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October 2010 cover image On the Scent

Yabba dabba doo!

Destination: Glen Rose

Travel time from:
Austin – 3 hours
Brownsville – 8.25 hours
Dallas – 1.5 hours
Houston – 4.75 hours
San Antonio – 4 hours
Lubbock – 5 hours
El Paso – 10 hours

Visitors can follow in the footsteps of prehistoric giants in dinosaur-crazy Glen Rose.

By Teresa Newton

Put aside the adult logic and hard-nosed science, and imagine these scenes: a dinosaur family at the dinner table, with Dad and Mom sitting across from each other, and brother and sister on opposite sides, too; and hundreds of dinos on a Saturday night, waltzing gracefully across a ballroom floor.

Look up the Paluxy River when the water is low, and you might see what paleontologist James Farlow of Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne describes as the Dining Room and the Ballroom. The first shows footprints as if the dinosaurs were sitting at the dinner table. The second includes hundreds of tracks facing here, there and all directions.

It’s a fanciful vision compared to the blood-and-guts, ground-shaking Jurassic Park image of dinosaurs.

On my first trip to Dinosaur Valley State Park, my then-6-year-old son was obsessed with the ancient giants. He explained how one track showed claw marks, so it was left by a carnivore, and one track was flat, so it was made by an herbivore. The first dinosaur was following the second, he explained, looking for a good meal. Today I see children and adults having similar discussions.

Kathy Lenz, the park’s interpreter, shares the details on my current trip, a much-needed break from the city. She describes Farlow’s finds, plus some newly discovered dinosaur tracks beside the riverbed, and explains how the river eroded the banks to reveal these impressions. Yellow tape blocks the area from the curious, making it off-limits until documentation is complete.

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The cliff above these tracks resembles a layer cake, with alternating dirt and rock instead of cake and icing. Those layers represent the time when Glen Rose was either oceanfront or ocean-bottom property in the Cretaceous Era, about 100 million years ago.

Lenz takes us to a parking lot and the entrance to Track Site No. 1. The stairs to the left lead to the Blue Hole, the river’s swimming hole about 20 feet below. But first we gaze down at the spring-fed pool and spot more footprints in shallow water directly below.

Comments from our group cause 10-year-old Eli Beasley to swim to the spot we’re admiring and look at the tracks. The Michigan youth is a dinosaur buff, which is why his grandparents, Wes and Alta Beasley of Cedar Hill, brought Eli, his mom and his sisters to the park.

“It’s one of our favorite places,” Wes says.

Upriver to our left is the Ballroom, but today the river is high and we can’t see the hundreds of footprints that Farlow and his students discovered in July 2009.

Earlier in the day, Lenz led one of her educational hikes to view petrified coral, tucked into the landscape above the river. It’s an easy hike, and as we walk up the trail, Lenz talks about the ocean’s ebb and flow, dinosaurs, sediment and time. Finally, she points to some coral in the hillside, just a few feet away, and it looks exactly like coral in today’s ocean: spiny, holey and rough. This one has a faint pinkish hue compared to the surrounding terrain, but without Lenz’s cue, I might have missed it.

“Don’t touch,” Lenz warns. The coral is delicate. Plus, fossils and other artifacts, even rocks, cannot be removed from the park.

We continue the hike to a flat area near the hill’s peak for a beautiful sight: mesquite trees framing a vertical view on the valley, the Paluxy and park visitors along the river.

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Imagine that scene with sauropods walking along the bogs and swamps near the ocean shore. Imagine again where we’re standing, this hilltop as a shallow shoreline, the coral reef just below us.

There are plenty of non-dino things to do here: fish, hike, mountain bike. The two fiberglass dinosaurs beside the park shop make a great backdrop for photos. Sitting by the river, or even in the river, and listening to the water is a great way to forget the rat race.

I drop my things off at Paluxy River Bed Cabins on the way to town. The little two-story cabin is nestled in the woods close to the river, with a pathway leading to a fire pit, seats and a swing. The porch, with its two big rockers and a hot tub, will get more attention tonight. After a short rest, it’s time to go to town to meet a friend.

We meet at Big Rock Park, which is exactly that: huge boulders along the river. Most likely, the river eroded in and around a solid slab, creating crevices that invite exploration. We climb up by stepping from a medium-sized rock to the top of the boulders, making a short jump. More inviting is the river itself as it flows past. Families walk through the shallow water. Farther up, teenagers cross the top of a beautiful dam whose walkway connects to a trail on the opposite bank and leads to another park. Teenagers in shorts and swimsuits slip into the river from the dam. Brothers cast their fishing line from the side. My friend, who is a photographer, moves quickly between the scenes, catching the late day’s light. I simply enjoy a gentle breeze and the sound of the river.

