Postcard from the West #2
When I first read about the Montana floods last month, I looked at the map and found the Beartooth Highway we were to travel had been severely damaged. So I sent about finding a different route to Laramie, Wyoming, Kwame’s hometown and the other point of triangulation for our travels other than Washington and California. Somewhere in Big Horn County made sense as a way station based on how much travel we wanted to do on any given day and I landed at Shell, WY.
Shell is a tiny place, population 83, at the base of the Bighorn Mountains and the mouth of Shell Canyon. Named for all the shell fossils found in the area, it's smack in the middle dinosaur country. The staggering fact of the geologic scale was everywhere we turned with roadside markers pointing out rock formations of various ages and times (Shell is also home to the Iowa State geology field station). While we've both criss-crossed the Western states throughout our lives, together and apart — Kwame grew up in Wyoming and I spent a good chunk of the 90s living in Boulder, Colorado — neither of us had ever been to the area before. After our time in Olympic National Park the previous week, after the morning we’d spent at a hot spring in Bozeman, this new view felt disorienting to say the least.
It was 96 degrees when we rolled into town where we had a reservation for a glamping tent along Shell Canal. The site looked out over an alfalfa and corn farm; just beyond the scrape of agriculture was a landscape with seemingly more in common with the moon than anywhere we’d been in the previous week. We could see the tips of the Bighorn mountains which, at 3 billion years old, contained some of the oldest rock in the world.
The heat put me off the idea of hiking, but we decided to take a small bite of the geologic smorgasbord before us — billions of years of history is a lot to take in — and set out to check out the nearby Devil’s Kitchen formations and Red Gulch Dinosaur Tracksite.
At Red Gulch, signs told the story of the 1997 discovery of the site and subsequent puzzle paleontologists have been piecing together since. We could just make out the fossilized footprints of three-toed Therapods of various shapes and sizes criss-crossing the 167-million-year-old mid-Jurassic beach sand. The area surrounding the wash had once been submerged by the Sundance Sea; amid the dino tracks were signs of prehistoric shrimp and oysters.
We were the only ones at the tracksite that afternoon where signs also warned of rattlesnakes and staying hydrated. I thought of how we’d been tide-pooling at Fort Warden Park and checking crab pots in Port Townsend Bay just a week earlier. It suddenly felt as if we were looking not only at the distant past but a distant future. Maybe Red Gulch wasn’t so different from the Olympic peninsula after all.
Devil’s Kitchen was even more alien with its multilayered rock and sandstone formations eroded and folded back onto one another. Other than a herd of Pronghorn along the gravel access roads, we saw few other signs of life. It was both discomfiting… and awe-inspiring.