Saturday, 14 August 2010

Last full-day in the field

Today was a snagging day. Working out the how, why, when and where of the sites we have visited over the past two weeks. Whilst it has been a very productive week with many mountains climbed, the toughest mountain of the all is looming. Mt. Funding.

We would have to walk the access road today…if it still exists, as roads often disappear that grace the maps we pour over on a daily basis. So many times this past two weeks have dirt roads disappeared before our very eyes… sometimes on a make-shift dam, other times in mid-field…so frustrating. We are stuck when it comes to progressing by vehicle, as the super-heated catalytic convertors are like struck matchsticks to the tinder dry grasslands. We also have to respect the landowners who let us cross their ranches to our often land-locked parcels of BLM land.
This is also the hardest part of the fieldwork, as we have to turn our backs on many bones, leaving them in the ground to fend for themselves. The fate of many bones is unsure even given the level of their protection is high in the USA, but their remote position makes them vulnerable, given such large areas are impossible to police.

It is only through working with local ranchers and the BLM office that we might offer some network of protection for such sensitive sites. Areas hidden from prying eyes by the very buttes we so covet when hunting dinosaurs. Each member of the team has played their part in making this short field season a successful, but albeit too brief one. Hopefully next year a bigger team can help take the excavation to the next level, as the site we have chosen to return to is both large and remote, but thankfully with little overburden.

Today our new site did not let us down. We managed to collect teeth from at least four different predatory dinosaurs from a tiny dromaeosaur to the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex… yes, the site gave up a vast chisel-shaped, serrated tooth of T. rex. Eric was the first to spot the rex tooth, but several other elements from different teeth were soon found. It seems our dinosaur graveyard, might have been a site for prehistoric supper some 65 million years ago.

As you have probably guessed I have been quite coy with names and places this past two weeks…this is for very good reason. We hope to return next year to a little square of Earth that holds so much promise, but hopefully remains untouched and intact. Only a few have been lucky enough to see the wonder of this site, but it is our hope that in the future we can save this site for the many.
Working so closely with a team for two weeks helps you learn much about your fellow palaeo’s. What makes them tick and what ticks them off. This is certainly the same in all walks of life, but we must always take time to realize that hunting dinosaurs is one of those jobs many just dream of, but we very lucky few get to do. If I take anything from this field season, it is that more folks should experience the rush of touching the fossil remains of long dead animals. This thrill does not change with repetition, as each new find helps piece together the complex mosaic of past life on our planet.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Slipping with Dinosaurs

Today was one of those days when things went well, very well. In fact, the past two days have been blindingly stunning on the bone front. So much so, I cannot say exactly what we have found...yes…that good! The biggest find of this field campaign was made by Victoria Egerton. She was the envy of every red-blooded bone hunter on the Badlands today. It must be said that after making the find, she insisted it was a team effort, but that was only due to us tying her-up in gaffer tape and threatening to bury her…we’re not bitter. Honest. Her site is slap bang in the middle of BLM land and has little to no overburden (this being the USUAL 300 tons of rock you have to move prior to getting to bone). Even better, the bones she has found are stuck in a fine-grained sandstone unit (looking just like a nice channel sand), capped with typical Hell Creek overbank mud. This site will be the reason we come back next year and possibly for many years! If anything, just to find where we buried Victoria…we’re not jealous.

Victoria is in the process of completing her PhD at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She has much experience of chasing dinosaurs from South America, North America and Europe. She wanted to be a geologist when she was knee-high to a grasshopper and has pursued her passion for palaeontology with much vigour. In fact these past few days she has been sprinting up and down Badlands and falling on her rear-end; repeatedly. This is not down to a lack of coordination, but more to do with the fact that her walking boots have less grip than a pair of roller-skates on a sheet of greasy ice…this has been entertaining the whole team all week. A couple of times she has stranded herself on the sides of buttes, hanging precariously, asking for assistance…we eventually give in, once we have picked ourselves up off the floor and clearing our eyes from the tears of laughter. We’re a supportive bunch.

Victoria is a very self-sufficient soul, who often refuses help when offered. This can be a little frustrating on the occasion she is about to slide (Torvil and Dean Ice Dance style) into a sunk-hole. This said, she is always first to jump the void. Holding your own amongst a bunch of hairy guys is not easy…even for me, but she keeps one and all in her small stride…as she is also a short-arse. In fact, in tall grass we keep losing her, hence the attached bell on her rucksack, but yesterday Bill followed a rancher’s dog for over a mile through tall grass, thanks to a bell trinket on its collar. Jason suggests that we need to invest in a large baby-backpack so we can carry her through the long grass…she’s not too keen on this!

