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for people who care about the West

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


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.

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."

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.