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
 

When I was a kid, I sometimes wished that my family went on normal vacations.

Normal was what my elementary and middle-school classmates did over spring and summer break, flying to wave-kissed beaches or hitting flashy amusement parks. Not my family: My parents would load my two half-sisters, my brother and me into a big blue Dodge van with finicky air-conditioning and drive us hundreds of sweaty miles to exciting destinations like Lusk and New Castle, Wyo., Broadus and Miles City, Mont.

Amusement parks, as far as they were concerned, held nothing but crowds, noise and cheap gewgaws, and Mom, whose fair skin burned easily, was not fond of prancing about in a bathing suit. But the broad and sparsely populated reaches of eastern Wyoming and Montana offered clear, dry air, sweeping skies, and an intoxicating sense of freedom. Best of all, their badlands and breaks were scattered with the remains of the late Cretaceous -- mineralized seashells that in life, 100 to 65 million years ago, cradled tentacled creatures in the dark of an inland sea.

Decked out in long-sleeved shirts and pants, broad-brimmed cloth hats and boxy over-the-spectacles sunglasses, Mom and Dad led us across this dry country, teaching us the difference between placenticeras and scaphites, baculites and didymoceras.

To sweeten the deal, they booked rooms in motels with swimming pools, and when we were older, allowed us to bring friends who were curious (or brave) enough to join us in the baking expanses. Even so, we kids stopped going in late high school, more thrilled by the prospect of a parent-free house. With barter and bribe no longer necessary, Mom and Dad could finally pursue their obsession untroubled by our demands for normalcy.

So when, at 31, I ask whether I might tag along on a weeklong fossil trip near Casper, Dad pauses.

"How long do you think you'll join us for?" he asks.

"A day or two?" I suggest.

"Oh, good," he says. "We wouldn't want you to cramp our style."

My folks are not the sort of people you'd expect to find mutual passion in the dusty shales and back-road towns of the rural West. When they joined the local gem and mineral club in the early '80s, it was to encourage my older sister's interest in rocks. They had other scientific pursuits: Mom, in her late 30s with fluffy brown hair and a ready laugh, was a meteorologist; Dad, in his early 40s with a black beard going salty, was a solar physicist.

Dad never planned to settle beyond the 100th meridian. "I cannot claim that I was eager to be in the wild outdoors," he says now. The youngest of four, he grew up in a tiny Connecticut town and followed his brothers, father and uncle to Harvard, then got a Ph.D. at MIT. He would have stayed on there, but a teaching job unexpectedly came up at University of Colorado-Boulder, and he and his first wife moved to the foot of the Rockies. Even then, he stayed connected to the East, vacationing at the seashore or visiting family. It wasn't until that marriage ended and he married Mom -- they met at Boulder's National Center for Atmospheric Research, where they both still work -- that he began to learn more deeply about the place he had landed.

Mom was also a transplant. She grew up in Columbia, Mo., a tomboy among three brothers, two of whom were wild, high school football stars. Their house fronted lush woods where she picked Cheerio-shaped stones -- which she later learned were fossilized segments of sea-lily stalks -- from cliff and creekbed. At first, she wanted to be a firefighter, an unusual ambition for an 8-year-old girl in the '50s. Then lightning struck, exploding the house's chimney and part of its roof, and turned her interests skyward.

It was the topography that drew her West. "When I was a little kid, I always fantasized about climbing in the mountains," she says. So she headed to the University of Washington in Seattle for her own Ph.D. -- and for mountaineering in the Cascade and Olympic ranges -- and then to Boulder for her post-doc.

High Country News Classifieds
  • YELLOWSTONE TREASURES: THE TRAVELER'S COMPANION TO THE NATIONAL PARK
    Dreaming of a trip to Yellowstone Park? This book makes you the tour guide for your group! Janet Chapple shares plenty of history anecdotes and...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.