Day 1: A Geological Trip Back in Time

Smithsonian Secretary Clough flies to Wyoming to learn about a period of intense global warming that occurred 55 million years ago

Secretary of the Smithsonian, G. Wayne Clough, traveled to Worland, Wyo. to observe Scott Wing and his team mine the fossil lode they found. (Smithsonian Institution)

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Getting to Worland from Washington, D.C., means flying first to Denver and transferring to Great Lakes Airlines (I was reassured that we were not flying to Michigan in order to get to Wyoming from Colorado, despite the name of the airline). The flight to Worland on a Beechcraft 1900D plane took one and a half hours and, at an altitude of 10,000 feet, afforded great views of the Wyoming landscape in the soft light of the setting sun. Close to Worland the arid land becomes brown, and lacking forest vegetation, is green only where barley and sugar beet fields are irrigated by the Bighorn River and reservoirs. The glide path to the airport takes us over uplifted highlands of the Owl Creek Mountains that have been sharply incised over the millennia by a network of ubiquitous, ever-converging streams and river channels. Millions of years ago during the Paleocene and Eocene, as the Owl Creek and other mountains surrounding the Bighorn Basin were pushed up from beneath, similar channels must have worn them down and deposited sediments in the deep basin below. It is these deposits that form the rocks and soils where PETM fossils are found.

Scott meets me at the Greater Worland Airport and we board his 1970 dirt-brown Chevy Suburban, something of a legend among the local paleontology community. Nicknamed “Dino” because of the dinosaurs painted on its doors some time back, it is something of a legend among the local paleontology community. The paintings have faded over the years and miles, but for a vehicle with 249,000 tough miles on it, Dino chugs along accommodatingly. My flight gets in around 8:30, in time for me to check in at the Super 8 Motel. Turns out, accommodations in town are pretty well taken up what with a wedding and the motorcyclists passing through on their way to Sturgis, N.D., for the annual gathering of Harley riders. Before Scott returns to his camp in the field, he gives me a tour of town, which takes about five minutes, and we decide to watch the last of the All Star Baseball game at the Little Chicago Tavern, one of eight bars in Worland. We partake of a glass of a local brew, known as Moose Drool, which, despite its name is a tasty dark ale. As to the game, the American League beat the National League for the tenth year in a row.


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