IN THE LAND OF GIANTS
Turns out the unforgiving terrain of southern Utah is perfectly suited to the excavation of dinosaurs—and to the powerful new features on the 2017 F-150.
By Noah Davis Photographs by Tom Fowlks
The thing about dinosaur bones is that they are everywhere if you know where to look, which is why Dr. Joe Sertich and I find ourselves driving through the predawn darkness on Scenic Byway 12 in south central Utah on a Monday morning. Sertich, Curator of Dinosaurs at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, rides shotgun next to me in the 2017 F-150 Lariat SuperCrew® 4x4. The truck’s brilliant LED headlamps* serve as the only illumination on the empty road, lighting up the dramatic red limestone canyons on either side as we wind around tight turns.
I turn off the main thoroughfare and effortlessly power the F-150 onto a steep ascent. The new 10-speed transmission* smoothly finds the right gear at the right time. As our truck crests the hill and descends into the base camp, Sertich’s team of roughly 20 paleontologists, interns and volunteers is scurrying about, a coordinated, if sleepy, group starting the day within view of the stunning Powell Point on Table Cliff Plateau. “We have a rhythm down,” an intern named Will says about the morning routine. “And I need coffee!” He moves off to coordinate the boiling of massive amounts of water for java while another team fries up bacon for breakfast. (And lunch as well. Peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches are a much-loved staple out in the bush. Don’t ask why.)
Meanwhile, Sertich and a few helping hands unload equipment from the F-150, using the tailgate step* to easily access the bed where pickaxes, rock saws, a water jug and other tools of the dino discovery trade lie. Sertich pauses for a moment to plug his laptop into the 110-volt power outlet in the spacious SuperCrew® cab. As a veteran of decades of digs, he knows that you take a charge whenever and wherever you can get one.
“Time to head out,” Annaka, one of the two women in the group, says around 9 a.m. “We wait until now because it’s a little warmer at the sites.” Sertich and his team are working two digs. One, about a mile from camp, is a duckbilled dinosaur called a Parasaurolophus that they’ve been excavating for six seasons. The second, where I’m headed with Sertich and a group of 10, lies on top of a ridge two miles away, past dry riverbeds and empty desert terrain. A volunteer discovered it last fall while out “prospecting,” paleontological lingo for “wandering around looking for 76-million-year-old bones that have been exposed by erosion and wind.” For all the high-tech processes, like radiometric dating, that paleontologists use, the actual finding of a site involves grunt work, a keen eye and a willingness to lose one’s self in nature. “Our volunteer was just coming down this ridge and saw bone on the surface,” Sertich says of the site. He continues: “The Kaiparowits Plateau is perfect for paleontology because it includes plant and small-animal fossils in addition to larger skeletons. It’s probably one of the best places in North America to put together a really good picture of the whole dinosaur ecosystem.”
While walking, I strike up a conversation with a volunteer. Tim is 19 years old, one of the youngest people in camp. Originally from Albuquerque, he spent the spring and summer moving from dig to dig, finding new ones by word of mouth and constant inquiry. “I just love to dig. I’m like a carny,” he says, an image strengthened by his weathered cowboy hat, dusty jeans and dirty fingernails.
After 45 minutes of hiking, we reach the base of the ridge and climb up to the dig site. There’s a gusting wind, strong enough to blow Tim’s hat off his head and make me slightly concerned about my footing. (Note to self: Skateboard sneakers make poor paleontology footwear.) In the bone bed, the team has discovered multiple vertebrae, a lower jaw, a neural arch, a cheek horn and an ilium (hip). Additionally, they have uncovered two brain cases, which means they are excavating the remains of at least two dinosaurs. The animals are from the Ceratopsian suborder, an ancestor of Triceratops, and although Sertich doesn’t know what specific species they have yet, a peculiar ridge on the lower jaw leads the group to believe that at least one skeleton might be a new species. “There could be bone throughout this whole ridge,” Sertich says, his eyes lighting up at the thought of the potential discoveries that lie a foot or two below the surface. Another volunteer agrees: “It’s almost addicting in a way, constantly uncovering bones.”
It’s the last day of the dig until next September, so the team focuses on making protective jackets in order to transport the bones back to Denver while also covering the site for the winter. It’s cold work on the exposed ridge, the imposing beauty of the surrounding landscape ignored as the dozen workers efficiently cover the bones with strips of burlap dipped in plaster. Sertich encourages his crew, amusingly and enthusiastically yelling “Rub it in! Rub it in!” as they massage the nearly freezing plaster mixture on top of the bone and dirt base. Finishing that task, they put three tarps over the entire area, weighing them down with rocks to create one more protective layer between the skeleton and the elements. In 11 months, they will return to continue the excavation. That’s the good thing about dinosaur bones: They aren’t flight risks.
We head into the valley, happy to be protected from the October breeze. “I feel like if I were up there any longer I’d end up like a character in The Shining,” a volunteer named Matt says. Another offers a similar sentiment: “Paleo is hard on the body,” he says with a smile, showing a bruise where he hit himself with a hammer the previous week.
With that, we return to camp. Tomorrow, Sertich and the paleontologists will travel a few hours north to Horse Mountain Ridge. Back in 2008, one of Sertich’s colleagues found a skull. “We haven’t gotten to go back yet,” he says, “but this season, I told them that I was determined to bring it back to the lab.” It’s time to pack and load up the gear into the trailer. Although the sun sets quickly behind the mountains, the LED box lighting in the truck bed and LED side-mirror spotlights* make working in the dark easy. Hooking up the trailer is a simple task with the help of the dynamic hitch assist,* and maneuvering the trailer is too, thanks to Ford’s backup assist. Mission accomplished, we tuck into some chili while warming over the fire before the team calls it a night, wandering to their individual tents.
In the morning the team moves on, armed with rock hammers and peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches. The F-150, with its 3.5L EcoBoost® engine and torque-on-demand transfer case,* effortlessly pulls more than a ton of gear up the steep slope and small rock scrambles that lead back to Scenic Byway 12. Somewhere over the hills lies a 70-million-year-old fossilized skull sitting in plain sight, just waiting to be found.