The spitting, swearing, hard-drinking and general loutish behaviour of Victoria has earned the team much kudos with the locals. She won last weeks pig-wrestling competition and we’re entering her for the pig-racing later this week. We’re sorry that we will miss the next months long-horn jousting, as Victoria is mean with an AK47 bayonet (she claimed as her field tool….actually beat if off a Russian storm trooper by all accounts!). To be honest, Victoria is a sweet Southern Bell, with nerves of steel and a bayonet to match.

Enough of Vic the Impaler. The site we saw today was one that makes grown palaeontologist weep with joy. So much bones, good bone, in one place, with stack still to be uncovered. Dinosaur Nirvana was found today in the Hell Creek. Woof! We are now all sat comfortably in our local salon celebrating today’s finds, toasting the fact that Jason Schein is home safely and has missed probably the biggest find in his whole career…not that we’re rubbing it in...hahahahahahaha! Jason ‘sexy-beast’ Poole is sad that his parallel Jason buddy is not here with us, he has renamed his invisible friend ‘Jason’…we’re just letting it pass, as he is bigger than the rest of us. His invisible buddy keeps asking him to cut-off his shirt-sleeves?

In the next few months we will have to find ways to raise funds to excavate this new site. This is not easy in the current financial climate. Some may even argue we should not be funding such frivolous science. However, I can assure all that the techniques we have been developing to tease information from fossils are now being applied to many living species. The blasting of fossil feathers with synchrotrons is allowing us to understand much about modern species that hold so much more chemistry for us to sample and interpret. The use of LiDAR (laser scanning) is helping us map excavations, but police map scenes of crimes, the computational models helping us understand the locomotion and loading of extinct bones, is now being applied to humans and other animals. Without the ‘blue-sky’ science of palaeontology, so much would not be developed and applied to other fields, lest we not forget the younger scientists who start with dinosaurs and pursue these animals into science whilst at school. Dinosaurs still have an important place in the encouragement and development of science in many disciplines. I hope there is some glint of support for our future endeavours, as
who knows where it might lead.

The taphonomic clock of time is ticking. This site has remained entombed for 65 million years before being exposed and will only survive the bleak winters and harsh summers of South Dakota for an instant of geological time. Once bones are exposed, they weather and soon crumble to dust. The blistering heat, heavy rain and even hail and snow of summer will soon subside to the yet more severe weather of winter. In these parts, if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes. This remarkable Hell Creek time capsule will undoubtedly reveal much about the last blast of the dinosaurs’ reign on our planet. We have a rare opportunity to save a snapshot from our planets past, in a time when we worry about its future. Let us not forget, the past is indeed a powerful key to the present. The message from the fossil record about lost worlds and forgotten lives must not fall upon deaf ears.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Mammoths, Presidents and Mexican Meals.

Today we decided to have a day off from the Badlands. Not that we were tired of finding bone…as that is the reason we exist, but the mosquito bites were now so numerous…we just needed a break from the South Dakota Vampires. We were that fed-up of being bitten; we were prepared to drive all the way to Hot Springs to see more recent bones, those from the last Ice Age.
Dr. Larry Agenbroad is the brains behind the whole Mammoth site and its development since 1976. Larry is literally a mammoth legend in the world of Ice-Age Woollies. The first thing that he asks me EVERY time that he meets me always makes me grin… “Are you still working on those Lizards Phil?”…there is a splendid divide between the dinosaur and mammal world that few broach…bar maybe Larry, as his site is simply gob-smacking in every way. Here is where mammoth and mastodon came to die…repeatedly!

