Very few people wake up in the morning and say to themselves, “Today is a beautiful day for digging.” Imagine sitting in the dirt, under the midday sun, far from the conveniences of shopping centers and reliable cell phone service. Yet, I had to admit, this Tuesday in June was a beautiful day for digging, and more importantly, discovery at The Wyoming Dinosaur Center.
“It’s impossible,” 11-year-old Claire said dramatically. “There is like zero chance we’re all going to agree on something.” I was afraid she was right. Our family—myself, Claire, my husband James and our 13-year-old son Jimmy—were looking for a “fun” activity to break up the long drive down to Colorado to visit my parents. The problem was we all had vastly different definitions of fun. From fashion, to fishing, sports cars and cooking—our interests ran the gamut.
“What if we did something none of us know much about?’” suggested Jimmy. James and I mulled it over, and it didn’t sound like such a bad idea: leveling the playing field. I had read about The Wyoming Dinosaur Center and knew that it would be a great experience for our family. The kids had enjoyed learning about dinosaurs when they were younger, but none of us were experts—so that would fulfill Jimmy’s suggestion. And the center was in the perfect place to break up our long drive for a day. I was sold. We signed up for “Dig for a Day” to give us plenty of time to enjoy searching for fossils.
The Wyoming Dinosaur Center is an important source of bragging rights for Thermopolis, WY. Located in a large industrial building at the end of a residential road, big green letters proclaim “The Wyoming Dinosaur Center.” We crossed the threshold around 8 a.m. and were greeted by towers of bones—meticulously assembled. Something we could appreciate even though none of us were fossil aficionados like the family next to us.
“We did this in 1996,” the friendly woman on my left said proudly. “The year after the museum first opened.” She was with her husband who, dressed in his khakis and safari hat, looked the part of aspiring paleontologist. When they were 19, the Dig for a Day program was their second date, and now, two decades later, they were signed up for the same program. However, this time they had kids to bring along. “Passing the torch!” joked our tour guide after hearing how they had found several fossils on that first dig.
“Hold on to your hats!” The ride from the museum up to the dig site was an adventurous three-mile climb on a dirt road. Along the way our guide informed us we were going to be excavating at the museum’s “poop site” where we’d be digging for fossilized feces. All of the kids laughed but I could see the relief on their faces when they learned he was only joking.
Upon arrival, we were given an extensive tour of the dig site, learning what types of dinosaur bones had been found there and seeing already exposed bones. We were given our instructions and started digging. Our paleotechnicians answered our novice questions (again, our knowledge of dinosaurs was limited to The Land Before Time) and showed us proper digging techniques and how to use our tools more efficiently. Otherwise, digging can be hard work!
“I think I found something!” Claire shouted about an hour into the dig. She had hardly said a word all morning so I knew she wasn’t crying wolf like her brother who kept tricking us into thinking he had found an Allosaur. We ran to her side and the paleotechs confirmed the find. It appeared to be a toe bone from a sauropod. High fives and hoorays were followed by lots of photos, some serious documentation, a picnic lunch, and then an afternoon filled with more digging.
“I was still hoping to uncover a bone!” remarked my 39-year-old husband as he was asked to hand over his tools. The digging part of our day was over and it was time to hop back into the vehicle and return to the museum for a tour of the exhibits.
Craning our necks, we looked up toward the impressive cathedral ceiling and took in the massive main gallery full of motionless, yet unbelievably life-like skeletons. They seemed frozen in time. A terrified Triceratops running for its life, a ferocious T-rex chasing its prey.
“Hey, there’s my nickname!” Jimmy observed while peering up at an enormous Supersaurus whose plaque said its name was “Jimbo.” Although our family can’t even play cards because two people always want to play poker and the others want UNO, we made a fun game of christening the museum’s nameless dinosaurs—and found that we usually agreed. After a good long laugh about the name “Thermop” (short for Thermopolis) it donned on me that making up something new was what made this game work for all of us. No preconceived notions or past grievances to bring up.
I loved how easy it was to learn here. There was a lot of information, but it was presented so that was interactive, which made it fun, and easy to digest. My kids were learning facts right and left, and James and I shared smiles whenever we saw their faces light up with the discovery of something new.
“That’s where they’ll clean my fossil.” Claire informed us. We were standing in front of a giant viewing window looking into the museum’s preparation lab. We watched as the experts carefully cleaned the specimens that may one day be on display in one of the exhibits. And there were a lot. I couldn’t believe how many quality fossils from Wyoming, and even as far away as Brazil, Switzerland and China, were under one roof. We were a family who, just a few hours ago, had walked through these doors without a lot of knowledge about dinosaurs but we couldn’t say that now. And what’s more, we had made some special memories together as a family, which was priceless.
Our interest in Prehistoric creatures had definitely evolved throughout the day, and after talking about dinosaurs for the rest of the drive to Colorado, I knew my family was hooked. We had started the day without much knowledge, but had learned so much from our dig and the museum. Perhaps our newfound interest in paleontology could lead to more family discoveries.
Plan your family’s next adventure at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. Dig Into Paleontology!