Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Monday, September 20, 2010

Lost and found

I've spent the last few days in the Bighorn Basin, which is the geologically interesting area where I went to geology field camp last summer. At the time I was there I made note of the places where I'd found fossils, in case I came through again in another 20 years and wanted to do some fossil hunting. I had no idea I'd be coming through the very next summer.

I wanted to do some fossil hunting especially because last summer, I'd mailed my box of rocks an fossils back home (I was taking a plane). And I had many good specimens:

...but the box never arrived. I don't keep much of what I find; almost all of these things were destined to become gifts to friends and family or be tossed into the back yard after I showed a few people. Still, I was disappointed to have lost them.

So here I am back in the basin. People from Denver have told me they found the Wyoming landscape boring and unbeautiful, which I didn't understand as I had only been to Northern Wyoming, with scenes like this:

My car is at the bend in the road in this picture; I am camped in the trees. Also, since I know Jordan (my friend from field camp) will recognize many of the places here, I must say, hello Jordan!

My first day out hunting for fossils, I found a pile of dinosaur bone. It looks terrible.

Only a close examination showed it really was bone; that, and the fact that it stuck to my tongue. (Many pieces of fossil bone will do this. I am not making this up!) As for its belonging to a dinosaur, that's simply an educated inference. I was in the Morrison Formation (yes, named after the town of Morrison, west of Denver) which is famously dinosaur-bearing, and the chunks were huge, obviously from a large animal. What other large land animals were there besides dinosaurs then? There were no elephants, no rhinos... well, maybe it could have been a crocodile. But I assume I was licking a dinosaur.

Some other signs of life:

A stromatolite. These are rocks formed from colonies of cyanobacteria. The oldest ones are our earliest fossils, but I think this one was only Triassic.

And a horny toad, which is a lizard. And well-camouflaged.

While I was hiking around in this area, which was one of the places we had to map for camp, I recalled that I had lost my space pen in spring of last year around about this place... at least, this was where I had first noticed it was missing...

Next to one of those rocks on the hill, I remembered taking off my vest and some layers underneath it (because we were climbing the hill, which was making me hot) and putting my vest back on and realizing my pen was no longer in the pocket. I searched the lush wet grass all around but could not find it.

Well, now it was September and the grass was no longer so lush. In fact, when I approached a rock that looked familiar, it took me all of 2 seconds to spot these:

Yes, my pen, and a pencil to boot, from more than a year ago. This was a triumphant moment. I had been extremely disappointed to lose this space pen as it was the only thing worth a damn for writing in in my field notebook; pencil smudged under my hand, regular pen smudged in the rain. The question is, though, does this pen still write after being out in the weather for more than a year?

So, ha.

The next day I went out looking for ammonites. Interestingly, the museum in town hosts one very large specimen found in the area:

It is five feet tall. One ammonite I found last summer was about 8 inches in diameter (I brought this one home with me on the plane, and so it was not lost), but this time I was hoping to find smaller specimens I could give to friends.

This spot where the ammonites are is a place my field partner found while we were mapping. I tried to plot it accurately on a map and to tell my instructors just where it was, but they could not find it on subsequent visits. I found it easily on my return trip and was amazed to see the coils of ammonites sticking out of every piece of rock lying around the pile. There were even more than I remembered.

Above, find the ammonites; below, the middle-of-nowhere location.

The specimens are really not very good, compared to those you could buy for $4 in a rock shop, and especially compared to those I saw at Badlands, but they are abundant.

These were Cretaceous ammonites; next I went to some Jurassic rocks where I knew I could find belemnites, bullet-shaped remnants of ancient squidlike creatures. I also searched anthills in this area, because ants carry up very small fossils from underground. Look what is here!

Those star figures, no bigger than the ant on the left side of the picture, are crinoid columnals. A crinoid is an echinoderm, like sea stars, and they also have pentaradial symmetry; their bodies are divided into five parts. But instead of just taking a star shape, they have a long stalk with fronds at the end. The stars in the picture are segments of the five-sided stalk. In life they would have been piled one atop the other for at least several inches. I have seen circular crinoid columnals before in other places but this was the first time I'd seen star-shaped ones.

So, here are the small fossils I got from the anthill:

Some columnals and some sea urchin spines. And the other fossils:

Also, some other spoils I had forgotten about: at the visitor's center in Buffalo, they gave me this gift package. Considering that I hadn't taken a shower in a week, I wonder if there's any significance to some of the items...

On my return trip back to town I stopped for a picture of this odd local inn, which for some reason has a sheriff mannequin heiling Hitler on the front bench:

The place is for sale, if anyone is interested.

It's really hard for me to believe that it's just been a little over a year since field camp. I feel like a totally different person. Of course, a lot has happened in the past year--a grueling push to graduation, grad school applications and visits, a big move, and now this solo traveling. I feel more like I was last in the Bighorn Basin about five years ago.

The next day I went on a scenic drive.

Shell Falls

Aspen turning in the Bighorns

The Medicine Wheel, a structure of some spiritual significance but unknown origin; you can see the many prayer bundles tied to the fence around it.

Then I went to Cody, WY, which is a nice tourist town.

Unfortunately, the Dug Up Gun Museum was closed when I got there, so I can't tell you what the heck it is. Probably just what it sounds like.

Cody was the first place in a long time... since Denver, I suppose... that I have seen hip people. I mean people who deliberately dress with some kind of fashion or intent to look modern. opposed to the herds of old men in jeans, tucked-in dress shirts and cowboy hats who sit playing cards at side tables in gas stations out here. Not all of the men in the rural west dress like that. All of the women, however, have long hair and lots of eyeliner. You do not see young women with short hair outside the big cities. I know I stick out like a sore thumb just because of my short hair. People know I'm not from 'round here. In Cody, however, there was another young woman with short hair. It was almost like being back East!