Our biology specialist team member, Bill Sellers, was particularly taken with the mammoth site. If you’re ever in a queue and there is a chap in front of you with a sorry looking, duck-tape repaired purple rucksack…it will probably be Bill. He and his backpack have been inseparable for at least 25 years…it is older than some members of the field team! In this time, his rucksack has accumulated various repairs, additions and possibly its very own ecosystem, reliant upon Bill inserting foodstuffs into the purple void. Bill has been known only to travel with this rucksack with no hold-luggage, surviving on a minuscule amount of clothing for a week…plus it doubles as his laptop bag. He has a passion for all living things and usually has his camera pressed to his face chasing grasshoppers to Rhinoceros…the latter I have done with him and have the scars to prove it! His area of specialism is primate locomotion, but the movement of any living (or extinct) organism brings a smile to Bills pale face. Did I not mention his pallor skin? Bill can spend a month in the tropics only wearing a thong and still come back white as a sheet. Each morning he bathes in pints of 50+ SPF sun cream. Camera crews have used his chest as white-balance check in the past. His hallmark purple ecosystem is nicely set-off with his pink sunglasses…yes, bright pink.

Bill literally views the world through rose-tinted glasses and assures us it’s much better that way. Bill decided he was not sleeping too well after the first few nights, so he went in search of something inflatable to wrangle in his sleep. He searched high and low for a suitable device, but had to settle for an airbed. His nightly residence in the fieldstations workshop has paid dividends on the mosquito front...they do not seem to like the smell of engine oil!

Bill and I were particularly interested in the tracks in the mammoth site, as they are in stunning cross-section, telling us so much of the mechanics of their formation. Standing inside the bone-pens with Larry and the team, visitors walking past watched us with confusion, as we ignored the bones and stared at squelch marks in the site walls. Before long, we were clearly part of the exhibit, with the bones left literally where they were found, now augmented with a bunch of gesticulating scientists…bar ‘sexy beast’ Jason, who disowned us to go and sketch the site. Between us, we probably managed to spoil a large number of tourist photographs of the mammoth site, for this we are truly sorry! A great thing about such visits with new folks; you get a chance to hatch some fresh research ideas. Bill and I were very keen to excavate one of the large mammal trackways in the site...a heinous crime even to ask such a thing. However, Larry was happy…sorry about that one…to let us excavate the said trackway next year. We are now planning a small mammal-tracking excursion next year…funding permitting!

After Walking with Mammoths and thanking Larry, we headed to see Mount Rushmore, stopping first at George Washington’s profile...and then a presidential full-frontal. As always we were greeted by a low murmur of, “its smaller than I thought it was”, “is that it?”, “where is the full size presidents?”…if Mount Rushmore had ears, it would have a complex!

Beautiful Buttes Barely Bring Bone but Burnish Butt’s Belligerently!

As you have probably guessed by now that I’m using this Blog to introduce you to the members of this years South Dakota field crew. The fun thing with palaeontology, we are all different…some more different than others. These past two days have been a tad busy, so my apologies for a slow upload of events, besides…trying to find WiFi in the Badlands, is a bit like trying to find a lost contact lens in a swimming pool.

We have trawled several new localities these past two days, all yielding dinosaur bone, but some richer than others. Today’s biggest find was made by Eric Morschhauser, our University of Pennsylvania PhD student team member. The said bones were from a rather hefty Triceratops in the Upper most portion of the Hell Creek Formation. There was plenty of bone poking out from a relatively low butte, meaning there will not be too much overburden to shift when we come back to this site next year. As this is exactly what we intend to do (funding permitting!). The bones exposed were recognizable and in pretty good shape, which is often a good indicator of things to come. After much slobbering over the bones, we carefully covered the site to avoid prying eyes…even though we were in the middle of nowhere, just for a change.

Eric Morschhauser was just the right person to stumble over his 65 million year old Triceratops, as his PhD is studying these beasties and its ancestors (mostly from China). You might say that Eric is your typical PhD student, very keen…no I mean VERY keen. He is bright, articulate and as fond of dinosaurs as any member of the field crew. He cut his dinosaurian teeth at Montana State University before heading East to UPenn, but has settled well into the rigours of scholarly research. Eric is now formally a ‘Dodsonite’, in other words a student of Peter Dodson, who knows almost all that a soul should know about horny animals in the Cretaceous, or Ceratopsians to fellow palaeo’s. Peter Dodson is one of the main reasons why I shall be spending much of my sabbatical at Penn. His wealth and generosity of knowledge is only surpassed for his appetite for good food and well-kept beer.
After a few nights of roughing it at the field station, we decided to seek comfort in a real bed and a shower that was not shared by various things that bite and sting. We all piled into our SUV and headed into town to find a suitable hostelry that would take in our motley field crew. As we arrived at the Motel, we took a look at each other…not a pretty site! I was smelly, dishevelled and unshaven, the same could be said for the whole crew…bar Victoria, who did not need a shave! “What will this Motel manager make of us lot” I asked…Jason suggested we might be mistaken for a rock-band…Eric interjected that he “was the cute one”. However, Eric’s boyish looks are slowly evolving into the ‘palaeo-mountain-man-look’, he is now sporting several days stubble…that will soon flourish into a manly ‘un-cute’ beard! We’re not sure that his wife will recognize him when he returns to Philly, but she has prior experience of ‘Hairy Eric’ from their recent trip to a razorless China. We’re learning more about Eric as the fieldwork progresses.

