Michael Novacek
Time Traveler: In Search of Dinosaurs and Other Fossils from Montana to Mongolia

"The La Brea Tar Pits and the fossils embedded in them were, to me, a miraculous gift to Los Angeles. In Catholic school, a nun who had visited Lourdes regaled us with tales of the astounding cures that came to pilgrims who partook of the holy waters there. But Lourdes did not seem at all interesting to me. Even at the age of ten, I had developed a skepticism for the mystical and the unexplainable. La Brea was both fantastic and real; religious lore could not compete with its vivid evidence." (p. 11)
This is no paleontology textbook. Although you'll come out of a reading of it with far more paleontological knowledge than you had going in, it is almost as if you are tricked into learning. It's sort of like those educational games for kids. They think they are just having a good time, but in the end they've learned something. And so it is with Time Traveler. Written with wit and enthusiasm, it is a joy to read from start to finish. Who would have thought that a paleontologist could be such a good story teller and writer?

If you've ever had a secret longing buried deep within you to go on a 'dig,' but know that will never happen, then going along with Novacek on his adventures is the next best thing. He doesn't speak of only the glorious experiences either. The reader gets a feel for the monotiny and potential danger too. It is also fun to read about the evolution of Novacek's expeditions--from his first trip to his most recent ones decades later. I offer the following as a brief example of an early, and unproductive, summer.

As I drifted into semiconsciousness, I heard the hiss of a river fat below in the canyon, and I dreamed of the azure waves and the warm sands of Santa Monica Beach [his home]. How long had I been away from home? Two weeks? Four weeks? I had a hard time reconstructing near-identical days with endless excursions up canyons devoid of fossils... The prospect of more days like the last ones seemed intolerable. (p. 74)
But it's not all gloom and doom. It couldn't be with a writer as lively as Novacek at the wheel. If you don't want your kid to grow up to be a paleontologist this is a book to keep hidden from them, notwithstanding the above quote. For instance, the following may not resonate with most teenagers, but for those of us who have given up big city life for something closer to nature (but still have to go back at times) we know exactly where Novacek is coming from.
We finished our work in only a couple of hours and started back down the steep hill in the late afternoon light, laden with sacks full of Jurassic rocks. This was the end of our brief frolic, our reconnaissance in Patagonia. In two days I would be waiting for a cab, probably in a suffocating rain, at a grimy New York airport. As I stepped into the truck I caught myself waving goodbye to an inert mountain. I felt an emotional reunion with Patagonia, and I did not want to leave it again. (p. 317)
The reader is swept up and taken away to remote locations in the U.S.A., South America, Mongolia, and Yemen. Along the way we encounter numerous brushes with death to go along with our ancient history lessons and amusing travelogues. We're feed both details and the big picture, strung together nicely with anecdotes and exciting experiences galore. I highly recommend this book to most audiences.

from the publisher:
Michael Novacek, a world-renowned paleontologist who has discovered important fossils on virtually every continent, is an authority on patterns of evolution and on the relationships between extinct and extant organisms. Part memoir, part adventure story, part natural history, Time Traveler is his captivating account of how his boyhood enthusiasm for dinosaurs became a lifelong commitment to vanguard science. The book traces the progress of his passion for paleontology, from his beginnings as a young dinosaur addict discovering fossils in his own Los Angeles backyard, through his trials as a rookie doing his first fieldwork, to his eventual development into a leader of expeditions to some of the world's most important fossil fields. It is a journey in space as well as time, filled with adventures at the La Brea Tar Pits and the fossil-rich road cuts of Southern California, in the empty Baja peninsula of Mexico, atop the high Andes of Chile and the black volcanic mountains of Yemen, and in the promised land of dinosaur hunters, the incredibly rich fossil badlands of the Gobi Desert.

Wherever Novacek goes he searches for undiscovered evidence of what life was like on Earth millions of years ago. He vividly describes the unique thrill of discovery, of being the first to find a pristine, ancient fossil, and of working to establish just exactly what it represents. He has learned that fieldwork is not just a matter of expertise and adventure, but requires a tolerance, even an appetite, for heat, sandstorms, snakes, bandits, flash floods, bucking horses, boredom, loneliness, and disappointment. And he also knows that great discovery is eerily dependent on luck and, less romantically, on effective management of the bureaucracy and political intrigue accompanying any major expedition. Despite all these hardships, though, his devotion to the science has never wavered.

