Brian Vastag Profiles a Dinosaur Tracker

brian vastag
Brian Vastag Courtesy of Brian Vastag

When Washington Post science writer Brian Vastag found Ray Stanford, an amateur dinosaur footprint tracker in the Washington, DC suburbs who had found an unusual baby dinosaur footprint, he thought he had stumbled upon a “nice little day story.” Soon, though, he realized that Stanford’s newest find was only the most recent chapter in a far deeper story. The more time Vastag spent with Stanford, the stranger and more complex his story became. Vastag’s tale of one man’s obsession, and the scientific beliefs he overturned, is a model of profile writing—detailed but restrained, exuberant but never uncritical. “Tireless Tracker Rewrote the Book on Dinosaurs in Maryland” appeared in The Washington Post on April 19, 2012. Here, Vastag tells TON co-founder Siri Carpenter the story behind his story. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)


How did you get the idea for this story?

Last September, Johns Hopkins put out a press release on a new baby dinosaur fossil that was found in College Park, Maryland. I saw that two of the authors were Hopkins dinosaur researchers, and the third was someone named Ray Stanford, whose affiliation was given as the “Mesozoic Track Project.” I looked at that, and I thought, “You know, that sounds like a guy. That doesn’t sound like a university project.” I thought maybe this guy was an amateur, and sometimes those stories are interesting. So I called him up, and immediately I knew that he was going to be a good interview. He was really articulate and very excited. He described this find that he had made, of this little five-inch hatchling. It looked like it had drowned on its back, which is unusual to find, and it was a species that had not been found in Maryland before. I thought this was interesting and it would make a nice little day story. So I arranged to go out to his house with a photographer.

As soon as I walked into the guy’s living room, I realized that there’s a much bigger story here. It’s like this river of rock—there are hundreds and hundreds of pieces, and there’s a dinosaur footprint on every one of them. It’s sensory overload. And Ray is like a kid. He wants to show everything that he’s found, every single piece. He’s probably the most interesting and unique person I’ve ever interviewed.

The photographer and I spent about four hours out there that day. It’s kind of infectious when somebody is so excited about their work like that. I asked him to tell me how this all got started, and he told me a story that goes back to the late 90s, about how he was out with his children and they found something that looked like a track. At first glance he didn’t think it was anything, but then went back to the same spot and he found more, and he realized that there were dinosaur tracks in the area. It kind of broke this orthodoxy. Experts had said that the geology was wrong [for dinosaur fossils], and no dinosaur tracks had been found around here.

So then a larger story began to take shape in my mind. This was a story of this one man’s amazing ability, but it was also a bigger story of how a self-taught person can overturn a scientific orthodoxy.

So I wrote that day story, and then I went back and asked my editor what she thought about me doing this as a story for the Sunday Magazine. She was really encouraging and supportive and said I should go ahead and give it a shot. I went and talked to the magazine editor, Lynn Medford, and asked whether she would be interested in this narrative piece about a guy who has a living room full of dinosaur footprints. And she slammed her hand on the desk and said, “Oh, I love it! Do it.”

I thought, “It was never this easy when I was a freelancer to sell a story to a big magazine.”

How did you vet Ray Stanford and get comfortable that what he was showing you was the real deal?

That’s a question that would come up repeatedly as I would tell people about Ray. But he kind of came pre-certified in a way. He published that scientific paper with these two Hopkins people, and the dinosaur he described in that paper is also on display at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. The dinosaur curator at that museum told me that he had been in Ray’s living room and that he very much wanted that collection for the Smithsonian. Once I heard that, I thought I was on pretty firm footing [and wouldn’t be] giving a huckster a platform.

After you decided to do a longer feature, what was your reporting process?

I knew I wanted to go out looking for dinosaur tracks with him. I needed to have a scene with him on the trail doing what he has spent thousands and thousands of hours doing over the past 15 years. He agreed to take me and a photographer out on the condition that we would not publish the exact location of where we were going. I thought that was a reasonable price of admission. So I went out one afternoon with him, and we splashed around in the stream for about three or four hours. And sure enough he found stuff right away. He’s got this weird way of constantly scanning the ground, and he’s got this super sharp eye.

He was so happy to have somebody to share this stuff with that he kept inviting me out to show me more. And the minimum amount of time he can talk is like four hours. I ended up going out to see him six or seven times, including that first visit and the hunting trip.

Your story is full of telling details about Ray and his finds and his home. What was your strategy for gathering so much detail?

