Monday, October 15, 2018

solitary hunter

The rock shop owner rushed in through the door thirty seconds after I did. He wore a hooded sweatshirt and a baseball cap, if I remember right, and glasses. I don’t think he’s used to customers, especially off season. I figured out later he lived next door when he admitted ownership of the two dogs who yelled at me and tried to chew through the fence out back. He said they’re sisters, as if that would help me understand and accept their ferocity. “That’s dogs for ya,” I said. He shrugged off my species-ism because, well, I was going to buy something, right?

Thing is I was already on edge. “I nearly got clobbered three times,” I’d told him earlier, referring to a crowded gas station down the street where just twelve days ago I’d had no trouble filling up and grabbing some milk. It was true: A dozen cars were competing for eight pumps, and one of them was out of order. Every time someone would finally leave, someone else would speed into the spot, shaking me enough that I gestured obscenely and barked like those sisters would in my near future. But nobody heard me.

The owner and I talked a bit about my trip and the various fossils he had in his shop, where they were from and how he had come to collect them. He’d lived in California the same number of decades I have but moved on some time ago. I wondered if I’ll ever come to my economic and other senses and do the same. The chips and squares of gray sediment with partial leaf impressions in a bin outside were from China, and the ammonites on the counter inside with their still extant opal-like sheen were from Madagascar. There were thousands of rocks in every room of that Craftsman home, but I wanted something that would remind me of that time in October 2018, when on an odyssey I couldn’t explain, I drove from one fossil site to another on my way to Wisconsin and back.

Though I’d had more unique finds in mind, I left the shop with two fish fossils in limestone collected from a quarry somewhere north of Evanston, near Fossil Butte National Monument. One is a Knightia, Wyoming’s state fossil and the most frequently found, the other the wide-eyed head of a less common Mioplosus, a “solitary hunter” often found with a Knightia in its mouth. I’m happy with my choices, and the owner seemed delighted to break the hundred I’d carried around folded in my wallet for two weeks — a particularly uncharacteristic act. I got some of it back in change, snapped a couple photos in front of the shop, walked back to my car with my 50-million-year-old rocks and started west.

My mood remained on the anticline that had risen earlier in the day and threatened to slide either way. Traffic was heavy and the sun was in my eyes. After dark I wandered around a desert town glancing sideways at drunken gamblers and revelers in the street, wondering why they were happy but not envying their lives. I see people and witness their behavior and get lost comparing it to who I am and what I’ve learned, right or wrong, as a child and an adult. In the solitude of my car and hotel rooms and inside my brain I dream of unobtainable things. Then in crowds or crowded places I continue dreaming but with a feverish tossing and turning of the mind.

Our nascent Anthropocene epoch has cluttered up the horizon with billboards, towers and turbines that scrape the clouds and kill bats and birds and the view. All the small towns are cities now except the ones imploding from inertia and abandonment. Snow that hadn’t been there on the way out gleamed on the mountains on the way back, and I caught glimpses of scenery through utility wires and above the black smoke of refineries and miles and miles of dust whipped up by winds, which at one point threatened to eclipse the Great Basin. The posted speed limit through Utah and Nevada was often 80 mph, but still bulldog SUVs tried to latch on to my bumper, and slowpokes became fastpokes as soon as I passed. Reno was lit up by brake lights on the freeway and casinos to the left — my fault for driving on a Saturday night. The Sierra pass where people got stuck in the winter a hundred and fifty years ago and survived with a bit of cannibalism now acts as a sluice between the city of California and the playgrounds east.

