Dino Dig in Colorado: Be a Paleontologist for a Day

Digging for dinosaurs at Mygatt-Moore quarry in western Colorado. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The green-and-purple tail of Triceratops disappears over the crest of the mesa, headed west through the desert toward Utah on I-70 with our van driver in hot pursuit. I sit shotgun, and behind me a seat full of kids shouts, “Catch up, catch up!” Bouncing around in a back seat is my brother, David.

Heavily loaded with children and parents, the van chugs up the mesa and we again spot the Triceratops—a.k.a., the Dino Mobile, piloted by ace paleontologist John Foster, who leads our caravan to the Mygatt-Moore Quarry for a day-long Dino Dig. The Dino Mobile, decked out with three horns and trademark bony head-frill, emits occasional bursts of fossil fuel from its tailpipe.

The excavation, sponsored by the Museum of Western Colorado, is wish fulfillment for the prehistoric-reptile obsessed kids in the van—including David and me. Once upon a time, we were fossil-collecting eight-year-olds who used to bicker during road trips about who was tougher: Tyrannosaurus rex or Dimetrodon.

Like these hunters, we two spent our childhood locked in titanic struggle for no reason other than preadolescent rage about family pecking order. I fantasized about being an only child with nearly as much passion as becoming a paleontologist. He wanted to take his know-it-all sister down a peg. There was hair-pulling, arm-twisting, and, yes, even biting at which my brother was the clear champion.

The Dino Mobile, decked out like a Triceratops ©Laurel Kallenbach

But that was ancient history—almost as long ago as the 150 million years we’re traveling back in time today. David and I are going back to the Jurassic. We’ve partnered up for a brother-sister road trip with a prehistoric theme. No longer adversaries, we both agree we have more in common than not—including our love for the outdoors and for dinosaurs. So, we’ve met in Grand Junction, Colorado—he lives in Montana; I’m from Boulder—to commemorate the car-camping treks of our childhood. Luckily for us, nearby western Colorado and eastern Utah comprise some of the world’s best dinosaur country, much of which we can access via the scenic, 512-mile Dinosaur Diamond Prehistoric Byway.

Quest for dinosaurs

Paleontologist John Foster demonstrates how to brush away dirt at the dig. ©Laurel Kallenbach

As the Dino Mobile and our van pull into Mygatt-Moore Quarry, Dexter—who has just graduated from kindergarten summa cum laude—announces he’s going to unearth a dinosaur skull today. The eight-year-old inside me thinks, “No way! I’m going to find it!” After all, I’ve got more than four decades on the kid.

First, though, we paleontologists-in-training learn the ropes. Dr. Foster demonstrates how to use our tools and tells us how to spot dinosaur fossils; they’re darker than the surrounding clay. “Never remove a fossil from the ground until a paleontologist has documented where it’s located,” he says.

David and I pick a spot under the shade awning, strap on knee-pads, arrange old carpet squares to kneel on, and start digging with screwdrivers, using them to delicately lift horizontal layers of the bleached-out clay, which was once mud along an ancient river. We scrutinize every earthen clump, sweep non-interesting pieces into a dustpan with a small paintbrush, and eventually pour the waste into a bucket. We’re hyper-vigilant for anything dark. A piece of bone will have a spongy texture; teeth are shiny black.

Fifteen minutes after we start, young Dexter calls out: “I found something!” Our heads pop up like prairie dogs on alert. Paleontology assistant Tom Temme checks, and then confirms, that Dexter has indeed unearthed a dinosaur bone fragment. David and I exchange determined looks, as if to say, We’ve been upstaged by that pipsqueak? We apply our screwdrivers to the clay with renewed fervor.

When I encounter a blackish vein about a third-inch wide, I slow down and carefully trace its edge. Soon the vein forks to the right. My pulse pounds in my ears at the prospect of digging up the bone of an animal never before seen by humans. I call to Kelsie Abrams, a paleontology grad student who’s in Colorado for a summer of digging. She bends over my find. “Yep, that’s a stem of Equisetum—horsetail.” She touches the dark line. “You can tell because plant matter rubs off on your finger like black charcoal.” My adrenaline rush crashes.

David uses the tools of the trade: screwdriver, brush, dustpan, and a bucket for hauling away empty rock. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Equisetum grows everywhere—even today,” David says. “Pretty common.”