Time Traveler illuminates some of the most exciting issues in current paleontology -- dinosaur and mammal evolution, continental drift, mass extinctions, and new methods for understanding ancient environments and the geologic time scale. By revisiting our planet's past and his own, Novacek teaches us how to understand the prospects for the future not only of paleontology but of our global ecosystem.

Michael Novacek is Curator of Paleontology, as well as Senior Vice President and Provost of Science, at the American Museum of Natural History. His last book, Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He is also coeditor of the books Extinction and Phylogeny and Mammal Phylogeny, author of numerous scholarly articles, and a contributor to Natural History and Scientific American. His research has been widely covered by The New York Times and National Geographic, among other publications, and has been the subject of television documentaries aired on PBSs Nova and the BBC. He holds a Ph.D. in paleontology from the University of California at Berkeley. He lives in New York City.

The following is an excerpt from the book Time Traveler: In Search of Dinosaurs and Ancient Mammals from Montana to Mongolia by Michael Novacek.

I
Dinosaur Dreamer

As odd as it may seem, Los Angeles is a particularly good place to become a paleontologist. I didn't always appreciate this. Indeed, as a young boy I sometimes resented deeply an urban incubation that kept me from steady contact with nature. On rare days there were opportunities. When a hair-dryer wind from the desert blew the smog offshore, I would lope up to a hilltop street appropriately named Grandview. From that high place I could see the whole sweep of the basin, from the slate surface of the Pacific to the sinuous line of the San Gabriel Mountains. Without this cleansing wind, however, the view was depressingly predictable -- a bristle of telephone poles and TV antennas that looked like charred trees rising in the haze.

As an everyday experience in Los Angeles, real nature was something you saw on television. Cathode-tube cowboys raced against a backdrop of nature-always the same nature, a mass of sandstone splintered into rocky slabs like planks on the deck of a scuttled ship. Many years later, on trips with college mates to the Mojave Desert, I learned that this location for TV and movie shoots, Vasquez Rocks, had been degraded to a roadside rest area off the freeway. Power lines, airplanes, and streams of cars could no longer be reliably excluded from the frame. As I explored this thoroughly humanized terrain, littered with cigarette butts and disposable diapers, I contemplated sadly my childhood fantasy that Vasquez Rocks was a place of mystery, maybe even a place where dinosaur bones were buried.

In those early years, I hardly seemed cut out for bone hunting anyway. I was a skinny, spindly-armed boy, a kid with freckles, thick reddish brown hair, and a cowlick. The kind of kid who would stand earnestly by his lemonade stand on the sidewalk, more of a Beaver Cleaver type than a young Indiana Jones. I was not much of an athlete, and my nearsightedness required gigantic tortoiseshell glasses by the third grade. But I could run fast and far, climb pretty well, and balance decently on a narrow fence. I was not afraid of heights, but I hated closed-in spaces. I was not at all reluctant to be alone over stretches of time. There were other tendencies that prepared me for the life of a paleontologist. I liked crawling around in the dirt and mud, turning over rocks, and looking at things through binoculars and microscopes. I liked books, ones on dinosaurs of course, but books on just about anything -- chemistry, astronomy, mountaineering, biographies, fiction, Mark Twain, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens, Alexander Dumas, Superman, Batman.

When I was ten, I was not quite old enough for the parental ban to be lifted on viewing the classic 1933 film King Kong. After all, it was rather improper for a youth to witness a hundred-ton gorilla carry a young woman in shredded clothing around in his hairy hand. But one night, after endless and annoying entreaty, I got special permission to watch King Kong on television. Mom, who was watching with me, apparently dozed off, and so did I. I heard a dull thud when my dad set his guitar case down on the burnt orange carpet. He had a late-night music job. It must have been at least two in the morning. At my father's command, I staggered off to the small bedroom where my brother and I shared bunk beds. I crawled up to the top bunk and lay there thinking about the movie. I tried to reconstruct my favorite scene -- King Kong meets Tyrannosaurus rex near a giant log wedged between the edges of a deep, fern-stuffed chasm in the jungle. I replayed the scene in my mind several times, with variations. King Kong, as per the movie, vanquishes Tyrannosaurus. King Kong and Tyrannosaurus are entangled in a death plunge to the canyon floor. King Kong and the dinosaur, exhausted, drift away from each other to their respective corners of the ring. Even more gory PG-13 variations came to mind -- the tyrant king disembowels the gorilla with a single slash of its scimitar teeth . . .

