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

Page 3

I pull into Casper on a heat-blurred mid-July day, dodging pipe-and-equipment filled lots and franchise restaurants until I find the chain hotel where my parents are staying. Mom pads sock-footed down to the lobby and wraps me in her arms.

"So we have some choices tomorrow about where we go," Dad informs me. "There's an area to the north by a town called Midwest. And then there's three areas to the west in a string along Poison Spider Road."

"Including one near the Rattlesnake Hills," Mom interjects.

"Sounds great," I reply. "Poison spiders. Rattlesnakes. I'll wear long pants."

By 8 a.m. the next morning, we're wending our way into a rolling sea of scrubby hills. Mom squints over three different maps arrayed across her lap, including a geological one which she has gridded by hand with latitude and longitude. Many of the roads splitting off Poison Spider are not marked on any of them. "Thank God for GPS," she quips gamely as we pause at yet another dirt intersection.

Clouds of cowbirds rise as we pass, and pronghorns with fawns stare wall-eyed at us before darting away to nearby hilltops. A group of Palomino and roan horses gleams against the white-yellow grass. "We're on waving roads now," Mom notes as the driver of an oncoming pickup -- the first we've seen in 30 minutes -- lifts two fingers our way.

Finally, we pull off at a low rise where BLM land overlaps our quarry: the Cody shale. After 15 minutes, though, we find nothing but smooth glacial erratics, the clean bones of a pronghorn leg and a glass jar full of dirty-looking liquid. We drive on until Mom begins frantically snapping her fingers. "Binocs!" she commands with the urgency of a surgeon requesting a scalpel in an emergency O.R. Ahead, a large raptor eyes us from the crosspiece of a powerline, then drops and wings away. Mom and Dad decide, after some debate, that it is a juvenile bald eagle, not a golden.

Four eagles, three redtails, two shrikes and one kestrel later, it has become clear that the birding is much better than the fossil hunting today. Then, even that peters out. We pass the Rattlesnake Hills and bump through the Gas Hills, where all we find are clear views of capped uranium tailings. Cattle graze languidly beside a sign warning that "ANY AREA OR CONTAINER ON THIS PROPERTY MAY CONTAIN RADIOACTIVE MATERIALS."

"We've run out of eagles," Mom observes.

"We seem to have, yeah," agrees Dad.

Undaunted, we head to another site north of the highway, pulling off on a jarring washboard of a road. Ducking one by one through a barbed-wire fence, we step onto a sweep of sloping plain threaded with gullies. Dad drops into the first draw, then yells, "Baculites!" before rising and legging onward. Mom lags to cradle one in her palm -- it's too eroded to keep, but it's something. She takes a waypoint on the GPS and scribbles in a notebook, marking the spot. Then she hikes on, swinging the aluminum ski pole she uses as a walking stick.

We walk over a mile this way, Mom recording data, Dad forging ahead, both bending periodically to the ground. I pause and let my camera hang slack for a moment. It's so quiet that the crunch of my feet in the grass sounds raucous. The sharp chink chinkchink of Dad pounding with a rockhammer is almost painful -- the past suddenly animate, immediate, alive.

That night, Mom carefully packs away the few baculites we found in newspaper, then spreads her fossil books across the motel bed as Dad snores in the armchair. We linger over a thick three-ring binder that serves as the whole effort's master catalog. In it, she's filed fossil entries first by state, then site, then exact location and date -- all the way back to 1983.

As we page through, she pauses often to reminisce.

"This is that sharkstooth your brother found on that trip in 1988 when we were driving all over Wyoming not having a clue what we were doing," she notes, her graying head bobbing. And then, "This is one of our first fossils -- the one you allegedly found by sitting next to it on the ground and starting to cry." The site where Mom got blood poisoning from filth working its way through a crack in her heel. The site Dad stumbled on a 10-inch-diameter ammonite -- a triumphant find that marked his 71st birthday this year. The long, engine-humming-nights of reading aloud or playing a word game called the roadkill alphabet, laughing over my brother's declaration that "farting ferret" is a totally acceptable entry for "F." I realize as we talk that, for me, the stories are waypoints of their own.

In a way, Mom says, the memories and the landscapes where they were made are one and the same. I look down at the book beneath her hands: a family history in fossils, pressed layer upon layer into its strata of pages, into ground firm enough to walk upon. A place to be from.