A River Ran Through It

From Rocky Mountain National Park, I was headed for Dinosaur National Monument. Anyone who has met me knows that I am obsessed beyond reason with dinosaurs. And, as a paleo-nerd, there are certain hallowed grounds that must be visited, certain respects to be paid. One of these places is Dinosaur.

I got a late start to driving on the day I left Rocky Mountain. After hiking to Big Meadows, I hit the road at around 4PM. Thankfully, I had actually checked Dinosaur’s campgrounds online before I left and saw that sites were first-come, first-served. Again, this proved beneficial, as it was the middle of the week. The drive up was gradually flatter and drier as I went north. Tall conifers were replaced by squat junipers and expanses of sage and grass. When I saw my first pronghorn, I knew the Rockies were behind me.

I arrived at the Green River Campground around sunset and chose a spot. Site 9 was right on the Green River, with a little trail that went down to the water. The site itself was small, but that meant nothing to me. I had a small tent. A harvester ant mound was bustling right next to my car, but I was mindful to step over and around them —not looking to cause trouble with the neighbors as I’m moving in. I met a man, Bruce, from Toronto, who told me that he had ridden is motorcycle all the way to Georgia and was making his way west back home to Vancouver. A retired geologist, we talked for a while about Dinosaur, and he asked about my job working for Green River Stone Company. Other people around the campground were asking if I’m “the guy from New York,” which led me to meet other people who graduated from Utica College and Geneseo. Small world!

Bruce told me that the best time to go up to the actual exhibit hall at Dinosaur was between 8–9:15AM. After that, he said, you can’t bring personal vehicles up there. It was valuable advice — I went up to the hall first thing in the morning, where I was one of perhaps 4 people in the building, including Bruce.

The exhibit hall itself is beyond words. In essence, it’s a 50ft by 200ft wall of rock jammed with dinosaur bones. The bones are clearly protruding from the rock, unaltered except for the removal of the surrounding matrix so that the public can see them. Some of the bones are scattered — such is the nature of fossilization. However, what makes Dinosaur so unique is that a lot of the fossils are articulated, or posed as they would be in life. Big sections of sauropod necks and tails can be seen snaking their way into and out of the rock, like mythological serpents of stone. Arms and legs remain bent at the elbows and knees. The perfect skull of a Camarasaurus, with neck vertebrae still attached, peers from the uppermost portions of the wall, as if it has been exalted by some paleontological deity. Among the scattered sauropod remains are stegosaur plates and bits of turtle, allosaurs, and other Jurassic fauna.

What Dinosaur National Monument preserves is, for better or worse, a complete picture of a very specific scene from the Late Jurassic, 149 million years ago. A hundred million years before the Rockies even began to form, the area was a broad, flat floodplain. The American west was a broad, flat floodplain, crisscrossed with river channels. One of these channels would become Dinosaur National Monument. In this particular channel, dead sauropods collected like a giant, reptilian logjam, trapping other dead critters with them. The channel was covered with sediment at varying rates. Sometimes, the deposition was slow, leaving more time for remains to be swept away by the current. Other times, it was rapid enough that articulation was preserved. One particularly amazing fossil from Dinosaur is that of a juvenile camarasaur, nearly completely intact and in its pose of death — it must have been buried extremely fast for this to happen. At any rate, the river channel lithified, preserving the mineralized remains of long-gone animals inside. This river channel, now turned to stone, was subject to the whim of 150 million years of pressure and transformation as geologic processes and tectonics chugged along. And now, in the present day, the river channel exists as a monolith in a semiarid landscape, to be beheld by people who can only dream of the land in which these animals lived.

In 1909, Earl Douglass of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History stumbled upon a few articulated giant vertebrae protruding from the rocks around the then-unestablished monument. In the decades after his discovery, an area four times as large as the present-day wall of bones was excavated. In essentially every great American museum, if you see a sauropod, the odds are good that it came from Dinosaur National Monument. The sheer tonnage of fossils, and the associated animals they belonged to, that is preserved at this site is astounding. Today, only a fraction of the bones remain — Douglass made it a point to keep some of the bones in the wall with the sole purpose of educating the public. Hence, the monument was born.

As great as the exhibit hall was, the monument has a lot more to offer than just dinosaurs. After checking out the bones, I took a drive to an area on the map that was labelled with one particularly striking word: petroglyphs. I followed the monument road over cattle guards and through the carved canyons onto unpaved dirt. A man, whose name I didn’t catch, was standing in the shadow of a rock, his eyes trained skyward. I pulled off to the side of the road and joined him. Before us was the artwork of a lost people — carved into stone centuries ago. The images were ancient, but strikingly familiar — a man, a sun, a bighorn sheep. There were symbols that, perhaps, we may never find answers to. From farther up the canyon wall, a carved man waves down. A circular shape — a boat with oars, maybe — accompanies him. These are relics from a time when the west was not dominated by cattle, and the rivers were undammed. What now appears to us to be land good only for ranching, devoid of water, was a paradise like any else. The rivers had fish of all kinds. Game was bountiful. The world was a wetter, more productive one. All that remains of that time are carvings to show that this was more than land, but a great place.

Now subject to the dry heat of Utah’s canyonlands, I wasn’t in the mood for any more hiking. Instead, I took the scenic drive that runs through the Colorado portion of the monument. The drive winds through upland sage steppe, overlooking winding canyons below. I had a personal agenda on this drive: I wanted, more than anything, to see sage-grouse. I’ve been obsessed with the birds since I did a project on them in Ornithology, and I couldn’t have picked a better time or place to see them. In spring, they should be performing in leks — groups of flamboyant males that gather on open ground to display to any passing females. Unfortunately, my hours of driving left me grouseless. I did, however, almost throw the brakes out on my car when I saw a chicken-like figure moving through some juniper trees… It was a dusky grouse at one of the scenic areas. Being a bird I had never seen before, nor one I expected to see, I was still happy.

I got back to the campsite that night and kept the fire going for hours. My prerogative that night was to relax and enjoy the time I have in the middle of all of this beauty. I took out my pillow and blanket and lied down on my picnic table, looking up at billions of stars — some the same ones that dotted the night sky of the Jurassic.

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