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The Wyoming Dinosaur Center's Dig for a Day

sunny 80 °F
View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

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.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Yellowstone Valley

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.

(This is also comparable to the moment when I finally got to see Tutankhamun's face mask at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, after being totally scammed at the Franklin here in Philly.)

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Wyoming Dinosaur Center's Dig for a Day

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.

Posted by mormolyke 01:17 Archived in USA Tagged accommodation dinosaurs wyoming cody yellowstone_valley thermopolis Comments (1)

Where to stay, and how to stay it

Accommodations on the road

View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

One of the more adventure-y aspects of our roadtrop is the question of where we'll be bedding down each night. While we have a couple of necessary pre-bookings along the way -- such as the hostel in New Orleans where we stayed in 2002, and campsites in the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone -- most of the time, we're effectively winging it. Do we find a campsite for our compact wheeled space capsule, or boondock in a parking lot somewhere? Or do we cave and grab a motel room so we can shower and stretch out? It's actually been pretty fun figuring it out each day, and I'm glad we didn't plan every stop.

The first night, we lived on the edge, and caught some unwanted attention for it. I had originally jotted down the name of an RV park in Cape Hatteras, but, buoyed by the excitement of beginning the trip and turned off by the cost of the RV park, we chose a different route. We knew we wanted to climb the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse early the next morning before heading to Asheville, so we thought, why not just head down and see what was there? We found a large parking lot near the beach that was completely empty, silent but for the crash of waves on the beach, and pitch black -- except for occasional flashes of lightning to the south, and the piercing light of the lighthouse itself, less than half a mile away, spinning its beams into the night sky. It was somehow a bit terrifying, but a stunningly beautiful experience -- if I had that night over, I wouldn't have parked anywhere else.


Unforrrrrtunately, it turned out that the carpark belonged to the surrounding national park, and at 7:30AM, we were awakened by a loud rap on the Magnum window. I startle awake even in the most familiar surroundings, so the sudden knocking immediately sent me into paroxysms of loudly squawking "SHIT! SHIT! SHIT!" that I'm sure made an impression on the park ranger standing outside our car. Matt struggled to pull on some pants and find the car keys so he could open a window (yet another reason I still prefer manual winding windows) and face the music. The music turned out to be a brief lecture from the poor ranger about how trashy the Outer Banks would be if everyone just slept wherever they wanted, and a hilariously cheerful Matt countered by showing him our National Park Service Annual Pass and handing out one of our roadtrop.com business cards so the ranger could learn all about our epic trip which had just begun.

We were let off with a warning, which handily makes a sweet souvenir of our stay:


The second night, we found a Super 8 in Knoxville, TN. We were originally planning to find the hotel we stayed at when we roadtripped to New Orleans in 2002, but as it turns out, A LOT has changed in Knoxville in the last ten years. We had a vague idea that it was the Holiday Inn, but the area has evidently come up, because the Holiday Inn was $150 a night, and we weren't going to pay that much on a hunch. The Super 8 five miles away was all of $40.

Day three, we crashed with Dave and Charlene, but the next night, we had our first legitimate Walmart boondocking experience (we had previously made a hilarious failed illegitimate attempt during one of our pre-roadtrop jaunts). About half of all Walmarts around the country allow overnight parking by RV's and other camper vehicles -- if you google around, you can find a list of which ones do and which don't. The important thing is to always call ahead to check, out of courtesy and because each store has the right to change their rules whenever they want. The Walmart outside of Savannah was super laidback about letting us park -- there was an RV and a truck already in situ when we pulled in at around 1AM -- and they had a security guard patrolling the lot, so we could sleep in complete safety.

We did the same thing a couple of nights ago on the way to Miami, but at a Cracker Barrel in Deerfield Beach. The official Cracker Barrel company policy is that overnight parking isn't allowed, but we already knew from reading blogs that, in practice, most of them are fine with travelers who ask to stay. We waited until after we ate dinner and had a long conversation with our server about gas prices and electric cars before raising the question, and without pause, the friendly manager said, "Sure!" He didn't even need our assurance that we would come in for breakfast in the morning before we trucked (well, station-wagoned) out.

Other nights so far, we've stayed at cheap motels - our only stipulation is that the place we choose should look at least as presentable as motels on the X-Files. Believe it or not, there are many, many motels out there that are so dank and seedy, they make X-Files motels look like resorts. Some of them give me a serious Texas Chainsaw Massacre vibe.

Last night we camped in Everglades National Park. I had done my research, so I knew that our greatest challenge at the park would be biblical plagues of mosquitoes. American mosquitoes provoke some gnarly histamine reactions when they suck my Australian blood, so I had brought defenses: an Off lantern, mosquito coils, and plenty of DEET spray. I had also whipped up some custom-fit flyscreens for the Magnum which attach to the outside of the car with sewn-in neodymium magnets (strong enough that we could drive through the park at 55mph without them blowing off).

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Everglades National Park

It was a good thing we prepared. Jesus Christ. I was bitten a couple of times mounting the flyscreens at the visitor center parking lot, which had a low density of mosquitoes; the campground 40 miles deep into the park was so full of clouds of mosquitoes, I didn't dare leave the car. Matt went to use the bathroom (stumbling over a camper who had pitched a tent in the men's bathroom in an attempt to stave off the bloodsuckers), and even he came running back as quickly as he could (Matt barely reacts to insect bites, as proven a few years ago during our Egypt vacation, when I was COVERED in excruciating bedbug bites while he appeared completely untouched).

I'm looking forward to our future overnights. We have some more stays with friends lined up, more national parks, and a log cabin in South Dakota.

Posted by mormolyke 12:52 Archived in USA Tagged accommodation national_parks camping everglades cape_hatteras motels boondocking deerfield_beach Comments (1)

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