I want to strangle my biology-major brother. “Still, it’s a 150-million-year piece of Equisetum,” I retort, but we both know that horsetail is not paleontology’s holy grail.

We continue digging as the sun grows hotter and our legs cramp. Beside us, Frank and his ten-year-old granddaughter, Ashley, hold out a chunk of rock to Tom; there’s something dark in it. Tom carefully breaks off bits of the rock, revealing the tooth of a juvenile Allosaurus, a ferocious meat-eater. Had the tooth been from an adult, it would have been three inches long.

Ashley’s find—just two feet to our right—ignites in us a frenzy of breaking chunks of hardened clay, but the result is only sore fingers.

At noon, Stephen Senior and his ten-year-old namesake unearth another piece of bone. After Tom has flagged its position in the ground, he removes it and passes it to me for a look. I have a hard time distinguishing “spongy” bone from clay. It takes a practiced eye, this digging for dinosaurs.

Sweaty and deflated, David and I quit for lunch and watch Tom drizzle a mixture of acetone and dissolved plastic on Dexter’s bone fragment to keep it from crumbling. Any doubts I have that this Dino Dig is a tourist gimmick evaporate. We amateurs are helping out with real science—hot, back-straining, exhilarating science.

At the picnic table, we ask Kelsie, who has a Diplodocus skull tattooed on her left forearm, why the kids are making all the good finds. “It’s total luck,” she said, sipping Gatorade from a plastic Dinosaur Journey souvenir cup that reads I’d rather be in the Mesozoic. Then she adds that kids tend to “dig in,” whereas adults can be overly thorough. My brother and I look sheepish. Being meticulous is a family trait.

After lunch, we double our speed, yet each time I empty my dustpan I worry I’m discarding a valuable piece of prehistory. We never hit “pay dirt,” but it’s here at Mygatt-Moore Quarry. Fifty yards from where we’re digging, seasoned volunteers are unearthing the five-foot-long femur of an Apatosaurus.

Now that’s the holy grail.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

After the dig, Dr. John Foster gave our group a behind-the-scenes tour of the paleontology lab to see large fossils and some of the tools scientists use to analyze them. Then my brother and I strolled through Dinosaur Journey, a family-oriented museum filled with reassembled skeletons—including our toothsome, 27-foot Allosaurus friend—and robotic recreations of dinosaurs such as the carnivorous Utahraptor and a venom-spitting Dilophosaurus. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Dino Digs is an educational/vacation program by the Museum of Western Colorado, in Grand Junction, Colo., that offers paleontology adventures (half-day up to five-day expeditions) in various quarries in western Colorado and eastern Utah, including Moab.

Laurel: living the paleontology dream! ©David Kallenbach

The digs let you work with real scientists in quarries and learn skills such as spotting fossils and digging them out of the rock or dirt. Participants also get a behind-the-scenes view of how paleontologists clean and study their finds at Dinosaur Journey museum.

Dino Digs are available from mid-May through mid-September. Transportation to the quarry, lunch, water/Gatorade, and tools are provided. The minimum age varies from five to eight, depending on the dig you choose.

 

The Black and White Tale of Two Tennessee Plantations

The Belle Meade mansion, Nashville, Tennessee ©Laurel Kallenbach

During my visit to Nashville, Tennessee, I dropped in on two historic plantations: The Hermitage, the home of president Andrew Jackson; and Belle Meade, famous for its Thoroughbred horse breeding. Both are museums that offer historic tours through Southern mansions that are beautifully restored as they were during their 19th-century heyday—and both offer a small glimpse into the lives of the enslaved people who kept the plantations running.

Magnolia blossom at The Hermitage ©Laurel Kallenbach

Here’s the lovely part of these estates: Vast Greek-Revival houses with carpets, silk draperies, gold-embossed wallpaper, four-poster beds, and fine china on elegant dining tables. Outdoors there are beautiful gardens, acres of lawns, stately magnolia trees with dinner-plate-sized blossoms, and well-equipped horse barns and carriage houses. Knowledgeable tour guides dressed like Southern ladies and gents tell visitors about the plantation history, including juicy gossip from yesteryear.

Betty and her family. Photo courtesy of The Hermitage

Here’s the dark side: Tiny, log cabins with stick beds and rag blankets where as many as ten enslaved people lived. Posts where slaves were whipped.

Now that more attention and scholarship (historical, anthropological, and archaeological) has been turned to the lives of enslaved people in the United States, historic plantations like Belle Meade and The Hermitage are including what few stories they have about these people.

