The Wyoming Dinosaur Center's Dig for a Day
Fri 1 Jun 2012 - Fri 1 Jun 2012 80 °F
I have already gushed on this blog about how excited I was for June 1. In fact, when people asked me what I was most looking forward to on the roadtrop, digging for dinosaurs in Wyoming topped the list. I guess I never truly got over the paleontology phase I went through as a kid, and neither did Matt, as demonstrated a few years ago when we spent some time in L.A. and discovered the La Brea Tar Pits, which instantly became the coolest thing in that city. I'm pretty sure that if I had grown up there rather than Brisbane, I would have been all over those pits all summer long, and who knows what I'd be doing with my life right now.
[Aside: It's not a huge stretch from paleontology to archaeology; both Matt and I also went through Egyptology phases as kids, and we revisited that obsession in 2010 on our last big vacation.]
We left Yellowstone National Park for the charmingly named Thermopolis the night before, hoping to arrive sometime before midnight. On the way, we passed through the impossibly scenic Yellowstone Valley just outside of the park. The stunning sunset over Wapiti was distracting enough to make driving quite dangerous, so we pulled over to take pictures.
Dinner was a quick stop in Cody at a restaurant called Terrace; we were feeling adventurous, so tried a summer grill platter of meats neither of us had ever eaten before: elk bratwurst, semi boneless quail, and grilled rabbit, along with a bacon sage stuffing and braised red cabbage.
Elk. I ate elk. That will teach them to run in front of my car late at night.
While we were eating, I tried to sort out some accommodation for the night, and took a chance on the Coachman Inn Motel, which is "within walking distance of everything in the town of Thermopolis." This is because the entire town of Thermopolis is about a mile and a half end-to-end, but no matter! They also promised reasonable rates, clean rooms, and a FREE HOT WAFFLE BREAKFAST BUFFET! Sold. I called their number to book the room, and when the proprietor heard that we didn't intend to pull in until after 11PM, he wasn't phased. "No problem. I will leave your key in an envelope taped to the front door of the office, and we'll settle up in the morning, OK?" Wow. I guess we don't even need to lock our car doors around here.
The waffles were delicious, and we were soon on our way excitedly to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, wondering what we should expect. Would there be many other diggers like us? Would the place be swarming with children? Would we be kidnapped and sold into paleontological slavery?
No, on all counts. I guess with the center being so remote, they only have one or two family groups digging each day during the summer, and since June 1 was early in the season, it was just us. Perfect! Our guide and instructor was Amanda, a junior in geology from Minnesota, assisted by intern Angela, who is double-majoring in geology and mathematics in Tennessee (I think). They drove us a short distance up the hill from the center itself to the quarry, explaining along the way that there are more fossils in the ground here than they have the funding or resources to dig up. My god, if I had grown up in Wyoming, my family would never have been able to grow a lawn; I would be digging in my backyard every damn day, hoping for a stegosaurus. Stegosaurus was my favorite dinosaur when I was eight.
At the site, we were shown around an in situ excavation containing whole skeletons and footprints, and then introduced to our active site next door. The whole area used to be the shore of a lake during the Jurassic period, and the fossils are contained in a layer of mudstone formed from the lake silt. Fossils found seem to be the remains of allosaurs and apatosaurs, and it is speculated that this was a feeding area where the vicious theropods preyed upon their large herbivorous cousins. OK, instantly this site became cooler than Dinosaur State Park in Texas to my inner eight-year-old; these were not little-known species I don't really remember from my dinophiliac days. Everyone has heard of allosaurus and apatosaurus. These are heavy hitters.
We were each handed a bucket, a blunted oyster knife, a paintbrush, and a dustpan and brush, given a quick lecture about how to recognize bone and what to do if we found any, and we set to work. The first surprise was how familiar the action of excavating felt. Last year, we tuck-pointed our field stone basement ourselves, and I'll be damned if I didn't have flashbacks to those long weekends, crouched on the basement foor with very similar tools, excavating old crumbly mortar from the cracks in the wall. My muscles already knew exactly what to do. The only things missing were the Shop Vac and the musty odor of cat litter.
After maybe ten minutes, as I scraped away putty-colored mudstone from the side of the quarry, a rocky chunk fell out, revealing something carbon-black stuck in the ground. What. Is. That. Oh. My. God.
That, my friends, is a goddamn ALLOSAURUS FOSSIL, and a fairly sizeable one, apparently - enough to warrant classification as a 'bone' rather than merely a 'fragment.' When a fossil is found, their practice is to label it and leave it in place for later excavation, so we couldn't just yank it out to see exactly what it was, but the curve of it was interesting enough for Amanda to get a bit excited. In this dig they have yet to find an allosaurus skull: could this be part of an orbital? Another center employee who dropped in thought it was more likely a cervical rib. Either way, holy crap, that is so freaking cool. Amanda also accidentally discovered that the rocky chunk that fell out encased yet more allosaurus fossil - again, we couldn't just break it apart, so its exact nature will remain a mystery until further work is done, but it was classified as a fragment because it was probably less than ten centimeters long.
Above: my finds, replaced and labeled. The bone was the 300th found on the site, which is called "Cheryl's Blind" or CB for short (after a hapless worker who drove some equipment over fossils there once), hence the label "CB300."
I was kind of relieved when Matt, working a couple of feet away, called out only a few minutes later - another find! The experience of finding something myself was so awesome, I didn't want to be the only one blessed with dumb luck. Matt found not one, but two bones in the next hour; both were classified as fragments because of their size, but the second one was pretty sweet: Amanda speculated that it could possibly be a complete chevron from one of the vertebrae.
Obviously, we thought, we would not be able to take any of the bones home with us. Of course not! This is science! But then we were told, that if we found tiny fragments that were too small to be identified anatomically -- otherwise known as "floaters" -- we were in fact allowed to pocket them. Matt found one of these, maybe the size of a hazelnut, and it currently has pride of place in our tchotchke cabinet in the dining room.
Hours more of tireless digging didn't turn up anything else, but as far as we were concerned, we had gotten what we came for, and the rest was just gravy. Honestly, if I were independently wealthy, I would come here all summer long and pay to dig there every damn day. We wrapped up around 3:30PM and then were given a behind-the-scenes tour of the warehouse and laboratory back at the center. I'm not sure if I can tell you how I felt when I saw that the warehouse contains a complete stegosaurus skeleton ready to be mounted.
The open-to-the-public museum is also probably the best dinosaur fossil collection I've ever seen, including plenty of actual fossils as well as resin replicas, such as one of Stan the tyrannosaurus. You know that heart-sinking moment when you find out that nearly all of the dinosaur skeletons you see at museums are replicas? That was like finding out the truth about Santa Claus for me. But, more than two decades later, finally seeing (and digging up) actual fossils was like getting to visit the North Pole and hang out with elves. Science elves.
The next day, we partook of the town's hot springs, choosing Hellie's Tepee Pools on the recommendation of a woman we met at breakfast. The outdoor hot pools with jets are wonderful to soak in, if you can get past the stink of sulfur. I'm not sure if I noticed any particular healing power in the water, but I guess half an hour isn't long enough for the magical crystal healing or whatever to sink in. It felt good. That's good enough.