The hard dirt road led us toward the distant mountains of the House Range. Out the car window, sagebrush, greasewood and saltgrass painted the immediate view with spots of green on yellow grass canvas. “We are in the middle of nowhere,” my daughter Sarah said.
Henry, 10, asked, “What does that mean?” I explained that it was a place far removed from civilization. Henry repeated, “Nowhere. We are in the middle of nowhere.” Ada, 4 1/2, echoed Henry. The two of them tossed the term “nowhere” back and forth as they tried to connect the words with what they saw out the window.
Nine months earlier, Sarah and I planned a week-long dinosaur car trip in Utah. Ada, her daughter, populated her doll house with dinosaur figures. She corrected Sarah’s and my pronunciation of their names and quoted facts she learned about them from her books and children’s programs. Sarah agreed when I suggested that I invite Henry, my son’s child, also a dinosaur fan. A friend encouraged us to include a trip to “U Dig Fossils,” 52 miles west of Delta, Utah off US 6/50. Their website guaranteed that we would find trilobites. These were sea creature extinct 250 million years before dinosaurs wandered Utah and the world. Even though they were not dinosaurs, what kid or adult doesn’t love a treasure hunt?
We followed the 20-mile dirt road toward U Dig Fossils. Out the window we could see the road winding its way across the flat land into the distant House Range. I thought about the forces that created those rock mountains and exposed the Cambrian fossil rich geological layers.
I know that silt, sediment and sand lay down layers on land and sea. Over time they become rocks; the land that I walk on should be the youngest layer. If I were to dig, I would be digging further back in time.
Five hundred forty million years ago, the House Range was once the floor of a shallow warm sea located near the equator. The waters of that sea lapped against a continent that scientists call Laurentia. The land we call Utah was the ocean floor. During the Cambrian Period, sea creatures swam, ate, reproduced and died in those waters. The silt carried by the streams running off the land covered their remains. The right conditions preserved their shapes and bodies as the silt became shale. These layers are old and should be well hidden.
I imagined a three-layer ice cream cake. Laurentia and its sea in the Paleozoic Era was the bottom vanilla layer, the Mesozoic Era chocolate, and Cenozoic Era strawberry. The chocolate frosting on top was the present. Then I cut a square from one side or the middle and turned it over onto the frosting. I took a fork, raked it through the middle of the cake, smashed that square just a little, and maybe took a bite or two. Earthquakes and tectonic plate movements do that to the geological layers, I thought. Because of plate movement and erosion, the House Range exposes the 540 million-year-old shale that hid the treasure we wanted to find.
Hoping to avoid the June heat of the day, we left Delta at 8 a.m. An hour later we found ourselves the only people in the gravel parking lot. We walked to the simple wood structure that appeared to be the office. A tall, broad-shouldered man wearing a baseball hat and tan t-shirt with the words ‘U Dig Fossils’ greeted us, “Hi, my name is Robin. Let me finish opening up.” I noticed the wrinkles on his face, especially around his eyes, and his well- worn hiking boots suggested hours spent outdoors.
We followed him to the front of the shack. He lifted a wood plank that became a canopy to protect customers from summer sun. The opening revealed fossils hanging on chains, fossil kits, books about rocks and fossils, and t-shirts just like the one he wore. We told him that we wanted to search for trilobites.
Standing at the window in the shack, he focused on Henry and Ada. He showed us a laminated page with pictures of brachiopods, gastropods, ostracod, trilobites and algae. He said, “This area was once teaming with ancient sea life. Trilobites were three-lobed arthropods who swam in the sea. They had an exoskeleton and jointed limbs and are the ancestors of spiders, dragonflies, ants, centipedes, and lobsters. There are over 500 different trilobite species found just in Utah alone. You could say they’re the mascot of the Cambrian Period.” Ada and Henry took a closer look at the pictures.
Robin gave Sarah, Henry and me our own large plastic buckets and rock hammers. Seeing Ada’s disappointed look, he said “Don’t worry, I have a hammer and bucket just your size.” He disappeared further into the shack. We could hear the clanging of tools and buckets. He reappeared, handed her a smaller bucket and hammer, and led us out to shale quarry.
He told us, “Spring is the best time to come because the winter cold breaks loose the shale. Almost every rock you pick up contains a fossil. We get a lot of school classes and fossil hunters in April and May. Don’t worry, there are still plenty to find. You just have to work a little harder.” Picking up a large piece of shale, he showed us how to use the hammer to break open the rock coffins. Each hit of the pick split the shale. On his third hit, a small body of a trilobite appeared. “This is an okay specimen, but you might find better. This is a good spot. Feel free to search closer to the quarry walls if you want.”
I sat down in the rocks and watched my daughter and the kids walk over to the grey, brown rock walls. I picked up a piece of shale and scrutinized it, looking for the best side to strike. I could hear the clunk, clunk of the hammers from Sarah, Ada and Henry hard at work.
Henry called, “I found one!” He didn’t stop to show it to us but continued hammering.
I hit the dark grey layered rock in the middle. Choosing one half, I split it again with the pick. On the edge of the new piece to my delight, I saw the almost-inch-long fossilized body of a 540-million-year-old trilobite. I ran my fingers over the raised lobes and the crinkled horizontal lines of the oval shape in the rock. Five hundred forty million years, I thought, trying to wrap my mind around that number. I pictured this creature scuttling along the silty bottom of the warm, shallow sea. In its environment it was prey and predator, or maybe scavenger. I repeated in my mind: 540 million years. The rocks took on a new meaning. These weren’t just any rocks. They were once the sea floor and I was sitting on them. In a sense, out here in “the middle of nowhere,” I’d traveled back in time to the sea that lapped the shores of a lost continent. I felt incredibly small and honored as I placed my treasure in the bucket and picked up another rock.
After half an hour, Robin checked in with us. Ada excitedly showed him one of her trilobite discoveries. Robin asked if she would let him cut the rock smaller and rub mineral oil on the fossil. She gave it to him. Later he brought back a plastic baggy containing the oiled trilobite body. We took a minute from our hammering to admire it.
Full buckets, heat radiating off the rocks, and hunger helped Sarah and I decide it was time to stop after two hours. We hauled our treasures to the picnic tables under a shade structure near the shack. Robin looked at our heavy loads and said, “You probably do not want to take all of those rocks home with you. Though I did have a customer who mailed four boxes to himself. I suggest you pick out the best and you can put the rest over there.” He pointed to a pile of shale on the edge of the covered area.
Sarah teaches biology and wanted to take them all to share with her students but did not want to pay for the extra baggage weight. Even Henry realized he did not want to carry a heavy suitcase. Sorting through our rocks was not easy. We added our not-so-perfect specimens to the pile left by others, said good-bye to Robin, and loaded our treasures into the back of our rented car.
Down the dirt road, we imagined our trilobites swimming in the sea that once covered this land and washed up on the shores of Laurentia. This lead us to remember that an afternoon swim awaited us at our motel pool. The car engine frightened a pronghorn grazing in the yellow grass ahead of us. Sarah hit the brakes, stopping the car to let it run across the road. We stayed there for a few minutes watching as it moved further into the grasses. Henry sighed, “This is the best day ever.” We all agreed.
— By Tori Peters
Tori Peters is a member of EPIC Group Writers. She lived in Africa and Asia for sixteen years, with her husband and four children, and has lived in Edmonds since 2001. Writing and travel adventures are two of her hobbies. In addition to her trip to Utah, during the last two years she walked the Camino de Santiago, trekked in the Andes mountains to Choquequirao , and visited Taipei,Taiwan (twice) where two of her children and one grandchild live.