Not Dead Yet II: Still Not Dead!

September 17, 2000

After a slow start, I head out for Dinosaur National Monument. The sight is incredible. Unlike a museum, these are real dinosaur bones. It is called a "quarry", where the bones are embedded in the hillside. A geology lesson might make things clearer. A long time ago (longer than even since the last time I had a date), this area was a fertile river valley, not mountains. In fact, before that, it was under an ocean. Outside of Vernal they have found fossils of squid, prehistoric crocodiles and other sea creatures. So in any event, this was a real popular hangout with the local 'saurs. Apparently the valley flooded regularly as well, and this had the effect of floating downstream the carcasses of any animals that got caught in the mud. The scientists know that the bones came from both local dinosaurs and transported ones because there are both complete ("articulated") skeletons and incomplete skeletons. The incomplete skeletons are a result of the carcass having gone through some trauma during movement, coming apart, or whatever. The climate changed rapidly (in geology terms) and the area got covered quickly, entombing the bones. Millions of years passed, covering the area even more, until it was a mile or more underground. Then the plates shifted, and the area got shoved up at a forty five degree angle until it came to the surface. The first bones found here were almost right at ground level, and the bulk of the bones have been found in roughly 20 feet. Layers of bones have been removed in order to get to the center, which is even richer in bones.

The site was an active research site until 1990. It was enclosed in 1950 or so, and the current building is only a couple decades old. By enclosing the quarry, the bones are being preserved against weathering. Only two or three bones are within reach by people, and these are open to being touched. Again, unlike museums that have plaster replicas of the bones, these are the real thing, 50 million years old. During the research process, over 350 tons of stone were removed from the hill, which included 20 complete skeletons and hundreds of individual bones. The quarry here is responsible for a large amount of the current understanding of this time period. As recently as a few years ago, new species of dinosaurs have been identified at this quarry. Exposed to the public are two complete skeletons (although not clearly identified due to the curling of the bodies and some being still under stone) and 1800 bones. More exist below this level, but research has been stopped. One of the charters of the National Park Service is to educate the public as to why taxes should be used to to do this research. Here is a fine location for that lesson.

Since with erosion and geologic activity, it is literally possible to find dinsoaur bones out in the park hills, I decide to do some hiking. Hey, I have no delusions, but it is enlightening to experience what the early palentologists were exposed to, as before the building of the enclosure the work was done outside year round. It is harsh, dry, and steep, and the rocks are quite sharp. I climb three hills, each taller than the previous, and after mounting the third one, I stop for a rest. Below me some 30 feet and maybe 100 feet away a bright red fox runs for cover. I watch as it scurries from rock shelter to rock shelter until I lose sight of it (with some trepidation, as I once had to use a broomstick to kill a rabid fox, and ever since I've not been too fond of foxes of the non-human type). Off to the left a prairie dog is barking at regular intervals. It is a barren landscape, the bowels of the earth shoved straight up over a mile above sea level, and almost three miles in some cases. A stumble would easily mean a half dozen stitches. Yet in this environment, Elliot Gordon (I hope I got his name right) knew that this would be a prime location for fossils, and after two weeks of searching in 1912, found what he came for. It is a great sight, and I will be back.

Further into the park are Native American petroglyphs, including a Kokopelli drawing. It is an interesting aspect of our culture that what is mass marketed as "Kokopelli" is in fact a much more sanitized version. The Flute Player, as he is known, is believed to be a fertility icon, and is usually depicted with large genitalia, often rivaling his flute in size. The legend generally states the he traveled from town to town, and married childless women begged for his time and single women ran away. The phalax aspect is almost always omitted. I doubt Walmart would carry it otherwise. One other aspect that is not shown too clearly is that the flute is not a mouthpiece, but a nose piece. This musical instrument is very difficult to master, and historically had been only for men. Today, few follow this discipline.

The petroglyphs are always fascinating. I do not know the origin of these particular drawings, but I believe I have begun to see a pattern. Typically they are described as "art," but I believe there is a different reason for their existence. In almost every case, the face of the wall looks out onto the valley below, in either direction. I find only one or two drawings that are in a location that can not be seen by someone coming up the land. There are many surfaces that are equal in quality that face away from the valley, and almost none of these contain drawings. The surface is black, due to some geological effect I am not knowledgeable about, and the drawings cut beneath this surface to the lighter color below. There are many fissures that have a chalky white substance spilling out, and my belief is that these drawings were once filled in with the chalk, creating a white on black effect that would easily be seen for three or four miles. It really doesn't make sense that the animals depicted are some indication of the food to be found, and I don't think these are religious symbols. I think they are messages to travelers, both friendly and hostile. If you're not familiar with the symbols, perhaps it would be best to skirt this particular area.

I am so fascinated by the drawings that I fail to see the oncoming thunderstorm until it is almost on the valley. Before the rain comes the wind, and the area has not seen rain in some time, so the dust is kicked up well into the air. The mountains on either side of the valley have the effect of funneling the wind, and the gusts are truly fierce. I pass into one burst and I am blinded by the dust at the same time my body is ripped by the sand. On the other side of the dust wall I hear a shrieking sound filling my helmet, and after a moment I realize it is me, screaming in pain. Quite literally the wind drew blood, as later I find a couple of spots on my legs that had been bleeding and it wasn't from any scrapes while hiking. Although I was wearing shorts, I brought my blue jean jacket for the pockets, and it prevented even more cuts.

