Digging for Dinosaurs in My Twenties

On the cusp of adulthood in an era of in-betweens, a search for fossils and meaning

Robert Adrian Hillman / Shutterstock / Kara Gordon / The Atlantic

I will fly out from Boston. Dan from New York City. Our flights will be delayed. Mike will be leaning on his car outside the Salt Lake City airport, say “Heyyyyyy!” when he sees us, then show his excitement and wingspan on the approach of the two-back-pat hugs he gives Dan and me.

And then we’ll be driving in Mike’s reluctantly purple 1999 Honda Accord, dusty and low to the ground. It will be 2 a.m, then 2:20. We will be just out of college. The stars out here will have a brightness that seems almost worrisome, sky like a fiercely freckled face on a kid with laid-back parents. As we leave the city, the stars will disappear because the road is narrow and the hills are high. I will press my face to the glass. The three of us will be quiet with occasional rallies: “I’m so glad you guys made it,” Mike will say as he drives. “It’s so great to be out here,” we will say, “This is gonna be awesome.” It’s weird to be tired at the beginning of something.

Mike is in his first year of grad school for paleontology at the University of Michigan, and spends his summers out west working to find something—some bones that will help humans know what came before us and help Mike make a name for himself and know where his funding and career will come from. Mike has been out here a month already, looking for his future in the desert.

Dan and I will come along because digging for fossils sounds ridiculous—and right now ridiculous has an aesthetic beauty unto itself. Because Dan and I are about to become grownups, if we aren’t already, and someone offers a few weeks playing in dirt and looking for dinosaurs, which we know to be monsters you get by adding science.

Mike is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. Dan is probably the funniest. Mike's intelligence often seems so effortless it's dopey. Dan is a piece of energy dressed as a human. On campus, he was a member of the best sketch-comedy group, a huge deal. And now he’s in a sketch group with those same guys in New York, trying to make it. I go back and forth between having complete confidence that the world will recognize both Dan and Mike for their talents and worrying no one will ever know these things about them. Worrying that everyone thinks their friends are smart and funny. Lots of people are smart. Everybody’s in a sketch group in college. It’s basically required for males who go to a certain type of college to be in a sketch-comedy group. So who are we.

I will feel all of this without really thinking it. And later this year, after a summer in the desert, complicated financial things we will keep meaning to Google will justify our latent feelings of dread. Struggling news institutions will struggle to explain exactly how and why our generation is struggling. But the gist of it is there is a Recession and the three of us probably should not have studied what we studied: journalism, being funny, and dinosaurs.

* * *

The bags we’ve packed will hold the ur-wardrobes of early-twenties boy-men of the mid-2000s: community service T-shirts that say “Volunteer” on the back and Gap T-shirts worn half-ironically. Cargo shorts, fashion cockroaches that seem to survive every style extinction, feature prominently. And our sunglasses, in a pre-Wayfarer renaissance, will be sporty, awful descendants of Oakleys from the ’90s.

Mike will wear a digital watch with a frayed fabric strap. This is 2007, the watch still often useful, especially while traveling, when complex technologies falter in simple ways. Mountains will come between our flip phones and whatever it is they need from the sky. And when this happens, we’ll hold the phones up with one hand like a modern soliloquy, trying, like all prayers, to close our gap with the heavens by a foot or two.

Mike will not be stressed, but attentive to detail, worried, eager. We will go here, then drive to here, and work these days. Grant money will pay for our gas. It’s weird to hear logistics for hunting monster bones.

A road atlas will get its own seat. We know what GPS is, that it’s mostly for nuclear missiles and that some people have it. We don’t. What you can do if you’re lost is call someone on a Razr cellphone and ask, “Are you near a computer?” and, if they are, they can look up directions on Mapquest.com and read them to you, which feels like a marvelous hard-won alchemy. This is an era of in-betweens. Everyone doesn’t have all the technology yet. The only thing more laughable than the tech from three years ago is how little we understand what’s coming in three years. The road atlas is bound in a white plastic coil, the country stacked and flat, and on the page for Salt Lake there is a spot outside the city with a little triangle, meaning you can camp there.

