Foraging for Fossils

There’s a geologist, a metal worker, a veterinarian, and a computer technician who lives in a trailer almost as snug as his old cubicle.

They come from Louisiana, California — even Germany — and just down the road.

Their enthusiasm is boundless, though their experience and qualifications are limited. In short, they enjoy getting down on all fours — toothbrush and dental pick in hand — and digging in dirt for hours on end. Bone fragments make them giddy; words ending in “saur” evoke downright delirium.

They are kids in a candy store, savoring the sweet taste of discovery. And, like children, their pleasure is divulged in boyish smiles and delighted giggles.

Part Indiana Jones, a little more like the Nutty Professor, they are among a smattering of explorers conquering the new West by way of the old: Grown men trading 9-to-5 jobs and steady salaries to dig for fossils in the foothills of Wyoming.

The Ultimate Business VentureThis is no hobby or weekend project. For these entrepreneurs, it is the ultimate business venture in an era of high-stakes stocks and dot-com millionaires — one that unites childhood fantasy and adult ambition.

“If I could make a living doing this,” Bob Simon says with a wistful sigh, “that’d be awesome.”

He is squatting on a sandstone hill high above a cattle ranch outside Shell, a 50-person speck of town in northern Wyoming. He wears a T-shirt splashed with pastel-colored dinosaurs, a bronze belt buckle in the shape of an Allosaurus and a baseball cap with the insignia of his fledgling company, Dinosaur Safaris.

He looks like he cleaned out a Jurassic Park souvenir shop.

Simon, 44, has spent almost half his life — 19 years to be precise — as an oil and gas geologist for Chevron in New Orleans. He earns a “good salary,” owns a four-bedroom house and commutes regularly to Washington, D.C., where his wife works as an environmental health scientist.

Yet Simon is trading security for uncertainty to make a go of his dream: leading dinosaur digging expeditions in Wyoming’s Morrison Formation, with rock layers dating back to the Jurassic period.

“I’m working two jobs, basically,” he says. “Hopefully, this thing’ll fly.”

Simon started Dinosaur Safaris in 1998 after his own weeklong digging vacation to the 80-acre site he now leases. On the third day of his trip he hit the jackpot, unearthing an Apatasaurus tibia and rib.

Simon negotiated a six-year lease with the landowners and, after a year spent exploring and developing a Web site, he is opening the dig site up to tourists through Aug. 11. A handful have signed up for one, three or five-day digs costing $90 to $450.

A New Career? If the business takes off, Simon plans to quit his job and spend his summers in Wyoming, overseeing digs, and winters in Washington, preparing bones. For now he can spare only a few weeks a year at the site.

When he’s not there, Roger Rousu is. Rousu is the so-called director of field operations for Dinosaur Safaris, although his own job description is less fancy: “I just move dirt.”

The longtime owner of a bronze foundry in nearby Cody, 52-year-old Rousu now spends his days digging, excavating and making cast molds of bones. He stumbled onto the job after meeting another fossil collector who needed a mold-maker. Eventually he met Simon, who gave him a full-time job and stacks of books to help him learn what to look for.

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