Heard Around the West

  It's not unusual to find strange items along road shoulders, but David Shiffler's discovery along a New Mexico road last October deserves special mention. While taking a pee break, the 3-year-old toddler decided to do a little excavation with his yellow Tonka backhoe. According to The Denver Post, he came back to the car with a one-inch-square fragment, which he claimed was a dinosaur egg. "Yeah, right," replied his dad, who forgot about it until a lecture at a local museum sparked his curiosity. Sure enough, David was right, and as it turns out, it's also the oldest dinosaur egg ever found in New Mexico - an incredibly rare, Jurassic-era find dating back 150 million years.

When paleontologist Spencer Lucas asked David how he knew it was a dinosaur egg, he looked up momentarily from his backhoe work. "I just knew it," he shrugged.

Meanwhile, New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson is wishing his state highway workers were as alert as little David. He recently cracked this joke on a morning radio talk show: "Q: What's big and orange and sleeps four? A: A state highway department dump truck." Johnson's remark drew an angry fax from the State Highway Department: "We do not find this humorous," read the fax. "We take pride in our department and in our jobs. We are tired of the governor constantly demeaning state employees," reported the Albuquerque Journal. Johnson's office backpedaled with another wisecrack: "Q: What is round and brown and sleeps 26? A: The governor's office."

There is a highway project in New Mexico to make the governor proud. Since the state installed lights along Highway 666 four years ago, accidents have decreased by 30 percent, reports Indian Country Today. The credit mostly goes to Nancy Bill, a Navajo employed by the Indian Health Services. Because virtually all the people killed along the notoriously dangerous "devil's highway" were drunk Indians walking between Gallup and the reservation, state and federal officials had dismissed the deaths as an incurable social problem. Nancy Bill saw real people behind the statistics and knew something could be done; she badgered federal, state, Navajo and local agencies until the lights went on.

Now that Highway 666 has a better safety record, perhaps another road can claim the nickname "devil's highway." Washington state sports a few ripe candidates: Some road beds made of shredded tires are bursting into flames and oozing oil, according to the Associated Press. Scientists say they're not sure exactly what's happening to the submerged tires, but it seems that pressure, water and microbes are breaking them down much the way vegetables decay in a compost pile. It also seems to be a matter of thickness; the worst cases have happened where tires are piled more than 20-feet deep. A solution may be at hand: Dana Humphrey, a civil-engineering professor who encouraged the use of the recycled tires, says, "They're going to go in and take the part that's burning out."

This nickname is meant to attract travelers, not scare them away: Nevada state muckety-mucks recently christened Highway 375 the "Extraterrestrial Highway," and now signs are up featuring two spaceships. The highway borders a top secret Air Force range where the government is rumored to store alien spacecraft. "Trust me when I tell you there are weird things in the sky here," a local radio show host told an Albuquerque Journal reporter. "It's an appropriate name." As hoped, some 1,000 tourists and reporters stopped in at the Little A'Le'Inn in Rachel, Nev., during the April 18 dedication ceremony, to buy plastic alien statues and to talk about strange stuff in the sky.

Then there's this classic highway story from Jim Fletcher, an HCN subscriber from Nebraska. Some years ago, Fletcher tells us, his friend "T-Bone" was stuck behind a battered pickup truck on a Montana highway. When he finally reached a place where he could pass, the truck made a sharp left down a gravel road without even the hint of a signal. T-Bone blasted his horn and made the old man stop. "Use your turn signal next time," he yelled. The Montanan responded: "Sonny, I've turned at that spot for 83 years, everybody knows I turn there."

*Elizabeth Manning

Heard around the West invites readers to get involved in the column. Send any tidbits that merit sharing - small-town newspaper clips, personal anecdotes, relevant bumpersticker slogans. The definition remains loose. Heard, HCN, Box 1090, Paonia, CO 81428 or HCNVIRO@aol.com