Dinosaur National Monument is a trifold wonder of which dinosaurs, incredibly, are only one part. The place encompasses the confluence of the Yampa and Green rivers and spans 40 miles across Utah and Colorado.
In 1909 the paleontologist Earl Douglass found a set of eight Brontosaurus tailbones protruding from the top of a ridge here. The ridge was a 150 million year old memory of a river sticking sideways into the sky: the sandstone was once a riverbed in which many dinosaur carcasses collected in a tangled mass — the bones fossilized, the sand became stone, and the earth rose and tilted so the graveyard strata were angled steeply upward.
People quarried down into the hill and pulled out skeleton after skeleton of lost monsters, dragons that for millions of years had been remembered only by the rocks: Camarasaurus, Stegosaurus, Diplodocus, Barosaurus, Brontosaurus. The names are incantations that I knew much better when I was eight and the world that is seemed so inadequate; I would’ve given anything to wish flesh back onto those bones. Now it seems like the past is a sleeping part of the present and maybe it’s enough that the mind-blowing dinosaur world is encoded within our own as memory and possibility.
They’ve set a building into the rock over what’s left of the fossil quarry, and what’s left is amazing. It’s a great cut of the hillside roofed over, a plane of stone 55 feet high and 200 feet long that shows a slice of what’s still in the earth. It’s a wall of humongous bones and rock rising at about a 60 degree angle; the bones are myriad but collected more densely in a band that passes from the upper left to the lower right like the Milky Way. There are dinosaur skulls and legbones and still-connected chains of vertebrae, twisted backbones and pieces of giant tails. There must have been a tremendous mangling of giant bodies to create such a wild constellation of bones on the wall — they didn’t just keel over and become buried, they were rotted through and torn apart and mashed together and even then still doomed to motion within the slow taffy-like currents of the rock itself.
Outside beneath the sky there are petroglyphs, old pictures chipped into the cliffs by the people who lived here 800 years ago. We can learn alot about these people from their art, such as that they had wide triangular shoulders, swollen square heads, and usually two horns although some had three horns, or floppy ears, or giant insect-like feelers. A few even had arms sticking out of their butts. Many had the power to spontaneously create small galaxy-shaped objects while others liked to touch large spikey balls. Another popular activity was shaking lizards and tiny people out of circles. Of their pottery we can say that it generally exploded. Also, some of them wore necklaces.
It’s hard to take the petroglyphs seriously. Although they have a strange beauty to them they seem so haphazard and disorganized that I automatically think of them as graffiti, which they aren’t. There’s real graffiti next to them, courtesy of modern visitors, and the modern efforts are feeble lazy scratches that barely show up, the crooked initials and scribbles of vandals, while the petroglyphs are chipped deeply and deliberately into the rock and are still clear and vivid after many centuries. In contrast, we’ll be lucky if in 800 years our cities are anything more than smudges of rust in the dirt.
They took a long time and alot of work to make so they must have meant something, but to me they’re inscrutable. If they’re organized I can’t see how, but maybe I am too much afflicted by rectilinear order. We are image-adept, image-savvy, living all our lives midstream in a wild torrent of millions of images that gush from television screens and float up off magazine pages and crash down on us from signs. Even text is a chain of letter-images that pour through us like frames of film generating an internal lightshow; it’s hard for me to stop and look deeply through a petroglyph that seems as simple and guileless as a single letter, a couple bent lines joined, a spiral. Complex image manipulation and interpretation are second nature to us, but maybe an image was a stranger thing to them, an exotic technology of thought fascinating enough to be locked in stone for a lifetime’s contemplation. Or perhaps they just had an aesthetic that’s strange to me, an aesthetic of jumbling and freewheeling geometry.
The third marvel is the ground itself; I cannot number or name all the things the land does here. A few hundred yards downstream from my campsite the Green River passes between walls of stone so twisted and curved they look like the inside of a thousand-foot ribcage hung to cure over the river, striated with red and white sandstone like meat and bone. Canyons come naturally, hallways between the earth and the sky where every day the two can meet in neutral territory and talk together in the language of light and shadow; to get to the campsite I rode 15 miles of dirt road, up and down through this land’s varying palette of colors and forms, cones and canyons and ridges buckled and folded, in pink and pale and a stubble of green. Back by the highway lies Split Mountain, a sprawling convolution of stone so torturously twisted and torn it looks like the two halves of a vast and swollen wound. When I first saw it I did such a doubletake I almost went off the road- what is the rock doing over there?! One side rust and bone and the other cream and rose, inflamed and gaping and beautiful, angel-flesh, a cut in God’s side.
I should’ve stayed, I knew it then as well as now, I should’ve stayed a week or a month or as long as it took. It was a perfect place and I should’ve just stopped and listened to the water and the bugs and floated down the river and walked up every canyon and touched every rock, should’ve tried to learn how to move that slowly and beautifully, but there’s not enough silence in me. I should’ve tried to soak some of it into me but I was too restless and not worthy.
As soon as I got back on the bike I felt better, less broken and sad. Maybe, like a wolf, the motorcycle has eaten my heart so that now I belong to it.