Sleeping on a bed, after a week on a roll-mat and sleeping bag is utter heaven. To also have a shower that was ‘yours’ and not shared by the whole field crew (not at the same time I might add) is utter luxury. Not to be bitten my mosquitoes while in the shower or bed…again, pure luxury. I caught a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror. The mosquito population had clearly sequestered much blood from me in the last few days. My arms, neck and ankles were a dot-to-dot exercise that would entertain a dermatologist for hours. My face…I looked like a pubescent teenager again, with enough direct hits from mosquitoes to frighten any self-respecting doctor into prescribing lotions and potions to protect the publics eyes. I felt as about as attractive as a wart-hog with hygiene issues. But why me…these blood-sucking nasties of the Hell Creek seemed to be avoiding most of the team and surrounding me in feeding frenzy every time I was daft enough to expose skin. My mosquito net that I draped over my hat, only seemed to succeed in trapping the little bugger closer to my skin…they even managed to get through my damn jeans! The tungsten-tipped mouthparts of the pigeon sized South Dakotan mosquitoes were no match for anything I wore or glazed myself with. The 100% Deet just seemed to marinate my flesh for an alternative flavour to these voracious gits.

The hunt for fossil bone, was not being hampered by lack or water, enthusiasm or even snakes…just mosquitoes, literally draining the life-blood from our endeavours. We needed a day off…a Mammoth day-off…

Sunday, 8 August 2010

First Rattler with many beasties!

Today we had one ‘hell’ of an interesting site to see in the Badlands. I was amazed at how green the landscape looked. Last time I was here, brush fires were raging from North to South Dakota. This year there was no haze of smoke on the horizon. The rain meant fantastic plant growth, more food for the rodents, providing even more to eat for the resident reptiles. Apparently, it had been a good year for rattlesnakes. The very mild winter (I think all the snow fell on Philadelphia and Washington DC this year) had allowed many more to survive and breed, especially with the now plentiful rodent population, which had also taken advantage of the mild winter. The haemotoxic venom they are capable of delivering makes them potential problems for all field crews. However, the distinctive rattle, a series of modified scales at the tip of the tail, usually gives plenty of warning. I was more worried about the very young snakes, which do not have a rattle and cannot gauge how much venom to pump into their prey, often delivering too much—small snake does not equal less venom! The availability of anti-venom has reduced the fatality rate of rattler bites to a mere 4 percent. Yet I didn’t care to become a statistic.

We are all kept in contact while prospecting via decent walkie-talkies. The claimed 36 mile range for our units was reduced to around 5 miles in the Badlands…enough so we can comb large areas in split groups. Today the two Jason’s were off together prospecting on the opposite side of a typical Hell Creek washout. We were doing the usual locate, GPS, map and written descriptions of everything we found. As they waded through the long grass Jason Poole heard the sound that makes anyone’s heart skip a beat. The rattle of a rattlesnake is a sign that it knows exactly where you are…but it is rare that you know the same of the snake. Their camouflage is too perfect, especially in long grass. Most sane people run away from this sound, shoot at the sound or beat the said sound with a large stick or any available sharp object...but our Jason’s, they laugh in the face of such sounds and seek its origin. The pair are simply bonkers…I simply asked “why”, they simply answered, “we want to get a decent photo of a rattler”….of course! Thankfully, the snake avoided them…I must work on their suicidal snake tendencies! This reminds me of an old friend, Duncan McIlroy, who is based at Memorial University (Canada). He, a colleague and I were driving across the Valdez Peninsula in Argentina and had been taking pictures all day of various beasties, but we had yet to take a photo of a skunk…yes, I hear you say, “that’s possibly worse than a snake”…such ventures are always bound to end in a sticky (or in this case smelly) end. This is a tail I will tell another day…but at least we survived with photographic evidence!