I could hear Dad laughing and softly talking to Mom. "Shirl, you should've heard that bass player tonight. Wow, he could play everything." Dad played jazz and those classic tunes by Rodgers and Hart, Billy Strayhorn, and others. He could also sing them spectacularly well. Only in later years did I really come to appreciate the singer and the songs. On this night, as on many others, I pulled out my transistor radio from the cleft where the bunk met the wall. The radio had a brittle plastic shell and some gouge marks for its ill-fitting screws that I'd made when I struggled to build the radio from a kit one Christmas Day. In the soft light from outside my bedroom, I could barely make out the words "Made In Japan." I turned the knob of the crude analog tuner as the radio popped and whined like the control panel in Flash Gordon's rocket ship. To my great delight, I captured the weak signal of Elvis's "Jailhouse Rock."

That night I had a variation of a recurring dream. I was walking on a red sandy hill, swinging a rock pick. An army canteen hung from my belt. I wore a wide-brimmed hat, like those of scientist-explorers in books on paleontology or even in King Kong. As I climbed the hill, a magnificent skeleton of a familiar carnivorous dinosaur stretched out on the ground below me. The skeleton was not completely exposed. I could see the tip of the snout and the rapiers of its front teeth reflecting in the sun. Amazingly, a couple of feet away, the brow of the eye socket -- part of the same skull -- was poking through the sand. Farther down were the small claws of a ridiculously tiny forelimb. A few other parts of the skeleton were exposed -- a shoulder blade, some vertebrae, the stout upper leg bone, and a giant claw on the three-toed hind foot. The tail vertebrae extended a long way on the top of the hill, burrowed into the ground like a sand snake, and then emerged seven feet farther down the slope, the few tiny bones at the tip of the tail not much bigger than some of the wooden spools in my Tinkertoy box. It was all there. Every bone, process, and articulation was spread out before me, from the small openings of the nasal passages to the tip of the caudal vertebrae (like other intense dinophiles of ten, I knew many of the technical terms for dinosaur bones). I knelt down near the skull and started carefully cleaning the surface of the bone with a soft, broad paintbrush, like those in the turpentine can in our garage. As I worked, I felt alone in the world. The desert was motionless, devoid of living, breathing things, only a place where a line of red sand met the sky. There was no wind, only the low hum of the engine that pumps blood through your inner ear. Soon, though, I began to feel the intrusion of a shadow at my back. I turned around and was transfixed as a giant cumulus cloud coalesced into the form of Tyrannosaurus rex.

At the time I first learned about them, dinosaurs were believed to have been sluggish, dumb reptilian creatures. Their relationships with living groups were vague, though crocodiles and lizards at least provided some inspiration for what dinosaurs must have been like. Indeed, many science-fiction filmmakers recruited lizards and attached horns or spikes to them when they wanted live action dinosaurs. They then filmed the embellished lizards attacking other lizards or even cavemen. Even as a kid I knew the juxtaposition of these faux dinosaurs with humans was absurd -- humans after all appeared on the earth 60 million years after the big dinos went extinct. But in the late 1950s, neither I nor paleontological experts knew many things that we know today. For one thing, we didn't know that some dinosaurs indeed survived that massive extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous period, the last chapter in the age of the dinosaurs. The survivors were of course birds. We have strong evidence that birds likely evolved from a subgroup of dinosaurs including active, predaceous, and probably very intelligent forms like Tyrannosaurus and Velociralptor. Today a few scientists still object to this connection between birds and dinosaurs, but they do so in denial of a mass of accumulating paleontological data. This includes newly discovered fossils from China that show that nonflying dinosaurs much like Velociraptor had feathers!

As with many other young lives, mine was devoted to desperately re-creating -- through dreams and mini-expeditions -- a landscape that erased the banal ambience of my "hometown." When we think of nature, we may think of a magnificent African savanna populated with lions, giraffes, and herds of elephants. But what is nature to a kid in Los Angeles? To me it was a rather limited list of creatures: an overturned potato bug with its half-dozen legs desperately flailing to find hard ground, an alligator lizard popping out when lifted by its shedding tail, some fat tadpoles in a garden pond, a tiger swallowtail butterfly flickering yellow and black in the geraniums, a pill bug, an ant colony, a rat in a palm tree.

A neighborhood encounter with dinosaur bones or other fossils was of course essentially impossible. This experience would require some imagination. For me, a vacant, weed-choked lot became a fossil-strewn desert with endless prospects.