For dinner, we choose the Green Pickle Beer Garden and order some satisfying burgers. During the day we asked about other food joints around town. We plan to meet for breakfast at Debbie’s Restaurant, then later eat at Ranch House BBQ, a top spot for the lunch crowd, before my friend leaves. I round out my dining experience with Storiebook Cafe for lunch on my last day.

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After breakfast on the second day, we ramble through the old downtown area near the river. Barnard’s Mill and Art Museum is closed that day, but we check out the old buildings, giant live oaks and the river behind the structures.

Whimsy lurks in unexpected places in the historic downtown. Smiley faces cut into the pads of a large prickly pear patch greet us beside a building. A bird-friendly area nestled between buildings below street level features a bathroom sink on the ground for a bird bath and contains numerous colorful feeders. A VW Beetle-turned-flower-planter graces a side-street shop.

Dinosaur and fossil references show up throughout Texas’ dinosaur capital, home of the state dinosaur, Paluxysaurus jonesi. Dino tracks can be found in the side of the petrified wood bandstand beside the old courthouse and on the porch of the Somervell County Historical Museum across the street. Fossilmania will be in town Oct. 29–31 at the Somervell County Expo Center.

Some dinosaurs are only a few years old. Land of the Dinosaurs debuted this year as a musical with animatronics and live actors at the Texas Amphitheatre. Dinosaur World in Glen Rose has dozens of life-size dinosaur replicas.

For this trip, I’m going for the basics, the real deal, so I join Morris Bussey, aka the Fossil Hunter, for some down-and-dirty education. The Cajun transplant leads fossil hunts and sells fossils at his shop on FM 205, the same road that leads to the state park and my cabin.

Bussey has a lot in common with Roland T. Bird, the paleontologist who put the Glen Rose tracks on the map in 1938. Like Bird, Bussey has no formal training in paleontology but loves the hunt. Unlike Bird, Bussey leaves dinosaur imprints alone. Today, excavation of tracks is against the law in Texas. Bird removed some of the best tracks from the Paluxy and gave them to the American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Texas at Austin.

Most records say Bird was the first to discover the footprints, but not quite. Early Native Americans are thought to have known about the marks, and locals documented them around 1909, Lenz says.

But fossils, not footprints, are today’s quest. For our hunt, Bussey offers several sites where he has the landowners’ permission, but I decide to stay close to town. We head to a rocky construction site. A brief rain the previous night means fossils should be easy to find, Bussey says.

“After a hard rain, it’s like pickin’ pecans,” he says.

With my head down, I focus one or two feet in front of me as Bussey tells me to look at shape and size, two factors that separate rock from fossil. We’re more likely to find positive fossils — ones that take the shape of a creature from millions of years past — than negative fossils, which are impressions, he says.

“What’s this?” Bussey says excitedly. I rush over to look. “Rock,” he says, tossing it aside. Sometimes a rock is just a rock.

For the next 30 minutes, we sift through the dusty roadway, sometimes on hands and knees, occasionally using a garden trowel to unearth an interesting object. We find fossils of snails and clams and even some pyrite (fool’s gold) and iron ore.

Next, we head down U.S. Highway 67 west of town, taking a right on a county road and another right turn to the river. A couple is in the water. Trash near, but not in, a trash barrel indicates it’s a popular spot.

“Listen to the river,” Bussey says. “It’ll tell you where the fossils are.”

Sandbars along the Paluxy and nearby Brazos are great spots for finding young shells, ancient fossils and other interesting treasures. There’s little chance of finding a dinosaur bone in the area, so the bones we do find must be from a picnic. We slowly creep upriver along the rocky banks to find large stashes of Budweisosaurs and Shineropods.

“Listen to the water … focus … I’m getting chill bumps,” Bussey calls out. He reaches down for what some would call the best find — coprolite, or fossilized dinosaur poop.

I listen to the soothing sound of the river flowing by. The noise helps me focus, and we talk less and less. In time, my canvas bag fills up: petrified wood; fossilized oysters, mussels, seeds, limestone, mother of pearl and cobalt. I toss aside road fossils (asphalt).

That evening I sort through my loot and make notes on which specimen is which while I can still remember.

Come morning, I grab the orange juice and muffin in the fridge and head out early for Bussey’s river spot. Early light may reveal more than yesterday afternoon’s forage.

“Put aside the logic and science. Put aside the expectations,” I say to myself. “Do as Bussey said and simply listen to the river and look at what’s in front of me.”

What I found wasn’t nearly as important as what slipped away that morning: time, work, chores and worries.

DETAILS
•   Dinosaur Valley State Park, 254-897-4588, archive.tpwd.state.tx.us/dinosaurvalley
•   Fossilmania, www.texaspaleo.com/psa/fossilmania.html
•   Glen Rose Convention and Visitors Bureau, 888-346-6282, www.glenrosetexas.net
•   Paluxy River Bed Cabins, 800-235-2004, www.paluxyriverbedcabins.com
•   Morris Bussey’s Stone Hut, 817-279-3677, www.glenrosefossilhunter.com

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