The Dinosaur’s Daughter: two-page version

Jim Lindsey and I excavating the allosaurus, 1983. Photo by Robert Wright ©DMNS

The Dinosaur’s Daughter is my 1980s memoir as an unparented Colorado teenager with a Jurassic meat-eating dinosaur in my bedroom. The fossilized bones are both a possible museum display and ticket to the profession of paleontology, but I want family and financial stability, too.

Improbably, I find the first bone when I am 12 years old, hiking alone along the rainbow-colored Jurassic mudstone cliffs of Sage Springs Ranch. Mother’s friends Minford and Judy Beard manage the 150-square-mile ranch of rocky plateaus near Dinosaur, Colorado. Judy makes canes out of bull penises and loathes children, so she teaches me how to find dinosaur bones to get rid of me. Minford thinks I can do anything and loans me his pick axe, a screwdriver, and a splayed paintbrush. I have my own geology hammer but know nothing of real paleontological techniques, blithely tossing bone fragments down the hill. I dig up joy and confidence and more bones on multiple visits, with the occasional help of my responsible sister Kate as we shiver in the snow and burn ourselves purple in the desert sun.

Meanwhile my family goes up in flames. Daddy divorces his wife and moves into a cottage with no room for me. My stepfather divorces my mom, stealing back financial stability and his horse and cattle ranch. Mom flees to a mountain outpost, leaving me to live mostly alone during high school. My best friend Marjorie and our Yoda-like housekeeper Edna tell me I’ll be okay. I take refuge in my dinosaur dig. I identify the bones from library books but keep my dinosaur secret except for a surreal attempt to exhibit the bones as part of a middle school history fair. I do not think a girl could have found anything important.

Then my mother, a poet with an alternating current of loving and suicidal, a writer I want to emulate but can not follow, wants the dinosaur gone so she can rent our house out for urgent cash. Nearly 16 years old, with no help from my parents, I must find a summer home for me and this beast I’d named Alice. I leave several allosaurus bones in a Nocona boot box at the front desk of the Denver Museum of Natural History (DMNH). A call from Don Lindsey, the DMNH’s curator of paleontology, changes everything.

Don says the museum wants my bones, I say give me a job. So the museum hires me at age 16 to excavate the allosaurus alongside Don and his teenage son Jim. I have such high hopes for Don, but he is a bullheaded drunk. Jimmy, hardworking and kind, becomes my excavation partner, good friend, and first love; together we excavate Alice while Don sleeps off hangovers. I am determined to get Alice on display and prove myself as a real scientist but so much stands in my way: Don’s laziness, his allegiance to his son and growing dislike of my fame, a site where the bones dwindle and surge, the desert’s heat and floods and horrendous biting insects, a broke museum with a creationist board, stone-age men, my yearnings for companionship and financial security, my bald truth-telling, and artist parents with no money and no guidance to give. I keep a big black journal while insisting I won’t be a writer.

After two summers the museum closes the dig, my North Star during my teenage years. Directionless, I fall asleep at the wheel after a drunken party and unconsented sex, nearly killing myself in a highway rollover. I realize I must steer. Television shows and People magazine feature my dinosaur story. I work in the halls of the museum for my 18th summer, realizing how much I love interacting with people and not dead animals. So I swear off paleontology and enter no-dinosaurs Dartmouth College where I stagger through Meisterbrau-scented pool games and land on academic probation. Meanwhile the museum fires Don and closes the paleontology lab, dumping my dream that Alice will become a museum exhibit.

In the face of these failures and the indoor boredom of college Latin and calculus, I return for one last dose of my intellectual joy drug, field paleontology. I break into the museum’s lab through a ventilation duct to take pictures of the rare fossils we had found alongside the allosaurus. I use the photos to win grants for my own three-month paleontological expedition to the old Sage Springs site. I hire a field assistant, a New York college friend who has never seen a cow, and invite a couple other Dartmouth friends to help. At age 19 I learn to manage a crew, a budget, and scientific excavation processes despite my youthful impatience, fossils that may not exist, desert solitude, hordes of insects, and limited expertise. I call on paleontologists at Harvard and Dinosaur National Monument who teach me techniques Don never mentioned.

