Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Auld Meer Turf

I didn't mean to, but I left Germany in a blaze of glory. I slung my self around the country on a merry-go-round of cities just to get up enough speed to get launched into Britain. I let go at Frankfurt, bounced at London, and skidded to a halt somewhere north of Edinburgh. County Fife is full of verge that would do serious damage to the ego of any continental lawnmonger, so it was a reasonably cushioned landing.

The windup went like this: Bavaria-Dresden-Berlin-Hamburg-Heidelberg, in about as many days. More accurately, nights. Each place had a friend, and each friend had a plan. If I were to mime my progress from the hinterland of the Alps around via the Baltic Sea and back down to Hessen, I would have to break my silence for something like the sound of a rapidly accelerating zipper.

Skipping over that time on the Saxo-Czech border when I got charged with fraud because Eliza is so sketchy, the whole thing went surprisingly smoothly. But by the time I was supposed to be in control of my mental faculties for a calm and collected exit and immigration, accidental calmness was my only virtue, and mental control was out of the question.

I essentially staggered through that day of train-plane-foot-stamp-plane-foot-bus-train-bus-foot-doorbell blessedly unaware of the mistakes I made, content in the autonomy of my well-entrenched cattle travel reflexes. The best way to stay ahead of the game in modern air convenience is to chew your cud with contentment.

I didn't arrive in St. Andrews with much luggage, but that was beside the point. Tri(Sarah)tops Keenan had a welcome waiting, and I sat down without a ticket for the first time in what seemed like several days. We caught up in a flurry of talk non dinogeeks would never understand.

When the sun appeared, we went to the sea. Just some oil rigs between here and Norway. The impeccable green carpet stacked along the waves is the icing on a fantastic cake. The town is built upon and of Carboniferous sandstones. It is an elder of Sewanee's own forms. The family resemblance is striking when seen in blocks and arched ruins. For 600 years, there have been cathedral walls here. Shadows are long, grass glows and spray glitters because that sun never gets more than two hands into the sky. It doesn't go up at this latitude, it goes across.

Lava has punched its way through further along the dented coast. Between warps and gaps, it takes over in a confusion of dark shapes sprouted in seaweed. The necks of volcanoes can stand when the rest is gone. This is how the rock and spindle's tower stays above the tide. The congealed rock is frozen in the act of pouring from the spout of a lava hill. But the hill is gone. All that is left is a branched tube molded in the shape of an old exit. The spindle, a cartwheel of basalt with radiating cracks, is what you see when you stare at the side cylinder head-on. Molten rock everywhere can take this shape when it is cooled from a surface, and when the surface is circular, the cracks run to the middle point.

A Richard Candler once gave a piece of advice for friends going to Britain. He waxed: ''People are going to speak to you. And they're going to use English accents. It's important to remember that they're not joking.'' The happiness that results when taking a bite out of a mince pie can cleverly mask your sheer delight with the Scotch tones coming from the lady who sold it to you.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Passing over the events of some time -

I decided to leave Morocco essentially on a whim. It was the first day of Ramadan, and I had participated in the whole fasting thing with something like a spirit of cross-cultural understanding. I wandered throught the souqs and fishing wharfs in a look-but-don't-touch trauma of the senses. I had a fun time with some pickpockets. I hope I at least bruised the shoulder of that one guy. The day ended with some well-deserved sunset french fries and a shiny new ticket to Europe. On a jet plane. My most honeyed Spanish made an impact on the Iberia Airlines secretary hag; I think I caused her to blink maybe even twice. After throwing away that useless document and its purchase price, I crossed the street to the Royal Air Maroc office and tried to conceal the fervor of my desire to leave the country. There was a flight that departed Casablanca after about ten hours. ''I'll take it.'' Free accommodation on a snazzy marble airport floor.

Frankfurt seemed a glorious bastion of civilization. For a few hours. I spent my first demi-month in Germany casting around, revelling in couchsurf opportunities and museums. I met some great people in Heidelberg and on the Neckhar River, including Martin Knoll's cousin Peter. Dortmund and the German industrial corridor yielded some friends. Dresden and Saxony could barely hold Eliza Greenman, so we exploded to Munich for a rowdy Oktoberfest. I've finally settled down though - living here in Eichstätt for the last two weeks has been fantastic. Bavaria is where it's at.

By it, I mean Archaeopteryx. I spend half of my days about fifty yards from the Eichstätt exemplar - widely held to be at least second best for feathers, and an easy first for skull elements. The Jura Museum at Willibaldsburg Castle is chock full of great fossils and cool people. The Altmühl river valley and environs are made of Jurassic fossils, and some days I have to remind myself that this isn't the Cumberland Plateau. You just have to look around until you see the big white castle on the hill. That usually means you're in Bavaria, not Tennessee.

I could probably write a small novel about this time in Eichstätt, but I'd have to collect some notes. So I'll wait on that and just give some details about a little side trip I got back from the other day.

People in Germany still hitchike. Everyone under about 57 does it, and in all desperation, I can never forgive the vast folly of North America for ruining this institution. I guess it just takes about seven nutjobs out of three-hundred fifty million good folks to scare the crap out of the general population. So I walked out of my door with the peace offering of a guitar neck poking out of my backpack. I stood on the road to Ingolstadt with a sign that said 'South.' Under this, I scribbled ''ich habe schokolade.'' Eric Keen once pulled a world-record hitch from Kaikoura to Dunedin on that other haven of rides, South Island New Zealand. He says that writing ''I have chocolate'' on a piece of cardboard basically makes you invinceable. So I gave it a shot.