A yoga instructor on a podcast I half heard yesterday somewhere near Elko said traveling is good for the soul. It gives us time to look at our lives and rediscover our goals and values. When we’re not on the road we’re too caught up, the instructor said, in the day-to-day necessities of living, and we get pulled too far away from our true selves. Well, what can I do about that? It’s time to get back to work.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

historical lands

My detour from the interstate paid off, though for a while I doubted I’d track down the obscure treasure I hoped to find. Even if I hadn’t, the way the old Lincoln Highway glimmers like a silver thread across the golden high plains made the extra hour worth it. I must have seen three dozen pronghorn, too, and four more mule deer standing in the middle of the road, something I experienced multiple times when I left on this trip two weeks ago. I also found out the post office in Rock River, Wyoming, closes at 3:30 p.m. weekdays. I stopped there (in that town of 200 or so) after my second pass around to ask if someone might know where I could find a now-defunct tourist attraction of mid-century lore, built during the Great Depression and billed as the “Oldest Building in the World.”

I could have turned south a quarter mile from the post office and returned to I-80 in about twenty minutes. Instead I stuck fast to my alternate route and headed northwest toward Medicine Bow, of Western legend. About fifteen miles later I drove up to a sign indicating a historical site near a few abandoned ramshackle structures behind a wire fence. The dashboard thermometer said 51 degrees, but outside the wind was so strong I could barely get the car door open, and it felt much colder while I took pictures. I’d seen dustings of snow here and there on both sides of the road, looking like basins of salt, and now I knew why none of those areas had melted.

The historical markers were about Albany County train robberies and nearby Como Bluff, a monumental landmark of international importance because of discoveries made there by paleontologists 140 years ago. Crews excavated fossils of whole dinosaurs at the site for Yale and other institutions, capturing the public’s imagination as the young, religious nation recovered from the Civil War and took early steps toward industrialization and Darwinism. Were these finds in the Territory monstrous reptiles or mythical angels? Were they buried by time or by God? When I parked and got out with my camera, I’d admired the nondescript landscape, but until I read the sign I had no idea I was looking at a geographical promontory in the annals of scientific research. Now I know the bluff has been added to the National Register of Historic Places, and I’m glad, but my coming upon it was merely coincidence.

The attraction I’d hoped to find, by the way, known as Fossil Cabin, was off to the left. It’s barely mentioned on one of the signs and has seen better days. Its creator had hoped to draw tourists to his gas station, if I have the story right, and it remained open as a museum until only seven years ago. Now the windows on the four-walled structure are broken out, the cabinets are empty inside, and only faded dinosaur paintings and sagebrush remain, along with a sign that reads “Believe It Or Not.” Also, “No Trespassing” signs half-heartedly warn vandals away from the cabin and its unusual mortared walls built out of thousands of fossilized dinosaur bones, an architectural anomaly that from a certain point of view still makes Fossil Cabin, despite its recent neglect, the “Oldest Building in the World.”

Friday, October 12, 2018

back on the road

After four or five days of rain, the weather cleared up, but now I’m on my return trip, for much of the day cooped up in a metal cage going 75 mph. Yesterday morning the leaves in the upper Midwest glowed with classic autumn colors when the sunlight managed to slip past the clouds, but overcast skies remained until I passed central Iowa, where because of the changing climate, many of the trees are still green. This morning the gray oatmeal has returned, and I see windshield wipers when I look out at the parking lot.

I decided to stop in Lincoln, Nebraska, so I could visit Morrill Hall at the state university. Built in the early part of the last century, the museum contains fossils that range from the first signs of microbial life on the planet to a sabertooth cat (traded from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, of all places). There are trilobites and nautiloids, brachiopods, ammonoids, pterosaurs, fish and sharks and a handful of fantastical dinosaurs I’ve never heard of. There’s a massive Elephant Hall containing the bones of ancient mammoths, four-tuskers and mastodons — gigantic marvels more commonly found in Nebraska that in any other state. They and their relatives trod the forests and grasslands of this area and much of North America from roughly fourteen million years ago until the end of the Ice Age and the introduction of humans to this continent, and though this particular traveler along I-80 enjoys the seemingly empty hillsides, he finds it difficult to imagine a time and environment when such creatures were so abundant. He also finds it difficult to grasp the idea that the species he witnessed in that great hall descended from each other over vast stretches of time. But that is how evolution works. Small horses were prey long ago, frogs a few dozen times their current size. Grass-grazing oreodonts, once predominant across the land, disappeared millions of years ago along with entelodonts, the “giant scavenger of the Plains,” who existed for 21 million years.

