Dinosaur Hunting

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

Quarry Talk

For the rest of the afternoon, I sit around and pretend to type on my laptop. I’m surrounded by tools, buckets, backpacks, and an ice chest full of sandwich supplies and Diet Coke, which Luis drinks constantly. More than typing, I’m listening. Sometimes the chatter is very civilized; it could be a cocktail party, except for the hammers clanking. As the hours wear on though, the paleontologists get punchy and what they call “quarry talk” sets in—impressions, songs, bad jokes, gossip and giggling riffs in Spanglish. If secrets are told in the quarry, the rule is, they stay in the quarry. When the sun tucks below the mountains, we put tarps over the pit and walk back to the car.

Tonight is my first proper campfire experience of the trip. Since the work is so grueling, and since there’s nothing else going on for dozens of miles in every direction, these are lively. Tonight we celebrate Aisling’s birthday and Luis barbecues that pork loin. Wine is poured and the stories begin. These aren’t regular stories, partly because they’re true (or semi-true) and partly because the paleontologists all have honed mischievous streaks.

Luis talks about a Mongolia trip where his leg became infected from a burn and his colleagues drew a line on his flesh—if the infection spread past the line, then they’d try to find a way out the country. An illustrator from the American Museum recalled a field trip in which a curator hurled a rock hammer at a yammering grad student—just missing the student’s skull, but effectively shutting him up. I hear about foot in mouth disease quarantines in Kazakhstan, disemboweled camels, and a couple of mortuary chestnuts from Doug.

In addition to rough and tumble fieldwork and corpses, some of the geologists have been, or know colleagues who have been, on the payrolls of oil companies—because when they’re out in the middle of nowhere scouting rock formations, they can also scout oil. That means they are known to commiserate with government agents, and not the kind who push paper, and out of those relationships come a yet another layer of stories. I keep thinking of Switters—the hilarious swaggering CIA agent in that Tom Robbins book, “Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates.” There’s a lot of adventure in the world, but you have to be twisted enough to find it. Switters, and the people sitting around this campfire, are.

“The underlying story is that geologists of our generation adore being in the field,” Lowell will tell me later. “That’s how we grew up. That’s where we amassed our anthologies of field tales, and that’s what we aspire to add another yarn to. It’s almost impossible to describe how much fun it is to meet up with old classmates in the field.”

His explication of the campfire is too good to cut short. “The truth is that most of us are getting too old to do it much anymore,” he continues. “It’s really a young person’s game, not one for old dolts. When we get the chance, we play it to the hilt, kind of like trying to restore the essence of our youth or something equally improbable. So the stories of our glory days are resurrected and celebrated as if they happened yesterday, which, to our delight, they did from a geological perspective. Lots of paleontologists and geologists these days hang out in the lab, analyzing rock samples with a bunch of hi-tech gadgets. A lot of them don’t even go to the field anymore. But when you see us laughing around the campfire, it’s an affirmation that geology must be celebrated on the rocks themselves, not in some hi-tech closet.”

Friday, April 10, 2009

Aisling and Susan are leaving this morning, and Susan tears up upon the “vámonos” moment as the team breaks up to the sites Luis has assigned them.

Luis, Paige and I drop off some supplies at the larger site, and then set out for Blanding. We buy rebar from a building supply store, negotiate the rental deal for the U-Haul deal that will carry the fossils back to L.A. and refill the camp’s water jugs at a gas station. (I realize at this point that gas stations out here are a lifeblood, and not just for cars.)

The Luck of Discovery

Then it’s off to the spot where the team excavated Early Cretaceous footprints last year. Luis describes the find—apparently an example of the frequent intersection of serendipity and discovery, which I have heard Luis talk about before. A Dutch geologist that dropped in on the team wanted to get out of the car during a prospecting trip to look at some rocks on a bluff. The area had been bulldozed in preparation for an oil derrick, so there were huge chunks of upturned sandstone and embedded in some, ancient footprints.

Luis wants to spend more time here, perhaps to find some smaller footprints. We talk about how there is dinosaur evidence under all of this land, finding it is just a question of exposure, preservation and luck. For this find, it took a Dutchman and a derrick.

Paige, with a GPS setting Aisling had left her, directed us through more winding dirt roads to a spot that the crew wanted Luis to investigate. We hiked about twenty minutes into a low valley and poked around. Luis says there is too much sediment, and the bones would be too choppy. He doesn’t like it.

By the time we get back to the dig site, team has already plastered some bones—they tunnel in and around a chunk of matrix, cover it in white plaster, then extract the piece. There is less quarry talk today, less riffing. Luis is antsy to get the sauropod out of the ground, and his mood dictates the vibe.

There’s some discussion about the next phase, and how the team will move the boulders that cover parts of the quarry they want to dig in. This is Doug’s purview, and it’s perfect, this idea that he moves rock. Because of his size and his handlebar moustache, so he looks like a 19th century circus strongman, the ones who would lift a barbell in one hand and a girl in the other.

Paige quietly announces she’s come down with “quarry wrist”—sore from hall the hammering and chiseling—but it’s not a complaint, it’s just an acknowledgment of a fieldwork rite of passage. In fact, I don’t hear anybody complain on this trip, ever. It’s almost unsettling. They get up at 7 a.m., they work incredibly hard for ten or more hours. They take one shower a week, which falls on their one day off.

The campfire stories best last night’s, and I’m doubled over laughing for most of it. The team starts to stand and make their way back to their tents—and now, for the first time, I’m actually sorry I have to go back to the motel.

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