Before twelve minutes had elapsed, a silver Jetta full of girls came to a stop at my feet. The one in the back switched with another one in the front seat before I hopped in. I asked about that, and was briefed concerning the long democratic process that had proceeded. Apparently, these nursing students had circled the block pitting the ill omen of my ragged facial hair against the possibility of free chocolate. The chocolate won, proving once again that Eve probably did swipe that tasty treat in the face of certain ruin. There was one dissenter who was still smart enough to be terrified, so she switched to the front, presumably to let her pal take the Fall.

I tried my best to prove harmelss, and what's more, I coughed up the chocolate. RitterSport, redwine flavor if you must know. I have a long history of becoming popular by bribe. Keen, I guess I owe you one.

I was dropped near the AutoBahn outside Ingolstadt. That was a chilly rush-hour wait for somebody with a sweet tooth headed to Munich. In Germany, the first two letters of the license plate betray your car's hometown, and they conveniently have two copies on each vehicle - one smack on the front. This is an excellent arrangement if you're trying to divine the destination of any given unit of oncoming traffic. I saved my special smiles and thumbs and pouty faces for those cars bearing a big fat letter M at the head of the digits.

Curiously, middle aged men alone with ties in BMWs, Mercedes, Alfa Romeos, Porsches, Aston Martins, Lamborghinis and pretty much any other car worth more than my education all tend to head to München - alone. Well, I shouldn't be so greedy. Those four extra seats were probably just being saved for the crowd of jovial friends they'd be picking up later. Some say there's money in that town. I say it's mostly a big ol' sack of scowls.

I got a lot of smiles and shrugs from the mass of cars going North, presumably because that direction leads to rural regions. I almost didn't notice the kindly honking microscopic blue car that was trying to get my attention in the driveway to my left. I hopped in and proceeded to jam out to turkish fiddle. We managed to converse in grunts and Germano-Anglisch and gesticulations while my bag rode on an old TV in the back. This guy was a couple years older than me with a brother in the city. He tried to give me everything he owned, and wouldn't hear of my trying to pay for that giant raft of thai food we ate. He put me right down on the bus line in middle of the city with a big grin and took off. If I'm ever in K--in--gree--, Turkey, I'll settle that Karma.

By this time, it was good and dark, and I had no love for headlights. I stole a bus ride and hopped a ten-dollar train that would take me way out of town and right toward the alps. Bavaria is something like the Texas of Germany. I won't offend my Texan and Bavarian friends with a more detailed comparison, but 'Lone Star' seems to cover some of the main points. The train I was on was proudly labelled a BOB. The conveyance was at pains to appear separated from the general German train system. It was the Bayerische Oberlandbahn, complete with a vastly different color scheme, map format, and prodigious coats of arms. Whatever. I just had a ticket and was trying to figure out how the thing worked.

I gathered from a clever diagram that his was a three part train. What and ingeniously German solution! Without this scheme, hordes of people going from Munich would turn into tiny handfuls of people on several wasteful trains going to any certain town out in the coutryside. The staggeringly efficient answer is to put them all on the same train, and split up the single cars at junctions in the track whenever the destinations diverge. So there were three lines serviced by this single proud BOB. I spent several minutes in study of the chart, finally determining that I needed to be in the part of the train that was going to go on that blue section. Perfect, this was a masterful system I couldn't wait to see in action.

It was hilarious. Every time the train would stop and split up, a recorded announcement came on, and everybody started squawking and running around the platforms making sure their color was right. ''Für die Zug nach Lenggries, gegen sie auf...'' The maleström around me raged, while I, with perfect composure and confidence, was certain of my destination at least four seconds out of every fifteen.

I found myself on a dark platform in Bad Tölz, the BOB was rumbling away. I would meet some couchsurfers after awhile, but I passed the time there with the local crowd. Any place with a streetlight after eight PM can usually be depended upon to harbor some cargo of teenagers engaged in the generally acknowledged pastime of Loitering. The main difference in Germany is that that the legal drinking age is sixteen. You can drink wherever you want in any public place before midnight. I found myself in the company of a dozen and a half fellows with black fingernails, and the regular crop of hangers-on. Ankle length black leather coats and brave juxtapositions of flesh and metal prevailed. We even had a jukebox. Surrounded, I was entreated to employ my troubador's lute, which I did, to save my life.

They turned out to be just regular kids wondering if their English was good and functional. Small town, bright lights, Friday night.

I got into a black PT Cruiser when some couchsurfing pals arrived to rescue me. Lisa and Christian said we'd be picking up another guy to complete the band. This explained the drumset packed in around me. This Charlie had no idea I'd be there, so my task was to pose as the new singer, from France. I pulled that off for about thirty seconds. We headed to the greatest Bavarian farmhouse ever with a case of Hofmühl and passed the full moon night with some big hemlocks and hay bales. I had gained some chilly elevation since that morning. So far the clothes I've amassed here were not eaqual to the task, though i was wearing about six shirts. Christian told me about driving from Maine to California via New Orleans over about five months. Impressed, I accepted his offer of a rug for the night.

Charlie made some crazy sandwich with a can of out-of-date anchovies, Lisa rocked out on the traps, and some wild keytars got played. It was a fine old basement.

The next day, we emerged forcibly at 5:30 AM. They had to get up to Heidelberg. I found a section of that train left over, and rode it the opposite way, out to the end. Lenggries is a ski town that rakes in the kind of walkers who carry nordic walking poles during the off season. I arrived in the off-off season. That is the period between good weather and snow when everyone wonders why they live there. That suited me ok, I had a raincoat. It wasn't really rain.