The Accord will get us to the triangle after 3 a.m. Tires crunch and pop on pebbles as we pull up in the darkness to a trailhead parking lot in Big Cottonwood Canyon. An orderly space on the edge of wilderness that is essentially a parking lot for nothing, or everything. We are exhausted and hike only far enough from the car that our tents don’t block its doors.

“This is good here,” Mike says. Poles make vague suggestions to nylon. Sleeping bags unfurl cushy, musty welcomes and sleep comes as it always does, a surprise waited for and never seen.

The next thing I know it’s very bright and something has made noise. And hot: The tent has turned into a greenhouse in the sun. I gasp gently. A sweat ring around my collar dabs cool against my neck, an eerie reminder of my body doing things when I’m not. We only slept a few hours, and I’m annoyed that reality, like a friend you like but aren’t in the mood to hang out with, had shown up again so soon. Birds, I tell myself about the noise, trying to go back to sleep, you gotta put up with the sounds of nature if you’re gonna get the full experience.

“Sheriff’s department,” the birds say, “Come on out.”

Before the words “Come on out” do their job of meaning things, I think for a second that the voice is inside the tent. The speaker is the distance appropriate for reading us a bedtime story, but the volume is what you’d use to address an elderly neighbor mowing the lawn or what two sawmill workers might use to agree it’s break time.

“Hey folks come on out,” the loud voice says, “I’m gonna need to see some ID.”

It sounds not angry but impatient. Mike, Dan, and I moan signs of life and reach for our tent zippers, which whine open, the pitch getting higher at the end like an indignant question. The tent flaps birth our three crawling bodies. Like newborn horses, it only takes us a few minutes to stand.

The sun pulses with a brightness that seems unsustainable, like a flash grenade that keeps going off. It seems to actually be touching us, not a distant heat source but pressing down on my cheeks. My face reaches a compromise with my brain and agrees to open one eye. The other eyeball twitches a try then waves off the meeting, as if to say, You folks start without me. In front of us, a blur of khaki and green uniform comes into focus: a sheriff’s deputy. A little pudgy and with a shrew-like mustache that looks government issued. He doesn’t look mean, this man shuffling there in front of us. He has the initial husky air but eventual pleasantness of someone who likes bowling.

Being woken up by a cop combines two terrible and usually separate realms, the frustration of getting pulled over and the brain slap of being woken up, like going to the dentist and having them let you know you have two cavities and also that your wife wants a divorce. I stand there, listening with one eye open, like a respectful pirate. But inside I’m just sort of hating intransitively.

“Mornin,” the man from the sheriff’s department says, looking the three of us over. That he omits “good” seems like a folksy abbreviation, but also accurate.

“Morning,” he repeats. Now it sounds like he’s genuinely trying to help us know what part of the day it is.

“Now you folks see that sign over there?” he asks.

We look around. In daylight, we see the local flora for the first time. Bushes from a genus that’d hurt to fall in. The ground is clay or something. It looks, in the amazing way the country often can, to be another country. And there at the end of an extended finger appears, as if he’d conjured it with a spell, a sign that reads, “No Camping Within ½ Mile Of Road.”

The car headlights, as they’d circled the parking lot in the dark, had missed it. We turn back to the deputy, three postures, three facial expressions all expressing the same thing: Yes, now we see that sign over there.

We use our hands to make visors against the sun. We stay silent and yawn at the sheriff’s deputy. It becomes clear, after a few seconds, that all pauses seem like standoffs in the desert.

Mike is first to formulate a coherent defense: that we would have walked in a little farther if we’d seen the sign.

“How would we have seen it at night?” Mike asks.

Go Mike! I yell, silently, my face still.

Dan clears his throat to make a point. We all look at Dan.

Dan was just clearing his throat.

What we want to say is: “Tell you what. We slept in the wrong place. Your rules don’t make sense and I think your sun might be too close to the earth—how’s about we call it even and find a place that serves eggs. I don’t think it’s a stretch, Sir, to think you’re the kind of guy who likes his eggs.”

