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Ten Sleep, Wyoming
A model life
Nine days into what would be a four-week meandering journey around the country this past summer, my friend Tom Longmoore and I spent a night in Ten Sleep, Wyoming (population: 304). We hadn’t planned on visiting, but Yellowstone was full and Ten Sleep was relatively close by and, most important, according to the AAA Guide we were carrying it was the home of Ten Broek RV and Cabins, which offered the least expensive lodgings in the neighborhood. (Ten Broek is a Dutch surname, and not a version of the town’s name.) I called ahead from the car, and the man who answered the phone mumbled something to me about there being no vacancies, but now that he thought about it there was one vacancy. Or that’s what he seemed to say. I told him we’d take it—though I had no idea what it was.
The road that brought us to ten sleep began in Chestnut Hill on May 18, 2009, when I graduated from Boston College with a major in communication and an excellent GPA and walked out into the recession.
For a month, I lived in my parents’ colonial in Natick, Massachusetts, spending my days running family errands and fruitlessly looking for work, and my nights sleeping in a nest of pillows and blankets on a maroon leather sectional in the family room.
On Tuesday, June 16, at 7:30 a.m., I left Natick in a borrowed pewter-gray Nissan Altima with Tom, a Providence College English major who found himself in circumstances similar to mine. Tom and I had planned the journey over meatball subs a week earlier. Using a map in the back of an AAA guidebook, we marked our route: Boston–Buffalo–Chicago–Minneapolis–Rapid City–Yellowstone–Missoula–Seattle–the Redwoods–San Francisco–Los Angeles–San Diego–Las Vegas–Grand Canyon–Denver–Kansas City–Cincinnati–D.C.–Boston. We didn’t book hotels or motels. We’d stay with friends and in campgrounds. I read Kerouac, William Least Heat-Moon, and John Steinbeck in preparation. I took along a camera, tape recorder, and notebooks to keep a record.
Ten Sleep is a ranching community that lies 64 miles south of Interstate 90 as it crosses Wyoming. It is accessible via U.S. 16, a faded two-lane blacktop dubbed “Cloud Peak Skyway” that makes a thin slash through the mountains of the Bighorn National Forest. The roller-coaster landscape bristles with lodgepole pine, spruce, aspen, fir, and outcrops of purple rock. Small waterfalls run down the rock, feeding Crazy Woman Creek.
There are at least five reputed origins of the creek’s name, ranging from a “Sioux legend” of a spectral old woman who can be seen on moonlit nights in a canoe, to the heartbroken widow of a murdered white settler who spent years mourning over her husband’s creek-side grave. Ten Sleep, however, has only one known derivation: It was once a Sioux settlement that lay 10 nights, or sleeps, distant from winter encampments in what are now Fort Laramie, Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park, and Stillwater River, Montana. (According to Google maps, Ten Sleep translates to four hours and 30 minutes by car.)
We arrived late in the afternoon. A log cabin served as the camp’s office and as an “antique shop,” selling corroded license plates and wooden animal carvings, mostly of horses and cows. Darryl, the camp manager, old-school in a white cowboy hat, bolo tie, and jeans, registered us from behind a mechanical cash register and showed us to our lodgings. We were to stay in Darryl’s personal RV, a white tin box with two windows and a yellow stripe around its belly. Its furnishings were basic: four small beds on wooden frames, a folding table, two aluminum beach chairs, and a golden yellow kitchen that was nonfunctional save for a chilly mini-refrigerator. We learned later, in town, that Darryl lived in a little white house on the edge of the RV park with his wife, a nurse, who spends months away at a time working in a hospital.
That evening, Cliff and Sandy Linster, a retired couple from Montana who were settled beside us in a commodious white RV, invited us over for a beer. The Linsters were in Ten Sleep to visit Wes, their lanky 28-year-old son, who sat at his parents’ picnic table adorned in wraparound sunglasses, a disheveled chestnut beard, and a pink sleeveless T-shirt with a T-Rex skull grinning across the chest. Wes lived in Ten Sleep and earned his living digging dinosaur bones. The skin on his shoulders was ravaged by sun.
Soon joined by Wes’s girlfriend, Leah, a part-time waitress at the town saloon, we sat and talked. Eddie, the Linsters’ Chihuahua-dachshund mix, lay at our feet, rousing occasionally to yap at passersby.