I found this hostel, and I don't really like hostels, but didn't have the energy for much else. It was completely deserted, so I stuck a note on my backpack and left it in the corner and visited the local bakery. It was 7:30am. I got the best five-pound loaf of bread in the bunch, and the nice old lady with a nephew in Alaska paired it with the proper cheese. Duly equipped, I sauntered out into the fog that never exactly cleared. Towns in Germany have this excellent quality of being discreet units. If you want to get out of one, just pick a direction and walk. I walked sort of uphill and found myself in a forest. I kept going and got high enough to see that I was probably in the mountains. At that point of my Alpine Trek, I penetrated the cloud cieling, which was way up around 100 feet above town. I found snowline and a bit of a maze of trails. I got in a haunted grove of hemlocks and mist and rocks. I guess frozen feet would have been possible, but the biggest risk I ran was a slightly damp butt since I sat down to watch needles blowing around this huge tree while I ate my cheese and read a book.

I thought I was within striking distance of a really cool lake, but that plan never really got off the ground. I came out of the clouds to watch a cat inspect a fencepost beside a gravel road that I started to walk along. The cows up in the foothills still wear big fat brass bells. The whole swirly mass of mist and glowing leaves with clanging and tinkling green grass swells ended up being the payoff for that excursion.

Folks down there still wear Lederhosen to Church, which is a great relief. It's always funny to note how traditional garb never seems to look odd in its native land. Every dwelling was a perfect little gingerbread house with drooping gables garnished with a healthy mix of hunting trophies and crucifixes scattered round. The winter wood crop was all packed away in neat piles, ready to fight snow that was dying to dump overhead. Every once in a while, a cloud would abandon its duty and let me see some scrap of jagged peak. After about five hours, I found myself back where I started. This was my cue to head back to a cup of tea at the hostel, content with a warning.

After some peace, I discovered that my housemates comprised an orchestra. The bus was hiding out back. When deprived of strings to abuse, these dogged youngsters persevere by whistling. In concert. At all hours. If one takes up the tune, termed an 'ear warmer' in German, his fellows will adopt their appropriate parts, thus propelling an innocent exercise into a vast mob of concerto-inspired classical gas putting the reluctant audience in mind of some warehouse of sparrows being rendered slowly for pillow stuffing. Like I said, I hate hostels.

I had smooth transit later back to Eichstätt. I was out of chocolate, so I put in some Euros that would train me back to my attic home. I was trying to make sense of my schedule. I looked at my clock, it said 12:24. The machine I was petitioning offered me a ticket that would leave at 11:46. I was too smart for it. Coming from Morocco, I laughed indulgently at this feeble attempt to scam me. Supremely inaccessible in my travel savvy, I plunged onward and succeeded in collecting a proper ticket that would leave at 12:50 or so. I looked for the vehicle in question. The electronic sign informed me that a train would, in the future, be leaving here at 11:32. 'These idiotic Germans,' I thought. Can't even be bothered to reset a sign. It was probably miles down the track. The train pulled in, and people going to the 11:32 destination were taken on. I was baffled. I took a seat at a nearby table and busted out a jar of peanut butter. I bought this one because it said 'Made in USA!' which was a sure guarantee of some kind that should be more or less regulated by the government, I feel.

I was mulling things over, watching these absurd German signs that were persistenly reading the wrong time. I looked at my clock again. Then at every other clock in the surrounding fifty yard perimeter. It occurred to me that in Germany, I had never been able to detect a technical error of any kind without first identifying something like sixty-seven of my own. It was, I supposed, at least remotely possible that I was wrong. The time had changed while I was being whistled to sleep. This gave a whole new dimension to my ticket purchase. I settled in to wait with my peanut butter. I was then asked by a waitress what I would like to order. ''uh...'' At that very second, I saw a sign that showed a train going to just where I wanted to be, just at that moment. I said ''nothing... I'm leaving...'' Under reproof, I collected my food and skulked away to install myself in the car as it pulled toward home.

I found Eichstätt as I had left it - beautiful and full of oak trees. And showers.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Le Sable d'Or

Well, the train from Casablanca to Meknès was a stand-up affair with nicotene air conditioning. The second day I was in Morocco, I got this taxi ride from a guy that went in a bit of a circle. We got to talking about lunch, which naturally led to his wife's delicious delicious dejeuner fare. I propped myself up on silken pillows of many colors as a vast garden of one thousand tiny plates paraded before me, vying for testebud time. Then there was the bread, and the main bit, and the dessert of melons, unfathomable orange juice and incomparable pomegranates. I've been here now for two weeks, and the memory of that face-stuffing event resurfaces daily.

I was persuaded to take some free lodging and another meal (oh....ok...) before trying thrice to correctly wrangle a bus 'ticket' into the middle of nowhere, where I would find some kind of conveyance to take me farther towards emptyness, which is half delusion. By the time we returned to the station, we discovered that one man had cleverly misspoken an extra thirty minutes onto the departure time in order to sell the ticket twice, leaving me, incidentally, in the dust. Abde the taxi man wouldn't stand for such treatment since he had been trying so hard to prove that Morocco was great, so after the loud guttral Arabic discussion of the liar's shortcomings, we took off after the bus with some other guy in the back seat while I held on to my pack and guitar and juju beads wondering whether ticket-losing was appropriate Karmic insurance against some swerving form of 90 KPH third world vehicular homicide at the hands of this admirably experienced cabbie.

We met with success, and I boarded the bus. I joined a seat that seemed to be full of yards of periwinkle blue fabric and lace, which turned out to be a woman. She spoke Arabic, and I spoke French, and we got along great. Her little boy sat between us and sipped water from the nose of an elephant shaped water bottle, and by the middle of the ride he stood in my lap to better see the evergreens and the barbary mcaques of the Middle Atlas.