Jason Schein was on his last day with the field team, as he had to start the long (VERY long) drive back to Philadelphia. He had already been working in Red Lodge (Montana) for two weeks before joining us in South Dakota. Jason Schein is quite different from his “sexy beast” hairy ‘twin’. Jason Schein has a special place in many married women’s hearts…they simply adore his southern accent, cut-off T-shirts, biceps the size of most sumo-wrestlers thighs. Jason is our ‘palaeo-hunk’, but doubles as a ‘palaeo-hulk’ when excessively large objects need shifting. He is not only graced with brawn, but also excessive cranial capacity…he’s nearing the completion of his PhD…so soon we will have to deal with ‘Dr palaeo-hunk’. He works at the New Jersey State Museum…just in case there are any guys out there who do not wish to place their wives under his spell…by taking the kids to the Museum. Jason also has a splendid habit of being very understated and reserved, almost British in his gentle nature…again, we’re sure it’s a cunning ploy to entrance the opposite sex. In my own vain attempt for me to look relatively muscle-bound next to Jason, I’m trying to get the mosquito population to concentrate their bites on my biceps…pitiful attempt on my part!

Today we got more than lucky on the theropod front. Literally meaning “beast-foot” this group includes all predatory dinosaurs and even their descendants, the birds! In the Hell Creek Formation this includes the ubiquitous Tyrannosaurus rex, various dromaeosaurs (nasty little predators aka Jurassic Park Velociraptor) and a few less well-known beasties such as Nanotyrannus. Today we managed to pick up various body parts from almost all of these animals. Something I have never done in my whole career as a palaeontologist, so you can imagine we were all totally gob-smacked!

Friday, 6 August 2010

Sunburn with Dinosaurs.

The town where we are staying is small. We were looking for the land registry office today and we did not know where it was. It took us 3 minutes to find. Every time we find a patch of yellow on our BLM surface maps, it signifies a place we must checkout the outcrops to see what has weathered or is weathering from our precious slice of Hell Creek. It is courteous and right that we speak to all landowners before we blunder on to their land; hence we need to work through the land register each time.Once landowners have been contacted, we then packed our field vehicles and headed out into the Badlands. Metalled roads soon turn to gravel and then these to dirt. Soon we were off the maps, headed for our patches of yellow-mapped heaven in Hell Creek.

It never fails to amaze me how natural selection has overcome complex barriers to enhancing a species success rate and/or survival. The barrier in question today consisted various chemical cocktails, clothing, hats and Kevlar underpants. The pigeon-sized mosquitoes of South Dakota have ‘found a way’ (in true Jurassic Park fashion) of drilling through most barriers to extract your blood. They hunt in packs…and are far too affective. It would not surprise me that it was down to these blood-sucking females (the males do not suck blood!) that many a vast species has been driven to distraction…after the 50th bite, most crumble to gibbering wreck, as mad as a box of frogs. You think twice about bearing your arse to the world and relieving yourself in the Badlands, as you your rear-end will soon resemble a dart-board. As for pointing Percy at the porcelain, A) there is no porcelain to point at for 50 clicks and B) This would be far too good a target for any self-respecting mosquitoto pass-by. The thought of a direct hit in the wedding tackle, gives most field palaeontologists nightmares, given the voraciousness of these ambush predators.

Today would be our first long, hot, hiking day in the sun. I love the smell of bug repellent in the morning! But alas, our repellent was about as much use a chocolate fireguard.

The first few sections we set foot upon had not been looked at for many years. We started finding bone almost immediately. Jason Poole was as keen as the rest of us to cut a pathway through the mosquitoes. Jason ‘Chewy’ Poole informed me today that his ‘press agent’ (also called Jason?) demands that I have to use the phrase ‘sexy beast’ after his name (I’m not sure if Jason Schein’s wife, Sarah, knows this!). Jason ‘sexy beast’ is quite a force of nature; George Lucas found inspiration for his Wooky character from the then 7 year old Jason…he must have needed to start shaving at 5 years old, but clearly did not. His flowing locks would put Fabio to shame…rumours of a hair-product deal are never far from Jason’s door! He is the anti-Christ of shaving foam, face balm and Gillette razors, but a thoroughly splendid chap. Fossils are more than just a past blast of an ancient landscape to our ‘sexy beast’, he loves to tease these disjointed fragments from the past into some semblance of life in the present…with a pencil. I’m not suggesting some proctological examination here, but our hairy friend is an accomplished artist...often from an unusual perspective...