I was just trying to use my notebook as a camera a little bit, just trying to get the visual detail down. But I realized at some point that I was going to have to reference photos because there was just so much. I was really grateful that I was working with a photographer—it was really helpful to be able to go back and look at those pictures when I was talking about individual tracks.

It must’ve been challenging to keep up with the flood of information. Did you rely mostly on recording or on handwritten notes?

Yeah, that was also a challenge. I relied mostly on notes. There were times that I wished that I had recordings of some of our conversations, but I was worried that he might have reacted negatively to my wanting to record him. For one thing, it would have been hours and hours and hours and hours of recordings, way too much to try to go back and listen to. I wasn’t worried about trying to transcribe everything he was telling me, which would’ve been a gargantuan task and not practical. I was more interested in getting impressions down.

When did you first learn about Ray Stanford’s other passion—UFOs?

When I had been looking for some of Ray’s scientific articles online, I came across some other references to a Ray Stanford who used to live in Austin, Texas, who was a psychic. It was pretty easy to find out that it was the same guy. That’s where I got my first inkling that there was a deeper story. The story was quickly turning into a profile about Ray as much as it was about what his finds were. So the second time I met him, after we went out looking for dinosaur tracks, we went back to his house and I started to ask him a little bit about that part of his life and his time in Austin.

Was he reluctant to talk about it? How did you bring it up initially, knowing that it might be a sensitive topic for him?

I wanted to get the timeline down, so I was asking him questions about where he had lived before he came to Maryland in the 80s—the kinds of questions you would ask anybody as you’re getting to know them for a profile. At a certain point, he started to open up and say that he had been head of an “independent research group” that was researching all kinds of phenomena.

I think as soon as Ray felt that he could trust me, then the floodgates opened. He started to tell me about his UFO obsession, and it was just this torrent of information. I asked a few questions here there, but I just mostly let him talk. He eventually just told me the whole story, going back to when he was 14 years old. I wasn’t going to try to pick apart his stories or interrogate him about what he was telling me, but I was really fascinated with how somebody can spend their life on this kind of obsession.

There is no foreshadowing of that UFO theme in the first two thirds of the story—it’s all about that dinosaur footprint collection. How did you decide on that structure?

I wanted to do a story with the theme of openness to possibility, and I felt like if I alluded to UFOs early in the story, that would kind of close the minds of a lot of readers and make it easy for them to dismiss Ray. I didn’t want to do that—and on the cover, I didn’t want there to be any reference to UFOs or any kitschy flying saucers or anything like that. I wanted it to be a surprise. I thought it could be the kind of story where there could be a twist in the middle but takes people in an unexpected direction. I’ve read stories like that that delighted me, where you get to the middle of the story and something happens that you didn’t see coming. If it’s well done, it can be really a delight to encounter something like that. So I was trying to give readers that experience. Also, I wanted readers to have an open mind that this guy was good at making discoveries, and then present them with the idea that he thinks he’s made these other, even bigger discoveries.

Did you hold off on starting writing until you were done reporting, or did you write as you went?

After each visit, I would just do kind of a brain dump of my impressions of the encounter and not worry about how it was going to fit into the bigger story. It was just trying to get the scene down. I think that’s so important—and I know other people have made this point on your site—when you have a scene in your head, it’s so important to try to type it out as quickly as you can, before you lose it. So I did that each time I was out with him.

The language of the lede, where you’re out hunting dinosaur footprints with Ray, is so cunning and evocative. At a sensory level, it feels like you could be back in the era of the dinosaurs. Was that something you consciously worked on?

Yeah, that was intentional, and thank you for picking up on that because I was worried that that was maybe a little too subtle. But yeah, I wanted to be a little evocative and to try to make people feel like they were in the time of the dinosaurs a little bit. I didn’t have a lot of words to try to make that happen, so I’m glad it worked for you.

The other thing I want to mention is that some of the photos that the photographer took kind of make Ray look a little bit prehistoric—the way he moves, and how he’s hunched over, it was easy to imagine Ray as a dinosaur.

Can you walk me through the nuts and bolts of how you decided to structure the story? What was your process?