So too will I be extinct one day, if it’s not solipsistic to say so. Humans may live another 100,000 or million years, but as far as we know, we’re the only creatures ever to exist on this planet aware that extinction is inevitably our fate. But this doesn’t mean much day to day. Foreknowledge gets tangled up with politics and emotion, denial and distraction. An exhibit on the third floor displayed a couple allosauruses and a stegosaurus, or at least their bones. These creatures that once dominated the Earth, particularly the latter, had tiny brains and likely minimal instincts. Did they worry about anything besides what was for dinner? Did they despise each other or love each other, watch out for their young or worry about their appearance or who thought ill of them? Did they watch the skies for asteroids and worry about volcanoes or the twelve-hour drive ahead of them to their next hotel? Oh, that reminds me.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Devonian delight

The Devonian Period fell in the middle of the Paleozoic era, between about 420 million and 360 million years ago, when the amount of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere was 75 percent of what it is today, and high CO2 levels kept temperatures warm and sea levels high. Nevertheless, primitive plants began to invest in real estate on land and build primordial forests, and diverse species of fish developed to compete with other marine life, including trilobites, brachiopods and coral. The earliest four-limbed vertebrate animals, tetrapods, crawled out of the crowded seas and began to take up residence alongside marshes and estuaries, a surprise evolutionary move that led to global gentrification. Future descendants would include creatures as distinct as the gastornis (a giant and sadly long extinct flightless bird), garter snakes, the naked mole-rat and yours truly. (We humans would first show up in our ancestors’ scrapbooks on the second-to-the-last page.)

To faraway and hypothetical aliens this blue orb hanging around the sun would have looked like a very different marble then. Euramerica was still debating whether or not to hook up with her bigger planetmate Gondwanaland, and Pangaea remained a mere twinkle in the Carboniferous period’s eye. Places we now call the Midwest and Mississippi River valley were covered by shallow seas that, sometime later in the period, began to dabble with acidification that helped lead to the Late Devonian extinction. Then nothing of real interest happened until the middle of the 19th century, when workers at the quarry of a brick and tile business outside of Rockford, Iowa, discovered “seashells” discrete from the red clay that was the company’s bread and butter. A century and a half after that, conservationists working to preserve prairie habitat in the Hawkeye State turned the defunct quarry into a county preserve, and the Floyd County Fossil & Prairie Center came into being.

I rolled in after a gray drive from the west at 10:30 in the morning, but a sign on the museum door said it was closed until 1 p.m., and the breeze was a bit chilly. I dug out my winter coat from the trunk and put on some gloves and a knit cap and headed off toward a field with a pathway mowed out of the tall green grass. I thought I’d have the place to myself, at least, to wander around the acreage and take some pictures, but as I neared the trailhead, I began to hear children squealing and shouting back and forth in excitement. A minute later I came upon a weathered sign that said, “Start Collecting!” and at that moment everything changed. I glanced down and immediately spotted a seashell-shaped stone about the size of a dime beside my right foot and picked it up. Sure enough, it was the fossil of a 365-million-year-old brachiopod.

This was a bit of a surprise. I hadn’t known the quarry grounds were open to collectors. The truth is I hadn’t researched the site at all. I pocketed my prize and walked a bit further, climbed to the top of a ridge and found dozens of people scrambling over piles of rocks and gravel and scouring the open quarry as if on the hunt for gold. A couple days of rain had eroded and shifted the soil, so new finds were likely, and folks had parked in a different lot down the road and come from the opposite direction, turning the drizzly morning into a family outing. I steered away from the dads and kids on the vertical cliffs and the women hanging back near the water down below and stuck to gulleys and eroded ravines closer to the top. For the next hour and a half I dug my cold fingers into the mud and filled my coat pocket with fossilized evidence of that Devonian inland sea: nothing uncommon, nothing spectacular, but a few dozen pieces of ancient history to keep for myself.

