Monday, November 28, 2011

Denver Colorado, Summer 2011: Day 6

“As the bus goes forward, we go backward in time!”
Not sticking out, but still all over the freakin' ground.
The morning was one of recombobulation, as we tried to figure out what I could get away with taking home in the big suitcase, while they kept the carry ons.  Then it was off to a mighty prehistoric adventure.

We began at Dinosaur Ridge, where the fossils were sticking out of the freakin’ ground…everywhere. The base camp section had some full size model dinosaurs, including many oddly colored stegosauri. That’s Colorado’s state fossil. New Jersey gets Hadrosaurus, the first Dinosaur found in the U.S.A. which is kind of cool, but since they're sticking out of the freakin' ground in much larger number there, Colorado gets one with a much greater eight year old kid wow factor.

We piled on the bus and met our guide “Dinosaur Dan”. (I insisted on referring to him as “Dino Dan” causing Anabelle to yell at me and roll her eyes a lot, I considered it practice for when she’s a teenager.)  He gave us the very helpful advice of sticking a random body part into any pictures as a size reference.  He also told us there had been rattlesnake warnings that day. (Yay.)  Consistent with all the other wildlife that hid from us on the trip, the warning turned out to be unneeded.

We passed various eras of fossil rocks, including a former coastline, mangrove forest (with crocodile prints, both swimming and walking!), and many plants.  (To quote Tom Weller’s Science Made Stupid “The evolution of plants is an important chapter in the history of life.  However, it’s a pretty dull chapter, so we’ll skip it.”)  It was finally time for the way cool fossils.  Dino Dan was a great guide; he seemed almost as excited as Anabelle and I were. 

The next stop had stegosaur and apatosaur bones literally (as opposed to all the times I joked about it) STICKING OUT OF THE FREAKIN’ GROUND. We were able to see, touch, and even taste them. Dino Dan explained how the metals that replace the bones to fossilize them have a distinctly different taste than the stone around them.  He got a volunteer, and afterwards told him it was a “butt bone”. (Good one Dino Dan.)  Anabelle tasted an arm bone as we got back in the bus, me too. (Only I made sure Rosa had put the super deluxe magic Cannon camera away.) 

The bones were followed by equally amazing footprints of the same dinosaurs.  The apatosaurus ones were the most impressive with the sheer size and depth of compressions. Apatosaurus is the real name for “brontosaurus” which turned out to be a camarasaur head on a diplodocid body.  (I don’t know why I point this out.  The dinosaur geeks know this, and everyone else doesn’t care.)  However there was a stegosaur impression with enough detail that it felt like actually holding hands with a dinosaur. (Once again, Dino Dan was as excited as we were, if not more.)

The last stop of the bus tour was the “dinosaur freeway”, a myriad of tracks made by iguanodons and ornithomimuses. (These are not, despite my alphabetically stored, if somewhat confused memory, the doctors who treat joint problems.)  We vowed to take the much longer, and more detailed walking tour on our next visit, when my ankle will presumably be healed.

Back at base camp was a small museum with a great many hands on exhibits, demonstrating the methods of fossil formation, and excavation we had seen at the digs. Near the video display were bone benches and a play table with toy dinosaurs.  Anabelle spent quite a while arranging them properly, and explaining them to the other children. (That’s my girl.) We passed a sandbox when we first arrived and didn’t think much of it. Upon returning from the bus we found it completely overfilled with a horde of girl scouts.  There were apparently fossil replicas hidden in the sand for kids to dig.  We let the horde continue hoarding and visited the gift shop. 

Luz Maria bought Anabelle a set of dinosaur toys to keep the animal toys from the zoo from getting lonely (and she’s a big softie).  Rosa and I picked out a fossil and crystal souvenir for her as well, as surprises (and also because we’re big softies.)   The exceedingly helpful Coloradatian at the checkout put a kink in our plan, however. Anabelle kept wandering over to me as I tried to pay, asking, “What’s that?”  I tried to deflect her by saying, “Nothing, go see Mami,” while motioning the guy to hurry.  He was in super customer service mode, however, and gave full, detailed and insightful descriptions of each item to her. When she inquired why I was buying them and I told her they were surprises for her, the guy woke up, apologized profusely, and said he was bad with hints which is why he has problems with women. Then he gave us a nice little booklet about the trilobite fossil.  I picked up a camarasaurus for my collection downstairs, because you can never really have too many plastic dinosaurs downstairs.

Back outside, we learned the ravenous group of girl scouts turned the normally fossil full sandbox into a vast wasteland.  As my daughter’s frustration climbed, I wandered inside to ask if she should focus on digging deeper, or in a wider pattern.  Yet another helpful Coloradish told me there was no way to tell, but if it took too long she’d let Anabelle hide the next set and pick one out.  After a bit more, we sent her in, and while she was hiding some, she dug up an ammonite.  Happy times for all.

