Imagine being out on a morning walk only to discover two fossilized vertebrae from an ancient creature, possibly a small reptile.

Now imagine that the two vertebrae, found near—but not next to—each other, fit together.

Only Jessie Dodson didn’t have to use her imagination. She made just such a find during Family Week at Ghost Ranch. And her father John found half a tooth.

“Jessie is an expert at finding things,” says her mother Carol.

The bright and exuberant ten-year-old, a rising fifth grader from Brevard, N.C., is here this week thanks to her mother’s birthday wish. And her penchant for baby wooly mammoths.

“One night when I was at a meeting at church, Jessie stayed up past her bedtime to watch ‘Nature’ on PBS with her father,” Carol says. “When she told me later about seeing the episode on baby wooly mammoths, she asked me when I was next planning to be out for a church meeting so she could watch the show again.” 

A member of the First Methodist Church of Brevard, Carol Dodson first learned about Ghost Ranch when she was a student at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, where she earned her M.Div. degree. She later worked there in the development office.

“I had heard so much about Ghost Ranch through the years, that when my fiftieth birthday was approaching, I told my husband that I felt called to the Southwest, so here we are,” she says.

Carol Dodson says the specific appeal of Family Week is that it offers “something for all of us,” including workshops in wellness and spirituality, opportunities for yoga and hiking, and—of course—paleontology for daughter Jessie.

It was during Family Week’s Tuesday morning workshop, “Dinosaurs, Fossils and Fun,” led by Ghost Ranch’s resident paleontologist, Alex Downs, that Jessie Dodson made her great vertebrae discovery.

Downs also teaches several workshops throughout the year on paleontology and the findings from onsite quarries.

In addition, Ghost Ranch’s Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology—built around an 8-ton block of plaster encasing dinosaur fossils from the Ghost Ranch Quarry, a Natural Historic Landmark off the Kitchen Mesa trail—houses not only the huge block of bones, but also numerous exhibits, photographs, and life-sized replicas of dinosaurs, Ghost Ranch’s inhabitants of 225 million years ago.

Some 1,500 miles and a world away back in North Carolina, the Dodsons own and operate the family business, Mud Dabbers Pottery of Brevard, where John and Jessie are among the Dodson family potters and Carol manages the business.

Because the pottery is a busy and popular tourist destination, especially in the summer months, the Dodsons plan to enjoy every moment of their week together in New Mexico.

After taking a guided hike this afternoon to Matrimonial mesa, Carol Dodson treated herself to an ice cream cone at the Cantina, Ghost Ranch’s snack bar.

It is her birthday, after all.