The fossil record: How my family found a home in the West

  • Photo Illustration: A placenticeras -- a type of ammonite, an extinct cephalopod from the late Cretaceous -- found near Ingomar, Montana, and a baculite -- another extinct Cretaceous cephalopod -- found near Newcastle, Wyoming.

    Peggy LeMone
  • The author (right) and her father, Peter Gilman, walk back to the family van after a long day of fossil hunting near Ingomar, Montana, ca.1995.

    Peggy LeMone
  • Peggy LeMone, the author's mother, shows off a baculite found west of Casper, Wyoming, this July.

    Sarah Gilman
  • Concretions -- balls of sedimentary rock that formed around some kind of nucleus -- like this one near Ingomar, Montana, often contain fossils.

    Peggy LeMone
  • Peter Gilman fossil hunting on BLM land south of Price, Utah in 2000.

    Peggy LeMone
  • The author rocking some sweet L.A. Gear hightops in the badlands near Miles City, Montana, ca. 1990.

    Peggy LeMone
  • Peggy LeMone consults land ownership and geological maps at another intersection with Poison Spider Road, west of Casper, Wyoming, this July.

    Sarah Gilman
  • A baculite found west of Casper, Wyoming, this July.

    Peggy LeMone

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Both Mom and Dad became addicted to the hunt in those first years. Dad had always loved collecting seashells; Mom never lost interest in fossils and had been forced to abandon mountain exploits for flatter lands after she was diagnosed with the same heart disease that claimed her father when she was a toddler. Their ambitions soon outstripped the rock club. The mineral specimens that were its primary focus were much harder to find than fossils, and the best of them were in old mines -- not great places to hang out with young children. Plus, following a leader would never be as satisfying as sleuthing out sites on their own. After a local guide led us on a crazy chase looking for a topaz claim somewhere in Utah -- Dad driving so fast down a bumpy dirt road that our family's van leaped airborne for a few stomach-churning moments, flinging at least one hubcap aside when it crashed back to earth -- my parents struck out on their own.

They joined the Western Interior Paleontological Society, revisited fossil sites in Wyoming that they'd learned about on group trips, and visited road cuts -- handy cross-sections of strata -- around the region. It was, they admit, an awkward time. "We had no clue in the very beginning about rules for private and public land," Mom says. "We thought it was governed by fencelines."

But, gradually, they became masters at scouting good sites, consulting land-ownership and geological maps and watching for buckles and rises in the landscape where erosion might expose fossils. They learned the regulations for collecting on public land and developed connections with ranchers who owned promising property. Mom meticulously recorded where they found each fossil -- information crucial to determining both species and age as well as to maintaining their scientific value and proving they were obtained legally -- first pacing out distances with compass and USGS quadrants, and as technology advanced, with GPS and mapping software. At last, she became a volunteer fossil preparator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, where she grew adept at chiseling away bits of rock with a compressed air gun and reconstructing fragmented remains -- skills she carried to the broken ping-pong table in the rec room that served as my folks' home fossil lab. There they would sit side-by-side in dust masks, peering at rocks under a magnifying lamp. "I want to be able to say to a museum someday, 'Here, take these,' " Mom explains.

As Mom and Dad learned the ropes, we began to narrow the scope of our searches. Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska didn't have enough public land; New Mexico was too hot in the summer and eastern Colorado was too flat. The Bearpaw and Pierre shales in Montana and Wyoming, though, reliably gave up well-preserved ammonites and baculites with feathery sutures -- oak-leaf shaped lines that delineate segments of shell growth.

We returned to places that bordered these geological formations again and again, watching thunderstorms stilt across the plains on legs of lightning, walking miles over cracked earth in hot dry sun or slogging through cow-shit-laced mud in pouring rain. We broke down frequently, picked up fossil tips from locals in cafes, slept on creaky beds, and visited rockshops and small museums that displayed dinosaur bones and taxidermied two-headed calves. I still remember the thrill of stumbling on some treasure or another -- a tiny baculite made of translucent, smoky agate once, or the perfect whorl of a glossy, calcified placenticeras the color of burnt sugar that I pulled from a dry mudflat when I was 15. I sometimes tried to capture that endless yearning horizon, darkened by clouds or glowing in 4 o'clock sun, by turning in a full circle as I clicked away a roll of film with a little 35 millimeter. Later, I would carefully piece the snapshots together into a belt of sky and grass to hang above my bed.

Along the way, Mom and Dad picked up volumes by Wallace Stegner, John McPhee and William Kittredge, as well as books on the geology of the Interior West -- matching what they learned in them with what they saw on the land. As their fossil collection grew, they got pickier about what they took and began paying closer attention to the birds that had always sung on the periphery of their enterprise, hauling binoculars and sometimes a spotting scope as they explored new ground.

They never wanted to move to these places -- they still live in the same low-slung Boulder ranch house where I grew up. But neither did they see them, like so many do, as blank spots on the map to be endured on the way somewhere else. "We never viewed (the High Plains) as something to escape from," Dad says: They were a place to escape to. "And we never knew anybody else who did the same things we did."

Lucy Fein
Lucy Fein says:
Oct 15, 2012 11:00 AM
Sometimes it is interesting where life leads you. I am a fan of fossils and I found a great site to trade for them. It's
martin weiss
martin weiss says:
Oct 16, 2012 04:07 AM
50 years ago, Craig, CO had a rock shop where I bought agate sea shells 100 or more million years old. They were exquisitely beautiful. That shop was run by an old man who roamed the area combing the land for fossils. It that shop still there?