Historic People I “Met” at The Hermitage

Andrew Jackson: The seventh President of the United States (1829–1837) was nicknamed Old Hickory as much for his hard-as-wood stubbornness as for his tall, skinny physique. He was a tough guy and a staunch believer in Western expansion. Jackson was responsible for the forced relocation of the Cherokee from their eastern homelands to Oklahoma, a horrendous and fatal march called the Trail of Tears.

The Greek-Revival front of The Hermitage, Nashville. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Jackson also had a bullet an inch from his heart, embedded there during a youthful duel. Old Hickory’s heart softened, though, when he met Rachel Robards, a married woman. They married not once, but twice, because Rachel’s divorce hadn’t been legal when they first wed.

Charges of bigamy, decades after the couple was legally married, were unveiled during Jackson’s presidential campaign, and Rachel died soon thereafter, partly because of the strain and shame of the campaign.

Andrew Jackson purchased his first enslaved African American in 1794. Over the next 66 years he owned more than 300 men, women, and children—as many as 150 at one time. In the Jackson museum are photos of a few of the slaves, including Old Hannah, a house servant, whose grandson Albert, is buried near the Jackson tomb. Albert stayed on as a paid worker after the Civil War. I saw his cabin, refurbished as it looked in 1901 when he died. It was spare, but pretty comfy compared to the slave cabin of his earlier life.

Historic People I “Met” at Belle Meade

Isaac Murphy: The most famous African American jockey of the 1800s, and one of the greatest jockeys in American racing history. He won three Kentucky Derbies and 44 percent of all races he entered.

Although Belle Meade estate is no longer a working horse farm, this Thoroughbred poses in the green fields of Tennessee. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Bob Green: In 1839, the owner of Belle Meade, William Giles Harding brought a young enslaved boy, Robert “Bob” Green, to work at Belle Meade, where the Hardings raised and raced Thoroughbreds. At the end of the Civil War, Bob continued to work for the horse farm, and he became famous for his horse knowledge. As the head groom at Belle Meade, Bob always wore a white apron, and he appears in many paintings with the family’s horses.

Coping with the Contrasts

I grew up in Kentucky, and decades ago barely a peep was mentioned about the fact that the wealth and leisurely lifestyle of white people was made possible by the forced labor of African Americans. Slavery was politely overlooked when I was a kid in the South.

Things have changed, and I’m glad that plantations make an effort to tell (as best they can) the mostly untold and still mostly anonymous stories of enslaved people. Still, the acknowledgment of the horrors of the past can be discomforting. It’s much harder to revel in the beautiful aspects of elegant homes and gardens knowing that they were rooted in intense human suffering.

A "duplex" slave cabin at Andrew Jackson's cotton plantation, The Hermitage ©Laurel Kallenbach

It’s easy to point fingers at the ugly heritage in Dixieland, but the truth is that northern cities such as New York were built by slave labor. So was the White House and the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

So, how does a visitor reconcile the dichotomies? At The Hermitage and Belle Meade mansions, I saw wedding portraits and libraries filled with leather-bound books. In slave quarters, it was illegal for people to marry or read and write.

I must admit, though, that I was quite taken by the hand-painted French wallpaper in the foyer of The Hermitage depicting nymphs and goddesses from ancient Greece. And I loved seeing the portraits of racehorses—the ancestors of Sea Biscuit and Seattle Slew—lining the walls of Belle Meade. And sitting on a rocking chair in the shade of the mansion’s porch, was a treat. I did enjoy experiencing all this, yet I was uneasy with that enjoyment.

The gravestone of Alfred Jackson (Uncle Alfred), who lived at the Hermitage longer than anyone else, black or white. After emancipation, Alfred continued to work at the plantation, and he asked to be buried beside Andrew Jackson’s tomb. ©Laurel Kallenbach

That’s what makes visiting historic places important: they can delight us, but they can challenge us too. And, ultimately, they make us look at where we are today in a new light. We still live in a world with huge economic and social discrepancies. Slavery and human trafficking exist even now.

So, despite the sad and awful tale that must be told of plantation life in the South, it’s better to come, and see, and enjoy, and learn, and grieve. That’s what history has to teach us.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Ascending to Parnassus Books, the Literary Heart of Nashville

Parnassus Books in Nashville is a must-see for anyone who loves to read. Author Ann Patchett highlights her favorite titles on this shelf.

