HORSE MOUNTAIN, Utah — Scott Richardson is up at dawn, standing atop a rocky ridgeline near his base camp, a solitary figure in the slanting light. He surveys a primordial wilderness of dry creek beds and stands of juniper and pinyon pine.
“This is dinosaur country,” he says, gesturing toward the valley below. “There are bones all over this place.”
He cooks bacon on a camp stove, the sizzle breaking the silence. He then hops into his work truck for a bumpy trek deeper into the outback. He parks near a spot he wants to explore.
The 58-year-old Arizona native, dressed in a wide-brimmed hat and white clothes for protection from the sun, walks past darting lizards. He swats at the maddening gnats that hover like paparazzi as he follows a closed road left to revert to its natural state.
Just off the path, an object catches his eye. An odd, almost oval shape pokes from the dirt, and he quickly determines it’s a 75-million-year-old hadrosaur vertebra. The fossil is caked with dirt, and it looks like any other rock. But not to Richardson: He’s seen numerous similarly shaped bones and recognizes the object’s size and heft.
He drags his fingers over the fragment and explains that it came from the top of the creature’s spine, near its neck. “This is what it’s all about,” he says. “If you brushed around and dug some holes, you might find other bones going into the ground. There might be a whole animal here.”
Richardson is a dinosaur finder, a bone prospector on the hunt for prehistoric predators and their prey.
Six months each year, from March to September, he works as a paleontologist’s technician for the federal Bureau of Land Management.
He ranges across the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and helps dig bone quarries. He pieces together fragments in a lab — puzzles with no images to guide him.
Most of the time, he trudges among the scrub brush, always vigilant, searching for a hint — a different color, texture or shape — that suggests a dinosaur’s grave might lie somewhere beneath.
Richardson, the son of two teachers, grew up in Phoenix. He learned his love of the desert hunt when his father took him scrounging for Native American arrowheads.
He was trained as a geologist and went to work in the mining industry. Deeply depressed after his father was electrocuted in 1986 while fixing the air conditioner in the family home, Richardson spent the next decade wandering and hiking the West.
He ended up volunteering at a natural-history museum in the Flagstaff, Ariz., area. His position eventually led him to Utah and his present paying job. For 12 years, he has bushwhacked across southern Utah, scouting out remnants of the distant past.
“These were colossal creatures that ruled the planet for millions of years,” Richardson says, standing in his lab in nearby Kanab. He holds a 5-foot-long hadrosaur femur, which looks like a bone from an old “Flintstones” cartoon. “To expose bones that haven’t seen the light of the sun for 80 million years is just pretty incredible.”
The 1-million-square-acre Kaiparowits Plateau, part of the national monument, contains a trove of bones from the Cretaceous period, which lasted from 145 million to 65 million years ago. This part of southern Utah back then was lush forest; it was the coast of the lost continent Laramidia when a vast sea split present-day North America.
“It wasn’t exactly a fun time to be around,” Richardson says. “Temperatures were over 100 degrees, with 90 percent humidity. Aside from the predators, there were bugs, insects and parasites, all of them with sharp teeth that were trying to eat you. Even the birds had teeth.”
Rugged and isolated, un-mapped by the U.S. Geological Survey until half a century ago, the Kaiparowits is virtually untouched by paleontologists. Scientists in the last decade have unearthed as many as 20 new dinosaur species.
They also discovered a 90-million-year-old shark with grinding teeth, sheaths of petrified dinosaur skin, a horned skull the size of a small elephant, crocodiles that swam and chased prey on land and 2-foot-tall creatures with razor claws that ran in deadly packs like velociraptors.
Walking hundreds of miles a year, Richardson has uncovered four new species of dinosaur, including the only intact head and spine of a Kosmoceratops. He found a member of the armored ankylosaur family; a Lythronax, an ancestor of the Tyrannosaurus rex; and an unknown species of a duck-billed dinosaur.
“Scott is persistent; he’s spent more time out there than almost anyone,” says Mike Getty, chief preparator of paleontology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, who also has surveyed the area. “His success is a mix of his on-site training and doggedness.”
To reach his annual base camp, Richardson drives his pickup dozens of miles along rutted, rust-colored dirt roads that angle across the land. These age-old trails are not used to intruders and often turn treacherous after rain, sloughing off cars and campers into the nearby high desert or trapping them bumper-deep in mud.
Such summertime tempests, he knows, are bittersweet: Though dangerous, they also help peel away the terrain’s outmost skin of dirt and rock to reveal the buried quarry he seeks.
He feels at home in the outback. The work, isolation and sheer beauty of his surroundings have made him happier than he’s ever been.
Richardson recalls his first big dinosaur find as a parent would the birth of a first child. The year was 2006, and just after a thrashing rain Richardson spied weathered bones in the dirt while hiking along a precarious ridgeline a few miles north of his current campsite.
Dropping his 40-pound pack loaded with excavation tools, he began carefully digging: “Pretty soon, I’d dug so many holes the place looked like a prairie dog mound.” His heart raced with excitement and he sensed he had found something truly remarkable.
He approached a paleontology team nearby and asked the experts to inspect his find. They told him the bones were nothing special — and then broke into grins. The site was huge: an intact skull of an unknown cousin of the triceratops.
“We could tell it was a brand-new skull,” Getty says. “It’s not often you see a specimen with that many features preserved. It was clearly something unlike anything else ever found.”
The creature, labeled “the horniest dinosaur,” with a record-breaking 15 horns jutting from its skull, was eventually named Kosmoceratops richardsoni. Richardson’s friends began calling him “Scottosaurus.”
“That’s when I knew I’d arrived,” he says. “There’s a photo of me with the skull, grinning ear to ear like a proud daddy.”
Such adrenaline is balanced by weeks of finding nothing but old rocks.
To maintain concentration during long hours in the outback, Richardson enters a zenlike state, trying to free his mind of everything but the search. His focus is so intense he wears a GPS locater in case he gets lost or tumbles into a ravine.
Richardson leads his life mostly out under the stars. He sleeps in an old trailer, in a tent or out in the open. Aloneness prevails. On hot nights he fantasizes about air conditioning. One summer, after days of digging, he read “War and Peace” while sitting in a folding camp chair. When he tires of his own thoughts, he wanders into town for conversation.
He makes just $30,000 a year, drives a 25-year-old pickup and in the offseason lives in Flagstaff with his mother and pet cat, Amanda. For Richardson, the payoff is his front-row seat to nature’s grandeur: watching curious birds land nearby, lizards scurrying over rocks, or, after a summer rain, seeing the trees, blackened by lightning, bruised and smoldering.
Richardson works a second hadrosaur bone quarry, not far from where he found the vertebra. The sun starts to heat up.
Carved into the side of a hill, the site is half-finished. A dinosaur bone is encased in a white paper-and-burlap cast to protect it against the sun, predators and thieves. The largest remains are hauled out of the desert by helicopter.
Richardson points to the strata of rock layered over the eons. Digging inside a 90-million-year-old graveyard makes him consider his own mortality.
“I want to die inside a swamp, so I’m fossilized,” he says. “Then 80 million years from now, I want someone to find my remains, to hold my skull in his hands and say, ‘Now, where does this go?’ ”