Not just dinosaurs ~

Hypacrosaurus

Hypacrosaurus, a duckbill dinosaur of the late Cretaceous

The second day of my trip I also went to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, in Thermopolis. Unfortunately, I was so sleep-deprived that I couldn’t do it justice, which was a shame. This is a fantastic museum house in what is essentially an enormous pole barn. Why is something like this in Thermopolis? Because dinosaurs are being excavated here! The center raises donations to support its excavation work on a nearby ranch, as well as its preparation work, which museum visitors can observe through viewing windows. They’re planning for a beautiful new facility where they can better house their fossils and fossil replicas, and they have lots of both. Visitors also can pay to assist at the dig site, which in turn supports the scientific work.

Not just dinosaurs are on display; the museum is organized to show the progression of evolution from early organisms through the age of the dinosaurs, birds, and early mammals. I found myself wishing I had the time to read every single interpretive sign. Most of these iPhone photographs are of actual fossils, not replicas.

Fossil brittle stars

Fossil brittle stars – Wyoming Dinosaur Center

Fossil crinoids

Fossil crinoids (sea lilies) – Wyoming Dinosaur Center

An especially prized fossil here is this one from China, of Microraptor, a small dinosaur with feathers not just on its arms but also its legs. You can see the impression of the feathers on all four limbs and also at the end of the tail.

Microraptor

Microraptor, a small dinosaur with feathers on all four limbs – Wyoming Dinosaur Center

The museum has plenty of large, complete dinosaur skeletons. Among the smaller dinosaur fossils is this beautiful specimen of Stenopterygius, a Jurassic-age ichthyosaur. But not just any old Stenopterygius. To quote the interpretive sign: “Ichthyosaurs are vivaparous, meaning they give birth to live young instead of laying eggs. The baby would come out tail-first to prevent them from drowning. This specimen preserves a mother in the act of giving birth.” Wow! And indeed, in the second photo below you can see the baby’s skeleton dangling below the mother. I’ve also included a shot of just the head and upper body because it is so gorgeous.

A female stenopterygius...

A female stenopterygius…

...in the process of giving birth!

…in the process of giving birth! – Wyoming Dinosaur Center

Another surprise: Fossilized dinosaur embryos and a reproduction of a nest of baby dinosaurs.

Fossilized dinosaur embryo

Fossilized dinosaur embryo – Wyoming Dinosaur Center

From tiny to enormous: Kids will love the big dinosaur skeletons.

Triceratops horridus

This Triceratops horridus skeleton is the actual fossil, not a replica – Wyoming Dinosaur Center

Pliosaur

This head belongs to a complete replica Pliosaur skeleton – Wyoming Dinosaur Center

I’ve been in a lot of natural history museums, so it’s possible I’m just forgetting, but to my knowledge I’d never seen a fossilized mortichnial trackway before. It’s the track or footprints of a dying animal—in this case, the final 32 feet of life of a horseshoe crab, which extended across nine large excavated panels on display. This particular exhibit, more than any other at the center, really brings it home to you that all these animals once were as alive as you are now.

Fossil horseshoe crab

Fossil horseshoe crab and last segment of mortichnial trackway – Wyoming Dinosaur Center

I’m no paleontologist, but I can hardly say enough good things about the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. It’s only a six-hour drive from Loveland, not counting stops, and I’d gladly make a special trip just to visit here again. I didn’t notice any “No photography” signs, so I’ve taken the liberty of posting all of these photos as a kind of advertisement for the center. Long may it live!

Fossil of whiptail stingray

Whiptail stingray – Wyoming Dinosaur Center. I don’t know what exactly all those filaments are, but the beauty of this 50-million-year-old fossil blew me away.

