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Entries about dinosaurs


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)


sunny 90 °F
View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

All right, Texas, although I am this moment crossing the Continental divide, I must go back and blog about you before the memories fade.

We covered Texas in two days, which is pretty amazing given its size. After seeing Kermit Ruffins play in New Orleans, we booked as fast as we could to crash at the Walmart in Beaumont at about 1AM. I was starving when we pulled in, so grabbed a burger at a Jack in the Box, where I could understand about one in three words the server said to me. Hello, Texas.

The next morning, we kept going on Highway I-10 into Houston to visit the Johnson Space Center, as in "Houston, we have a problem." I think the Kennedy Space Center has it over the Houston one; they also have a Saturn V, but they bus people to it like cattle in cheesy tourist trams and don't give them the tear-jerking launch movie beforehand. (I do like the fact I've seen two out of three of the Saturn V rockets in existence now. Guess I'll have to get myself to the Smithsonian later this summer. Yes, I haven't visited the Smithsonian since 1994, even though I live relatively nearby.) Houston also has some neat interactive displays, such as a walk-in model of a shuttle (Vale, Space Shuttle Program) and a flight sim for landing the shuttle (which I caned even on the most difficult level, ha!), and you get to see the actual Mission Control room used in the 1960's.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Houston & Johnson Space Center

We left Houston around 3PM to get to Lancaster, just south of Dallas, in time for dinner with my friend Julie and her family. Julie was a Texan exhange student majoring in marine biology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney around 1998 and had the good (mis)fortune to live in a five-bedroom apartment whose occupants included me, Dr Yobbo and my BFF Jason. Those were some super wild and crazy times, fueled largely by disgusting amounts of alcohol, cigarettes, and drama. But Julie was an awesome flatmate, and we connected years later on Facebook (of course), so when she offered up a place to stay on the roadtrop, along with an oversized good dose of southern cooking and hospitality, I jumped at the chance.

Among the culinary offerings were chicken-fried venison, bason-wrapped venison, squashes and new potatoes fresh from the garden, freshly home-made biscuits, home-made plum jelly, fried okra (Matt usually hates okra, and even he loved it), pickled banana peppers ... it was a FEAST. I haven't eaten so well in I don't even know how long. Julie's family's house was also very impressive, and our guest room was practically palatial. And of course, her family were so lovely, we felt waited on every second.


After a good night's rest (I actually slept in, woah), Julie loaded us into an SUV and gave us a tour of downtown Dallas, including, of course, the spot where Kennedy was assassinated and the nearby grassy knoll and book depository. I've lived in America long enough, now, to understand and even tap into some of the sadness and fascination associated with JFK's murder, so it wasn't just a trivial photo op for me.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Dallas

We had to leave Dallas after lunch (some of the most delicious tacos I've ever eaten from a truck stop called Fuel City) to head to Dinosaur Valley State Park (we ended up mostly bypassing nearby Dinosaur World, which looked super lame) for the heart-pounding, squee-inducing experience of treading in actual dinosaur footprints, preserved by a river for tens of millions of years.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Dinosaur State Park, TX

Note to self: it is extremely difficult to stop stepping in dinosaur footprints once you start. We had to drag ourselves out of the park, knowing that we had a helluva drive ahead of us to Carlsbad, New Mexico. When it was my turn to drive, I could barely keep my eyes open, and had to wake Matt and ask him to drive the last twenty miles.

Posted by mormolyke 10:35 Archived in USA Tagged food houston texas dallas dinosaurs jfk lancaster johnson_space_center grassy_knoll dinosaur_valley Comments (0)

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