Among the many fashionable aspects of Cody...


Outside Cody I drove up a ways into the Absarokas, which are differenter than Wyomings other mountain ranges, as different as they are from each other. The Absarokas are volcanic and weather into eerie shapes.

Also, speaking of eerie shapes,

That whitish mound is a pile of hundreds of deer and elk antlers. I just wonder to what use those hundreds of animals were put.

My favorite thing about the Absarokas:

Enjoy Both!! Both what? Wyoming and beef country? Wyoming and beef? Possibly Cody Cattlewomen and beef?

But I left the mountains (cold, full of bears) to camp in the badlands that evening. Here is the welcome sign signaling I am entering BLM land, where I can set up a tent in what is hopefully a warm, dry place for the evening:

And my campsite, above. There was a lot of wildlife here.

A pronghorn, above; below, the three maps I use to find a place to camp. I have these three maps because I cannot get one map with all this info. At top is a national-scale map showing all public land in the U.S. This is the only map I have showing BLM land. The BLM does make maps showing land ownership, but they each only show a few miles' worth of land, and at that scale I'd spend hundreds trying to cover all the places I will travel. However, the national map does give me a good idea of which parts of the state have large sections of BLM land... and large means easier-to-find. The kicker is that does not have any towns or roads marked on it. So I have no idea where the land is in relation to anything else.

At right is my National Geographic atlas, which has many things, including all Forest Service Land and campgrounds, which is useful, and also boundaries of National Parks and Indian lands, all of which are public land that is shown on my national map. So I can match the two up.

The third map is a recreation map of Wyoming that shows all the little dirt roads that give access to the places I've figured out are public land. I suppose people use these dirt roads to find out where they can go ATVing or bring their horse trailer in to go horseback riding. I don't suppose most people drive out in their Corolla to go camp there. But some do.

Sunset a couple nights ago. The sky on the left, to the south, is cloudy; I think it's ash because last night I was in that dust and it smelled like pipe smoke, heavy and sweet. I know there are some wildfires going in the general area, I just don't know where.

My atlas and my state of WY map both show points of interest. Often I don't have time to research these before I go through an area, and I have found driving out of my way to see what they are mostly a waste of gas... not that they're not often pretty, or interesting, pieces of rock or history or whatever, but not quite enough to warrant the drive. However, I was glad I made the drive to the Gooseberry Badlands Scenic Overlook. Partly because the badlands were extremely colorful, even moreso than my camera was able to capture in the strong morning light:

...partly for the wildlife...

...a cottontail and more pronghorns, which make an oddly mechanical air-escaping-from-a-valve sound when you get too close... but partly for the visitor log, which was hilarious. One page:

Comments read, "Could not wait - had to stop for sex break" "Bang the old lady" and "Traveling from UK - no sex!"

Well, after all this adventure, I needed a shower. Thankfully, I knew where I could get one:

The State of Wyoming Bath House. What, your state doesn't have an official bath house? How are your poor, unwashed masses supposed to get clean? The Wyoming bath house is in Thermopolis, which is a nice little town that is host to a hot springs. Here you can have a free 20 minute soak (and two showers; one before, one after). And so I finally had a shower. I had been washing in sinks prior to this. There are many things about camping I do not mind at all--sleeping on the ground, occasional cold or heat or windiness or bugginess, eating out of cans--but being dirty is not really one of them. I do not find it particularly freeing. My scalp gets itchy.

Sadly, my day of relaxation in Thermopolis had a tragic end. Much later I realized I had driven off without my bathing suit or towel, which I had left drying on a fence. What can I say? They were perfectly good items and I will miss them. Perhaps I will find them in the same place a year from now.

Ironically, as I upload these pictures of Thermopolis, I realize that I took the one below as I was driving away, and that, in fact, my bathing suit is somewhere on the wooden fence below the hill.

But also in the picture, and probably more to the interest of most of my readers, are the fine travertine rocks that look like they're spilling into the river just as the hot springs once did.

Here is some colorful algae growing in the hot springs. Actually, it looks disgusting in person.

My foot, tonight.

Sunrise, this morning. I am writing this from the Fremont County Library in Lander, WY; tonight I will be in Utah. I will not say where I intend to go after that; you will have to see.


Mom said...

Cool that you found your space pen.

I like the anthill fossils best.

All well here.



Josiah said...

Oh my gosh! The space pen thing rocks! If I ever lose something in the middle a far away state and then find it a year later, believe me that I would be freaking out and inexplicably euphoric

And the crinoid columnals near the Seriously Joanna, shouldn't you be on the Discovery Channel?

Nice job with finding a free shower Thermopolis; I almost went there but chose Boiling River instead. And interestingly enough, while I too remember driving past that pile of elk antlers and wondering about the rest of the animals, I certainly do not recall having epic comments on camping logs of any place I've been. LOL

Enjoy Utah!

Mom said...

I agree with Josiah. Definitely the Discovery channel.



Anonymous said...

I love your blog! found it while googling'fossils cody wyoming'.Thank you for all the beautiful info! I agree with Mom and Josiah....discovery channel!!! Thanks again!, Cheri from Arizona

Linda Pelletier said...

Great blog. I travel a lot for work and lately have found myself in Wyoming/Montana where I'm itching to go fossil hunting. When I tell people this, they give me some very strange looks, like "you want to do WHAT?" So I go exploring by myself. I was going to ask if you record the coordinates of the areas you explore, but if you published them, the places would be overrun by people (like me) who like to fossil hunt! Oh well.

Anonymous said...

Loved you post comments and pics. Have just gotten home from that area back to the Piedmont of North Carolina. You have inspired me to fossil hunt when I return to Wyoming! Wishing you great adventures and safe journeys.