Field Notes Part 3, Week 8: Zhoukoudian


To: Pia Schuster

From: Evelyn Willoughby

Subject: Winding down

Dear Pia,

In five short days, I’ll be with you again. Our sixteen months have been cut short, reduced to only six months. Of course I don’t blame Andi or myself or anyone else (with the possible exception of Mission Control) for this outcome. We planned for everything, but could not have prevented the cave collapse accident. Even with our greatest efforts, so much comes down to chance. Our luck has left us, but we’ll still return alive and relatively whole. That must be regarded as a success, no matter what.

Can I confess how desperate I am to return, now that the date is so near? I miss the taste of fresh fruits and vegetables. I miss the sound of traffic, the murmur of other human voices. I miss reliable electricity, I miss the Internet, I miss the conveniences of modern life. Most of all I miss you. Will your voice still sound the same? Will your hand find its comfortable place in my own? How much has distance changed us; how much has the past remade me? I was ready to be the leader of this mission when we left. Now, I am desperately eager to relinquish these responsibilities. I no longer want to weigh the risk of every action we take. 

Still, there’s no use wasting a final week in the Pleistocene. I’ve been collecting local weather data, helping Andi with a limited bio-blitz, investigating caves, albeit from a safe distance. There are so many things I still wanted to investigate: cave art among the Neanderthals, more advanced trade networks, family relationships among different species. But those things will be for another achroniologist to investigate; I doubt I will ever return to the past again.

It’s hard to make sense of my thoughts for the moment. There is the urge to collect more, see what we can while we’re here. It competes against indolence and a desire for relaxation. We have done so much already; surely a break is merited. Overriding all else is the need to see you, to tell you the thousands of things that cannot be conveyed in writing. I’ll hope for one last letter with your name on it before we depart. I am counting down the days, the hours. 

All my love,



To: Michael and Deborah Chang

From: Andrea Chang
Subject: The final stretch

 Dear Mom and Dad,

In less than 48 hours, I’ll be back in the 21st century again. Who knows, by the time you get this letter I might already be back, and you could be waiting for my call to tell you I’m safe and sound and super excited to eat some Taco Bell. We’ll be on quarantine for a week to be sure that we haven’t brought any Pleistocene bugs back with us, but you can be sure I’ll come to see you as soon as they let me out. Maybe I’ll even bring Evie! She’s heard so much about you, she says she feels like she knows you already. Don’t worry, only good things. How would you feel about a house full of guests?

I don’t have much of an update to give this week. We’ve been wrapping up our work, going on brief walks around the Mystery Box to see the last few sights, writing reports, disassembling traps and weather gear. If not for the cave collapse, this visit to Zhoukoudian could be called downright boring compared to the other places we’ve visited. I wish so much that we could’ve gone on to Flores to visit the “hobbits,” but I’ll manage to live with the disappointment. We had encounters with animals that are extinct in the 21st century! We met bands of Homo erectus! We hunted and fished and saw a world that looks nothing like our own. I went six whole months without drinking any Dr. Pepper! 

I know the Mission Control psychologists are going to give us a bajillion tests and make us reflect on the experience, and then I’ll be busy analyzing what we did collect, and getting my ankle all fixed up, and re-integrating into the world. But I think after all that—I could use a vacation. I just want to sit on a beach somewhere and close my eyes, and no longer worry about being eaten. 

Love you and see you soon!