I took two weeks off from digging for news to scoop centuries-old layers of earth, looking for mammal teeth and dinosaur bones.
My paleontological plunge came about through Earthwatch, a non-profit organization that recruits volunteers to work on scientific projects around the world. Volunteers pay for the chance to be part of a research team, like the Jurassic Mammals expedition led by University of Nebraska-Omaha professor George Engelmann.Before I took off for the monument on the Colorado-Utah border, I airily announced to all that I would be digging for dinosaur bones, which sounded more dramatic. If pressed, I mentioned Jurassic mammals, whatever they were.
I learned. I also discovered a dinosaur tooth, became entranced with geology and found out I can survive roughing it if the way is smoothed with a shower every other day and with dinners of fettucine alfredo and beef stroganoff.
My interest in dinosaurs had not been exactly scientific, tending more to the trendy with an assortment of dinosaur toys, towels, cups and pencil sharpeners decorating my apartment.
But there's something inherently fascinating about the creatures, the idea of extinction. And there's the romance of a dig.
I still think it's romantic, though the idyllic vision of movies and novels is tempered with a blazing, unrelenting sun, cramped limbs from crouching on a hillside and infrequent finds.
Whenever my enthusiasm began to wane, however, I only had to think that we were chipping at rock millions of years old where dinosaurs walked and Jurassic mammals scurried.
The mammals, the ancestors of all mammals alive today, lived at the same time as dinosaurs. But they understandably were overshadowed by the mostly huge dinosaurs. The early mammals didn't grow to be much larger than mice until after most dinosaurs were extinct.
Their tiny size meant we spent half our time in the lab, looking through microscopes to find minuscule teeth and bone fragments among bits of rock and dirt. Once I found one shiny, black beautiful mammal tooth, I kept my eyes glued to the microscope to find more.
Our days at the shady camp site near the Green River started early, about 5:30, when a rooster from a farm across the river began his persistent wake-up call. Camp life included cooking and dish-washing stints for breakfast and dinner.
We spent evenings hiking into deep canyons, sitting around a campfire and watching the star-studded sky for meteorites and satellites.
Members of my team ranged from a production line worker from St. Louis to a 79-year-old woman from Jackson, Miss. Personalities seldom clashed even though we ate, worked and relaxed together at what one team member dubbed "Club Med for Nerds."
Discussions at the site, in the lab and around the campfire ranged from evolutionary theories, the problems of disposing of nuclear waste to the possibility of writing an opera with a paleontological theme. We even tried out a few arias while working at the hillside site with a few puzzled lizards as the audience.
Days off were spent rafting down river rapids and touring the canyon-laced park. They ended with steak dinner cookouts in an echoing canyon.
My knowledge of geology before the expedition consisted of a vague notion that it involved rocks. The desert landscape of Dinosaur National Monument reveals the drama and force of the earth's evolution with faults and buttes formed when the Rocky Mountains were born. Our rides to the dig site were punctuated by lessons on layers of earth millions of years old.
I learned a little about geology, dinosaurs, mammals and science, which I had always believed existed in a cold, sterile laboratory where scientists found all the answers.
I learned that in paleontology, like journalism, the quest for answers often leads only to more questions. We may never know exactly why dinosaurs became extinct or even what color they were. The bones of mammals and dinosaurs reveal much, but they hold many secrets. That combination makes the search both fascinating, frustrating and addictive.
Kind of like digging for news.