We chatted about Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Katrina (Cliff had just heard from a friend on the Gulf Coast), the desperate state of Indian reservations, and drug-related crime on the Texas-Mexico border. Tom and I explained why we were spending a night of our lives in Ten Sleep. Mostly, though, we talked about dinosaurs.
Enthusiastic amateur paleontologists, Sandy and Cliff had raised their family on fossils. Cliff, a retired highway department manager, had worked near Glacier National Park in the summers, and on weekends Sandy would pack the car with kids and food and drive five hours to meet her husband at the family dig site in northwest Montana. Over time the children learned to identify and catalogue the bones they found.
When Wes was 14, he discovered the well-preserved skeleton of a three-foot-tall, meat-eating dinosaur. He named it “Bambiraptor” and was the subject of a Time magazine story. Scientists declared his find a missing link in the evolutionary chain connecting dinosaurs and birds.
After graduating from high school, Wes turned pro, and 10 years later he was working in Wyoming for Dinosauria International, a commercial fossil broker that sells to museums and private collectors. “No college experience, just backyard experience,” Wes said.
Early the next morning we went out with Wes to his dig. He’d met a group of students from a college in Illinois at the local saloon—they were taking part in a geology department field camp—and he had offered them a tour of his site. We followed Wes’s sea-foam green pickup and two white vans loaded with students along a rutted burnt-orange dirt road through a landscape of parched earth and tough grasses. The sky was blue, the sun was already hot, and the air was dry.
The site, a large pit, really, resembled a small dugout arena with earthen tiers rising up the sides. Enormous blue tarps, anchored by rocks and old tires, covered the fossils. Scattered around them were small picks, spades, and brushes—the largest tool we saw was a shovel.
Wes, now wearing an olive green sleeveless tee with a dinosaur skull over the pocket area and a broad-brimmed hat, removed the tarp over a shallow hole within a hole, maybe three feet deep, and carefully jumped down. Silvery mice that had been hiding from the sun scurried off into the desert. The students gasped when they looked into the hole and saw the partial excavation of a pair of apatosaurus skeletons, one considerably smaller than the other. Framed within an area roughly 10 by 15 feet, the pale spines curved together like one spoon within another, in what seemed like fetal position.
The students and Tom and I stood at the edge of the hole, talking among ourselves and taking photographs. A bone hunter, not a lecturer, Wes seemed unsure what to do next for his invited guests. He began to describe the apatosaurus bone by bone, what we could see and what the ground probably still contained. He touched on the articulation of the tail, the seven elements of the pelvis, an anklebone where “all the foot bones meet up.” The students took more photographs. “Is this a baby and a mother dinosaur?” one asked. “Yah, could be,” said Wes.
“You never see the dinosaur actually laid out like this,” Wes continued, looking down. “Usually they’re in a jumble. The majority of dinosaurs that are found are usually only 40 or 50 percent complete, and we’re assuming [here] there’s probably 85 percent . . . just by what we see.”
Asked by another student if dinosaur hunting was difficult, Wes said no, it was relatively simple, because fossils tend to crop up in groups. “I think there’s been 14 dinosaurs taken from here so far, and this site’s been open for something like 16 years. I speculate that this was a situation like in Africa, where they get seasonal rivers, and they dry out and what’s left is a water hole and [the dinosaurs] congregate there, and it keeps getting smaller, and they end up dying. You just keep on digging the holes deeper looking for the first dead.” That was the end of Wes’s lecture.
Wes posed for photos with some of the geology students before they all climbed into their vans and rattled back down the orange road. He gave Tom and me directions to the highway, pointing us down a dirt path that led to the town of Worland and Route 16. “Don’t stop in Worland though, there’s nothing there,” was his parting advice. Then he headed into the pit.
On the ride north to Interstate 90, Tom and I agreed that Wes was the first person we’d met on our journey who seemed to be living our dream lives, doing what he loves and what he’s good at, and supporting himself at it. We talked about how we might stay in Ten Sleep and do something that allowed us to live as Wes lived, but we knew we couldn’t. For us, there was driving left to do.
Matthew Morris currently makes highlight films of high school soccer games for parents whose children want to play the sport at the collegiate level. He continues to look for full-time work.