Driving from Casper to Thermopolis ~

The first night of my recent six-day road trip through southern and western Wyoming, I wrote these notes and emailed them to myself.
Yahoo Mail initially “corrected” Thermopolis to Thermopylae—which destination would have entailed a far longer journey. I am in Thermopolis, Wyoming, not in Ancient Greece, in room 26 of the Paintbrush Inn, a tiny mom-and-pop-type operation with an eccentric garage-sale decor. I traveled I-25 from Loveland to Casper, then U.S. Highway 20 over the Owl Creek Mountains and down Wind River Canyon. This part of Wyoming is made up of barren little hills sculpted by water and wind, distant mountain ranges, scrub, coal trains, wind farms, snow fences, cattle ranches, pronghorn antelope, and trailer parks. Also the excellent sign below, which was the subject of today’s first photograph and which I backtracked a mile to record.
Poison Spider Road, Casper

Poison Spider Road, Casper

Farther west of Casper, in the vicinity of Powder River, Wyoming, I passed a couple of antelope virtually on the road, so I pulled off at the same spot where a man driving a pickup-trailer also had pulled off. He wasn’t taking photos; he was adjusting something more securely on the trailer. As I pulled off, I noticed the Tumble Inn sign and pointed my camera there first, since the antelope had moved off some distance. The man walked over after a few moments and  said, “That’s an iconic sign. Somebody should take it and preserve it.” I agreed that it would be a great shame if it were to be destroyed. He shared with me the information that the now-defunct (and derelict) Tumble Inn had at one time featured a topless dancer, and that men driving to and from this place, which is sited outside the regulatory reach of Casper (to the east) and Shoshoni (to the west), had occasionally met their demise thanks to drunk driving.

The defunct Tumble Inn, Powder River, Wyoming

The defunct Tumble Inn, Powder River, Wyoming

The man reacted with dismay when he heard that I was headed to Yellowstone, which led to a conversation about the sheer numbers of park visitors and the crowded scenic drives in Colorado. “Everybody loves Colorado, but they’re going to love until they ruin it,” he said, and we speculated as to whether this had already happened. The man, who introduced himself as Gary and who was probably in his 60s, said that he was Arapaho, and that the traditional Arapaho territory was in the Loveland-Estes Park-Fort Collins area, where I now live. He himself had lived in Wyoming almost his whole life and owned a ranch near Riverton, on the Wind River Indian Reservation. His hair was tied back in a short, skinny ponytail that seemed unexpected given the rest of his haircut. He stuck out his hand when he introduced himself at the end of the conversation, saying “Maybe we’ll meet again down the road.” We didn’t, of course, but I would have liked talking to him more about his Wyoming.

Abandoned gas station, Powder River, Wyoming

Abandoned gas station, Powder River, Wyoming

At Shoshone U.S. Highway 20 turns north and eventually runs parallel to Wind River for several curving, beautiful miles. The traffic through Wind River Canyon is fast. I caught sight of a few signs marking geological time in the rocks exposed by the river. The first one I spotted said “Gros Ventre Formation — Cambrian.” The last one, “Chugwater Formation — Triassic,” indicated ochre-colored hills. In between I saw signs for Devonian- and Permian-age formations; there may have been others that I missed while zipping down the canyon with cars on my bumper, or while trying to find picture-taking sites. All told, the progression down the canyon covered more than 250 million years of geological time. I wished I had a miniature John McPhee, or a miniature geologist, on my shoulder to narrate details about the passage; it would be worth another trip to study the changes. Wikipedia says that the canyon was formed by tectonic shifts, not by river cutting.

The geology of Wyoming, or at least some of it, is the subject of McPhee’s excellent “Rising from the Plains,” one volume in his five-volume “Annals of the Former World.” McPhee, in consultation with geologist David Love of Laramie, reconstructs the geological events that led to Wyoming’s strange plethora of cross-cutting mountain ranges, many of which defy the dominant north-south trend of the Rockies. Despite having read this book three times, I can’t remember the particulars, but they can be summed up as “It’s complicated.” McPhee intercuts his story with tales of pioneer days, including fascinating excerpts from a journal kept by Love’s mother, who came to central Wyoming in 1905 as a frontier schoolteacher. I recommend both McPhee’s book and Annie Proulx’s “At Close Range: Wyoming Stories,” which jointly paint a picture of hardship and human extremes that parallel the extremes of the climate and the countryside here.

Igneous intrusions, Wind River Canyon

Igneous intrusions, Wind River Canyon

 

Not scenery ~

Some non-scenic sights from my recent road trip to Wyoming/Montana.