“Oh right,” the deputy says to Mike’s comment, mulling it over. This obvious logic seemed to make a little sense to him. He admits that it’d be tough, sure, to see that sign in the dark. The conversation gets friendlier. Somewhere in his neck muscles I think I see a nod. He says we’d probably made an honest mistake, and does some other minor ’sposin. But, anyway, just to be sure, he gives us each a $100 ticket.

The deputy tears off slips of paper and hands one carbon copy to each of us.

“I’m really sorry ’bout this,” the deputy says as he does something he has complete control over.

“A hundred dollars?” we say, a protest but also just to marvel objectively at the amount.

We don’t know yet that vagrancy is its own opposite, and means you stayed somewhere too long. A term for someone who moves from place to place given to someone when they don’t move fast enough. The world, in our experience, has been up till now more or less fine with us being wherever.

The officer heads to his car, drops the chassis an inch and after a few seconds shuts the door, a smooth, aligned crunching of a new car door when all the little mechanisms and catches still line up perfectly. It isn’t hard to see moral authority in his vehicle’s cleanliness. It looks like a new piece of electronics with the plastic protector just peeled off.

Our Accord is dusty. We are dusty. He is probably right. We forgot that talking to a cop is best treated not like talking to a judge and more like talking to someone on a first date: stablish right off the bat that there’s no chance you’re gonna try to kill them, and from there try to be likeable, find shared interests while making small talk. We aren’t sure what he’s doing in his car besides jotting things down, so we eye him through his windshield and wait.

The fossil of a fish from the Jurassic period (Tomas Bravo / Reuters)

After Salt Lake, we will head up to Wyoming, where each morning the three of us hike into the desert loaded down with water. I’m not happy to learn all deserts aren’t flat, which seems like the least they could do. We will walk single file into a landscape of sagebrush and rolling dried browns. The first person in line will carry a black and white 1.5 meter stick called a Jacob’s staff for measuring rock layers, holding out in front of them in case there are rattlesnakes, which we will never see. After a mile we will come upon the spot, where a hill reveals stratified greys and dull reds, like sand art. The air, at more than 4,000 feet, is fine and hot.

Dan and I will stumble around pointing at greyish-tan gypsum on the khaki earth asking, “Mike! Is this a dinosaur bone? Is this a dinosaur bone?”

“Well, they’re not bones,” Mike will say, over and over, “They’re rocks where minerals have filled in and so...”

“Yea-cool-is-this-one-a-dinosaur-bone?” we’ll interrupt.

That some fossils are just lying around will be my first surprise. I lose quite a bit of respect for paleontologists immediately. The word “fossil” means obtained by digging, but Mike explains that lots of fossils are discovered on the surface, which feels like cheating—and if not on the surface, then by digging where a fossil was found on the surface. Or if not that, then while digging for some other reason, like to make a tunnel or those stories of a farmer out plowing his field. Or, as a last-ditch effort, by digging a ditch, in the type of stone that’s the precise age and type of sediment that tends to preserve the specific things you’re looking for. But that approach takes time and money.

I sort of thought we got fossils by just digging straight down at random spots. I lose quite a bit of respect for myself realizing this is how I thought things worked. But I did sort of think it: that the search had a wilder hopefulness and randomness to it, that all ground had equal potential if you were willing to dig. A better word for “fossil” would be whatever the Latin is for “obtained by grant money and erosion.”

The primary feeling the desert gives us is that it would like us to leave. Mike is in hiking shape but Dan and I are not. We ache and sweat in lots of small ways and surprising places. The heavy jeans I packed make my legs overheat and every half-hour I’m forced to find a breezy hilltop and stand there for a few minutes with my pants around my ankles.

The three of us wander apart, until we’re close to alone. At 22, the frequency with which I think of dinosaurs, like the frequency with which I put my finger in my belly button for no real reason, has dropped precipitously in the last 15 years. Just part of getting older. It’s cool and almost spooky to think of dinosaurs so much again. Beasts we’d known as plastic toys are real and scattered around me. They need to be catalogued and dealt with in grownup ways, saved from staying in the ground forever or washing away. This is 2007. Evolution is in the news for reasons it shouldn’t be, and Dan and I joke with Mike as we work each day: So we’re sure dinosaurs actually existed, or is it just a theory? But the joking is a way of whispering, childlike: Wow, dinosaurs.

