Editor’s Note: When my friend Michael set off, I encouraged him to write up some of his thoughts and adventures for Miriam’s Well. I’m delighted to present: Surprise Bones as Writing Process – Part 1 of a Travelogue.
I am on a six-month road trip through Utah, Nevada and along the Pacific Coast north of the Bay Area. Ultimately I will arrive in Bozeman, MT where I do chemistry research at Montana State University four months per year. One reason for the circuitous route is to shake up my writing practice and skills. The process feels stagnant. My poems have lost zip and creativity. It seemed to me a diverse range of terrain, ecosystems, ecotones, climates, towns and people would be good medicine. Surprise and uncertainty these medicines’ healing properties, I am going to trust providence, karma and kismet.
Today I am in Hanksville, UT, a sneeze-through town forty miles east of Capital Reef National Park. On my way to the park several days ago I stopped here for breakfast. While eating at Duke’s SlickRock Grill my waiter asked me about my road trip plans. A couple at the next table overheard the conversation and started telling me about a nearby dinosaur fossil dig, the Hanksville-Burpee Dinosaur Quarry. I had never heard of it, but Bob and Nancy, whom are volunteers at the site, encouraged me to spend time there later in the week when they would be digging.
I was a little irked someone suggested I change my westward plans. Nothing about the portly appearance of Bob and Nancy indicated they would be comfortable or enjoy hours beneath a hot sun chipping through hard sandstone. But as I listened to them it became clear this Houston geologist and paleontologist couple knew the terrain and dinosaurs. And this was their tenth consecutive spring dig season.
Other fossil hunters joined the conversation. The restaurant was full of them! Retired volunteers, university students, and interns and staff from natural history museums chimed in with tales of river basins, floods and sauropods – tales from a former world brought alive to the present. The magnitude of their enthusiasm hinted their quarry was special. The cardboard cutout of John Wayne behind the bar suggested I did not need to spend much time indoors.
I then remembered a rule I set before departing Santa Fe – if a detour involved the natural world I would readily apply the brakes and turn. Something 150 million years old and still revealing itself is something to brake for. My dinosaur-loving niece, whom I would see a few weeks later, would love the stories and pictures. I modified my post-Capital Reef westward plans, vowing to return in a few days.
Now at Duke’s campground I jot down bones I have unearthed that help my writing process – keep eyes and ears open, ask questions, take notes, know that I know little (which is true!). Be willing to explore. Take the unexpected turn when offered. Dismiss nothing, including exuberant fossil-hunters. Backtrack when necessary. Read maps. Accept, accept, accept. Use a real compass with real magnetic needles – the smartphone app may lead you astray. When hiking up and down graveled hills to take pictures remain mindful of rattlesnakes – they are camouflaged. Each sentence is metaphor.
Next up – Fossil Digging as Writing Process