May 13, 2023
I’m not sure if there is anything that brings me more excitement and wonder than a treasure hunt. This is probably why my mother continued to design Easter egg hunts for me every year well into adulthood. This week I was able to go on the most extraordinary treasure hunt in the Grand Staircase. The day I had been waiting for had finally arrived. I woke up with the sunrise and packed up my hiking gear including plenty of water, snacks, and PB & J for lunch. I was sure to wear loose fitting light clothing that covered me as I know I was be out in the sun all day. Then I set out on my journey to the campsite of Dr. Alan Titus and his group of volunteers. I followed vague directions down an unfamiliar dirt road and turned around a couple of times at a landmark he had mentioned unsure of which road I should be taking when I saw a man wave me down. He had seen me circling and came to find me. We made our way to camp and I was introduced to the two other volunteers. Chris, a retired aerospace engineer and Tim, an art professor on a 10 week sabbatical to explore the staircase. They immediately made me feel welcomed and comfortable. Tim asked me excellent questions such as “what has been most surprising to you on your journey so far?” By that he meant the journey I was on of living in an RV full time. He shared his sketchbook with me at the end of our dig while we drank beers around a campfire. When we passed a wildflower on our hike he got down on all fours to deeply inhale its scent. He is the kind of person that you remember after meeting him. I just found this short movie he starred in about his life and art and invite you all to enjoy this beautiful 12 minute short. In the video he says he wants to be a character and for me he has achieved this.
On with the treasure hunt! As we bumped down the dirt road and through washes Alan blasted Ozzy’s Boneyard on Sirius XM. He had pointed out a hazy ridge line that we were aiming for with a fossil they had previously started excavating. Remarkably, Alan does not seem to have a Wikipedia page. If you are interested in learning more about him I did find this article from the NPS to meet a paleontologist. I also learned that he plays lead guitar in a rock band called Mesozoic with his wife Kim on bass. I’m working the date of their next show, but hope I can see them perform someday soon. We parked the truck and loaded up our gear to hike a short distance to our dig site. I began the day by observing what the others did and asking questions to be sure that I wouldn’t unintentionally cause any harm to these delicate treasures. Alan showed us which layers of rock we could use heavy digging instruments for like picks and shovels versus the layers closer to the bone where we would use probes, whisks, and brushes to remove rock and sand. They had previously excavated a fully articulated spine with many attached ribs and today we were searching for a skull. Alan shared that this was some form of Ceratops dinosaur and described the position it had died in. This is the torso that they had uncovered. It is easy to see the connected vertebrae here. Also, they pointed out rocks with detailed imprints of ancient plants in them.
Here are the guys hard at work with their digging tools. I noticed that they all wore gloves and remarked that this was probably smart to prevent blisters. They also pointed out that it protected their hands from the sun. This was probably the first time I had been out in the southwestern sun for the whole day and so I didn’t think about a thing like that and I ended up with a mild sunburn on the backs of my hands. At about lunchtime I began to worry about my ears that were exposed and improvised a head covering with a bandana I had.
As I learned how to identify fossils and what to do if you found one I began to feel more a part of the experience rather than just an observer. The guys told me if I wasn’t sure if something was bone or rock I could put it on my tongue and if it stuck, it was bone. This very scientific method of analysis helped me to confirm that this piece was bone.
