My first encounter with “hot trowel” Al took place at the bottom of a gravel pit full of mammoth bones, just outside Oxford. It was blisteringly hot. The BBC was talking about the highest temperatures since 1745 when records began. It had even stopped raining in Scotland. Really, it was that bad.
Al, 70 years old, had earned the moniker “hot trowel” not because of the weather but because of his uncanny and new-found ability to locate valuable fossil remains – horse teeth, wolf bones, and mammoth skulls. Hot Trowel was just one of several American retirees working to unearth the treasures of Britain’s largest elephant graveyard. And he was there beneath the searing sun in a landscape that resembled a particularly ravaged part of Somalia because of an outfit called Elderhostel.
“Al,” I asked tactfully after a few minutes of watching him chisel away at the dry shale, “Are you…um…enjoying yourself ? That’s to say, any regrets? You wouldn’t rather be somewhere else taking it easy?”
Al, sweat running down his sunburned nose looked up at me from the trench he was excavating. Arid wasn’t the word, but he did seem to have found himself one heck of a mammoth tusk.
“You mean would I rather be stuck back home in front of a TV wondering what to do with myself? ”
“No,” he said. And he flashed me a fairly convincing smile and got back to his work.
Frankly, I wasn’t in the searing hell that was Dix Pit to cover Elderhostel. I hadn’t even heard of the organisation. I was there to write about a different outfit altogether called Earthwatch. But the sight of Al doggedly slogging away in the “Jurassic Junkyard” and a brief chat with retiree Carol from North Carolina – “I chose England because I hate the heat. But I’m still having a great time!” – aroused both my respect and my interest.
So this column is in the way of a double header. Earthwatch first, then Elderhostel. Earthwatch is a non profit organisation that teams paying volunteers with well over 100 scientific projects world-wide. Earthwatch projects have resulted in the creation of 12 new national parks and reserves, the building and stocking of 9 new museums and the discovery of more than 2,000 new species.
No particular skills are required of volunteers, just appropriate levels of physical fitness and a willingness to work in a team. A robust bank account doesn’t hurt either. The sometimes hefty fees paid by a volunteer cover bed, board, and training and also maintain the scientist’s research.
In the case of the Dix Pit mammoth dig, the researcher was Dr Kate Scott, a South African palaeontologist attached to Oxford University. Mammoths, as you and I know were woolly. Big, hairy, bulge-headed behemoths that strode ponderously through the ice age impaling cavemen on large curved tusks.
Au contraire, according to Scott’s research. The 200,000 year old bones that were being unearthed by Earthwatch volunteers at Dix were indelibly mixed with warm weather species. Not only does this yield data that assists climate change research. It also presents the world with a different sort of southern mammoth. Short haired. Swift. Svelte. That’s palaeontology for you. A rapidly changing view of a rock. Dinosaurs? Slow moving, grey dull-witted lizards one year, high speed, parrot-hued, warm blooded (perhaps even hairy) saurians the next. No doubt an Earthwatch volunteer will soon unearth evidence showing dinosaurs had an advanced civilisation until a brash stegosaurus invented hedge funds and they all became suddenly extinct.
But enough of Earthwatch.
Elderhostel. This is one of those good ideas made flesh that just keeps going and growing. Founded in Boston in 1975 with the rather uninteresting motto “adventures in lifelong learning” Elderhostel caters expressly to men and women over 55. The founder, Marty Knowlton, then a teacher in his mid-fifties had walked around Europe for four years (as one does). Impressed by European community colleges and the safe, cheap accommodations offered (to all ages) by the Youth Hostel Association, he decided to combine both concepts for American retirees. Learning” is central to all Elderhostel programmes as is “hostelling” defined in Elderhostel literature as “informal modest lodgings.
220 elderhostellers “elderhostelled” in the non profit organisation’s first year. This year will see close to quarter of a million elderhostellers engaged in everything from studying tropical rainforest in Belize to restoring Mississippi plantation houses.
“ Informal modest lodgings” in the case of both Earthwatch and Elderhostel mammoth hunters entailed shared rooms in a nearby pub. The Court Inn was a friendly enough place but frills it had not. The landlord to give him his due had made some effort to provide entertainment – a melancholy little man with a euphonium in the otherwise deserted lounge – but chandeliers, tinkling pianos, and Jacuzzis and were as rare as a cool breeze in Dix Pit. The cooking was English of the old school. Actually very fortifying if you have work to do. Plenty of lard.
If the elderhostellers missed room service and coq au vin they did not show it. Indeed a sense of loyalty to the organisation and the current project was palpable. Even while enduring a euphonium recital and breaking rocks in the hot sun, either manually or with the aid of a small digger (whose previous assignment was unearthing corpses from multiple murderer Fred West’s back garden on Cromwell Road).
Although none of the team could match the record of 300 elderhostellings currently held by the dauntless Jim Quinn, several of the mammoth diggers were repeaters. Others were going on to join other programs after their two weeks in the pit was over.
My next encounter with hot trowel Al has yet to occur although I’ve bumped into other elderhostellers in some fairly extraordinary places doing some fairly extraordinary things. But I am sure we’ll meet again. Don’t know where – Elderhostel has 8,000 programs in 90 countries. Don’t know when – Elderhostel programs run year round. But when we do, hopefully it will be on a slightly less sunny day!