What drove me to collect these fossils, squinting through the wrong glasses, muddying my shoes, the fingers of my right hand numb? I don’t have a need for any more rocks, and the ones I found on Saturday morning certainly aren’t of any value. Marine shells from the distant past are the most common fossils in the world. And yet I can’t help picking up rocks when I like them — I still have quite a few I found as a child. Maybe it’s a compulsion brought on by instinct: The inherent fragility of life on this planet is found within rocks, and fossils in particular tell fascinating stories. But that’s just intellectual posturing. At my age I should know better than to overthink what I enjoy. It’s a terrible habit that ruins all the fun.

Friday, October 05, 2018

grassland finds

I filled three sheets of paper from a hotel notepad writing down the route numbers I needed to wind my way to northeast Nebraska. I thought it would be easier than squinting at screen grabs on my phone or fiddling with the road atlas at 65 mph, but I ended up doing both of those things as well. Some places worth seeing are still difficult to find, despite social media’s efforts to turn obscure natural treasures and historical sites into can’t-miss commodities. But there’s no way to stop an epidemic after everyone’s caught the bug. Our world’s mapped out, and pretty soon driving itself will become obsolete. We’ll plug in the coordinates, and Elon Musk will whisk us away.

Thinking about the future can get a bit depressing. One thing a map can’t tell you is how to navigate your way out of the doldrums. Sometimes you can only just sit there for a while until a breeze picks up. Friday morning’s breeze was my trip “just in time” to a state park, which closes for the season next week. I chose the place based on a brief glance at its website, and I wrote from California to make sure it would be open. I deliberately didn’t look too closely at what kind of fossils I’d be seeing after the ranger let me know the lights would still be on. Two school buses were parked on the far end of the lot when I arrived three weeks later, and a few dozen students were milling about, so I almost spun around and headed on to Iowa. But instead of turning all avian dinosaur again, I parked and paid the 15 bucks and killed time checking out trees and sculptures outside the visitor center. The kids left about half an hour later, and I followed a walkway downhill toward a large structure beside empty gray patches on the ground. A placard indicated that National Geographic had dug up bones from those patches in 1977 and ‘78, and red flags marked the spots in what I considered a rather lackadaisical fashion. One might see similar flags sticking out of the ground above a buried utility line. A slightly larger yellow one, just as nondescript, indicated the first discovery more than 40 decades ago of the skull — and later entire skeleton — of a 12-million-year-old rhinoceros.

In Utah a few days ago I felt underwhelmed by the sight of multiple dinosaurs stacked from floor to ceiling embedded in the mountain rock. Maybe the number of people, the grayness and the heat outside conspired to flatten my reaction to what is akin to the mother lode of fossil discoveries. But once inside the door at the Nebraska site I felt much more engaged. Paleontologists from a university are unearthing an entire herd of rhinoceroses lost to the fallen ash of a distant volcano, along with other animals that essentially starved and suffocated because of that event so long ago. I spoke to a student at work painstakingly removing the ash from an early horse, and I asked her if she found the work gratifying. “There’s nothing better,” she said. She was barefoot in order to avoid stepping on the delicate excavations, and I asked her about the ash. “It’s glass, but it’s soft,” she said. “Daniel has a jar. He can let you see what it feels like.” Just then, a tall, gangly young man with an adam’s apple like a walnut walked up. “Here’s Daniel now,” I said. “How do you know my name?” “Well,” I said, “she just mentioned you, and it’s on your name tag.” That seemed to placate him, but I didn’t quite yet feel that I’d established myself as the dominant weirdo, so later, after touching “using two fingertips” the smooth but gritty ash in the jar, I asked him if I had to give back the stuff that stuck to my skin, and later still I asked if he ever feels sorry for the rhinoceroses even though it’s been a while since they died. That put me on top.

