July of 2014 was the third time I travelled 1,000 miles to participate in a dinosaur dig. This time around, I didn’t even have to seek out an opportunity, it came looking for me. Since I started volunteering to clean dinosaur bones in the vertebrate paleontology lab at the Burke Museum, the University of Washington’s natural history museum, I’ve gotten to rub shoulders (or at least microscopes) with paleontologists and geologists. As it turns out, every year, the lab volunteers are invited to attend a field season in Montana too see what we can dig up—in this case, literally.
The drive to Jordan, Montana was, (how can I put this nicely), BORING. Like all of these square states in the mid-west and the west, Montana is a big state. I’ve done a similar drive alone for two previous years and it’s a lot of land to cover in two days. Instead of drinking and dialing, I’d drive and dial, since you get punch drunk from being in the car alone for so many hours on end. Thankfully, I had a travel companion this time around, so I didn’t get pulled over in Montana after noticing that my speedometer went from 70 to 80, but skipped the tick for 90 to go straight to 100. Whoops! (I need to remember what the billboards used to say in Montana: “Whoa”)
On the way out of town, on one of the numerous gas stops, I noticed a sign that I’m glad didn’t call for the grammar police because after seeing it, I laughed for miles.A big letterboard sign read “Were open”. Now, I’ve seen some bad apostrophe mistakes in English, but this one actually works to prevent business!
And so, I was on my way to Jordan, Montana, the center of all things flat, hot and dry. Dino land butts up against the badlands of the United States and has its own special landscape, notable for its lack of trees. Did the dinosaurs eat them all? What the heck? 😉
After driving unceasingly straight for hundreds of miles, I hit the town of Jordan and made a quick stop at the grocery store. This store is like a Mecca in the middle of nowhere. It’s the closest grocery store in a landscape that is a geologist’s and paleontologist’s dream, so at any time of day, there are cute hunka boys and men traipsing in and out of there stocking up on water, snacks and beer. Lookin’ to meet a cute, muscle-y guy? The Jordan, Montana supermarket is the place to go. As if that doesn’t make the store memorable enough, the proprietor likes to give change in gold and silver colored dollar coins.
After stocking up on watermelon and a strap to keep my hat from blowing off of my head, I pocketed my coins and began the drive to the site that was “just outside of town”. The drive took an hour and the directions went something like “Between mile marker 175 and 176, look for the white sign. Make sure not to take the small dirt road, but the bigger dirt road. In 5.4 miles, when you hit the star-shaped intersection in the middle of nowhere, go as straight as you can. At about 8.7 miles, hang a right at the large piece of farm machinery. Then, you can’t miss us!”The dig was impressive in many ways. We uncovered the lower quarters of a duckbill dinosaur named Clarissa. Little ole’ Clarissa, when alive 65 million years ago, would’ve gotten to a length of about 40 feet and she didn’t make it easy for us to dig her out. We of the Duckbill Dynasty had to use jackhammers, hammers and chisels to get through several feet of hard packed matrix or rock and dirt that enclosed her bones. But, she’s a beaut and in such good shape that we’re cleaning her off in the lab to be put on display in the Burke Museum. Talk about rewarding!