Fossil hunting

Aug 5, 2008

Woke up bright and early so we could be on the road in time to get to the fossil dig by the proscribed 9am. Had one last free hotel continental breakfast, where they made the waffles for you, then it was a long drive down a completely deserted US-30 to Ulrich’s Fossil Site just up the road from Fossil Butte National Monument. We got there around 8:30 or so, and were actually ready to go shortly before nine. We were introduced to our guide, Shawn, who is going into his senior year of high school and has no particular interest in paleontology. He and a few co-workers had already been up on at the dig site for a few hours to take advantage of the sun being low in the sky to see telltale images in the rocks that indicate the presence of fossils.

This entire part of southwestern Wyoming was once a vast inland sea, which dried up gradually between 60 and 50 million years ago, leaving enormous deposits of fossils embedded in shale. Various buttes around the landscape are owned by different companies or individuals who either do their own excavating or lease it out to others, and fossilized impressions of fish are easy to come by. Ulrich’s actually has a separate dig site for their commercial excavation, and keeps their own area just for people like us to try our hand at it. We could keep a reasonable number of fossils that we found, although they reserved the right to take anything that was considered unusual.

So after a short drive up a 15% grade in an extremely dusty truck, we were at the site. It was sunny but not too hot. The process basically consisted of breaking off slabs of shale horizontally, maybe a couple of feet square and an inch or so thick, and if nothing was revealed after separating the slab itself from the ground, then we’d set about trying to break it in half crosswise. Sometimes you’d find fish right at a break, or just get the negative image of one, fossils you would keep anywhere else, but here were considered inferior and not worth keeping. They provided the tools, essentially a large hammer and several crowbars that you’d use to pry up slabs of rock and then break them apart. it took a couple of hours, but we came away with a sufficient number of fossils, maybe 15, mostly between three and six inches long, that we considered it a success. Back at the store, they could cut down the larger slabs with a radial arm saw into more manageable-sized pieces, but there were still too many to take with us, so we arranged to have them shipped back home, which will probably cost a fortune but beats trying to get them on the plane in one piece. We’ll keep the best few and the rest everyone can expect to get as Christmas gifts!

Since we were just a couple of miles from the national monument, we made a detour to the visitors center there and looked around a bit, but didn’t take the drive or the trail. It was getting to be lunch time and we’d been up for a while, but the visitor’s center helpfully had a map of the greater Kemmerer/Diamondville area with several restaurants listed. We drove into town and found the first couple of places were closed, maybe just gone fishin, they didn’t look like they’d closed forever, but it didn’t do us any good either way. We did see on the corner of the town square the still operating original J.C. Penney’s store, which wasn’t very big. We ended up at some diner on the edge of town where we could get burgers and sandwiches that were pretty decent. By 1pm we were on the road with a full tank of gas and no place to stop before Denver.

The drive across southern Wyoming was endless, a straight shot down I-80 to Cheyenne of about 250 miles, then a right turn back on I-25 for that last stretch of 75 miles or so to the big city. I think we only stopped once, and we finally got some weather as we drove through the Laramie area with some scattered downpours and even a couple of rainbows. Heading south it still was trying to rain off and on, but we kept going until we got to Longmont, just north of Denver, where we made a return trip to Martini’s Bistro, site of our last meal in Colorado 3 years ago. I had looked up the address and directions the night before, otherwise I never would have found the place, since it’s off the main road and not near any major shopping area, but we got there about 7 and had a nice dinner.

Took one last stop for gas and some squinting at the map afterwards to figure out where our hotel was, but once we knew where to go we found it with no issues and were in the room about 9:30 and glad that we wouldn’t have to drive that far again. It was only 350 miles, mostly at 80 mph, but it seemed to take forever and now that we’re contemplating driving to Illinois for Christmas, which is 3 times as far and with a lower speed limit, I’ve definitely lost my nerve for long car trips.

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