If you know Kai, you know that he likes dinosaurs.
If you REALLY know Kai, you know that the spinosaurus had a double row of teeth and snacked on sharks and was SWIMMING DINOSAUR and not a marine reptile and I should do some more research before I say incorrect things like that, and also that the displesiosaur means "double crested lizard."
So when talk last winter meandered to the possibility of going on a dinosaur dig, there was simply no turning back.
Long before we'd made any decisions or booked any flights or hotels, he'd told everyone that he was going on a dino dig this summer.
I asked my friend John, who knows some paleontologists, if he knew of any who would let us tag along on a dig. John said that his paleontologist friends were kind of jerks and instead googled a list of places that will let the public hunt for dinosaurs. With people who know what they're doing, I mean. I myself saw an opportunity to combine a dino dig with a trip to visit my friend Quincy in New Mexico, and viola! A plan was born.
The dino dig I chose was out of the Museum of Western Colorado. For $140 apiece, they would take us to the Mygatt-Moore quarry outside of Fruita, let us dig for dinosaurs, and feed us a sandwich.
I mean, sold.
I bought tickets online, and, to my surprise, we had to fill out a vast array of medical forms, which I dutifully procrastinated on until the week before we left.
After a gloriously conversation-filled and booze-soaked weekend with my friend Quincy and her family, in which we took zero pictures of each other but took several of our cocktails, we pointed the car north to Colorado.
I am so not kidding.
Let me stop here and taxi-cab confession to you that I would be lying if I told you I was excited about this dig.
I knew it would be hot and dusty, that dinosaurs don't die in the Peninsula Hotel but in the vast wastelands of Hot Nowheresville, USA. I worried about Ryan, who hates to walk more than 20 feet at a stretch. I had completely ignored the advice of the dig coordinator to outfit us all in wide-brimmed, Park Ranger-style hats on the basis of sartorial loathing, plus the fact that we would never use them again, and was concerned that this was a huge mistake and, after all the medical forms, I was vaguely worried about our health.
Additionally, I harbored a completely separate fear that Kai would hate it, and therefore, by encouraging his dream of becoming a paleontologist, we would inadvertently ruin it with a hot, dusty dose of reality served with a sandwich. We talk about this in guitar class all the time—the fact that the worst thing you can do is meet your idol. You can't help but be disappointed.
So, it was with considerable apprehension that I presented my family at the Dinosaur Journey in Fruita, Colorado, armed with bottled water and approximately 50 cans of sunscreen. We found a contingent of people loading coolers into a van and, after a few minutes consultation, got our first piece of good news: the dig would be over by 2:30. You should have seen Scott's face when I told him.
Anyhoo, two dudes who looked like construction workers ushered us into the museum. I assumed that they were drivers. Or haulers. Or lifters of heavy coolers. They led us into a room with several chairs, a podium and a giant screen. I wondered if we'd see a film before we left, the kind that starts "One hundred and fifty million years ago, dinosaurs roamed the earth..."
But there was no film, no PowerPoint, no frills of any kind.
Instead, the two guys sat down on the stage and introduced themselves.
They were paleontoligists.
And I guess I didn't know what I expected. Ross Geller, I guess. Or Sam Neill with his cleaned-and-pressed khaki button down. But these guys were just regular guys. Guys who dug dinosaur bones. They were tanned and be-hatted, and I was relieved to see only one of their hats was wide-brimmed. We were told there was no running water in the on-site bathroom (they looked at me when they said it), and I told them we'd be okay, though I wasn't going to say that we weren't.
In the van on the way to the quarry, we were all asked to tell everyone our favorite dinosaur. Alarmed, I searched wildly for an answer while the rest of my family gave theirs. Kai went with the T-Rex. Ryan's was the triceretops. Scott said the velociraptor.
I wanted to say something cool, but what was I going to say to two paleontologists?
"Stegasaurus," I said finally.
"They have a brain the size of a gum ball," Kai said.
There was another family with us, a father/son duo. I don't remember what they liked, but I do remember what the paleontologists said they liked.
Chris, the driver, liked marine reptiles.
“Oh!” Kai said. “Like the plesiosaur.”
Chris sad he liked the mosasaurus, too.
“Oh,” Kai said. "The mosasaurus likes to snack on sharks!”
Rob said that his favorite was the allosaurus, which, coincidentally, was one of the dinosaurs one could find in the quarry.
The quarry itself was only about a hundred feet off the main road, which was another happy surprise. I assumed we'd have to hike into some kind of canyon, but this would not be the case.
Each of us were given a paint brush and a screwdriver, and shown how to use then to find fossils.
"The paintbrush is your best friend on a dig," Chris told us, as he demonstrated how to use the brush to clear sand and debris, showing us how to look for black rocks that might be fossils.
Rob showed us where some fossils had already been partially uncovered and that we could continue to brush and chip away at the sandstone (which is what I did), and another area that hadn't been excavated but that he thought looked promising (which is where Kai, Ryan and Scott went), and we got to work.
Since this was the last day of the digging season, Rob was trying to excavate everything he could before they covered up the site until next spring. What he couldn't dig out today, he would cover in plaster and then layer under rocks so that poachers wouldn't steal the fossils, which is, apparently, a thing. They took out two connected apatosaurus vertebrae that had to be hauled out on a flatbed, and "jacketed" another set with plaster (which Ryan helped with.)