We crossed those mountains and descended into the desert. I was watching the dusty mirror of Appalachia, rocks all folded and creased, through the heat of of that big window on top of some howling diesel under sun. That big box wasn't miserable, just nearly so. I started to think we were way out there, and I asked the Royal Maroccan ex-army guy next seat over, and he says still 200 K to Er-Racchidia. Well that town was the end of the ride, and the beginning of the next 90 K I was going that day.

I took a grand taxi, which is always a dollar seat in a Mercedes with 7 people inside, to Erfoud from there. If you've seen sinks made from squid fossil rock, or coiled-shell nautilus water fountains, or handsome Devonian flatware, or trilobites 5 a dollar, it all comes from here. The real edge of the desert is the Oued Ziz, a river of garbage that flows down into Erfoud tiny and sparkling clean from the vast Utahesque canyons full of date palms to the north. If you've been to Africa, you know that the most common around-town flower in dry places is the Flimsy Black Plastic Bag. They multiply like weeds along watercourses and in windshadows, and that's how I knew we were there.

We came into town around sundown while people were starting to go about the second half of their day. Things kick up again when the sun stops trying to kill you. Black pillars of billowing cloth turned out also to be women whose eye color seemed to count for much more than anything else you might be tempted to acertain about appearances. Veils were fast hoisted shyly as I passed, a constant salute to the stranger.

I got the main part of town down around the souq (market). I had a place in mind, the Hotel Palmiers. ''Oh, c'est trop loin...tu as besoin d'un taxi.'' Maybe white people everywhere think everything is too far, but I would walk, I don't need no stinkin' taxi I told him. And it was a good thing too, because the next corner I turned had a door with a sign that said 'Hotel Palmiers' and some other stuff in that great squiggly language of thirsty people everywhere. I looked back and saw my would-be driver sort of shrug. This is the same place where you can hire 2 guides and a big four-wheel drive to get you to the next town on the well-paved road 30 K away, only 200 bucks.

I picked that joint, as I learned later, because of my telepathic knowledge of its roof. I could sleep up there in the breeze with the stars all I wanted, only 8 dollars a night. That 60 Dirham also buys all the refrigerated tap water you can drink, and a come and go sort of place with your very own faucet. I staked out there for the night, and I'm staked out there again now after my time in the desert.

The next day, I found my friend in Merzouga, down around the Erg Chebbi. It's a bit of a tourist joint out there, but you can play it right and have a good time. Lahcen has a restaurant and a fossil selling gig, and a lot of other little side things as well. One of his side things is camels, and I joined this great Belgian couple for a sort of what-the-hey-I'm-in-the-Sahara overnight camel ride out onto the sea of sand.

Camels are impossible animals whose ancestors first evolved on the Moon. They have eight toes, down from the original twenty, and after they gave up on George Gaylord Simpson's Argentina they decided to stick to the Equator for good. These are the common cigarette packet one-hump jobs, the dromaderies of Arabia. They have big long bird necks and slinkies for legs. The back legs of a camel are held up by its small tail, because the pelvic bones have become vestigial due to the fact that all the appendages on one side of the beast move at once. In short, using a camel for transportation is a little bit like tying two big ducks together using old carpet, with much the same sonic results.

We didn't have proper Real Man camel saddles, but it was only a two hour ride out to the big big big dune mountains, so the handlebars were good enough. There were a lot of stars and a lot of Flemish, French, and English lessons from the Belgians, and some great ideas from our camel guy, Ali. And of course, glorious aeolian sand beyond measure. I saw a bat and asked about it. In France, they call a mouse a sourri. And if you shave something, it's cheuff. That flying rat is called a cheuff-sourri. The sand sea blooms at night, and there are even cricket sounds. A Solifuge is a non-insect arthropod that flees from sun and eats everything it sees. Google it.

Lahcen got me going with another fossil dealer named Lahcen. We used his 50 cc motorbike to tour the fossil fields and quarries together while he got some business done. The Paleozoic in this part of the Sahara comes and goes in giant bent and broken sheets. There are no trees or shrubs or grass to block the view of layer on layer of tilted crusty time. The gray Devonian is the most dramatic craggy hill builder, full of coiled and straight squid cousins. Below it and sometimes beside it is the red Silurian, full of crinoids. Beautiful swaths of rusty sand with knife edge curving tips weave around it all.

I found plenty of fossils just laying on the ground, but the most amazing work was happening below in the crinoid pits. They put square holes, one after another, down 4 meters to the sweet spot and spread out from there, looking for hints of crystallized sea lilies by the light of car battery neon and candles. Green tea is an essential part of the equipment down there. No Moroccan can be found without it, but sometimes mint is hard to come by in a 20 meter long tunnel dug by hand.

The holes stretched along strike in the anticline for 8 kilometers. Every 10 feet or so, someone had staked out a plot and was slowly bringing some old life to the surface. No one owns the desert, and Ali was coming by to buy whatever the various diggers had found lately. It's slow and tedious and cheap. Some guys decide to forego the 10 K bike ride and instead set up housekeeping in side tunnels, doors and all. Back in Erfoud, Daoud the crinoid artist shows me a vast 6x10 foot maroon slab of 30 perfect tentacled echinoderms up against the wall at his place. It is several month's difference between the things from those desert mines and the glued-up, pieced together, hand etched, acid-prepped, double reinforced glory invertebrate scene people pay for in other countries.

In the next post, I'll tell you about living on the other side of that anticline for a week.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Dans le Sahara

Morocco is one of those places where everyone wants to be your friend. And it is not just shopkeepers aand beggars either. Free food...amazing food, and funny little kids to play with. I highly recommend the Atlas Mountains, moroccan fruit, spiced olives, and mint tea to everyone who can hear me shouting now over the evening call to prayer.

Camera broken. When I find a way to turn Moroccan electricity into Canon battery power, you'll get photos. There were expeditions since the first paragraph there, much to tell.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Listen, OK, I'm sorry.