He has drawn dinosaurs from the frozen wastelands of Patagonia to the deserts of Egypt, but spends most of his time convincing kids they too are able to draw dinosaurs…he is still working on me! His daytime job in Philly has him chasing dinosaurs in the prep lab of the Academy of Natural Sciences, a job he clearly enjoys far too much.

The delights of removing grains of silt…grain-by-grain, from dinosaurs bones would have most sane folks run screaming to the hills after 20 minutes…Jason disappears into his parallel-prep universe, with a worrying glazed look in his eyes…we move the sharp things away from him at this point.

The first ranch we explored had three sections of BLM land to ferret around in. Almost straight away, we started to find bone. By mid-day we had lost several pints of blood to the mosquito cohort, but we had mapped eleven new sites from a couple of potential Triceratops to several very productive micro-sites. The latter are sites that yield beautifully preserved teeth of dinosaurs, fish scales, occasional vertebrae and other such goodies. After a major hike, its great to find such a site, given we can all collapse and quietly pick through the 65 million year old debris. Soothing and satisfying....but not half as satisfying as the tyrannosaur claw we found below!

By the end of day one…we were all bitten and shattered. We staggered back to the field vehicles and sat silently in the welcome air-con of the car…how did those first settlers make-it through this harsh and unforgiving landscape. Now was the time to drink a cold beer, review the finds

Hills, Grasslands & Badlands.

Flying is not my favourite thing. Given my work often entails getting to the middle of no-where…planes are usually involved. The relatively vast airport of San Diego is another planet when compared to Rapid City. If there was ever an airport that I could call my favourite, it would be this one. Once off the plane you walk a hundred years to the exit, down an escalator that almost deposits you in front of your baggage. Whilst waiting a few minutes for your luggage, you can just turn 180 degrees and talk to your car rental agent. All is simple, smooth and hassle-free…I only wish that all airports were still like Rapid.

Bill Sellers was already waiting for us in the airport, as he had arrived on a slightly earlier flight. His eyes were red with lack of sleep. He has been up for nearly 24 hours. I had already met Victoria Egerton, Jason Poole and Eric Morchhausser had met me en-route in Denver, my stepping-stone from San Diego. Once we had all our bags and belongings, plus sorted the car rental, we set-off outside, where we met the last member of our team, Jason Schine. He had been working in Montana these past two weeks and was to join us for the first few days of our fieldwork. We were all tired, but jumped in our two field vehicles and set-off to Hill City, where we were to stay the night at Pete Larson’s house.

Pete’s house is simply stunning. It precariously hugs the rocks on a small peak between Hill City and Keystone. He built the place with his bare hands and with a great deal of jack-hammering, timber and determination. We were given the usual warm welcome and a cold beer. We all went to sleep very quickly, as we knew tomorrow would be a long day of sorting supplies, maps, getting permits signed and sorting out the field station.

We all woke and were up and supping coffee by 7am and at the Black Hills Museum ogling at dinosaurs by 8am. Here is the home of ‘Stan’ the T. rex, excavated in the early 1990’s by the Black Hills Institute, where Peter Larson is the president. Pete gave one and all a guided tour of the Museum and its collections and also of the workshops where his company makes stunning casts of the bones of Stan, such as the mount you can see at the Manchester Museum and countless others around the world. The Museum is situated in Hill City, just near Mount Rushmore. Here is a museum that has not forgotten that the fossils are the stars…this Aladdin’s Cave of prehistoric life warms the cockles of my heart every time I see them. The converted music hall is like Dr Who’s tardis meets carnival of the dead-animals, with every inch of space occupied. The real fossil bones of Stan the T. rex…and several other Cretaceous & Jurassic colleagues of his, tower over visitors to the Museum. Gasps of ‘Wow, that’s awesome’ and ‘Look at the size of that critter’ are often muttered in hushed reverential tones, unlike when the same folks see Mount Rushmore and say, “Wow, isn’t that small?”.