I myself kind of did feel sorry for those rhinos. Daniel pointed out a mother and her “baby,” the parent curled around her child as they died. A few dozen or so other animals were marked with numbers throughout the ashy gravesite, half exposed to gawkers like me. That’s the thing about animal fossils, no matter the epoch. All we really know about these creatures is the contour of their bones and the traces they left while alive. We know little of their flesh, and about their lives we can only speculate, our guesses based not on direct observation but on the hypothesis that, despite the difference of millions of years, their world and ours have things in common. I guess thinking about the past can get a bit depressing, too.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

fellow student

It was raining when I got up this morning at a mountain lodge, cheaper off season in an overdeveloped ski town in northern Colorado. I drove on slick mountain roads through a forest exploding in yellow and orange. Later I climbed out of Laramie during a lightning-stoked thunderstorm, steered my way past countless semi trucks and witnessed multiple rainbows on my way into Nebraska. Now I’m more than 1,800 miles from Salinas in a tiny agricultural town surrounded by open hills. At the Sinclair service station, I heard a familiar language behind me and saw a woman who could be one of my neighbors. I mentioned this to the hotel clerk and spent the next 25 minutes inching away from a rambling rant about much of what’s wrong with America today. Most of the poor clerk’s complaints had nothing to do with the woman using her mother tongue to harangue her teenage son in the pickup truck while I filled up a few yards away.

I’m not one to argue that society is changing or that a cohesive one no longer seems to exist. I miss good manners and integrity and humility, and they were never that common. I don’t know what happened to the schoolyard bullies of my youth, but if I were to put money on it I’d say they hooked up and reproduced. Is it the case that people treat each other with less respect in all directions or is it just a matter of perception? One might say we benefit from enormous shifts in cultural attitudes. Another might say we’ve gone to far. At the University of Wyoming today I walked past a sign for the office of “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion” on my way to the Geology Museum, a gem (wink) of a place with a 75-foot Apatosaurus skeleton and multiple other delights on display. Outside the building in front of a full-scale metal sculpture of a T-Rex I encountered another familiarity: a gaggle of Pokemon Go players intently tapping on their phones. When I mentioned this to the nice young college students at the desk inside, I received no disquisition on the ills that plague our ailing nation. Instead I got a laugh.

I feel odd around college students these days, and I don’t know why. All my life I’ve spent my time with older people. Everyone grows older, so now those people are in their 70s and 80s. But if I were to spend time with 20- or 30-somethings people would eye me strangely, even cynically, and so even though I’d like to know younger people I hesitate to do so … and, also, I don’t play Pokemon Go.

I meant to take a picture of the Sinclair dinosaur logo when I was at that station here in Broken Bow, but I was distracted. Without WiFi my phone won’t connect, so it’s difficult to navigate. I have paper maps, though, and because I’m “of a certain age,” I know how to unfold a big sheet of paper. In the morning I’m headed to a state park three hours from here, where paleontologists dig up fossilized evidence of a different time on this continent, one of many eras unrecognizable to the inhabitants here today.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

mud and bones

I’ve turned my corduroys inside out so I won’t get red clay on the rest of my clothes in the suitcase. I’ll let the mud dry on my shoes and slough off on its own. The “dry wash” of the Sound of Silence trail was anything but, and the name of the trail had issues too — I heard insects, I heard jet planes — though I did have those two hours mostly to myself.

