It seems odd, really, that here -- beneath turquoise skies, red clay cliffs, and some of the most spectacular rough-hewn country in the west -- I have spent the last four hours on my knees with my head down, gingerly picking with a camel-hair brush at a rocky object that resembles an overcooked brownie.
But this little specimen is no damaged dessert. It's a small piece of the leg bone of a diplodocus, a large plant-eating dinosaur that thrived in what was once a verdant river basin. One hundred forty million years ago, this creature struggled to this spot and collapsed. Today, the remains of the long-dead dino are my quarry, and each tiny stroke pulls a few grains away from its tomb.
Hollywood makes the world of the paleontologist seem glamorous, but fieldwork blows those illusions away. It's tough scraping at rock as hard as concrete, but I'm not complaining. This is the Day Dig at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis, Wyoming, and for eight short hours I'm privy to a world that I have dreamed about since I was a kid.
While dinosaur tracks and fossils are plentiful -- you can view them anywhere from the Connecticut River Valley, in Massachusetts, to Nevada -- the chance to actually go on a dig is limited to just a few places.
The center's Day Digs are perfect for those with short time or limited patience. They begin at 8 A.M. with a half-hour orientation at the center's headquarters, a large metal building just a quick stroll from downtown. You pay your fee ($125 a head, or $300 for a family of three), receive some basic instruction in tool handling, mapping, and excavation, then pile into a van and head out of town.
Trailed by a rooster tail of dust, you shoot up a dirt road toward the dig site on the 500-acre Warm Springs Ranch. During the brief, bone-rattling trip, you enter the Wind River Canyon, a red clay gash in the earth. During the Jurassic period (145-208 million years ago), this was part of a river plain where dinosaurs roamed. When they died near the river, their bodies piled up on the shoreline curves or in the side channels. These quarries have yielded hundreds of dinosaur bones since digging began in the mudstone layer in 1993. There are about sixty fossil sites on the ranch, and the curators say it may take more than one-hundred years to excavate them.
The van ride ends and you cross a dry wash and clamber up a slight rise that looks indistinguishable from anything as far as you can see. But this site is different. In a few moments you can discern the bones that peek from the rock, and soon you're carefully excavating. Experienced staff are on hand to answer questions and provide assistance.
Standing on this windswept knob, it is difficult to believe that such a vibrant tropical community once surrounded it. But evidence is everywhere. Nearby excavation work has revealed a well-preserved camarasaurus, a small herbivore that once plopped along the sunken river bank. In another area, we are shown footprints of meat-eating allosaurs, as well as nearby gnawed bones and scattered teeth. Clearly, some death struggle occurred on this very spot eons ago. There is drama and blood and life and death in these rocks. You just have to listen closely to hear them talk.
Dig-for-a-Day programs are limited to six participants daily, so call ahead for reservations. Digs run Monday through Friday, late spring to early fall (weather permitting). The center keeps the bones you find, but they often hand out small fragments as keepsakes.
Museum of Western Colorado
Dinosaur Expeditions offers digs in western Colorado and Wyoming.