It"s been said there are two kinds of people in this world—those who divide people into two groups, and those who don"t. Having said that, I suspect there are two categories of vacation packers: those who pack days or weeks in advance and those who wait until the last minute. I fall into the second category. My father fell into the first, sheathing everything in plastic bags. I don"t know what calamity he expected to befall his luggage. If he was terrified of an exploding tube of Crest toothpaste, wouldn"t it have been easier simply to sequester that single item in a small case?
Michael Novacek, an eminent paleontologist and provost of the American Museum of Natural History, falls firmly into the last-minute category, if a visit to his office at the museum the day before he left for his annual month-long dinosaur and ancient-mammal hunt in the Gobi Desert is any indication.
"My big challenge," said the scientist as he rummaged through his luggage in search of his good-luck cap, "is condensing these three bags into two."
I was curious what one packs for the Gobi, one of the most remote and sparsely populated places on the planet. "Most of my field equipment is stored in Mongolia," said Mr. Novacek, who has been making trail-blazing discoveries there since the early "90s—among them an Oviraptor, an 80-million-year-old dinosaur sitting atop a nest of eggs, and a dinosaur embryo. "I don"t have to take hammers or axes."
Food is a different matter, however, as the Gobi isn"t known for haute cuisine. "A couple of my team members left yesterday," he reported. "They bought a lot of stuff at Zabar"s—sausages, olives, cheeses. Some canned sardines. That stuff we go through in about a week or two. The most frequent meal is refried beans, which I love.
"Our Mongolian crew loves meat," he went on, "so every once in a while we buy a sheep. It"s very hard to buy a lamb. They cannot understand why you would do with so little meat on an animal. They love to grow them big and strong—and tough."
"What about chocolate?" I asked. "And vodka?" I was thinking of staples of my own travel kit.
"There"s plenty of pretty decent chocolate we can get in Mongolia," he said, to my surprise. "A lot of stuff melts. It"s regularly in the 100s. 110 degrees is not considered anomalously hot."
Beer and vodka is also plentiful in Ulan Bator"s supermarkets. Good wine is another matter.
And what about reading material? One of the joys of vacation—not that excavating for pterosaurs, a type of flying dinosaur, and mammals as old as dinosaurs (one of the goals of this trip, in a part of the Gobi so remote only a handful of scientific papers have emerged from discoveries there) is, strictly speaking, a vacation—is catching up on your reading.
Mr. Novacek, the author of several books, including, "Terra: Our 100-Million-Year-Old Ecosystem—And The Threats That Now Put It At Risk" and "Dinosaurs Of The Flaming Cliffs," said he"s looking forward to "The Oblivion Seekers" by Isabelle Eberhardt, a Swiss explorer who died in a flash flood in Algeria in 1904 at the age of 27; the book was translated into English by Paul Bowles.
He"s also bringing along "A Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet," a historical novel set in Japan. And "War and Peace." "It"s time to read it again," he explained.
Bandages are also a must. "We have some pretty elaborate first-aid kits," the paleontologist said. "There are scorpions, venomous snakes. We have taken doctors. If there is a serious injury it"s probably harder to evacuate someone out of there than the Himalayas."
Mr. Novacek finally found his good-luck cap—one of the rattiest I"d ever seen. It"s khaki-colored, I think, with a black rim, and features a likeness of a space alien over the word "Roswell."
"I borrowed it from a friend in 1998," Mr. Novacek recalled. "I find more fossils when I"m wearing it. He said, "You can borrow it; please return it." I don"t think he wants it back."