Collecting our bags and belongings together, we set-off from the Black Hills. We were driving north to the Hell Creek deposits of South Dakota. The final leg of our long journey was nearly at an end. Several hours later, we had already been to the BLM office to get our permit signed and activated, then at the end of another long drive, we arrived at our facility that was to be our field station for the next two weeks. The drive over the prairie was one that I thought I would never see…it was green! In the ten years I have been coming to the USA, there has been a dreadful drought affecting the mid-West. Last year, the rains came and this year they have continued. The long, deep green prairie stretches as far as the eye can see. Ranch fences, ponds and small creeks break the monotony of the grasslands. Pronghorn antelope are common, but you have to be fast to spot them before they bolt at impossible speeds across the landscape. These graceful animals have the pace and timing of Olympians, as they sprint ‘through’ barbed-wire fences, not over or under, but between the wires at full steam. The grace with which I pass over or under such fences being at the other end of the graceful-spectrum…more like a clown trying to make something look as difficult or dumb as possible.

As we opened the car doors, a subtle but distant smell of sagebrush greeted us, as did a swarm of hungry mosquitoes the size of pigeons. We were back in the Badlands.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Hello Mexico, goodbye Tijuana!

At last, I am a legal non-residential immigrant in the USA, but not without some cross-boarder excitement in the delightful town of Tijuana (Mexico). My US VISA needed an official stamp to validate the said document. This required me leaving the US for a few hours, to queue in the border town of Tijuana to re-enter the USA. This I had to do en-route to the Badlands of South Dakota, as I was asked to give the keynote lecture at the Association of Avian Veterinarians meeting in San Diego a day before my VISA was to be valid. Here was the problem. Given my VISA was not yet valid, it required me enter the US on my ESTA tourist VISA… and then 24 hours later, I would have to get my J1 VISA activated by leaving and returning to the USA. All too complicated.

After arriving in San Diego to attend the AAV meeting, I very soon had to contemplate making the cross-border sortie with two of Karen Rosenthal’s (University of Pennsylvania’s) most trusted colleagues and friends (Dr Tia Greenberg and Dr Bianca Zaffarano)…the fact she was sending an ex-military police kick-boxer (Tia) for protection should have had alarm bells ringing in my mind. Karen decided to stay at the conference hotel. Tijuana can’t be that bad…surely?

As we drove towards the border, a mere 20 minutes from the conference hotel, the jokes about “Kevlar armour, drug lords and gang wars” were bantered friendly between us…. Tijuana can’t be that bad…surely? Tia and Bianca were having a great deal of fun...while I was a tad worried.

We arrived at the border and I was greeted with a typical US border crossing, but not quite like the ones I’m used to crossing between the US and Canada. The fences seemed much taller and sharper here. We walked to the steel turn-style gate that was the border crossing, more of a rotation than a crossing and I was soon in Mexico…a handful of folks and I spun into Tijuana. Tia and Bianca called helpfully from the other side of the gate, as they had both forgotten their US passports, “Good-luck Phil…write to us”. I followed the trickle of folks from the gate towards town, as I knew I would have to cross over the major road entering Tijuana to get to the border control for the US. I was confident that this would only take a couple of minutes…I really should have googled this.

As I passed two Mexican border guards…I think this is what they were, as they were more like a pile of body armour holding large guns…they looked at me and smiled…I think I know what they were thinking. Maybe I should have taken my best shirt and tie off for this journey, my briefcase and Panama hat made me feel quite conspicuous…ho-hum. Leaving the Mexican border control (of which there was none!). I was greeted by folks offering me taxi rides into town, various spicy foods and a tiny puppy…the latter two being easily confused. The pathway led to a winding bridge that lifted you slowly over the border highway towards the US checkpoint.

There was a queue. Not just any queue, but one that stretched as far as I could see… I wondered what all these folks were queuing for, but in my mind I was blocking the inevitable answer…the US border. We Brit’s are pretty good at queuing, but this queue makes a mile long January Sales queue look like a picnic. Clutching my passport, papers and briefcase to my chest I waded into the mass of humanity. It was clearly much busier leaving Mexico than it was entering.

