, Ph.D. required.” I spoke with Kirk Schmidt about it in the Newmont booth at the NWMA meeting in Sparks. He suggested I apply. What would be the harm in that? After an interview in Elko, I was offered the position. Still hesitant about re-entering such a volatile industry, I had to give it a lot of thought. In the end, I violated oaths 2 and 4 simultaneously and took the job. It was the right choice.
After our daughter graduated from high school, and the house seemed so empty, an opening for structural geologist in Ghana appeared on the internal Newmont job page. On our site visit/interview trip, we were told Ghana is “Africa for beginners.” It seemed easy enough. Joan and I decided it was time for an adventure. We tossed Oath #3 aside and took the plunge. After all the years working and studying in the Western US, I have new deposit types and a new continent to learn. Contrary to my Rhodesian friend, there is ample need of intellect. There are no NBM&G county reports here. In many places, you figure out the geology from scatch. In two years, I have stood on untouched porphyries that would have been drilled in the ‘60s in Nevada, not to mention VMS gossans that would have been mined away in the ‘50s and epithermal veins that would have been stoped 100 years ago. Discoveries are waiting.
Unfortunately, I’ll almost certainly miss the Symposium this year, but I look forward to returning to Nevada once again and be a Face of GSN.
John Winton Erwin*
Erin L. Hart
Greg T. Hill
Joseph Kizis, Jr
Brooke J Miller
Justin and Ajeet Milliard
Mia (Cowgill) O'Neal
Shea Clark Smith
Roger C Steininger