Out of the Armchair – Part One
Without the benefit of porcelain
“Oh shit, this is the day.”
I was at first aghast, but I knew I shouldn’t be.
I could feel yesterday’s excellent chicken stir fry requesting clearance for a prompt exit. I knew this time would come.
First, I reviewed my surroundings. I was alone. Not just unregarded, but entirely separated from the nearest human being. I stood, perched really, on the steep side of a canyon. I was beneath its shadow and about halfway up to where the canyon walls became entirely vertical. There was no path, just a jumbled assemblage of boulders that I had been climbing over for the last hour or so. Everything around me looks spiny and uninviting. Even the Yucca plants look mildly dangerous.
I recalled the first piece of advice given to volunteers at the museum’s training session:
”Always bring a roll of toilet paper with you.”
There had been instances where an unfortunate soul would return to camp with a missing sleeve, the bottom of their shirt torn off, or a truncated sock.
I wasn’t going to be that person. Sure, I would make plenty of other mistakes on my trip down to South Eastern Utah, but this would not be one of them. I had a roll ready to go and another in the chamber. In my pack was an orange plastic shovel, a relic from my days in the boy scouts. The shovel had an unscrewable cap with a hidden roll of toilet paper in the handle. I had always wielded the tool as a joke, but now it was entirely practical.
I cracked it open and begin the preparations. How again was I supposed to do this without the benefit of porcelain? I didn’t know what to expect, so I didn’t take any chances. I took the carabiners off my belt, one of which had been holding a liter bottle of water and the other which was there for symmetry. I removed my floppy wide-brimmed hat. Off came the aviators. For some reason, I unbuttoned my long sleeve shirt and draped it across a far rock.
With the shovel, I dug a modest hole in the sandy earth. Perhaps a little too modest.
As I pulled down my pants and position myself above the drop zone, something caught my eye. At the training session, we were told to document our findings on little specimen cards. The front was dedicated to vital information like GPS coordinates, identification number, and which geological formation the fossil was found in. I recalled that the back of the card could be used for more general notes, such as:
“Found while pooping.”
As I hovered in the squatting position, I did not see a fossil. Through the gnarled Juniper trees, I did glimpse someone hiking up the canyon directly below me. Startled, I yanked my pants up and concealed myself.
“Who’s up there?” asked a voice.
It was Kathy, another volunteer. Kathy and her husband were a middle-aged couple from Missouri.
I made myself visible and waved.
“It’s just me,” I say, my gut groaning with disappointment.
“I think I found a nodule,” she shouted, holding up an object in her hand.
My insides squirmed.
“Oh, that’s neat.”
The pressure intensified.
“Do you think it’s a fossil?” she asked.
“Oh, no idea,” I said, trying desperately to curtail the conversation.
Feeling a rather pressing discomfort, I gathered my things and trudged off to a higher part of the canyon, hopefully out of sight this time. I regrouped behind some boulders. Between them was a narrow crevasse with a steep drop in the center. I wedged my hips between the two rocks.
As I squatted down and tried to concentrate, I heard Kathy’s voice again.
“Is my rock pick up there?”
It wasn’t until that afternoon that I finally felt the urge again. This time, there was nobody around. I hadn’t seen anybody for hours. At the mouth of a sandstone cave, I cozied up to a vertical rock, leaned my back against it, and blessedly went. I buried the evidence in the sand, and then placed a few rocks on top of it, as if marking a grave.
I smiled as I imagined future paleontologists returning to this spot, right at the boundary where the Chinle Formation becomes the Windgate Formation, only to discover a strangely incongruent coprolite.
One my many goals for 2016 was to engage in some out-of-work activities. Put less generously, I wanted to be less of a hermit in the new year. Knowing I would be spending more time in Salt Lake City, I also wanted to find opportunities to see more of the state of Utah. At most I had been about 25 miles south of the city.
One day I noticed that the Natural History Museum of Utah website was accepting volunteers for paleontological field work. My eyes bulged. All sorts of alarms went off in my head. A chance to cosplay as a paleontologist doesn’t come up too often. I skimmed over the requirements, the time commitments, quickly filled out the application, and then even more quickly forgot about it. Sure, I’d toss an application into the wind, but there was no way I would get a callback. No way.
