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, as if she had died.
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.
Many memoirs have inspired me while writing The Dinosaur’s Daughter. Here are five of my favorites about young people finding their way in the world.
Unlikely Warrior: A Jewish Soldier in Hitler’s Army, by Georg Rauch (2006). This is a gripping story from the front lines of World War II told from the perspective of a kindhearted and funny young man trying to survive in a brutal world. The book is beautifully designed, with photos and vintage letters interspersed.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (and Other Lessons from the Crematory), by Caitlin Doughty (2014). This coming-of-age story wades through the surprisingly sacred (and wry) work of caring for the dead while taking a critical look at the American funeral industry.
Lost in Place, by Mark Salzman (1995). Salzman is a delightful writer, one of my top five. This book is an hilarious look at growing up in Connecticut while seeking enlightenment as a Kung Fu master.
An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard (1987). This beautifully-written memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh explores Dillard’s interior world, her family, and how they twine through the geography and history of that city.
Little Britches, Man of the Family, Shaking the Nickel Bush, and other books in Ralph Moody’s memoir series published in the 1950s. Moody is the consummate Western storyteller: funny, wise, and adventurous. He grew up in Colorado about 50 years before I did.