I knew that I had these collections of scenes—the scene of him out looking for dinosaur tracks, and the scene revealing what it’s like when you first walk in the door to his living room, the amazement of what that’s like. For me that was such a powerful moment that I wanted to bring readers along. So I knew that I wanted to have that in there. But the structure took a while to figure out. I wanted to include the back story of how he got onto the dinosaur tracks in the region. And then I knew I wanted to somehow have this transition into his UFO obsession. I knew that was going to be the hard part, how do I give it from one topic to the next, and to integrate that into a single story that did justice to both areas and didn’t turn Ray into a freak show.

He kind of gave me that transition one day when I was sitting up in his office with them, and he was showing me some of his UFO slides. He told me that one day he was going out to look for dinosaur tracks like he always does, and he looked up and he saw this thing that he called “the mother ship.” I thought that would be a great transition. He just handed it to me. I wrote that in my notebook and put a big star by it, and I thought, I have to use this somehow in the story. That night, after I got back from his house, I wrote up that scene, and I knew that I was going to use that somehow in the story, and that ended up being that transition—that ended up working.

At a certain point, I realized that the theme for the story was going to be the idea of being open to possibility. That’s really what Ray is—he’s a guy who thinks of the universe as a weird and wonderful place and is open to all kinds of possibilities. He has this visual-perception talent. And the UFO stuff, I realized at a certain point it didn’t really matter whether it was real or not because it was real to him. His obsession revealed who he was.

The tone of the story, especially in the first two thirds, is very exuberant. You’re not shy about using exclamation points and asking rhetorical questions. The pace is very quick and energetic, like Stanford himself. Was that a conscious choice, to use language to mimic him?

I definitely was trying to do that. Some of it was maybe a little subconscious, because when you spend time with Ray, he just kind of rubs off. But I wanted it to be a fun story. I wanted it to be a little exciting and to convey the sense of excitement that he has. He’s so excited about all his discoveries, and I definitely wanted to try to get that feeling across to readers. This story really lends itself to those kinds of rhetorical devices.

What part of the project was most challenging for you?

Just disengaging and knowing when the reporting was done. It took quite a lot of time to understand how I wanted to focus the story. Every time I went and hung out with him, the story got weirder and deeper, and I just had this huge mass of crazy material and wasn’t sure what to do with it all. I had to pull back and realize that the story had to focus on the dinosaur stuff—that’s why we’re doing the story. At one point, there was enough material to write about 15,000 words. I have to say that Lynn Medford, the magazine editor, did a fantastic job. I gave her 7,000 words. It ran at about 4,200. I lost some scenes that I was sad to lose, but she did a masterful job of making it a faster, tighter story.

Is there anything else that other writers might want to know about how you did this story?

One thing I wanted to mention was that after the story was edited, the magazine editor said that she was worried how he might react to the story and how I’d presented his UFO obsession and how I presented him. We had our general counsel look at the story, not for a legal review so to speak but to give his read on whether he thought there was anything in there that could be troublesome. So we had this meeting, and the editor and the lawyer suggested that I give Ray a call and walk him through what I had put into the story and what I had left out, just to give him kind of a heads up so when the story came out it wasn’t just out of the blue. That was really good advice, because as I said, Ray is a really sensitive guy. He’s kind of defensive. And I have some stuff in the story about people questioning some of his finds and that kind of thing. So I just called him and had a frank conversation with him and told him there were some things in the story he probably wasn’t going to like and I explained to him why they were in the story. I didn’t read the story to him, but I kind of walked him through the structure of the story and mentioned the few things that I thought he might not like. I’m really glad I did that, and I probably would not have done that if I hadn’t been encouraged to by the editor. But I think for a story like this, where he gave me so much of his time and really opened himself up to me, I think that was a respectful way to handle that.

Your story seems to signal to the reader that it’s okay to be awestruck, to follow the lead of your subject and set aside skepticism because you, as the reporter, and other scientists, have already vetted him—so readers can just enjoy the fruit of his labor.

Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. I definitely was trying to do that to some degree. I felt like those moments of discovery that we’ve all had in our lives are precious human moments. And Ray’s life has been full of them, whether the discoveries are all real or not. He’s like a 73-year-old guy who’s constantly eight years old. It’s so unique to find that in the world, and I wanted to convey that excitement that he felt all the time. If that came across at all, then I feel like I did my job okay, because I was really trying to get past the reader’s skepticism and say, “Wow, look at this amazing world that most of us did not notice that’s just laying right at our feet.”


A glimpse behind the scenes:


Siri Carpenter Becky Appleby-Sparrow

Siri Carpenter is co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Open Notebook. Follow her on Twitter @SiriCarpenter.

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