I have always possessed a deep admiration for the great endeavor of paleontology. Those who remember my Kindergarten “When I Grow Up” pageant will recall my interest started quite early. Some kids wanted to go to Space Camp, but I have always wanted indulge the fantasy of digging up dinosaurs. As a kid of the 90’s, I was bombarded with images of plaid-clad paleontologist like Robert Bakker and Jack Horner talking to a camera with badlands stretching across the background.
Though my life has generally deposited me in comfortable and air-conditioned environments, I have had a few opportunities to go on some digs. In 2008, I took an archeology summer course at Bridgewater State College. There we dug little 50 x 50 cm holes into the ground and extracted Native American artifacts.
While at Drexel University, I took an elective class, called something like Paleobiology Field Methods. This class stood in stark contrast to the majority of my other course work, which could be summarized as “Look at Computer Screen 101”. Once a week we would jump into a campus shuttle and drive out of to a glauconite mine in Mantua County New Jersey, the birthplace of North American paleontology. There we could dig out the remains of an ancient marine environment at existed at the very end of the Cretaceous. It was muddy work, but it had been exciting.
One day at work, I received a call from the museum, and they wanted to give me an interview.
“Oh crap,” I thought, “This might actually happen.”
The whole week before the trip, I had been a nervous wreck. It’s kind of my thing. I was worried about taking time off from work. I was worried about my equipment, which my parents had generously shipped to me. I wasn’t even certain that I was on the list for this particular excursion. I had RSVP’ed, but had I really? I was afraid I would show up and they would say, “Ooh, sorry. We don’t have room for you.”
I arrived at the museum Monday morning. The volunteers and museum staff were packing up equipment into two matching white Toyota Tundras. I was surprised by the types and ages this activity had attracted. There were undergrads, museum staff, a visiting post-doc from Spain, a retiree with a dog, and of course me. I adopted the persona of an embedded reporter.
There was no sign-in and no roll call. I just tossed my personal gear into one of the two trucks. I got into the back seat of the other. The door closed, and a wave of relief fell over me. I was going on this trip.
As we took off, the Field Manager Tylor announced to the passengers, “I’ll give you three choices: We can sit in silence, we can listen to pirate rap, or we can listen to a podcast about American Military History.”
Each kind of sounded like a threat.
Before the trip, I told myself that I wasn’t going to embarrass myself, especially in front of all these paleontologists. At our first pit stop, I got in line at a gas station bathroom. I saw one of the other passengers, Randy, exit the restroom. We briefly chatted.
“So, are you a student at the University?” I asked.
He looked at me, somewhat surprised.
“Oh, I’m actually the Curator at the museum. I’m actually Tylor’s boss.”
I kept smiling.
“Oh. Oh. That’s neat,” I mumbled.
Whoops. I should have known better. When you don’t know the rank of someone, always round up. Even if you’re wrong, you might flatter them.
Our destination was called Indian Creek. It was located south of Moab. The ride was about six hours, with a few stops in-between. I watched as the now familiar snow capped mountains of Salt Lake City transitioned to reddish earth, gray-blue shrubs, and a horizon dominated by plateaus. It was a lonesome landscape, darkened by a heavy gray sky above it.
Finally we arrived at our campground, a place called Hamburger Rock. As soon as we got out of the trucks, that gray sky that had followed us down unleashed rain and high winds. The red earth had the consistency of flour, and as soon as my boots landed in it I was covered from head to toe. Everything suddenly became frantic.
We unpacked all the gear that was waterproof. I noticed we had packed two spineboards, those long human-sized orange boards that are used to restrain a person who had suffered a nasty outdoor spinal injury. They were for transporting fossils in the field, or at least I hoped they were.
We scattered across the campground and began setting up our personal tents in the storm. As my tent repeatedly threatened to become airborne, I had flashbacks to when I had field tested the very same tent the day before. Conditions had been idyllic. I set it up on the far end of a peaceful dog park. A lady walking a shiatsu had walked by to ask what I was doing. Back to the present, I was soaked and anchoring a tarp to the ground with whatever rocks I could find.
The storm finally passed, almost the moment that I finished pitching the tent. The scenery was cinematic. The canyons around us glowed with the light of the setting sun. The pools of rainwater glistened beneath the sky.
That night I went to bed, and realized I had set my tent up on a 10 degree. I slept, rolling perpetually to the left. Throughout the night, the winds returned and threatened to tear my tarp off.
This was going to be an interesting week.
To be continued…