Making a literary pilgrimage while traveling is always a grand thing. If you love to read, I highly recommend touring an author’s house—like I did at Voltaire’s manor house in Ferney-Voltaire, France.

It’s also fun and meaningful to take a trip to a place you read about in a book. For instance, Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun inspired me to visit Tuscany and to spend four days in her village of Cortona.

While I was in Nashville, I had to make a literary pilgrimage … to a very special independent bookstore. Parnassus Books is named for a mountain in central Greece where the Muses lived—and it’s known as the mythological home of music and poetry, so you know it’s got to be good.

Parnassus isn’t just any bookstore, it’s one that’s owned by one of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett, who opened it in 2011 right when independent bookstores—heck, even bookstores chain like Borders—were dropping like flies.

Ann Patchett's books at Parnassus. I wanted to buy one of her titles, but I own them all. In retrospect, I should have bought an autographed copy of "Bel Canto" and given away my old copy, but I was overcome by the riches in the store and couldn't think straight. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ann is probably best known for her incredibly gripping Bel Canto and her most recent bestseller, State of Wonder. (Yes, I think of her as “Ann,” a friend and kindred, bookloving spirit—even though I’ve never met her).

By becoming a bookseller, Ann wanted to prove that people still love to read—and love to buy books in a place where they can interact with other book lovers and authors. She was concerned by how many good books were going out of print and wanted to start a store featuring the books she cherishes. It didn’t hurt that she’s incredibly well-connected with boatloads of fantastic authors.

Between the Covers

Located in one of Nashville’s more classy strip malls along Hillsboro Pike, Parnassus isn’t large, but it’s thrilling! I was so excited walking up to its display windows filled with new titles that I could barely contain myself. (I suspect more than a few visitors display this giddiness as they walk through the door. Are you one of them?)

The Greek temple is a fun entry into the whimsical children's section at Parnassus. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Inside, the walls are lined almost to the high ceiling with wooden bookshelves. I felt wonderment, felt like a kid in a candy shop. I felt at home.

I browsed for a while, drawn especially to titles that Ann recommends on her blog. There’s also a special “Ann Recommends” shelf that displays her current favorites.

A cheerful bookseller asked me if I had questions, and before I could say “Kurt Vonnegut,” she was bubbling over about the books she loves most, and offered a few of her own suggestions and other titles popular with Parnassus regulars.

How would I describe Parnassus Books? A clean, well-lighted place (to coin a phrase from a Hemingway book). ©Laurel Kallenbach

With five books in my arms, I sat down in a leather chair and read a few pages of each, just to get a sense of them.

I wanted to buy them all—but alas, would have exceeded the 50-pound checked-suitcase weight limit had I done so. So I pledged to go home to the Boulder Bookstore (another fabulous independent shop) and buy them there instead.

I did purchase one light volume: the hilarious Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. I definitely wanted to do my bit to support Parnassus—and to take home a piece of its literary magic. Long live Parnassus Books!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

P.S. If you’re visiting Nashville, you should know that Parnassus Books is just up the street from Bluebird Café, another not-to-be-missed site for music lovers and songwriters. Read about my unique experience at the Bluebird: “Guitars in the Parking Lot.” 

 

Guitars in the Parking Lot: Nashville’s Bluebird Café

Guitarists and singers warm up while waiting in line at Nashville's Bluebird Café . ©Laurel Kallenbach

“The best songwriters in the world pass through these doors.” So says a small wooden sign above the doors of The Bluebird Café in Nashville, Tennessee.

I never made it through the doors of this modest café, located in a small strip mall a few miles outside of downtown Nashville—but that didn’t keep me from understanding what it’s all about.

I heard a lot of up-and-coming and wannabe songwriters and performers in the parking lot, all just hoping to get inside for five minutes during Monday’s Open Mic Night to perform. My goodness, there were a lot of talented folks, young and old, who queued up during the late afternoon—all just aching to share their passion for country, gospel, pop, and folk music with other people.

The Grand Ole Opry may be the tippy-top of country music stardom, but The Bluebird Café is definitely the heart and soul of the music industry. Known as one of the world’s preeminent listening rooms, the 90-seat Bluebird Café has gained worldwide recognition as a songwriter’s performance space where the “heroes behind the hits” perform their own songs.