It's no excuse, but a nomadic lifestyle makes it harder than I thought to keep you abreast of my activities. Yes, I know it's been a solid month since I last apprised you of the situation. Yes, I know how much ridiculously interesting stuff may or may not have happened to me during that time. I suppose I should feel guilty for having the following problem: so many flabbergastingly great things occur every day that when I consider recounting even the main points, I cower with fear. I can't tell you that it won't happen again, but I can promise that the recounting of our journey from Dunedin through Otago, the West Coast of New Zealand, the Coromandel Peninsula, the Fiji Islands, the Dark Heart of Los Angel-less, the Boise Intra-national Airport, and the endless miles of rugged semi-arid continental interior to reach this very dinosaur field camp where I am transmitting this message to you via satellite with 70 million year-old Triceratops dirt under my nails as I type, will probably be worth the wait.

For now, I'll just fill you in, dear reader, on the most recent events (not counting the harrowing denoument to the Moa story) in the largely false hope that you'll forgive me.

Eric and I caught a ride to Rudyard Montana from Bozeman just in time to join in Independence Day celebrations at the flagship field camp of the Museum of the Rockies. Bob Harmon, Chief Preparator, is a prince among men. Within sight of the Canadian border, we levered the plaster-ensconced pelvis of a duck-billed Hadrosaur onto the detached hood of a 1976 Ford, which was apparently once a handsome shade of copper. Bob, Eric, Lee, Brian and I worked to attach this improvised sled to the crane winch on the back of a Big Red Truck. The truck was 200 feet above the pelvis, which was 300 feet above the Milk River, which is zero feet from Alberta. Cables strained and stretched, dirt gave way, and 2200 lb packages of giant Cretaceous cows coasted unbelievably slowly up the American side of the gully.

Back in camp, we attempted to propel several 'freedom rockets' to the very border where we had just snached the Hadrosaur from the jaws of coherent fossil policy. Dan and Lila Redding turn incredibly vast swaths of Northern Montana into spectacular volumes of wheat. They also preserve huge unfarmable valleys and their resident dinosaurs for science. Dan likes other science projects too, and is known for his homemade fireworks. After he created a small crater and an equally cute mushroom cloud in the front yard, Eric could be heard to remark "Celebrate the independence of your blowing up a small part of it." Jack Horner pit-roasted part of a buffalo, a four-wheeler was accidentally set on fire, and I found a Theropod tooth. It was a good fourth of July.

We decided to make the drive East to Jordan and the Hell Creek on the 6th. That day was possibly the hottest day I have ever known. Trucks were packed down with every concieveable piece of gear, provisions and personnel for our subsequent mission. The A/C was on full blast, and it didn't make a bit of difference at 70 miles per hour. One-hundred six, that was the official temperature for the day. The unofficial temperature was 'damn.'

We were, however, rewarded with the first genuine milkshake of the season. Jordan, Montana has many charms, but none are so vital to survival on an igneous summer day than the classic Drugstore Malt. We learned that the coldest substance in the world can actually be created using equipment found behind the counter of a standard soda fountain four decades old. I can't tell you the trick, but I can tell you that it involves soda water, and that this miracle of science and art can readily be obtained for only $3.25. I don't have a quote for Eric because the oral muscles required to correctly utilize a straw are also needed to pronounce the words
"oh my god, shakes."

For the last three days, we've busied ourselved with another giant of the Cretaceous. At this point, digging for dinosaurs has progressed well out of the dental pick and brush stage. We're firmly in the jackhammer and pickaxe stage. Proper preparation of fossils in the field includes transporting a portion of the field back to the museum. In other words, collecting dinosaurs is less like picking flowers, more like potting a garden. The object is to present a hunk of Earth to the lab worker that contains a fossil essentially as you found it. The pickaxe and jackhammer stage lasts only one more day before entering the car hood truck-winch stage.

So for a while now, at least since Otago, we have been diggers. I suppose there are many things we could be called at this point. Most of these colorful nouns or adjectives include commentary on attitude or size. None of them have ever yet included any derivatives of the word 'clean.'

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Unlikely pair: Diomedea epomorphora meets Dinornis maximus

Tiaroa Head is one of the only places in the world where you can see the Royal Albatross without using a Zodiac. These birds are massive. With a wingspan of 3 metres, they can easily be mistaken for personal aircraft. Their posture while soaring is careless, but precise. Every control surface is primed for maximum efficiency - they can move those huge wings like tentacles, wrapping around every little patch of lift. They're really just self-satisfied jumbo chickens. Grudgingly beautiful, as only an Albatross can be. Perfect sunset drives to the end of the Otago Peninsula can certainly pay off on windy days. But this speed zeppelin of a seabird has only become NZ's largest in the last few hundred years.

Fifteen million years ago, Central Otago was a lake. We know this because the mud, sand and gravel dumped into this lake from the surrounding hills are piled high under the golden tussock and savory scrub of Southland range. Ever since Lake Manuherikia dried up, its dry muck bottoms have been hosed down by every storm that manages to get past Fiordland into the dry rainshadow of the Southern Alps. Each downpour washes the gullies and swirls new tunnels and holes into the soft sediment. Since the Oligocene, the mountains have grown higher and higher until glaciers clung to the tops and crept to the valleys. Relentless grinding by ice turns any solid rock into a heap of pulverized dust the consistency of flour. The wild wind hauls it easily, and piles can accumulate miles away wherever the air slows enough to drop its load. The Germans named this phenomenon first, and we use the term 'loess' (read: luss) for deposits milled by glaciers and sorted by wind.