Sadly, the first dig site did not reveal a skull. I was surprised to learn that this meant we would give up on that site and leave the found fossil pieces in the ground. Alan explained the cost and difficulty of removing a heavy plastered fossil from this rough terrain and because of this, they would only expend that cost and effort on something novel or unique or a fully intact fossil with a head. He was very sad that this effort they had put in so far would not lead to anything more than covering our hole with dirt and moving on. However, he knew of a site nearby that was a potential spot for T Rex fossils so off we went. The sun was hot, but time seemed to pass quickly as it does when you are interested and engaged in your task. I found several fragments of bone, nothing that got us very excited until a tiny fragment turned out to be a piece of mandible. This meant that there could be a skull nearby. Then the most amazing thing happened, I looked down and there was a tooth lying on the ground. I pointed it out and Alan stated, that’s a small T Rex tooth! It could be a shed tooth from a juvenile or a back tooth from an adult. I held it in my hand and took a picture and then put it back exactly where I had found it while we continued our search in that area for more. Chris was volunteered with us had first found bone that turned out to be excreted bone confirming that this had been a kill site. Then he found a T Rex humerus, you know the baby arms they have, that bone. You can also see the little blister that started for me since my novice mistake included not bringing gloves.
How amazing it was to be able to hold things that were 75 million years old and learn about what the planet was like at that time! It was quite the magical day for me. Sadly, we had to stop our treasure hunt for the day, but I told them I will definitely come back to do more as soon as I am able to. Other highlights of this treasure hunt included observing all of the wildflowers blooming around us. I especially enjoyed this little one with yellow and white flowers. We also saw desert paintbrush blooming everywhere. The beauty of the untouched cliffs in the distance also inspired awe. I drove home in the sunset feeling so incredibly lucky that evening and stopped for a photo of these wind sculptures featured in our cover photo.
The very next day was also full of adventure and surprises. We agreed to follow a friend to the marina in bullfrog so we could drop off a vehicle for his boss who was rafting the Escalante River. This past couple of weeks I have seen several people stopping at the visitor center, checking into Yonder, or just parked in town who are obviously here to float the river. Floating Escalante River can only be done during this short window of time in the Spring when the weather is warm and the water level is higher due to snowmelt from the mountains. We took the Burr Trail Rd to get there and Luke and I finally had the opportunity to do the end of this road which winds down switchbacks through sandstone cliffs into Capitol Reef NP. The marina was not overly exciting to me, but did offer clean restrooms for a pee break. On the journey home we stopped to take photos and enjoy the landscape around us. Here is the marina on Lake Powell and some of beautiful scenery on the way back.
This the view at the top of the switchbacks. It captivated me looking at all the swirls in the rock cliffs.
Our friend also took us on a slight detour on the ride home to an isolated outdoor survival community. We had to drive through a little creek to get there and never would have found this space if he hadn’t wanted to show it to us. We saw a small community of homes including big modern homes and huts built from mud and sticks. We learned that the survivalist Dave Holladay lives here along with others who share a passion for primitive skills. I just watched a video interview with Dave Holladay and recognized the primitive hut behind him as one of the structures we passed. These skills and the people who practice them are fascinating and they are right here so why not explore this lifestyle a little? I don’t think I’ll end up learning primitive skills or joining this lifestyle, but I would like to dip my toe in. Luke suggests that I start by just camping alone in the BLM wilderness across the street and this sounds like a fine and achievable goal to me. I didn’t take photos in this community as we didn’t see anyone home and I wanted to respect their right to privacy, but then I saw this irresistible invention and had to grab a shot.
This remarkable device lacked a motor and belt, but appeared to be an ingenious snowmobile made from a teal easy chair and a musical horn.
This left me inspired for the rest of this week to take a walk without identifying a trail to walk on and just follow my footsteps and the landscape back to my starting point. This way of hiking is fun. You never know where your destination will be or what you will see. It makes me more observational and a bit slower in my walk as I notice things around me, choose which direction I will take, and pay attention to clues that help me navigate. While walking I was mindful to stay on rock or more worn surfaces in an attempt to not disrupt the crypto soil crusts where they had formed. I’ve been a bit laid up with a cold the past couple of days which has also slowed me down, but we could all still walk. Here is a view of the dogs exploring with me down the road a piece.
Jennifer MacNeil is currently traveling the US with her husband and two dogs. She loves to have adventures, explore, meet fascinating people, and see amazing places. She strives to learn every day and spread kindness to others. She documents her journey through her photography and blog to share with others.