Earlier in the day I’d encountered more fellow tourists than expected, mostly 60-something couples engaged in verbal arm tugging. I’m sure the place gets a lot busier and more obnoxious in the summer. These folks were mostly fit and friendly, maybe even the guy who insisted I “go ahead” on a narrow vertical path alongside a cliff embedded with ancient clams and remnants of dinosaur bones I couldn’t find. Maybe I was mad at him for his chattiness and because he pointed out to his wife a very obvious line of vertebrae a few yards up before I had the chance to discover it for myself, although I was looking all over that damned wall. Instead of gratefully passing, I said, “I was about to say the same thing.” They were headed upward, and I down, and it seemed to me they could pass more safely. Oh, well. I grumbled something and took the offer, chastised myself for being moody and rejoined the main trail leading to the Dinosaur Quarry Exhibit Hall. Built in the 50s and recently renovated, the massive wood and glass structure encases an expansive wedge of the Morrison Formation scattered from wall to wall with 149-million-year-old dinosaur remains, apparently including allosaurus, diplodocus and stegosaurus bones. I’m straining to do justice to the scale here — think of a floor-to-ceiling aquarium tank and multiply by ten — because the exhibit is like a sepia version of that aquarium tank, and none of the dinosaurs move, of course, or appear recognizable to a layperson.

On my way to the next hotel (somewhere in the middle of northern Colorado), I listened to more podcasts. One was an interview with a biographer who told about President Harry Truman’s unusual ability to find his way even though he agreed with his own detractors that he appeared too unassuming and reserved to make a great leader. Another was a 1935 Lux Radio Theater program about Louis Pasteur starring Paul Muni. It recounted how the French scientist looked where no one else was looking and discovered the anthrax vaccine and helped introduce germ theory, saving millions upon millions of lives.

Tonight I know where I am on the map, but I arrived after dark, so I have no idea what it looks like outside. I’m guessing there are mountains because there are some lights way up high that aren’t stars. For tens of millions of years the fossil bones in Dinosaur National Monument were visible, lifted by earthquakes and tectonic activity and exposed to daylight, but nobody noticed until 1909, when Earl Douglass went in search of great lizards for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. I suppose you really need time, persistence and luck on top of a healthy sense of self-confidence to do anything of importance, if anything is important, given the incomprehensible vastness of geologic time and beyond. There was a quote in the Lux podcast spoken by Muni that would be appropriate here, but I searched back and forth across the 59-minute show and can’t find it. I guess that’s just as appropriate.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

die-offs preserved

I drove away from the far right glaring, garish edge of Nevada at 9:24 a.m. with a large coffee from McDonald’s. Google said my next destination was four hours away, but I’d mapped out my own roundabout route to see more of the backcountry. I passed Great Salt Lake and the immaculate city to its east and the autumn foliage east of that, turned north in Evanston, Wyoming, and took a forgotten highway through several spare and rusting towns … and still rolled to a stop in the parking lot at 1:24 p.m.

I added Fossil Butte National Monument to my itinerary only a few days before I left. I was looking at books on my shelf to see if there was anything I should give to my sister, and I noticed one I plan to keep called “The Lost World of Fossil Lake.” It depicts a subtropical, lush environment 52 million years ago, after the “end” of the dinosaurs, where ancestors of modern-day fish, turtles, crocodiles, horses, bats and other animals enjoyed a prehistoric idyll of a warmer, wetter North America. The book praises the museum at the park’s visitor center, and it didn’t disappoint: Walls of fossils and casts of more rare preservations are on display along with multimedia presentations that document the area’s geology, early Eocene ecosystem and more recent history.

I was there in time to join the park ranger’s 2 p.m. lecture about the five mass extinctions that redefined the Earth. He spoke in scientific detail about the reasons behind cataclysmic die-offs of flora and fauna — and the slow, anarchical resumption of biodiversity that follows — which always involve big changes to the environment, often from volcanism and the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. There isn’t much volcanism today, relative to the massive magma expulsion in Siberia scientists believe caused the Permian-Triassic extinction 250 million years ago. And our planet hasn’t encountered any asteroids lately (we’d have noticed), but our oceans are acidifying, the coral reefs are bleaching, the ice caps are melting and CO2 levels are rising faster than at any time outside of previous mass extinction events. He only touched on that at the end.