Once I clear the valley I book it back to camp, managing to luck out and go between two storms, one on either side of Vernal. I eat lunch late, as it turns out that I was in the park for over five hours, and it was much too short. After lunch I go to the grocery store, and as I was checking out the cashier sees my helmet and asks if I'm riding a Harley Davidson. I say no, I have a Kawasaki, and she makes some face and decides I'm no longer worth talking to. I say "I've been thinking about getting one, though" and she returns her attention to me. She tells me she has a Harley tattoo and that Harleys are the only real motorcycles and I say, "Yes, I've been thinking those Harleys look mighty pretty on them trailers I've seen them on." She says something about "kick your ass" at this point and I smile and wink at her, laughing as I take my bags and head out to my fake motorcycle I'm riding across the country.

September 18, 2000

It may not rain much in Vernal, Utah, but that doesn't prevent it from trying, and try it does all night long. The nights are really great, and I love camping, but I'm getting tired of the middle of the night events, especially when they involve the side of my tent moving, in this case far enough to knock me in the head while I am sleeping. There were several times in the night when I said, ok, this is it, the roof's gonna blow and the poles are going to snap like twigs as twisted as they are, but the tent holds without fail. Well toward morning the skies finally calm, and I sleep at long last.

With the sun high in the sky, I awake and begin my morning activities. First up is Red Fleet State park, for the Dinosaur Tracks Pathway. Some ten miles north of Vernal, the ride is pleasant and entertaining. This area is an amateur geologist's playground. Every time period for the last 500 million years is visible in the fractured ground. The mile and a half path to the Dinosaur prints is not an easy stroll, but well worth the effort. When I first arrive, I am puzzled by not seeing a thing. I wander around for several minutes before starting over at the end of the trail. About the time I am considering leaving in disappointment, I spot my first track. Three clawed, and a foot in length, it belongs to a species that was around eight feet tall and weighed about as much as a horse. Once I see the pattern to look for, I spot dozens of tracks. I can follow several paths just by learning the stride length and looking ahead to where the next step should be. It is really amazing, once I understand what to look for. I even spot a set of tracks made by a small member of the group, footprints that are only a third of the size of the other prints but clearly of the same species, a youngster among the adults. The only thing I do not understand is that the geology is such that this area used to be underground until it too got shoved to the surface, and the different ages are clearly seen in the stratification of the slate, and all but one set of tracks are at one layer level, but that one set of tracks is some three or four inches higher in layers. It is of the same species (to my untrained eye) as the other trackmakers, but my understanding of geology would indicate that this set of tracks occured hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years later. The lower tracks would have been made during some transistion period between a moist period and a dry period, but it seems unlikely that the same conditions would occur in the same place and a dinosaur would again walk through it. So I am baffled and I plan on asking someone as soon as possible.

After lunch back in Vernal, I travel to the McConkie Ranch for some more petroglyphics. These are from a group of Native Americans referred to as "Fremont." They are much different from the glyphs at Dinosaur. These are generally of individuals, often elaborately adorned with necklaces and head pieces. One is holding up a human head, and another appears to depict a decapitated body. They remind me of Egyptian glyphs, athough not nearly as sophisticated. These too face the valley, and surfaces that are inward are not drawn on. One large drawing is high up on the rockface, and shows a man killing a bear with a spear. Another depicts battle with a mountain lion. These mus clearly show a celebration of a great event, and yes, would come under the category of "art," but I also wonder about the implied threat behind these drawings. If I am in search of food, and I come across the large drawings with the violent content shown, I figure the inhabitants of the valley are pretty tough and I'm going to move along quickly.

Again I lose track of time and am surprised to find that the Dinosaur National Monument has closed for the day, as I had ridden back out there to go back to the Gift Center to purchase some fossils for my ex-wife Cecilia, since she teaches eighth grade science. Disappointed, I figure that I will check with the galleries in town and maybe come back out in the morning, even if it causes me some delay, as I am still wondering about the footprint issue, and I know the Ranger at the quarry can answer my questions. Once in town I find one gallery still open, and it is a delight. The owner, Randy Fulbright, is an craftsman of the truest kind, one who learns his craft from old masters and develops his own style. His field of specialty is "Mokune Gane," which is a Japanese technique that loosely translates to "wood grained metal." Only a half dozen artists practice this technique in the US, and only two create jewelry with it. The technique involves first creating the billet, which is a stack of alternating thin plates of metal, one a pure metal such as silver, and the other type an alloy, with different alloys having different colors. This stack is highly compressed and heated while compressed. This causes the metals to bond completely. This billet now looks likes that chocolate mint that comes in a green wrapper, but three inches thick. The billet is then hammered flat and folded onto itself, over and over again, for 21 times. Randy shows me a picture of the edge of one foil that he made that was the thickness of paper, and it required 100x magnification to reveal the stratification that was still present. In fact, the scientists at Los Alamos contacted Randy because they could only successfully bond three layers, whereas Randy routinely bonds a dozen or more layers. To add more validity to Randy's work, recently he was accused of being the creator of some of the metal pieces that were found at the Roswell crash site. Randy takes the finished billets and crafts beautiful rings and bracelets with the metal, adding twists to the metal in a manner that creates four pointed stars within the lines. The real difference in his work and generic store rings is that the patterns are not surface etched and therefore can never wear off. I purchase a ring that uses silver for the pure metal and "shakudo" for the alloy, which is 96% copper and 4% 24k gold, and this combination creates a tan brown pattern within the sparkling silver band, with an almost invisible weld mark. He does carry some fossils, so I purchase a trilobyte and a fish fossils. The trilobyte is over 500 million years old, and the fish is something like 100 million years old. I also purchase two presents for Cecilia's birthday, one of which is some much less expensive jewelry and the other is a much more expensive but rare fossil that I'll describe after she gets it later this week. For someone I'm not married to any longer, I sure spend a lot of time and money sending her stuff. :-)

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