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After an exhausting day of digging, we dusted off on our way back to camp, ate everything on our plates, and tucked into our tents for our first night outdoors. Car horns and rowdy bar-hoppers that I had grown used to from my city apartment were nothing compared to the constant sounds of sleeping in nature. Birds and crickets buzzed their nocturnes. The wind sang through the groaning trees. We had heard tales of bears and wolves stalking through the pre-dawn campsite so I kept my digging knife buried in the dirt nearby. I knew I wouldn't stand a chance, but the futile gesture still made me feel better.
The next several days we rose with the sun, eager to get back to the dig site and make our great find. However, that was never the case. Often, we would discover a Hypsilophodon claw, a Deinonychus tooth, or Apatosaur rib then set about digging in the immediate vicinity only to find nothing else. It never failed: right before lunch someone would discover a new fossil and get everyone excited. We’d pound our food and hurry back to the quarry only to be met with heartbreak when all we found was "coprolite"—the polite term for "petrified dinosaur dung."
The days were hot and humid and long. The summer sun made its presence known, suffocating us like an immense, smoldering blanket. Every drink of water felt earned. A lone tree’s shade became our friend. Dirt filled our pockets and nestled into every pore of our skin. Blowing your nose came away brown, leading us to wear bandanas over our faces. Our bodies developed awful cramps from sprawling atop the rocky terrain. During the day, we'd dig. And dig. And dig until we fell into a monotonous worker’s trance. At night, we'd drink around the campfire and talk dinosaurs. Defend our tents from scorpions, snakes and spiders. Stare into the radiant Milky Way that illuminated the Wyoming forest in cosmic light. If my five year old self could glimpse a future-shot of that time, he would know his wish had come true.
Several nights later, tired of camp-food, a small platoon of us had sneaked into town for bison burgers, beer and pool. After running the juke box, we snagged a case of local blueberry beer and headed to Devils Tower for a drunken night hike. By moonlight, we stumbled our way around the entire monolith, watching the skies for any close encounters. Hours later, stinking of beer and burgers, we crawled back into our tents for the first good night of sleep we’d had the entire trip.
Our final night’s adventure brought us to the highest hill at the quarry to watch the deep amber sunset. After scrambling up a rocky cliffside, we began noticing mis-colored trees.
"Why are they all black?" someone asked.
"Lightning," one of the paleontologists replied. With cinematic timing, lightning struck a nearby tree and thunder depth-charged overhead in a one-two punch. Moments before, the sky had been cloudless, but we looked up to see two hot and cold storm cells colliding. Then, we heard the tornado warning alarm blaring from nearby Hulett. The fang of a funnel cloud spiraled down and quivered in mid-air, ready to strike.
"What happens if there’s a tornado?" I asked, feeling as helpless as my aforementioned five year old self.
The paleontologist kept his eyes locked on the swirling clouds and said, "Pray."
We had been told horror stories of tornadoes tearing this forest to toothpicks. Or, last year, when a flash flood had swept the entire Waugh Quarry campsite a hundred yards down the mountainside. After being issued the command to “hunker down,” we practically flew back to our tents and zipped ourselves in for the night. They say there are no atheists in a foxhole, and that’s just how it felt.
None of us could sleep as battle sounds boomed overhead. Bombs detonated in the distance. Gunfire hammered. Voice shouted. Opening my tent to the storm, I peered onto a spellbinding sight: lightning crackling through black clouds far on the horizon, silhouetting the hills against the night sky. The bombs were thunder. The rain was gunfire. And the voices were the wind screaming through the trees. I lay there trying to figure out if the worst was coming or going.
FLASH. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi. BOOM. A pause. FLASH. One Mississippi, two Mississippi. BOOM. FLASH. One Missi—BOOM!
The storm was right overhead.
Fully dressed, gear packed, car keys in hand, I held my breath as the storm rolled over us like a terrible wave of light, noise and water. My thin tent flaps whipped back and forth as if I were in free fall, threatening to break open at any second. I commanded the pegs to hold so I wouldn’t be washed or blown away.
I didn’t sleep a single blink that night.
By morning, exhausted, we woke to worse news. An even more dangerous storm had settled over Hulett bringing with it softball sized hail covered in spikes. Though many stayed to brave the storm and continue working, our time digging for dinosaurs was over. We bid a hasty farewell to the paleontologists, geologists, scientists and dinosaur enthusiasts with promises to return again to our grown-up summer camp where we could live out our childhood dreams. We packed the SUVs, pocketed the bones we were allowed to keep, and hurried away from the storm. Only hours after we left, the hail struck camp at full-force, shattering windshields, decimating tents, and halting the dig until further notice. Worst of all, the heavy rains swelled the stream and washed out the roads stranding the diggers for three days. No one was injured and the team finished the season’s work uncovering a brand new Allosaur and Parasaurolophus.
On our long drive back to the South Dakota airport, dirty from feet to fedora, I reflected on my initial wonderings—why do people love dinosaurs? Why do I love dinosaurs? After spending nearly two weeks trying to literally put the fragments and pieces together, it struck me. Dinosaurs, like many ancient artifacts and civilizations, are a mystery. There are no historical records or personal accounts. Humans crave the unknown, filling that void with endless questions and answers. We know much about dinosaurs, but will never know everything. That’s what it’s really all about: the thrill of the hunt. Paleontologists dedicate their lives to studying the enigma of the dinosaur, inspiring millions of others—starting at about five years old like me—to do the same. Dinosaurs are like a multimillion year old puzzle that we’ve only just begun solving one bone at a time.