Monday, July 4, 2016

Coming to a Close

As I inched closer towards the end of my stay in the Petrified Forest National Park, things at the quarry remained fairly consistent. We had excavated a significant chunk of the fossil layer, extracting plenty of bone fragments and teeth along the way. I had become quite good at setting up the shelter every morning and making jackets around rock. Meanwhile, the temperatures continued to rise. It got so hot one day that we decided to not hike to the quarry. Instead, we went to both the old and new plant sites to move a bit of equipment. The old plant site was incredibly interesting as it was at the heart of the rock formations and petrified wood.

As I approached my last day working out in the field, I began to think about all the things I would miss about being out there in the park. Days weren't going to be the same without Norman's stories, Aobo's high energy, or the relaxing conversations after a long day of digging. I would miss the connection with nature too, with waking up to the alarm clock-like morning sun, seeing horny toads on hikes, and watching the sunset on the seemingly infinite horizon.

Alas, the day of my departure was here. It was decided that the group would have their showers that day, so we all left for headquarters early in the morning. I enjoyed one last breakfast at the HQ cafeteria and showered away the dirt and sweat once again. I bid farewell to the people who had accompanied me during this unforgettable experience and crawled in the truck, heading back towards the Holbrook bus station.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Reinforcements Arrive

Life at the quarry continued as usual. As I found large bits of bone or teeth clustered together, I learned how to dig a channel around the rock so that it could be extracted. After the large piece of rock was isolated, I learned how to make a plaster jacket to secure it in place. The process involved dipping strips of plaster in water and then draping it over the rock until it was completely covered. To remove the rock, a chisel is placed underneath and hammered in until the rock becomes loose.

About halfway through my stay, the second batch of people arrived at the park. This group included Shusheng, Aobo, Anna, and Channing. At the same time, Lindsay was unfortunately leaving the park. In the brief time that everyone was there, we went into Holbrook and had dinner at La Mesa, which had become a tradition every year.

With Shusheng's arrival, work commenced at the plant site. The plant site was located on a slope, so it was impossible to set up a shelter exactly above about the dig location. It was because of this that I decided to remain at the quarry and out of the relentless sun.

Memorial Day Shower

Monday, May 30 was not only Memorial Day, but also the first shower day since arriving at the park six days ago. By day three, dirt was no longer something I tried to avoid. Being filthy was inevitable and I attempted to treat the dirt on my skin as an extra protective layer. In the quarry, I began sacrificing cleanliness for comfort, leaning my head on the rock wall or laying on the dirt floor if it meant a more comfortable position to dig. Early in the morning on Memorial day, we loaded the two trucks with the empty water containers and headed towards the headquarters of the national park, where the showers were located. 

At headquarters, we first got breakfast at the diner. It was ever so satisfying to have eggs once again. Afterwards, we set our stuff in the lounge, which had a television and was where the employees at the park would hang out during their down time. The showers were public and shabby, but once I stepped under the warm water, it didn't matter where I was. I could feel myself shedding the layer of dirt and sweat. This was when I realized that I might have never been so dirty in my life before.

In the evening, the employees at the park were having a barbecue and invited our entire group. It was great meeting some of the people who worked at the park. I had a lot of respect for these people who willingly left civilization and technology to come out and contribute to the preservation of the national park.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Fossil Layer

With the overburden out of the way, I traded in my hammer for a skinny awl and needle. Parts of the fossil layer was made up of much softer dirt. In addition, the area was full of bone fragments. Not being able to locate the fossil without digging into it first, I had to dig with the utmost causion. The process was slow and meticulous, especially as temperatures continued to rise into the mid-nineties. The positive was that fossil could be found everywhere. It was nothing like the needle in a haystack scenario I had envisioned before. Bone fragments were usually a white granite color while teeth were dark brown or black, both easily distinguishable from the reddish brown hue of the dirt. Most of the fossils belonged to phytosaur, a crocodile ancestor that walked the earth more than 200 million years ago.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Knocking Down the Overburden

The first official day of work started with an early wake up not long after sunrise. I had slept well the night before because of travel fatigue, but the previous night was quite cold and the constant body temperature fluctuation woke me several times. A healthy serving of oatmeal and nuts were for breakfast. I never cared much for oatmeal and this may have been my first whole bowl of oatmeal I have ever consumed, but the wilderness was not the place to be picky. The air was still cool, but I could already feel the heat from the sun beating down from above, toasting everything, or better yet everyone in its path. I packed my lunch, filled up my canteen, and followed the others down the trail leading to the quarry.

Everyone else had arrived at the park the previous day, so I had the fortune of missing the process of digging out the fossil site from the rubble piled on last summer. However, there was still not enough cleared space to install the shelter. Luckily, cool temperatures and a strong breeze prevailed throughout the day to keep us from misery. The others taught me how to use a hammer and an awl to chisel out the overburden, the layer of rock presiding over the fossil layer we were trying to get to. The work quickly became tiresome, as my arms grew tired from swinging the hammer repeatedly and it was a constant struggle to get into comfortable positions. As Alan outlined the portion of the quarry that needed to be knocked down, I realized that a great challenge lay ahead of me. For the next couple of days, I essentially knocked down a rock wall with a hammer and an awl. By the second day, my right hand and arm ached and I could no longer forcely strike the awl for more than a few times without resting to recover from the burning sensation throughout my right limb. Throughout this time, I watched in awe as Norman, the 74 year old former English professor from Australia, removed large chunk after large chunk of rock with ease. I soon found out people called him the rock whisperer, as his ability to find just the right crack to hit to be uncanny. In addition to that, he spent a couple hours each day going out into the hot sun and prospecting for new dig sites. He was by far one of the most interesting people I had ever met, always sharing stories about his adventures in Europe and the other digs he participated in throughout the year.

By day three, the tarp shelter was up, the temperature was on the rise, and the overburden was no more. I felt accomplished having removed such a mass of rock. But as I expressed my satisfaction of never having to pound my hammer at large stone chunks again, Alan warned me that after I start to work on the more delicate fossil layer, I'll be begging to mindlessly hammer at rock once more.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Arrival

At around four o'clock in the afternoon, I stepped off the Greyhound bus and looked out into the vast scenery of Holbrook, Arizona. The bus station was simply a gas station, and wind periodically blew blankets of dust across the flat uneventful land. I could feel myself taking one step away from civilization and one step closer to the wilderness of the Petrified Forest National Park. After waiting for a few minutes, a towering black truck rolled up and I squinted through my sunglasses to see Marilyn step out from the driver's seat.

As we cruised toward the national park on Interstate 180, Marilyn gave me a quick run down of the geography of the area and pointed out the various novelty stores we passed. She and the many of the others had arrived yesterday, having already set up camp inside the park. We passed the visitor's center and then entered the park itself. The dirt road to camp was unpaved and we bounced along until another truck and several brightly colored tents came into view. As I set foot onto the reddish dirt, I stared out into the distance. The ground made up of dirt and small desert shrubs seemed to stretch out infinitely into the horizon line. I moved into my modest single person tent and met the others, including Alan, Christina, Lindsay, Norman, Catherine, and Madison. Sloppy joes, sauteed vegetables, and mac and cheese were on the menu for dinner, and everyone headed off to bed as the sun disappeared over the horizon. As I laid in my sleeping bag with the evening breeze brushing up on my tent, I wondered what was in store for me the next two and a half weeks.