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Dinosaur Burial Ground

By Lorelis

Ankle-deep in ochre dirt, I stand alone under the impossibly blue Utah sky. No trees are in sight, no waterfall sings its silver song in the distance, no graceful deer bound away from the sound of my footsteps. It's hot as hell and far removed from the cool, green, mountainous retreats that stir my heart. A million tiny black flies feast on my arms in frenzied gluttony, rivulets of salty sweat run down my sides and gritty red dust covers my skin. There's a pebble in my shoe. And, in spite of it all, I am elated.

Why am I so ecstatic in this scorched and rocky spot? Dinosaurs were here! And in my pocket is proof: three rounded, polished, egg-size bits of quartz which aided the digestive processes of Tyrannosaurus, Brontosaurus, and their ilk. Gastroliths.

Akin to the gizzard stones of chickens, gastroliths can be found by observant, persistent, fossil-hunters here in the Morrison Formation near the Utah-Colorado border. The Morrison Formation is the evidence of an ancient drainage system, which rafted the bones of dead dinosaurs southward from Montana during times of flood.

In dinosaur time, 150 million years ago, this area was a swampy, low-lying area of dense vegetation located along the banks of a stream. Through geologic ages, the flat land was crinkled and folded. It was corrugated, like the washboard Grandmother used to launder sheets. It was tilted crazily on its side, like the rooms in the fun house at the county fair. Now, one walks up a long slope and arrives at the brink of a steep precipice, from where the same pattern of slope-and-drop can be seen repeating itself clear to the horizon, like sedate rows of dinosaur dowagers taking the sun.

After a morning of sifting the baked earth for bones and stones and history, I rest in a Volkswagen-sized hollow at the bottom of one of the gullies, in what petty shade there is under an overhanging ledge of gunmetal shale. Shielding my eyes from the burning July sun, I search the underside of the ledge for treasure, convinced that every shadow is the trace of an ancient leaf, every stain is the hitherto undiscovered skull of a Stegosaurus.

Chuckling at my fertile imagination, I sink onto a hoary throne of mudstone, lift my booted feet from the earth, and free my toes from leather bondage. The heat is heavy and tiring. I lean back to rest against the smooth stone outcropping and am surprised to feel coolness. I drink the last of my water while surveying my private horizon.

The dramatic line of the folded earth stands out in surreal clarity against the incandescent sky, unsoftened by vegetation. Heaven meets Earth in precise delineation; yellow light defines subdued purple shadows; extremes of space and constriction confront each other. The vast sky encounters earth suddenly, razor-sharply. This is more a Salvadore Dali landscape than a Georgia O'Keeffe; it is stark rather than sensual.

The line of the earth becomes an expanse and rolls relentlessly closer, condensing and transforming until it becomes the cove sheltering me. The cove is bare. Not barren and lifeless, like the Bonneville Salt Flats, but spare and clean, like the designs of Meis van der Rohe. Less is more. There is just the rock wall behind me, the friendly mudstone chaise beneath me, the horizon before me, and the gravelly-powdery Morrison dirt curving around me like loving arms. I close my eyes and melt into a fantasy of the prehistoric past. As phantom Pterodactyls wheel above, only the shoosh of the desert wind and the peaceable drone of a bee breaks the silence.

© 1986 by Connie Powers

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