Visitors look at the skeleton of an Apatosaurus named "Einstein" displayed in Monterrey, northern Mexico. (Tomas Bravo / Reuters)

It’s weird we don’t hide dinosaurs from kids. That at 13 or 14, parents don’t awkwardly sit down their children and have The Talk: “You know what I said about there being no such thing as monsters...Well...” That we encourage children to play with the scariest creatures that have ever existed. I had multiple plastic replicas of things that could eat me. I played with models of reptile monsters that I was told meant “terrible lizard,” and this seemed strange to no one, adorable even. It was normal in a way that was almost comforting: a boy playing with his dinosaurs.

Of course, I was part of the toy-dinosaur craze in the second half of the 20th century, which was partially due to the Dinosaur Renaissance in the 1960s and 1970s, when dinosaurs got a phylogenetic and public-relations makeover, changing in popular imagination from lumbering beasts that were a shorthand for extinction (“the way of the dinosaurs”) to agile, warm-blooded, evolutionarily important ancestors to modern birds. The 1940 Sears, Roebuck Christmas catalogue includes farm animals and toy tanks, but no dinosaurs. But the catalogue from 1988, when I was three, is overrun with them, including a keyboard that’s a dinosaur with the description, “Play Beethoven on a brontosaurus? Why not?”

If you want to know what a society is unquestioningly okay with, look at what it considers cute. Dinosaurs are cute. Monsters rendered transcendently acceptable. Something about the 20th century got kids playing with monsters. Maybe it had to do with the tanks and warships and the 1940s, or the mainstreaming of technology and science—so we were just then far enough from dragons that we missed them, or scientific enough that we could justify them. My mother was a staunch progressive for the time, in that she had nagging qualms over me make-believe murdering people with toy guns and swords. But for my 5th birthday, there was a giant crocodile-looking thing taped to the outside of one of my presents. For monsters, it was a free-for-all.

“Honey, they lived long before humans were around, and are all dead now,” is the explanation given to kids. They can’t eat you because of timing. I remember this, as many kids do, as comforting and then wistfully sad—that they’re all gone and I’d never see one—and then comforting again. Dinosaurs confirm the suspicion children have: that there are monsters. A kind of, I knew it! And it does something for a child’s development, to play with a real monster that can’t hurt you. It gets you ready for the scary things that aren’t gone.

This isn’t a new idea, that dinosaurs are cool because they’re scary but gone. It’s been mentioned in John Noble Wilford’s The Dinosaur Riddle, Stephen J. Gould’s Bully for Brontosaurus, as well as in Donald F. Glut and M.K. Brett-Surman’s chapter “Dinosaurs and the Media” from the book The Complete Dinosaur. And Brian Switek, author of My Beloved Brontosaurus, doesn't buy it: this pop-psychological explanation about them being scary but dead so therefore safe and therefore cool. His book, a wonderfully neat memoiristic overview of modern dinosaur research, is essentially a story of reconciliation: of his galumphing childhood lizard-loves with the drastically different creatures we now know them to be from the last few decades of paleontological research. Switek grants that dinosaurs are, “instantly recognizable icons of evolution and extinction,” both “triumphant and [...] tragic,” but he seems to stop short of the abstract emotional in favor of the physical, if slowly percolating, science.

To answer why kids, and people, love dinosaurs so much, Switek suggests that dinosaurs are still “mind bogglingly strange.” That they are terrifying, sure, but also, it’s just that they’re bizarre—and therefore cool. It’s the thesis of any out-of-breath ten-year-old, which is not a bad tone with which to discuss dinosaurs: Did you know Triceratops horns and frills morphed so much during its life that scientists once confused juveniles for a different species? Did you know that you can tell if a dinosaur was pregnant and therefore female by a layer of calcium-rich tissue in the bones? Did you know that the dinosaur scientists found eating a nest of eggs—and named oviraptor meaning “egg seizer”—in the 1920s was actually guarding the eggs? Dinosaur awesomeness is constantly being found in situ. They aren’t humanity’s objets trouvés so much as they’re the earth’s objective crown jewels.