Until 800 years ago, outlandish birds trotted around New Zealand. That's not to say they don't anymore, it's just that they're so much smaller now. The Giant Moa of Southland stood at twelve feet. It was here, busy grazing during the Norman invasion of England. None are now alive, but Otago is littered with the record of flightless giants and the flying predators that ate them. Lake Manuherikia left the means to save the bones of bird and beast long enough for us to make educated guesses about life in the relatively recent past.

Huge three-toed golem-like grazers with heads smaller than your average chihuahua aren't the smartest animals in the zoo, so it's not surprising that the hundreds of old potholes in Lake Manuherikia sediment contain more than a few Giant Moa skeletons, extinct Kiwi femurs, and Haast Eagle claws. Every time a wandering bird died in the treacherous booby-trapped terrain, it was covered by windblown loess and rain-washed mud. Some skeletons were buried so quickly that they are still assembled correctly. The process is still happening every season, trapping modern mammals, sheep and rabbits together with the ancient forms they have replaced (with the help of human colonizers). Each storm that passes acts as a bulldozer, trencher, and industrial blender all in one - resulting in such confusion of the strata that ancient and modern bones are juxtaposed in unlikely ways.

So maybe I can be excused for spending an hour exposing a rabbit that died five years ago - my vertebrate anatomy suffered from overexcitement, and I realized only too late that my prize had huge front teeth, quite unlike a bird. But we discovered other clues as we poked along on Ray Bell's ranch. We got the idea from a PhD student in Dunedin, Jamie Wood, who directed us to Chatto Creek. Carey Donald joined us for a long weekend holiday from her research in Australia, and we wound through the Otago hills until we saw Jamie's landmark: a lot of old cars and a bridge. That's how we wandered into Mr. Bell's front yard.

He and his wife were busy butchering a deer. A few minutes of explanation, and Ray was happy to show us everything. We were told to wait in his garage while he finished up - amusing ourselves by examining his red '69 T-bird. Left hand drive. "God those yanks can make a beautiful cahr." He had several other vehicles of all ages and kinds scattered along the hill. He opened the back of a segregation-era bus and produced a meter-long pelvis. Imagine something the size of a watermelon comfortably fitting between the major bones. He fitted two drainpipe-size femurs into their sockets as Eric held the pelvis at the appropriate hight. "That's about right then, eh Lofty?" These bones came from up the gully he explained, leaning on his cane while bits of venison dribbled down his apron onto some classic gumboots. Eric's new nickname has stuck. "Ah, bot you're americans eh, ye don't weahr the gumboots then. You can take a look out there anyhow, dry enough yet. Whaddayou think Lofty?"

Eric didn't have to think long. We spent the rest of the afternoon poking about the gully. Among leftover rabbits and sheep, we found a spare bit of odd eggshell and some promisingly hollow little bones. It was enough to show us that we needed to come back. During an extended tour of the Thunderbird, Ray promised to take us out in the truck to see the real hotspot further up the track. We've made our appointment for this Wednesday. The Chatto Creek tavern and bunkhouse is right across the street.

Today is our last day in Dunedin, and the city seems to be trying to redeem its reputation with us by a string of beautifully cold and lucky days of wildlife spotting. By the time we have the Carat packed up, say goodbye to friends and professors, and chow down at Friendly's Noodle house, leaving Dunedin will seem like leaving home - and it's not a moment too soon. We've got mountains to see, bones to find, and straits to cross. The Subduction Recon Team rides again!

PS: this computer is so slow, it won't upload the rest of my sweet pictures. you'll just have to wait. our customer service representative is Helen Wait. if you have complaints, go to Helen Wait.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Southern Alps | forest deep and mountain high

Disclaimer: posts that follow may not be in chronological order. It's been hard to keep an accurate accounting of all that has happened. This thing happened 2 weeks ago.

Laura had one more weekend to take in the best of the island. We had to drive through the blight of Queenstown to get to our destination. We were afraid the stench of this Aspen-esque tourist megaloplex might destroy our reverence for the unreal montane lands, but the cheapness got crushed like 3% copper ore when the long gravel road revealed our first night's hideout. The place is called, officially, Paradise NZ. Silver beech is aptly named, but the greenness is bigger. Any moss lover should take care when coming to Aotearoa. The sheer volume, variety, intricacy and stubbornness of the bryophyta on this island is more than enough to illicit fits of laughter, embarrassing episodes of drooling and wobbly-footed stumbling that would be painfully dangerous if it weren't for the guarantee of 5 inches of green padding between you and anything else you care to name.

The only other place I have seen growth like this is nowhere. We camped at twilight in the most available gap in the trees, and were woken by very friendly dusky-colored birds. The New Zealand Robin is not afraid of people. Or maybe they just like Weet-bix. They were down to about 9 pairs just a few years ago until a successful breeding program on Stewart Island bumped them up to their present commonness. Upon emerging from the forest we were flabbergasted to behold the most ridiculous mountains ever. While we watched, they began to bloom as the pink morning sunshine crept down snowy slopes. This was only day one.

Day two consisted of a cold soggy (still spectacular) climb/set of suspension bridge balancing acts to one of the huts on the Routeburn Track. The DOC hut system in New Zealand is positively the most glorious revolution in the world of walking since the shoelace. We stayed there and recuperated using tea. The next day saw us above treeline, so there was nothing to hide the variety of stupid expressions on our faces as we stared in all the directions we could come up with. Think Homer Simpson, doughnut shop. Photos will help the words here.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

North to South : Driving up the fish

You could say that I was driving down to Dunedin. The Scotch Pacific enclave is 1400 kilometres closer to Antarctica than Auckland. I took the mighty Carat over every centimetre of that glorious drive/float. But if you asked a Maori, he'd say I was going up to the South Island. The islands of Aotearoa are 1) an overturned canoe containing a few Gods and 2)the fish on the other end of the line. To drive geographically south is to motor up the fishing line and into the boat, hence I was going up to Dunedin. When you're told everything is backwards in the Southern Hemisphere, believe it.

