JORDAN, Mont. – Man, those dinosaurs lived in the middle of nowhere!
The town of Jordan is a lonely dot on the map at the center of Garfield County in eastern Montana. The county is the size of Rhode Island but has fewer than 1,500 residents. A recent high school graduating class had six seniors.
This is Big Sky country, where grassy plains roll to the horizon under fluffy cumulous clouds shaped like battleships, freight trains and fairy castles. Riding on the arrow-straight roads, a dozing passenger was startled by a curve. You see more pronghorn antelope than people. Photographer L.A. Huffman called it “The Big Open” when he visited in the late 1800s.
Jordan is tiny but familiar to paleontologists and fossil hunters because it sits on the edge of the Hell Creek Formation, a layer of sedimentary rock that was the final resting place for many of the dinosaurs that died some 65 million years ago, possibly the result of a giant asteroid that struck Earth.
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The first Tyrannosaurus rex, the biggest, baddest meat-eater ever to walk the planet, was uncovered in the formation in 1902 by legendary bone hunter Barnum Brown. Sue, the largest, most complete and best preserved T. rex fossil yet discovered, was found at the formation’s eastern edge in South Dakota in 1990 and now is the star of Chicago’s Field Museum.
The St. Louis Science Center has been leading field trips to the area since 2002 in a travel program called “Paleotrek.” In mid-June, 16 of us took part in the center’s 16th trip to the area. We were under the leadership of travel director Ron Giesler, who gave us early warning. “This is a working program, not a tour,” he said.
Participants work side-by-side with geologists, archaeologists and, in our case, paleontologist Stephanie Kuster, a 6-footer with the graceful gait of a runway model, which she has been.
When the center started sending groups to Jordan, locals greeted the new “diggers” with suspicion.
“They thought we were taking the fossils off and selling them and getting rich,” Giesler said. “Some people have done that; there is a black market for fossils.”
The Science Center, as a nonprofit, has a permit to hunt fossils from the Bureau of Land Management. You need a permit on public lands and permission to go onto private lands. The bureau also requires a trained paleontologist – Kuster has a doctorate from Washington University – and documentation of all finds.
The townsfolk now welcome the Science Center’s visits, partly because of the economic boost during our five days in Jordan. Our group filled the Garfield Motel, a comfortable roadside hotel where the hot and cold faucets in the showers had minds of their own, and left behind a little cash at the Hell Creek Bar, one of two taverns among the dozen buildings on Main Street.
Wearing shorts, sandals and baseball caps, we bellied up for a beer beside locals in boots, straw hats and tight jeans with the round outline of a tin of dip in their back pockets. Cowgirls included. Both bars did a brisk business after the annual rodeo at the county fairgrounds, where we watched riders get tossed from bucking broncos, calves run for their lives in the roping competition and children chase chickens and greased pigs. The kids out-squealed the piglets.
Giesler was at the wheel of our black Chevy Suburban when we veered off the county road toward the area where the Science Center has a permit to dig. He followed a rutted dirt road, sometimes barely a pair of lines in the grass, that headed steeply down. “Lean to the right,” Giesler said when we pitched to one side. He may have been kidding.
We were driving into the badlands, where erosion has carved out steep ravines – they call them coulees here – between the buttes. A coal seam on the canyon walls indicates the fossil boundary. Below the coal, in the Hell Creek Formation, are the dinosaur bones. “In terms of fossils, it’s kind of like a grocery store,” said Kuster, the paleontologist.
Parking the vehicles in a meadow, we headed out on foot a mile back to a coulee where last year’s Paleotrek participants had been excavating the fossilized hip bones of a Triceratops. “That’s what we mostly find back here,” Giesler said. “The Triceratops were the cows of the Cretaceous,” the period when the dinosaurs died out.
The first thing we saw was an “explodasaurus,” a jumble of rubble on the ground where a dinosaur bone became exposed by erosion, then weathered into tiny bits. Kuster explained that the quickest way to tell bone from rock was to taste it. Bone sticks to the tongue because it is porous. “I’ve eaten a lot of rock,” she said.
The hip bones had been covered with a protective layer by last year’s expedition. While some of our group began work at the site, others roamed off on their own, “prospecting” for fossils. During our three days at the dig, we discovered other fossil finds – all believed to be from Triceratops – that would become excavation projects for future groups. We also saw the proper way to remove and protect a fossil to take back to the lab for research.
While some of the larger fossils were obvious as they gleamed white through the reddish clay, others were discovered at “microsites,” where ancient streams have concentrated the bones, teeth and scales of small dinosaurs and prehistoric turtles, gars, crocodiles and mammals.
Some members of our group returned to one of the sites that night to search in the dark with black lights on the theory that the fossils would glow. They did. But by all accounts, the best show came from the Milky Way in the moonless sky.
Our evenings were spent at the ranch of Jana Olson, who prepared our dinner buffets and served them in a metal barn. Steak night featured grass-fed beef from the open range around us. We walked the roads of the 5,000-acre ranch, admiring mule deer and pronghorn. A pair of great horned owls were spooked from their perch in the cottonwoods of a dry wash
Olson saddled up gentle Katie and offered rides, gave a demo on branding calves, and burned her family’s Open O brand into wood squares for us to take home as souvenirs.
After dinner, Kuster gave slide presentations on the rise and fall of the dinosaurs. She explained that the dinosaurs lasted 165 million years before something, perhaps the asteroid, caused their mysterious extinction.
Work at the Hell Creek Formation, and other fossil sites, is just beginning. “One researcher’s study indicates 60 million more dinosaur skeletons remain to be found on Earth,” Kuster said.
So little time, so many dinosaurs.