Dinosaur Hunting

The badlands of southeastern Utah, home to part of the
dinosaur-rich layer of rocks called the Morrison Formation


There are often a couple of separate excavations going on simultaneously during DI trips. While part of the team excavated at the Gnatalie quarry, an arm of the team worked on this sauropod tail located in a smaller quarry about 15 miles away.

Dinosaur Institute, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

To avoid waxing too mystical, it might be best just to state the obvious: dinosaurs stomped around out here, rivers flooded, mountains rose up, and ancestral peoples came and went. These badlands are draped over a lot of action, and they have a coiled, contained kind of energy—you never know what they might tease out. And when the land does reveal its secrets, this team is the first to learn them. The paleontologists are couriers, basically, for the history of the planet.

“The hard work—it doesn’t even enter your mind,” Susan says. “You leave your ego in L.A. and you’re all on this mission to find fossils. But there is something else out there that drives you. It’s hard to explain. It’s a desert, and the desert doesn’t go easy on you, but there’s a reason all those Indians chose it. You’re at your core—it’s about survival, in its rawest sense, and we’ve all got each other’s back. It’s hard to leave, and when I come back to the city, everything seems so petty.”

The Future

The DI team isn’t done with the Morrison Formation yet, not by a long shot. The future will be dictated by schedules and budgets, and what kind of equipment BLM allows the team to use. There are huge boulders sitting on parts of the quarry Luis wants access to, and the team dreams of a backhoe. If that’s not permitted, Doug will be charged with moving the boulders or breaking them apart, and he’s done it plenty of times before—shifted them with a car and wench, or rolled them with pry bars. He’s also talking about another method, untested but promising—using a heavy duty drill to bore into the rock and fill the holes with expanding concrete, which would break them into more manageable pieces.

Whatever they do about the boulders, the Dinosaur Institute will be back next year. “It’s not just young children who are in awe of dinosaurs and prehistoric life,” Susan says. “The concept of studying the life forms that roamed this Earth hundreds of millions of years ago and who have left the evidence of their presence is, to me, so wondrous and so compelling that I can’t be helped but be moved by the thought of it.”


Excavators in 2008, wearing netting over their faces to ward off biting gnats. Because of their attackers, the team nicknamed the sauropod they were working on “Gantalie.”

Dinosaur Institute, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Fieldwork for Beginners: A Diary

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Are They Old Enough to Be Pilots?

In Denver, Luis and I duck into a 19-passenger Beechcraft bound for Cortez, Colorado. The pilots can’t be many years past drinking age, and on board, it’s just us and a priest with a guitar tucked under the seats. Normally I’d consider a priest on a small plane a bad sign, but I can’t stop thinking of the guitar scene from the movie “Airplane.”

One of the kids in the cockpit warns about turbulence over the Rockies, and he’s right. He opens the curtain twice and apologizes for what he calls “a roller coaster ride you didn’t pay for.” Luis asks if I’m okay and I say I’m fine. I confess later I was absolutely terrified; he admits it was probably the worst flight he’s ever been on. The priest listened to his iPod and slept through the entire thing.

The airport terminal in Cortez is the size of my office, and the chatty guy behind the rental car counter prints out some maps for us. When he asks us why we’re in town, I’m inclined to blurt out that we’re digging for dinosaurs. Luis says we’re from L.A., that we’re doing some “research” for a museum. It’s something I’ll notice again and again—the team is purposely vague about describing what they’re up to. There are stories of poachers and vandals who decimate the quarries once the paleontologists have left town.

The priest from the airplane—and I’m not kidding—is picked up by a nun whose habit blows in the wind when she gets out to help him pack his guitar in the back seat. Luis and I motor out of Colorado’s corner pocket and into southeastern Utah.

Adjusting to Open Space and Angry Dogs

I don’t know what I expected from the landscape out here, but I think it involved less wide open space. I grew up in Southern California, and to me, a big swath of land means a football field or a park. The pinks and the oranges of these hills are gorgeous, and the sky is oil paint blue, but I’ve never driven so long and seen so little civilization, and it takes a while for my eyes and my brain to adjust. I keep thinking that the horizons are a movie set or a backdrop in one of the Museum’s dioramas. They can’t be that endless and uninterrupted, can they?

There’s a grocery store stop, the highlight of which is an enormous pork loin that Luis finds and can’t be talked out of. Later we pull off the highway because I’m convinced the headlights aren’t working, and a dog from a nearby house comes tearing out after us. I’m inclined to stop and pet it—that’s what we do in the city. Luis tells me to keep driving. It’s my first field lesson: When a dog’s running after the car, just keep driving.

We check in at my motel, the Recapture Lodge in a town called Bluff. The room is simple and lovely, and five bucks less a day than my rental car. And finally, it’s onto camp.

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