Anyway, it was a completely grand drive. Only a few stretches of the Colorado Plateau and Intermountain West can really compete with the sheer variety and overwhelming beauty of the transect south through New Zealand. Good roads - no interstates/motorways - but real roads. Old-fashioned motor tracks that rambled along hills and through towns made for exciting and worthwhile driving in the Kiwi countryside. I stopped in the center of the North Island at lake Taupo, a flooded volcanic crater. I had lunch with a great view after exploring the geothermal powerplant nearby.

From a hill overlooking the valley, you can trace the intertwining network of pipes that conduct steam from dozens of vents into a turbine facility cranking out loads of magical electricity. The chrome tube network is festooned with crazy expansion joints big enough to drive through with the Carat (I made sure I did). These allow for the nearly 15 metres of growth the metal tubes endure when they reach operating temperature, somewhere around 300 degrees Centigrade. Pressure valves hissed and spouted all around me at unexpected times. It was a steamy valley of ethereal, scalding creeks. Imagine select portions of the Yellowstone backcountry - but commonplace enough to harness for sheer energy.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Dunedin: Edinburgh of the Pacific

This is a placeholder. My telegram now to you is this:
I have arrived. I can only tremble to think of relating the sheer wonder of the South Island to you. Fear not, it will be done. Having photos and audio and video, I will try and fail to show you all that has washed over me in the last 5 days. I have not rested since leaving Auckland. Last night was the first in a bedroom. I have seen fjords. Penguins. Sea lions. A thousand impossible plants and fungi and birds whose names I will never know. Land and sea in such precise proportions that they twine together to create a seamless path of wonder from one ocean to the next. I long to tell you the tale, but I must away. The mountains call again - you will receive the full account. It is autumn, and I lusted to eat of it.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Auckland: urban Sails

This city is large. I've been learning to navigate it in my Toyota Carat on the Wrong Side. It's the world's 4th largest city - in area. It only has 1.7 million people. If you'd like a definition of sprawl, this is it. But it's of a distinctly different flavor, don't worry. No preplanned neighborhoods, a modicum of 'shoppingcenters' 'minimalls' etc. There is considerable elevation contrast, due to the fact that the entire metropolitain area is built upon the Auckland volcanic field. Imagine Flagstaff flooded and covered with quaint houses and a Seattle-like waterfront (complete with Space Needle). And trees.

The Candlers arrived, and we took a look at that waterfront. Apart from the world championship racing yachts, 200-year old schooners, James Bond style badguy boats, swanky catamarans, charming 2-person sloop rigs, giant 10-story shipping cranes, endless eateries, huge buildings, glorious houses, massive trees, lovely parks and volcanic pavement, there isn't really anything interesting around.

We visited the fish market where you can find anything you want, and quite a great deal more that you don't. Famous NZ green mussels to smoked stingray. Octopus by the pound, giant lonely ichthyan ovaries stuffed full of roe - all part of your standard shopping basket here. The sea is so very present here. But unlike the southeastern Atlantic coast, there isn't a briny breeze, there's no salt spray, no sticky seagully ocean feel. The Pacific makes itself known in subtle ways. Stinking two-foot long lobsters for example.

We ate 'tea' at a place called The Sushi Train. That's it, you've got the right picture I think. You sit down, and a conveyor belt of sushi is in front of you, constantly presenting you with a never-ending array of maritime treats. The plates are color coded. Eat all you like, they'll count up the plates when you're through. An excellent arrangement. The table favorite was probably Volcano Roll - a prodigious nest of shredded crab atop some nice rolls garnished by a spectacular arrangement of roe in very lava-like colors. To enhance the scortching provocation, the Sensei of the poissonerie applied butane torch flames right before our eyes.

They call this the City of Sails. They mean it. The only other thing they have more of are volcanoes, asian cars and random syllables like 'eh'. To live here and give some sort of meaning to your existence, it would seem requisite to own at least a token sailboat. Auckland is more like an archipelago than anything else. There's only one bridge.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


Land of the Long White Cloud. The lost islands. The last lonely flotilla of Gondwanan shrapnel with its mostly feathered menagerie of stowaways. Accidental time capsule. New Zealand.

To get here, the only requirement is that you suspend your motor skills for a mere 12 hours in the belly of an aluminum whale that has been made to fall across the sky by some means that produces nothing but 80 dB of white noise and a curious sensation of numbness in the chest. Not much has changed since the days of wood and cloth and months of rope-pulling discovery.

Still barely in Auckland, the prettiest thing I've seen here so far is the money. But that doesn't count Cherie Galloway's toddling granddaughters. I'll use my time in the city to get past the Phenomenon of the Missing Tuesday, as I've come to call it. The hospitality of the Galloways is already helping. A car purchase is in order, and soon I'll discover the route to the South. That is, if I can get the ferry booked in the right direction. Currently, I and my potential Huyndai are on the manifest for Sunday, 2 AM. Wellington to Picton, mind you, and not the other way 'round. It's the middle of Wednesday here, for you poor yesterday folks, so not long from now I'll be on my merry wrong-sided drive.

Early winter in Auckland brings t-shirt weather. I hope Dunedin will live up to my hefty packing job. I managed to keep it to a 45 litre backpack and a travel guitar, but it's quite dense with mysteriously insulating hydrocarbon derivatives. I'm sure a glacier or two will put them to good use. For now, recouperation and plotting.

Photos to come.

P.S.: Jerry Falwell has finally died. Anyone for an ironic Hallelujah?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Attention: flying lizards.