The three children visiting from Australia grew bored and wandered away to stomp on nearby puddles. The ranger mentioned to me later he’d heard an elk bugle in the distance when we’d started talking about ammonites and how they disappeared at the same time as Tyrannosaurus Rex, and sure enough he showed me through a telescope some 20 elk resting on the ground about halfway up the limestone bluff in the distance. Just before I’d arrived at the park a rainstorm washed away the thousand or so bug splats on my car windshield. It sprinkled a bit as the ranger walked us through the late Devonian extinction, but other than that for the three hours I spent there including my hike on the aspen-dappled Nature Trail, I didn’t have any trouble with rain. It only returned and remained during my three-and-a-half-hour drive to Dinosaur Inn in Vernal, Utah, a quiet, well-appointed place to sleep across the street from the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum. It opens at 9 a.m.

Monday, October 01, 2018

dead end at the beginning

“There’s no snow on the Sierras.” That was the first thing I thought when I left South Lake Tahoe this morning. I noticed the gray granite mountaintops on the horizon, but I can’t remember looking at the lake. I drove alongside the shore on Highway 50, but if I glanced at the water at all, the color would be in my memory. It’s not. Why is that? Have I really lived so long I’ve begun to take iconic America for granted?

I was watching the traffic, of course, and besides regretting global warming and wondering if rain is on the way, I was thinking of the friends (and family) I’d just visited and the trip ahead of me. The sign on the door of the wooden cabin of my imagination says, “Gone fossil huntin’.” That was an early goal today, but three hours and several podcasts later I found myself doing a Y-turn on a narrow gravel road the width of a loveseat. For the first time I tested the “M2” gear of my car to climb back up from what might have been a record-breaking rollover should I have followed the downhill route to where it allegedly leads — a mystical hill of ammonites preserved in as inconspicuous a spot on the map as an extinct group of mollusks could plan several hundred million years in advance.

My chickening out has its own sort of irony considering I’m on the hunt for fossils. Chickens, it turns out, like all other 10,000 species of birds, are dinosaurs. Come to think of it, my friend (maternal figure) Donna packed two boiled dinosaur eggs in my lunch. But ammonites are not dinosaurs. My lack of four-wheel drive and courage may have prevented me from seeing those on this trip. There will be dinosaurs though. Tomorrow I’m going to see some fossils from a more recent age — sea creatures and other more familiar animal ancestors on a butte in southwest Wyoming — and I should see some dinosaur bones and excavation sites later in the week.

Also I hope to find a fossil or two on my own. I want to bring home a small souvenir from my 5,000-mile trek. The fossil hill in Nevada remains like Shangri La, but there’s a quarry in my future in Minnesota, if I time things right and the weather cooperates. That adventure, if it happens, is more than a week away.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Santa Ana Zoo

In the left-hand pocket of Orange County's 5 and 55 freeways, a small, urban park conceals beneath rain-forest flora the Santa Ana Zoo, a blighted gem of cages and artificial rock, as dusty and frivolous as it is enticing to anyone with 4 bucks and some free time after 2 o'clock.

When founded 60 years ago, the zoo's main mission was to house at least 50 monkeys at all times. The many primate cages remain a highlight despite their unkempt manner, and the gardens, a meandering train and a new two-acre grassland, "Tierra de las Pampas," reveal the stops and starts of improvement. It is a city-owned park, after all, marked by the neglect and enthusiasm unique to government-run public projects.

While the zoo does not host the spectacle--or big animals--of nearby mega-zoos like those in San Diego and Los Angeles, it's still worth a visit, particularly to support its conservation efforts, including the breeding of endangered golden lion tamarins. These engaging creatures squeak to their audience as if attempting conversation, climb as if called to perform, and then--distracted by a questionable morsel or bored with their company--turn away with charming indifference.

Because of the zoo's proximity to major transportation corridors, the constant rush of traffic is unavoidable. The animals don't seem to mind the incessant white noise, except for the camels (wayward guests for the summer). They alone appeared nervous.