1 hour of queuing and I was at the first checkpoint. Security waved a group of us through and we started to queue again, but this time with concrete buildings and steel fences around us. I could not decide if they were trying to keep people in or out…maybe both. Slowly we snaked our way off to the distant promise of the immigration end to my hour and a half queuing exercise was tantalizingly near. At last I was able to place my passport with my shiny new VISA before a border control officer. He looked at it and then at me… “Sir, this does not have a stamp”. Whilst this was a valid point, I did not see that there was a problem…I simply replied, “I was rather hoping you would give me the said stamp”. He looked back at the page, “I can’t do that Sir”… bugger, was my VISA the wrong sort, did my photo make me look too dodgy, what had I done wrong?…thankfully nothing. Apparently, I just needed a different kind of stamp to the one he had. “Sir, you have to go back to the Security check point and go to the VISA and Immigration office for your stamp” he then added… “at the other end of the queue”. Crest-fallen, I slowly dragged my feet back towards Tijuana…it was not letting me leave its grip easily. I was visiting Mexico for a second time in the same day. Tia and Bianca on the US side of the border, waiting for my re-entry, were getting bored and decided to torment Karen back at the AAV meeting. They had already started texting pictures of complete strangers to Karen with the messages, “Is this Phil?”, “Does Phil look like this?” etc….20 successful migrants were being run past Karen’s iPhone to provide a positive ID for me. She was beginning to get a little nervous…so was I.

Reaching the border again, the first guard who had let me through to the control area looked at my VISA and smiled… “Sir, you have to join that queue”…he pointed beyond the border crossing into Mexico, to a second queue, leading back towards Tijuana. I realized that it would be futile telling him that he had earlier directed me through to the border control that afternoon and the wrong queue…I was soon back in Mexico, in a new queue. The new queue seemed to move more quickly than the last, which was quite heartening…until I found out why. I was soon in the low-ceiling immigration offices with a small group of fellow queuers waiting for stamps, signatures and our forms to be processed. Ahead of me, two ladies were in heated conversation with two border officers…the handcuffs came out, they were applied and the said ladies led away…the queue cautiously advanced. I thought it best to look at my paperwork again, this time with the attention of a person checking a bank-transfer slip with their life-savings on the line.

At last I was summoned to the counter. I carefully, politely, even timidly placed my passport and paperwork on the counter. Nervously I smiled, but trying not to look too much like someone nervously smiling. “What do you do for a living Sir”…every time I hear this my heart drops. “I’m a palaeontologist”, suddenly I had his full attention. “You’re a what?”…at this point I wish I had considered saying, I’m proctologist, librarian, insurance salesmen, or anything but a palaeontologist. I dug myself even deeper by saying, “I dig dinosaurs-up…as you do”…a blank stare greeted me. “Who pays you to dig dinosaurs, Sir”…his neighbouring colleague was now also getting interested in the Englishmen in his pressed-shirt and tie…crossing the border from Tijuana, claiming that he digs dinosaurs for a living. “I work at the University of Manchester in England, where I teach palaeontology”…the two exchanged a glance, “You can get a dinosaur degree in England?”…weakly I said, “Sort of. You also have to do other subjects as well, like geology, mapping and stuff”…why was I now apologising for teaching palaeontology! They both grinned, watching me squirm. They turned their attention back to the pile of paperwork, ticking boxes, stamping forms and scribbling notes…I at last felt they were with me, in the same way that a teacher might benevolently lead a slow pupil to an easy answer. I looked over my shoulder to make sure the two officers with the handcuffs from earlier had not returned…hopefully they were still busy. “Your all done Sir”…”Am I? Is that a good thing” I asked nervously… “Just go to the counter over there, pay your 6 bucks and your free to queue again”…my heart skipped a bit, never had the prospect of a long windy queue seem so appealing.

A mere 30 minutes of extra queuing and I reached the border for the second time. Confidently I handed over my passport and VISA papers to the same border control officer I had seen earlier. I was clearly anonymous to him, but I thought I should smile at him nonetheless. I’m sure that my smile looked like one from our ex-prime minster Gordon Brown…one of his ‘special’ smiles…the kind that would frighten small children or urge you to close a door in someone’s face. I really was not feeling like smiling, but felt it was the right thing to do. He looked down at my VISA and stamped my passport...the stamp looked familiar, in fact it was the EXACT same bloody stamp that I had re-queued for, but now I had two. I could not suppress a small manic laugh, possibly combined with a nervous twitch or two. “Your good to go Sir”. I forced a ‘Thank you Sir’ and then grasped my passport and papers, walking the remaining 50 yards to the United States of America. I was now officially a non-residential immigrant.

Tia and Bianca greeted me on the other side. We decided to text Karen… ‘Phil has been arrested and incarcerated’ …we let the phone ring off.

Next-stop, South Dakota!