After talking to a bunch of 4th graders at Sewanee Elementary about dinosaurs and birds, I've become a little obsessed with one of my examples. Microcraptor gui is a small Dromaeosaur fossil from Liaoning province, China - a locality famous for little feathered early Cretaceous stuff, and a lot of other things. I bought some Liaoning fossils (illegally of course) at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. But my slab had only a fish and a bug. The Liaoning locality is a lot like the Solnhofen of Germany, another formation with famous feather impressions. Microraptor gui doesn't just have arm feathers, it has leg feathers too. It's pretty clear that we're dealing with a four-wingèd beast.

One of the tougher parts about Paleontology as a science is the ease with which the imagination can run wild. Even famous Paleontologists can easily undermine good careers and reputations by going nuts with guessing games. I'm thinking of Bob Bakker. But I also think that imagination has its place in fossil storytelling if we don't treat it as gospel, especially if it's done with solid evolutionary principles in mind. There's nothing wrong with going overboard in awe of evolution's abundant strategic reserves. This fossil is fascinating because of the detail it shows, but that dangerous knowledge about its feathers only lets me guess and invent even more. The speculative aspect of Paleontology is at the heart of this project; this is science, so we say, but what hypotheses can we really disprove about this animal's former life? Well, a lot, in fact. You could prove, if you like, that the bones in the chest might not have been able to support flapping muscles, or that the arm sockets could only extend so far, or that the tail is too heavy to use for much but ballast. We call it adaptive functional morphology, and it can be pretty cool.

But that sort of thing only works to a point. If we consider what we know about extant species, and how even detailed observations of living organisms always leave more questions, it is easy to see how fossils are only the barest of telegrams from the former world. Imbellishment was the mode of research for a century in the discipline, and it still is for amateurs. There are far more armchair wiseacre layman Paleontologists than there are Chemists or Physicists and so on. To whit: I will speculate a bit about some of these drawings of our fossil's animated existence. I like the first one. The legs are tucked in under the body, and it looks like the guy has just leaped from a treetrunk. As just a gut reaction, the construal of a fixed gliding posture makes a lot more sense to me than the flapping screeching, leg-drag generating pose of the color photo.

It helps to see these protoavians as novel lizards rather than half-formed birds. The uber-Victorian notion of directional, progressive, incremental evolution concluding in familiar forms has dogged the Theory of Life for 200 years, and we've got to put it to an end. The real story here seems to be (when we consider the fossil evidence from the Natural Historian's prospective) that just as a flying squirrel today is not on its way to becoming a bat, our dinosaur friend is not on his way to becoming a sparrow. Microraptor gui was quite content being an efficient gliding arboreal predator. It was perfectly equipped to do whatever it was that kept it alive. If it wasn't, it wouldn't have existed at all. Its descendents, however, were free to be selected in any direction that worked.

We still have gliding frogs, flying snakes (seriously, in Malaysia), gliding geckos, flying fish, and flying squirrels. Why don't we still have feathered, toothy gliding tree-terrors in the woods? I don't know, and the standard Paleoanswers are tired. Powered vertebrate flight has evolved independently at least three separate times in the planet's history with pterodactyls, bats and birds. We don't seem to keep many of the gliding ancestors of real flyers around for long. But the spectacle of an Eastern Pipistrell gnabbing a fleeing moth, or an Osprey snatching a wriggly fish seems like a good enough consolation prize for now.

For science to remain an interesting and worthwile paradigm, we must rejoice in the fact that some things are very hard to know, and some ought to stay that way. Frustration with the unexplained is not sufficient motivation for real discovery, or honest inquiry. Good scientific answers can only come from passionate curiosity. We should avoid the aarogance of knowledge and cultivate reverance for the unknown. Let's not obsess over making all our guesses into scientific fact. We're not looking for some archive of universal anwers, we want a full life of worthwhile questions.


the Sewanee Watsonites | 2007. From the left: Hamadani, Harris, Padgett.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Mission is this

The official aims of the expedition read:

Fossils tell incredibly rich stories about the life of the past, but these relics can also shed light on the present. To some, they are evolutionary heirlooms - to others, valuable commodities. By exploring the world's famous fossil producing regions, I hope to discover how the cultural, scientific and economic value of fossils from around the world is influenced by the human perception of ancient life. I will immerse myself in the turbulent travels of resurrected fossils in search of the secret thread connecting the past and the present.


What is implicit in all of that is the nagging question about why we should really care about fossils at all. They are, seriously, just dead stuff.

How does a resource that is valuable economically, scientifically and mythologically work within a given culture? Since fossils are tied very closely to the place where you find them by the dicta of geology, and place corresponds with culture, there is an important story here for anybody who is interested in ancient life and evolution. The evolutionist sees a fossil as an heirloom of natural history, to the preacher it's a prank, for the shaman something else, and just about anyone can grok the cash value of important relics to collectors. Why do we care about fossils, and who shares the land with them?

The solid practicalities of place are becoming blurrier every few minutes as we try harder and harder to make sure every spot on the globe is connected by fiber optic cable and fossil-burning freight trails. Sharing the land with a particular resource, at least for us Americans, is much less important than sharing a trucking line with one. But it hasn't always been this way. For most of our history as humans our lives have been shaped always by place. What kind of soil is there? What's the climate, wait, are there man-eating predators? water close by? rocks, trees, dirt, sand, river, what have you? There remain, thank god, scattered chunks of map where these things still matter. And what if fossils are part of that place? Does it make a difference? How many stories can our species dream up to explain such fossil anomalies? Does it strike anyone else as odd that our society has an entire caste of very smart professionals who are engaged in precisely that task?

I don't mind, sign me up.