Kathy Mattea, Garth Brooks, and Taylor Swift were all discovered at The Bluebird—and you can see that dream of fame and stardom in the eyes of most of the people waiting in line. Bluebird fever hit especially hard in October 2012, when the Café made its primetime TV debut on the ABC drama Nashville. (The Bluebird figures often in the show’s plotline, which deals with Nashville’s music industry and politics.)

Monday Night Open Mic

When my husband and I arrived at The Bluebird at 5:00 on Monday afternoon, a line of people already stretched from the front doors, past the barber shop and the furniture store and the Chinese massage place, past the Porter Paints, and around the corner into the alley.

Musicians of all ages waited for hours on a hot afternoon, but their dreams were not dimmed by the heat or the parking lot setting. ©Laurel Kallenbach

At least a third of the people waiting for the Bluebird to open were carrying a guitar. From grizzled biker types to kids in braces, everyone looked expectant. Some women wore sleek mini-dresses; most people were in shorts, but most of them sported cowboy boots.

We took our place at the end of the line of about 140 people in the alley. More and more people kept coming. Luckily, the skies were cloudy, so instead of sweltering on the pavement, we were merely hot and sweaty.

While we waited, we struck up a conversation with 19-year-old singer/songwriter Ari Castronovo and her dad (he’s her backup guitarist). When they mentioned they’re from Chicago, the couple behind us overheard. They were from Chicago too—and so are the folks behind them. Our group quickly became chatty. Except for me and Ken, our little enclave was all here to play for Open Mic night, and the excitement and tension were high.

A 40-something guy behind us clutched a laminated piece of paper bearing the Bluebird logo stamp. Two years ago he was in line for Open Mic Night but didn’t get to play. In compensation, the Café gave him the stamp, which moved him higher on the list of tonight’s performers—he was assigned to the number 9 performance slot—although he still has to stand with us in the alley. Singer Number 9 had laminated his stamped card for safe-keeping over the years. The songwriter’s version of a “golden ticket.”

Ari Castronovo sings outside The Bluebird. We hope she knocked 'em dead when her turn to perform came. ©Laurel Kallenbach

As more than an hour passed, the camaraderie in the line grew. Everyone encouraged each other; everyone commiserated. Ari received a number in the low 30s, and when the Bluebird “bouncer” estimated that at least 40 people could perform during the two-hour open mic, her eyes got wide. She’d have to wait for a couple more hours, but she’d get her three minutes on stage.

The bouncer also explained to us that the first 90 people in line would be seated at the tables for dinner or drinks. The rest of us—performers or listeners—would have to wait outside until tables or seats opened up. This meant that a lot of the hopeful performers would stand outside on the sidewalk or in the parking lot until their number was called. Then they’d wait until the previous performer was finished, walk off the pavement and onto the stage, sing their song—just one per person—and come right back out again.

As a result, the parking lot became a warm-up room. Musicians who had at least an hour’s wait ran down the street and returned with to-go food from MacDonald’s, California Pizza Kitchen, or Whole Foods. The singers who were up soon tuned up their guitars and warmed up their vocal cords. They sang for each other in the parking lot; they clapped for the competition.

We got private performances from Ari, from a 12-year-old from Ohio, and from a singer 15 people behind us the line whose soprano voice soared over the traffic noise from Hillsboro Pike.

It was a nice consolation prize, because we decided by 7:00 that we were tired and hungry. Ari offered to share some pizza with us: she wanted us to hear her sing, and so did we, but the truth was that even when we pressed our noses up to the café’s window, we could barely see or hear the performer.

We watched Singer Number 9 from Chicago walk in, strained to hear an occasional lyric over the speakers, and watched him come out, flushed with adrenaline and excitement and hug and kiss his wife. It made our hearts pound in empathy.

A young singer/songwriter stands poised to walk inside The Bluebird—and into the spotlight. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Regretfully, we abandoned our place in line, feeling a little like traitors, and headed back to our car. While eating our salads over at Whole Foods, we wondered how all the singers were doing on their night to shine—and get seen—at the legendary Bluebird Café. We, alas, would never know.

Would it have been better to have gained admittance to The Bluebird? Yes and no—but ultimately we wouldn’t have traded our “back scenes” glimpse of the excitement for the actual performance. Sure, it would have been nice to sip a beer and enjoy a burger at the table, but getting to know the aspiring talents outside was something we’ll remember much longer. And after all, there’s always next time…

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor