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Jerry Mahlman: Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 6:44 AM GMT on December 09, 2012

Jerry Mahlman: Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things

I found out this week at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union that my friend Jerry Mahlman died in late November. Jerry was a climate scientist, and for many years, the Director of the Geophysical Fluids Dynamics Laboratory. Here is the announcement of his death, which includes a paragraph about his science life. Here is Rick Piltz's, Remembering Jerry Mahlman.

In 2003 Jerry and I hatched a plan to road trip to Big Bend National Park. Jerry liked to “bushwhack” across desolate places, and in the Lower 48, Big Bend National Park is about as remote and desolate as it gets. Big Bend is also home to a huge variety of wildlife. The wildlife is there not only because it is protected desolation, but also because its climate straddles the edge of the tropics. This means birds, and birds could be the noble goal of any Jerry adventure.

The retired Jerry set out to planning. Another flavor of road trip brought me to his house in Longmont, Colorado, and Jerry had collected a set of suitably obscure information about the places in the Larry McMurtry world through which we would venture. There would be counties where there might be 4 rooms for those passing through – identify such opportunity in advance. Jerry had descriptions that required us to pay attention to the juniper trees on the side of road at the curve 31 miles from the U.S. highway intersection. Beyond the juniper, there would be pull out and a path, and down that path, a gully, and in that gully, the footprint of a dinosaur.

The week before we were on our way, Jerry had his stroke. The rational, though perhaps without fully thinking it through – the rational Jerry called me to explain that despite the type and severity of a stroke that normally killed more than 99% of the time, he was certain that by the time I arrived in three days, he would be ready to go. He had tested his readiness, by standing and walking. Though he was dizzied and tired by more than a few steps, he was certain that by the time we arrived in Big Bend his recovery would be adequate. As a precaution we would limit our exposure to steep trails and sheer cliffs.

That trip never happened. After recovery and therapy Jerry and I did take a set of road trips into the easy hinterlands of Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico. We would frequently pass through Fort Collins, and he would talk about his time with Janet during graduate school. On one of the trips beyond Colorado’s Moose Viewing Capital, Walden, we happened upon a “nature” trail on, probably, Bureau of Land Management leased land. The nature trail was maintained by an oil interest, and had signs that talked about the natural warming caused by carbon dioxide, and how the oil industry removed carbon dioxide from the air, pumping it into to the ground to release, safely, more oil to be pumped. Recycling carbon dioxide.

In his backyard Jerry kept something of a rock garden, perhaps more in the style of corralled rocks than, say, the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco. In 2008 with Jerry’s short-term memory loss starting to become prominent, we set out to Capulin Volcano National Monument in New Mexico. The noble goal was large round rocks spewed from a volcano. We hiked in the National Monument, and collected large round rocks from a rancher’s field, and then set off through the dirt roads of northern New Mexico and southeastern Colorado. We drove the entire length of the Dry Cimarron River, wandering onto roadside rock crumbles and into easy gullies. We crossed the grasslands, through the windmills and settlements that are relics from the Dust Bowl. We visited dimly lit, small-town museums that were housed in repurposed general stores and gas stations. We tried to use, whenever possible, Colorado Highway 71, which ran north into Nebraska to his hometown of Crawford, and beyond to Janet’s hometown of Hot Springs, South Dakota.

Jerry Mahlman in a gully of the Dry Cimarron River, New Mexico, 2008

Our last trip was in 2009 - too early for a last trip, but lives get complicated. It was October. We started up over mountains in Wyoming, but the roads were closed to our demure vehicle. So we hiked Vedauwoo Rocks, and then we went down a barren Wyoming road that had remained solidly anchored in Jerry’s memory. We ate at a Chinese restaurant, in a town that met the required criterion of at least two Chinese restaurants – to assure some quality from competition. The hot and sour soup passed muster. The Scoville Scale was unchallenged.

From that common place where it was understood that is was OK to be Ricky, not Richard – to Jerry.


Jerry Mahlman at Vedawoo, Wyoming, 2009

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.