A kid playing with a dinosaur is getting two toys, getting to play with a monster and play with time, learning that it can hold pockets of cool things and that it can kill even these beasts that were huge and had spikes on their tails. The child is learning indirectly how powerful time is, that, in an existential rock-paper-scissors, monsters beat humans but Time beats monsters. That Time can hide big things and has a certain plodding, unexciting magic: the wait till Christmas times like a zillion.

* * *

In the Wyoming desert, the bits are just sort of scattered, like the site of a 100-million-year-old plane crash. I see a grey rib sitting on a slope and Mike informs me it’s millions of years old. Dan and I don’t really believe him at first.

We find an outcropping where we do have to dig. Digging for fossils combines the noble action of bettering the knowledge of mankind with backbreaking work of day-laboring without a paycheck. Dan and I drink all our water by noon, then fall asleep leaning back into the two inches of shade under the small outcropping we’d dug. We moan things like, “Hey Mike, I think I know how the dinosaurs died...” while Mike continues working.

We replace the weight of water in our backpacks with weight from rock and hike out. Over the next few winters back in Ann Arbor, Mike will look at the rocks and fossils that he collects during the summers to see what it is he’s found from his summers digging, in the desert and in museum basements. There will be a femur and a caudal vertebra from a theropod called Acrocanthosaurus (like a T. rex, but older), and these bones will help us know about the distribution of large predators in North America at the time. And there will be a sauropod called Sauroposeidon proteles that Mike and his buddy Brady will describe as not a brachiosaurid, as was thought, but suggest instead that Sauroposeidon proteles is in the clade Somphopsondyli—which suggests the disappearance of sauropods in North America concerned multiple types of sauropods.

Mike will spend more years lugging out of the desert rock that had been monsters, pulling teeth and fibulae from the earth and comparing them to other teeth and fibulae that others pulled from the earth. He will specialize in sauropods, the huge, long-necked dinosaurs, looking for tiny differences between some of the biggest animals that have ever been on the planet.

And Mike will discover a new dinosaur species. If Dan and I are suspicious that you can still find dinosaurs, hearing that Mike has discovered a new one causes us to laugh in his face. It’s too good. Life is not really like that. “Our friend Mike discovered a dinosaur.” No one is not impressed by this. In bars, the words will leave our mouths aerodynamically, fun and easy to say, helped as the years go on by nicer and nicer beers brewed closer and closer to where we are. A cool and velvety feeling the exact opposite of being in the desert, the opposite of work.

Mike will get to name a dinosaur. From our hill comes a specimen that was partially recovered in the 1960s and then reunited later when Mike finds the rest of it. Mike will talk of naming this “twin” specimen Tiaandtamarramowrysaurus, after the ’90s sitcom Sister, Sister. This confirms something about the world for Dan and me, that it is kind and just in its ridiculousness. That it is, not ours, but maybe soon to be inherited.

Imprints of eggs and their broken shells, part of a 77-million-year-old dinosaur nest, are displayed at the University of Calgary. (Todd Korol / Reuters)

A photo of the cliff Dan and I sleep under will be published in a scientific journal and the cliff will get bigger, summer after summer, as more of it is dug. Dan and I will get too busy to ever visit the site again, though we’ll be asked to visit at that very specific rate of invitations: where they come radiant and radioactive right after college, full of the type of excitement Mike had picking us up at the airport, and then decline in enthusiasm and frequency, decaying at the half-life of our 20s. Dan and I each settle into the fun and cruel velocities of our own careers, learn a “career” to be the process wherein you become wary about using that flawed word. That “career” is way too self-assured for describing what will happen to you, and also, in a lovely way, insufficient.

Through the years Mike and I will talk on the phone on his long drives on long trips across the country, where he looks for more monsters, and tries to get a job, which we know to be a real monster that does devour people. I’ll say, “Dude you already found a dinosaur. What else do you have to do to be a paleontologist?”

In bars, Mike will get called an archeologist hundreds of times by well-meaning people.

I will look up the word “career” in the dictionary and see 150 years ago it meant things like the galloped route of a wild horse, or the tack a ship follows when its sails are billowing. More recent definitions of career get you, “a job or profession that someone does for a long time.” The word career, in other words, started off fun and then got stuck mostly doing one thing for a long time. The word career, in other words, has had a sad career. Which means it is maybe the right word.