I chipped away at some rock and found what I thought might me a fossil. I called Chris over and asked him what he thought, and he thought I was right. After some careful brushing, I came up with this:
which is a 152 million year old fragment of a vertebra, or a "vertfrag," which went into the "nugget bucket" because it was too small to care that much about if you are a paleontologist, but is amazing as hell if you are a yoga instructor from Chicago.
Chris showed Ryan that the difference between a rock and a fossil was that a fossil would stick to your tongue, which had Ryan enthusiastically licking the rocks in the discard pile until she found a few fossils that had been discarded by mistake.
Kai brushed and chiseled merrily for a while, and I watched him as I worked, worried the whole time that he would break something or worse, lose interest completely. When it looked like his attention was starting to wander, I took him on a mini-hike up a nearby trail, where some paleontologists had found an apatosaurus skeleton that had ended up in the Field Museum.
"Are you having fun?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said.
But still I worried. He had fantasized for weeks leading up to this dig that he would discover a Kaijudysaurus, and he had so far discovered nothing. Not even a vertfrag for the bucket.
At lunch, Rob entertained us with a description of his favorite dinosaur.
“The Allosaurus isn't like T-Rex. It has big, beefy arms. And he gives you a big bear hug, and as he's squeezing the life out of you, he punctures your spine with his giant claws. And then he opens his mouth to take a big bite out of you, but he doesn't just chomp down, he brings his whole head down on you as he does it, like an eagle.”
“But, what about,” Kai interrupted.
“Hold on, I'm talking. And what do you think you'd do if allosaurus was squeezing you, clawing you, eating you?”
“Scream?” I suggested.
“Exactly right. But the thing about allosaurus is that he can't hear you scream. We've analyzed his skull and his ear structure. Allosaurus couldn't hear a scream, because he could only hear at a very low frequency.”
“Yeah, but if the mosasaurus,” Kai interrupted again.
“I don't interrupt you. I'll finish and you can talk. Allosaurus used that low-frequency to communicate. And it was so low, you wouldn't hear it, you would only feel it.”
I want “Allosaurus wouldn't hear you scream” written on a t-shirt.
“But who would win in a fight? Mosasaurus or allosaurus?” Kai asked, clearly nonplussed by Rob’s allosaurus talk.
“Well, one lived on land and one lived in the sea, and they also lived in different periods, so...”
“So who was stronger?”
“Why don't you ask Chris?” I suggested.
Chris seemed pleased. I can't be sure, but I think Chris had asked himself the same question.
When we got back to the museum, we were treated to a tour of the fossil lab and, despite Kai's fading attention and my exhaustion, I didn't want the experience to end. There was something about this day that had transformed me on some level. Maybe it was the vertebra fragment, or the camaraderie and closeness of the people at the dig site, or maybe it was the incredible gratitude I felt for being able to bring Kai out to this vast wasteland to encourage him to be a paleontologist if he wants to, though I think he could also do well to make a video game about a battle between a mosasaur and an allosaur. I feel like there's a market for that.
The Museum of Western Colorado is delightfully cheesy, with mechanical dinosaurs that eat each other and spit water on unsuspecting museum-goers.
Ryan played in the pretend dig site, despite having just done the real thing.
Afterwards, we went to McDonald's, all of us filthy and dusty, and for reasons I can't fathom except that I must have looked like I needed it, they gave me a free ice cream cone, which I ate gratefully.
Two days later, we found ourselves at Dinosaur National Monument, looking at the Quarry Exhibit. The Morrison Formation, like the Mygatt-Moore Quarry where we'd been for the dig, was a vast soup of sauropods and allosaurus bones.
Looking at the wall of dinosaur fossils, I couldn't help but feel like this was no big deal to me, like I'd been there and done that and in greater relief than I'd ever had at any museum. Who wants to look at a fossil when you could dig it out of the earth on a hot Wednesday in August and then eat a ham sandwich?
As I wandered around, I saw a cast of an allosaur skeleton stood against one wall, and I went over to examine it.
A family stood near me, also looking at it, too. They had a boy about Kai's age.
"What's the difference between a T-Rex and an allosaurus?"
When neither parent answered, I stepped in.
"I will tell you the difference," I said.
"The allosaur has big, beefy arms, unlike T-Rex, whose arms are tiny and useless. Do you know what he does with those arms?"
The boy looked unsure of what was happening. "No," he whispered.
"He gives you a huge hug, and he uses those claws to puncture your spine. And you know what else?"
No one answered.
"Allosaurus' ears were such that he couldn't hear you scream. And you couldn't hear him, either. The frequency he used to communicate was too low for human ears to have heard him. You'd have felt it, though. Just before he wrapped his arms around you and ate you with big stabbing motions like a bird."
The family was silent for a moment, regarding me and my enthusiasm for the murderous allosaur with the same wariness you might have with one of those guys at the intersection selling tube socks. I realized I was making a hugging motion with my arms. They all took a collective step backward.
The mother nudged the boy. "Say thank you."
"Thanks," the boy mumbled as the family beelined for the exit.
"You're welcome," I called after them. Feeling pleased with myself, went to find my family, thinking that when Kai comes back out here to hunt dinosaur bones, I just might want to go with him.