I am now a real scientist, having written a scientific paper as a college sophomore and been nominated as a member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. But I am majoring in English literature and writing hundreds of pages of philosophical and racy letters to my boyfriend. I tell my mother again I will not be a writer. Growing up alone and with no money, I cannot face becoming a paleontologist, either, a lonely cliffside career with few job prospects. So I quit paleo and use my fossil-fueled capabilities to fly off to an internship with the Peace Corps in Africa. Meanwhile the museum plunks Alice’s bones into a closet. Goodbye, Alice, I think to myself, I don’t need your whimsy or your dirt.

Alice and I on exhibit at DMNS.
Photo by Essdras Suarez (C) Denver Public Library

Finally, nine years later, my husband and daughter join me to meet Alice once again, reborn as the stegosaurus-attacking centerpiece of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s new paleontology hall. I now have what I have always wanted: a museum dinosaur with my name on the plaque, a loving family, financial stability, and a future of nature adventures and writing.

You can’t outrun your literary mother, or an allosaurus.

Colorado Dinosaur Destinations

Visit Colorado’s fantastic dinosaur museums and the rainbow hills of the Jurassic Morrison Formation. Go on a scientific dinosaur dig if you’re lucky, walk the trails of the early dinosaur explorers, sit in a dinosaur footprint, or stay in a dino-themed hotel.

Denver

My allosaurus at the DMNS
My allosaurus at the DMNS

Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS), epic hall of dinosaurs, home of my allosaurus, Denver, CO

Dinosaur Ridge, museum and dinosaur trackway, Morrison, CO

Morrison Natural History Museum, Morrison, CO

The Dino Hotel, dinosaur-themed Best Western, Lakewood, CO

 

Colorado Springs and Southeastern CO

Sydney walking the Picket Wire tracks, 2004
Sydney walking the Picket Wire tracks, 2004

Picket Wire Dinosaur Trackway, massive dinosaur trackway along Purgatory River, La Junta, CO (accessible by long hike or 4WD escorted tour) 

Garden Park Fossil Area, walking trail past old dinosaur quarries, Cañon City, CO

Dinosaur Experience, animatronic dinosaurs and more, Cañon City, CO

Dinosaur Resource Center, museum, Woodland Park, CO

 

Western Colorado

Dinosaur National Monument, photo by Jacqueline Poggi
Dinosaur National Monument, photo by Jacqueline Poggi

Dinosaur National Monument, museum and excavation site with hundreds of bones still in the rock! Entrance at Jensen, UT

Dinosaur, a small town with streets and more named after dinosaurs, Dinosaur, CO

Dinosaur Journey, museum, Fruita, CO

Trail Through Time, walking trail past old dinosaur quarries, Grand Junction, CO

Press about the Allosaurus and India

People magazine cover, January 23, 1984The story of the allosaurus and me has enduring appeal. Media coverage was extensive in 1983-84 when the excavation was completed, in 1995 when the allosaurus went on exhibit, and continues today.

  • KRCC radio podcast 3/18/16: The Girl Who Dug up Dinosaurs
  • The Denver Post, 1/1/99: Dinosaur Find Buried in Past of ‘Girl Wonder’
  • Boston Museum of Science (and elsewhere) circa 1999: BBH Exhibits, Prehistoric Worlds, Backyard Discoveries traveling exhibit
  • Rocky Mountain News, 10/15/95: A Little Girl’s Big Discovery
  • KOAA Denver Channel Five Eyewitness News 6/16/84 news feature
  • Young Miss magazine, April 1984: Going Places: She Has a Prehistoric Hobby
  • People magazine, 1/23/84: India Wood Makes No Bones about It: Her Colorado Dinosaur Find Is a Real Monster
  • Rocky Mountain News, 9/21/83: Growing up with Dinosaurs
  • KBTV Denver, 9/6/83: Sundown 20-minute feature TV program