“Mapquest” will stay the verb for what you call looking up directions online for like 8 years after most people stop using Mapquest.com. This will seem oddly fair for the Internet.

* * *

Years later, I will learn more of the story.

Mike slept at the same spot a few nights before Dan and I got to Salt Lake City. He camped much farther in and during the night, alone in his tent, Mike woke up to a warm snout snorting at his scalp and ear through the fabric. He screamed and scared the thing away but not entirely. With a flashlight, he peeked out of the tent and could see only the reflection of two eyes. Tapetum lucidum: crystals behind the retina evolved for reflecting light back through themselves for better night vision. The eyes were high off the ground. Something big that could see him better than he could see it. Mike slept holding his rock hammer and a knife.

Dan and I will show up. To us the beginning of our story is the beginning of the story. Mike will know as we pull up at 3 a.m. that there is a sign in the darkness saying not to camp there. He will set an alarm on his watch for 6 a.m., so that we can be gone and won’t get in trouble. The deputy will show up at 5:50.

In the artifact of my 20s, told in bars and to myself, here is how it will go: The three of us were young and we went into the desert. Because for two of us it was fun and for one of us it was work. We looked and dug and sweated. We helped. We wore volunteer and half-ironic T-shirts. We found a dinosaur. Mike named the dinosaur and so Mike became a name himself. Dan and I laid a hand on history.

This is not exactly what will happen, which is to say it’s not what happened. Mike’s dinosaur won’t come from the desert in Wyoming, but from a bone in a museum basement in Texas, dug up years before we were born.

The one summer he doesn’t visit our hill in Wyoming, he drives around the country visiting museum collections in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Oklahoma: “It kind of sucked. It was not fun, driving around the country alone in a loop looking in museum basements. I found a ton of interesting things that are still yielding interesting data and new projects. It was a kind of good summer for my career, but it was kind of terrible.”

Mike will visit a bone and study it and eventually just see it in a new way, that the anterior-middle caudal vertebrae have planar hyposphene–hypantrum articulations set off from zygapophyses; that it has a prespinal lamina contacting the intraprezygapophyseal lamina; that star-shaped articulation between the tail vertebrae make it recognizable as a distinct species.

Mike will have this realization on a snowy weekend morning in his office in Ann Arbor. Mike will find a dinosaur and get to name it, but the “Tiaandtamarramowrysaurus” fossils we found will turn out to be an already discovered Sauroposeidon.

In the desert in Wyoming, we will look for a few rocks for radiometric dating. We could pick up three rocks and leave immediately, but when we dig for rock samples we will find important things just below the surface. That first year we will find a fibula from Acrocanthosaurus, a coracoid of a Sauroposeidon. Real monster rocks that will yield publishable insights, stuff that helps science and Mike. But something in my memory will want to be there for the new dinosaur, for the coolest sounding thing. I will want to be there for the story.

Mike will settle on a name for his new dinosaur. Astrophocaudia slaughteri. The name will refer to the mechanism by which the animal’s tail vertebrae, which resembles a star, slots into an indentation of the neighboring vertebra, creating a kind of additional joint for added rigidity. It will honor Bob Slaughter, who excavated a specimen of the species in 1969. Mike’s dinosaur and the paper in which he describes it will refer to the 125 years of taxonomic confusion about this group of sauropods. It will render three other species nomina dubia, show how they never were, kill three monsters with a single stone, making them never alive.

Three stories, three monsters, including the state dinosaurs of Maryland and Texas, gone. Corrected, but in a way that feels like shattering more than fixing. The stones don’t care what we read from them or if we’re wrong for 125 years, which is nothing to them, not because 125 years is nothing compared to 70 million but because they are rocks. That they are only what they were all along, including how they changed, is an inconvenience only to those who inconvenience themselves with wanting the full story.  Which is to say any part of the story. Mike’s dinosaur name makes a nice pun about the story of itself: Astrophocaudia means “a non-twisted” tail. A non twisted tale: The story was just what it was all along. Astrophocaudia slaughteri. To slaughter, to put an end to. The story never ends and is only what it is and was. One of the hardest things to accept about a story, but that any kid at bedtime knows: that there’s more if you ask for it.

