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Travelling Hopefully

November 4, 2013

To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.  

– Robert Louis Stevenson

A road tunnel in Munich

A road tunnel in Munich

I seem to have spent most of October travelling rather hopefully. This hope was well-founded, as it turned out to be a very pleasant and productive trip, resulting in more than a few epiphanies about fossils and museums. Between work and pleasure I managed to cover a substantial swath of northern Europe, from Dublin to Stockholm to southeast Germany. About a third of the way into the trip I paid a visit to Dunster Castle, England, a place I had previously visited some 47 years ago. This brought to mind a series of events that occurred slightly after that earlier trip, when my family had returned to our regular life in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

Dunster Castle

Dunster Castle

Somewhere in the middle of Grade 3, the teacher, Miss A______, asked us to each paint a picture depicting an occupation we thought we would like to have when we grew up. So kids set to with their brushes and paint, showing what they might look like as a doctor or truck driver, or a nurse or secretary (this was 1967, so gender roles were very traditional).

My painting showed a figure in a tramp-like brown jacket and broad-brimmed hat, carrying a pack and grasping a walking stick as he strode down a road passing through green fields, with a hilltop castle in the background. When Miss A______ asked me to explain what occupation this depicted, I told her that it showed me as a “traveller”.


Being a practically-minded teacher in the Canadian Maritimes, she pressed me for a more rational explanation. Would I perhaps be a salesman, driving from town to town? Would I be in the military, or maybe drive a truck? Nobody made a living just by being a “traveller”!

In her own way, Miss A______ was probably the first of several teachers and guidance counsellors who would indicate that I needed to start living in the real world. She was also, however, a teacher who seemed to take sadistic pleasure from hurling wooden chalkboard erasers at my head when I was so immersed in a book that I didn’t notice her announcement that math class was beginning. I was thus disinclined to take much notice of her opinion, and I stuck with my description of a career as a traveller, who would travel to interesting places and look at things.

Universitetet station on the Tunnelbana, Stockholm

Universitetet station on the Tunnelbana, Stockholm

What is really funny about this story is that I was far closer to right than was Miss A______: in truth it is difficult to predict what will or won’t be a possible career in some unknown future world. I have made a living that, in no small part, requires me to travel to unusual and often-remote places, where I find, look at, and collect odd and remarkable things. Travelling to collect or study fossils is an activity that underlies all paleontological research.

When I got into paleontology, it was not because I was driven by that juvenile urge to travel. I wanted to study fossils because I was interested in biology, and I found ancient life intriguing. As I had always loved museums, and I knew that some paleontologists worked in museum back rooms and sometimes created exhibits, this also appealed. It was only after I was doing research as an upper-level student that I discovered a bit about how travel fitted into the work life of geologists and paleontologists.

Rain near Nuremberg

Rain near Nuremberg

Many of us travel to do fieldwork, of course, and that takes us to some odd and out-of-the-way places (some of them are “odd” in every sense of the word). I have done far less field travel than many of my colleagues, some of whom seem to circle the globe annually. Nevertheless, field collecting has taken me to England, the island of Gotland (Sweden), six Canadian provinces, and a transect of the central USA from Oklahoma to Illinois. Nowadays, of course, my field research is largely in Manitoba, but that still requires substantial travel  as the province is almost as big as France.


The modern era of accessible air travel has also become the golden age of scientific conference travel. If our science is to develop, and if our research is not to end up in some sort of scientific backwater, it is essential to collaborate and to expose our work to the opinions of other scientists. We paleontologists are a very spread-out profession, and to have the all-important personal interaction we need to travel to get together. If you are considering any specialty within the field, this really means that you need to attend global meetings.

Over the years I have travelled to meetings in England, Wales, Scotland, France, Spain, Germany, the Czech Republic, Russia, Japan, and China, in addition to various places in Canada and the USA. I could have travelled far more if I had not been the sort of person who actually prefers to pace myself and stay at home!

Somewhere in Thuringia, I think.

Somewhere in Thuringia, I think.

Nowadays, I find that I do fewer research-oriented trips. There is so much to be done in the lab, so many specimens that need to be processed and papers that need to be written. I don’t feel like I am getting old, but the time remaining to complete research is definitely becoming finite, and it is very hard to actually write when you are on the road.

Still, as last month shows, the road does occasionally grab me. It gathers me up and sends me forward, encouraging me to travel hopefully. Sometimes in the course of these travels I arrive at interesting places and discoveries. Miss A______ would be surprised, I think.

Gamla Stan, Stockholm

Gamla Stan, Stockholm

© Graham Young, 2013

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