Leaving Dinosaur Ridge behind, we returned the Big Orange Sissy to the far less packed than Saturday night town of Morrison, to locate the Morrison Formation Museum.  Here the advantage of “fossils sticking out of the freakin’ ground” was at its high point.  The size of this museum in most towns would suggest a couple of books and paintings by locals, with maybe a room for a rotating exhibit that usually features items as exciting as a pots of some kind.  However here, it contained some of the most ground breaking fossil discoveries of all time. (Pardon me while I pause for a paleontological geeky, “Squeeeee!”)

Outside were some example rocks containing dinosaur bones including one with vertebrae that were being extracted, as it is a “working museum.” This means once they pull the fossil out of the freakin’ ground, it comes here to be dug out of the stone with dental tools and such.  There were also examples of plants that grew during the Jurassic period. (again, important but dull)

Inside was mind boggling.  Casts and actual fossils highlighting many major discoveries, all of which were “hands on” due to the small size and lack of crowds. (Once more…”Squeeeee!”) 

Along with various leg, feet and skull bone casts for size and function comparisons, were the first ever stegosaur bones ever excavated. Even those could be picked up and examined.  Squeeeee!

There were also several tiny, but important footprint finds. What, for years, was the smallest dinosaur footprints ever found was a mere room away from an even smaller print found that took the record later. Both were made by baby stegosaurs and provided evidence that they may have been the fastest growing creatures that ever lived. (outside of Wal Mart shoppers)

More importantly, in the same room (and again, completely touchable, Squeeeee!) is proof that baby apatosaurus walked on their hind legs only, likely to keep up with their much larger elders. This was an enormous scientific discovery and appeared in all the appropriate magazines and journals. Sadly, since those publications do not include a Swimsuit issue, or have the Kardashians on the cover, most people didn’t hear about it.

All of this was in the two tiny rooms of the first floor.  Up on the second floor were prehistoric mammals and the Cretaceous section. Our Coloradontite guide kept calling it “Creashus”, but Anabelle and I were far too impressed to give her any flack about it, outside of knowing glances to each other.  There were triceratops’ bones and a full cast skull on a swivel mount that allowed much more detailed viewing and handling than one can normally even get on the information plaques in the New York museum.  There was also a similarly mounted tylersaurus skull. Right next to that was a live example of a modern relative of the giant sea reptile, a monitor lizard.  We were assured that this was a famous monitor lizard who had appeared on TV. Based on the current television landscape, I’d guess he either has a home improvement show, or a bridal design series. Both modern monitors and their extinct relatives have a “third eye” on top of their head that acts as a light sensor…nifty!

The post dinosaur room had some more live reptiles and amphibians, smilodon casts, and a woolly mammoth skull cast. The reason for the mammoth skull was a size comparison as they had hair and bones from Columbian mammoths that were also locally sticking out of the freakin’ ground.  Columbian mammoths were so big that the wooly ones could have walked under their chins. Awesome!

But more awesome than that was the cluttered little work room. It appeared to be a somewhat disorganized, if rock filled, hobby shop.  However, in the center of the room was a large stone containing the museum’s current work in progress…the seventh apatosaurus skull ever found in the history of paleontology.  Squeeeee!

As we left I asked about the Tyrannosaur skull in the lobby, it didn’t look as familiar as the AMNH one we’d seen in the Denver museum. It was another famous one (as there are so few) from Yale named “Stan”. Once again, nice to be watched.

Morrison’s less crowdedness on a weekday allowed easy parking of the Big Orange Sissy for a meal at Tony Rigatoni’s, the Italian restaurant that Luz Maria told us about after our mountain adventure.  The food was all she said it was and after wandering the town (which was pretty much only one street filled with bars and restaurants, which may explain the earlier parking issues) we went home to do some more packing.

Rosa and her sister went off to Zumba class again, leaving us alone for Anabelle and Daddy night in the mall.  We had a food court dinner, took some photo booth pictures and did some wandering around.  There were typical mall rides, she chose a “Stealth Fighter”. (That’s my girl.)  We bought some candy for the exercising ladies (probably defeating the purpose of that venture), while Anabelle got a bunch of stuff, because I was leaving and am a HUGE softie.  A Coloradecian woman outside a contractor place was giving away popcorn. I tried to explain that we were from New Jersey and probably could not cover travel costs for a near cross country trip to repair our deck. She didn’t seem to care and gave us the popcorn anyway.

At home there was some more quality snuggling time before we watched some Weird Al videos that came with the CD.  After Anabelle fell asleep, I made her a hand drawn Green Lantern symbol to hold if she got nervous when I wasn’t there. Without knowing this she wanted me to bring the picture she’d been carrying home with me, for when I was alone. (Sorry, got something in my eye.)

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