Dinosaurs teach kids certain things about the monsters they will encounter: that scary things look scary, that scary things are dead, and also that scary things are exciting and anthropomorphic. Dinosaur fights suggest a singular, definitive battle, like a dragon, something you see coming from a mile away, ready yourself for, slay, and move on from. When, of course, real problems are the opposite: boring, small, creeping, not singular but sprawling. And: extant. A grown-up problem is nothing if not alive.

It maybe says more about humans that, in both early museum displays and my childhood imagination, our go-to activity for dinosaurs was a kind of constant life-long fighting, that we need to think there’s something whose existence was more brutal than our own. Mike will think of quitting paleontology because he can’t find a job. Dan’s sketch group in New York City will break up. When it does, The New York Times will write about it, calling it a shame and quoting people saying they were one of the best. And years later people will text me: Did I know Dan is on the new Wet Hot American Summer series?”  And I will say, “Yes, I knew.” And people will ask me: “Did you know Dan is getting married?” and I will say “No! Well, yeah, I sort of did.”

* * *

The deputy will sit in his running car. The three of us will stand there, waiting on his next move. I’m so tired my eyes throb with a dull ache. I slept in my jeans but thought to take the belt out like a grownup, so my pants are gently falling off. The already-hot early morning sun whips at the ground in front of us like a threat of what is to come, a kind of get back! for the day.

Mike hasn’t found his future yet, or cleared up the past. The past and future are still out in the desert, crumbling or for us to catalogue. It doesn’t matter to the fossils, only to human knowledge, which is a kind of useful vanity. Fossils don’t want to be fossils. Haven’t wanted anything since they were wriggling and trying not to die. A fossil is a little tragedy. And a fossil is a miracle: since there’s so much more wriggling than is ever remembered.

A fossil isn’t a dinosaur. Or not the bone and collagen at least. I always have to remind myself that, and each time I’m startled at myself for forgetting. That it’s the original mineral mixed with the stuff that filled in the dinosaur, sand or whatever was around, then hardened over time, so it’s not even really that stuff anymore. A fossil’s not really that stuff and it’s not a dinosaur. It’s something else entirely.

Over and over, I have to re-remember: A fossil’s a memory, some of what was mixed with some of what slipped in. That original’s a cast of itself. I have to remember that memory is taphonomic. A story can only be checked against other stories. The anecdote becomes artifact. The artifact as anecdote. And if the story is artifact it can be dropped and shattered. And if the stone is a story it can be changed with words.

It was 2007. Mike, Dan, and I were just out of college. The rifled barrel of our childhoods had been the longest in history, we’d been told. And we felt it. The three of us on that hot morning were milliseconds from the muzzle, fired off, free, and dropping. Mike was doing his life’s work and Dan and I were traveling, which we’d been told to do now while we were young, that it would someday yield a contentedness and stillness the opposite of movement, as if by contrast. Like we could immunize ourselves against wanderlust, carb-loading on travel before the race of our lives.

It was advice based on the assumption that you could fill up on the boundlessness of the world and be satisfied. Which maybe you could, because nothing about that first morning of the trip was fun or good. Elegy needs two nodes. I thought I’d be done doing ridiculous things just to talk about them for a while after this trip. Though that would prove not to be true. All I knew was we were tired and down $300 and sweating as the sun came up. We didn’t follow a rule no one told us about, and we were paying for it.

I wouldn’t know for years about the snorting monsters we’d maybe avoided. I didn’t know I would have been up in 10 minutes with the watch alarm anyway. Didn’t know to be grateful, and so I wasn’t. Dinosaurs actually had feathers. I knew nothing of my fears. The unpleasant morning was just one random wriggling, one of many but remembered. And I was aching with a pressure I didn’t know how to describe, except maybe it was like that: when your eyes throb from being tired. Because what I felt that morning was just more of what I felt that summer, what I felt for all those years. That being woken up too early is actually sort of like that weird, old-but-young feeling of being 22—of actually being 22, not of looking back on it. The feeling that you’re up now, but that the day is somehow ruined by all the extra time.