We awake to one of the high schooler’s handlers — I shouldn’t call them that — one of heir counselors shaking our tents awake. We’re leaving soon, it seems, so we all get up and break camp and eat breakfast. Two hours later, we’re waiting around, wondering when we’re getting started. These kids move like sloths on PCP, but so did all of us at their little urchin age of testing limits, manufacturing headaches, and practicing stupidity. It’s all part of the fun. A necessary development process perfected by a million years of evolution.
After a few eons, we move out in a great caravan of cars five thousand feet long, and head to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. Inside the museum, the fossilized skeletons of millions-of-years-old beasts stand in imitation of how they stood in life, delicately placed in their poses by practiced paleological hands. Most of these are the real deal, too, and only the biggest and heaviest of them are built from casts, which is mildly mind-blowing.
Then they bus us out to the dig site. The Morrison formation, they call it, where all these sauropods and therapods are being found. It’s hot as hell, and we quickly get under the tarped, tent-like “permanent structure” that houses the dig site. It’s still technically active, but no one digs here anymore, because they want to preserve the fossilized footprints and keep a snapshot of in-process unearthing intact for education and future generations. This has more to do tangentially with just geology than Native Americans, but it’s still a pretty wild mind-screw. Under our feet here are the shadows of the bones of sixty-five-plus-million-year-old creatures who once walked right here. Only the shadows of bones, I say, because what we find is mostly rock. I wonder if we will ever be found like this, in the earth and rock, and if the future generations who find us will be able to figure out what killed us and avoid the same fate. If the dinosaurs knew what was coming, would they have tried to stop it, or would they have raced headlong toward their destruction while embracing the methods of their demise, like we so often seem to do?
I give up on that thought, and we drive to the next sites, to which I can connect more.
We drive to the hot springs. Warm water bubbles up from the earth, tired and weary, but blessed with fire, after its long journey down from the mountains we just drove over, after diving for miles and miles underground through the hot rock, before finally being forced back up here, at the Smoking Waters.
This place has strong medicine, but you wouldn’t know it from the water slides and parking lots.
“Smoking Waters” is what the Shoshone people call this place. People from all over came and come to bathe in her healing springs. But eventually, like so many of the rest of us, the Shoshone had no choice but to sign away this land in a government treaty. Unlike so many of the rest of us, they foresaw the possible future — the inevitable future. It’s the same trick that the Three Affiliated tribes are learning up in the badlands: how to see everything under the sign of the almighty dollar. The Shoshone stipulated that the springs must be open and free to the public.
Today, you can bathe in the hot springs at Thermopolis for free. As long as you limit yourself to twenty minutes in the State Bath House. The private water parks? The water slides? The sprawl of parking lots and the man-made ponds? They’re just progress. They’re just capitalism and the free market, those great bastions of democracy. They’re just civilization and the way forward. And so we stand on the great steel suspension bridge over the Bighorn River, staring at the formations of travertine and the rumbling, warm river below us, and a snake of plastic twists its way through the water park in the background, beside the mountains we just came down. And the sickening feeling in my stomach is that no one else seems to notice anything wrong with this.
At Legend Rock, the ancients are still as powerful as ever. This is where we’ve come to see the petroglyphs. There is nothing else here but horses that may not be horses, and may be something else. Patrick talks to the students about sacred sites, and then we venture down, to the narrow path of unkempt dirt in the shadow of the mighty red stone wall tattooed in light by the spirits on the other end of time.
Shapes of animals and humans, four-fingered and five-fingered, long-limbed and short-limbed, horned and winged, and all interconnected and intertwining are etched into the rock. The students are curious. My friends are uneasy. But I am at peace here.
The Navajos won’t even come here. The place is too powerful and too old. There is a nervousness and a creeping current in the atmosphere, but I don’t feel unwanted. A certain restlessness pervades the air and energy seeps from the cracks in the rocks, as if we stand at the intersection of two worlds or twin dimensions, and it would be all too easy to slip into a different existence. But in these pictures, I see the shapes of familiar spirits. Similar shapes adorn the walls of El Moro near Zuni. The thick presence in the wind is not unlike the feeling during the Night Dances and Shalako.
On the way back to the vehicles, the horses are still watching us, before disappearing.
Our one last stop for the day is as fitting as it is ugly: a pumpjack. One of those great, steal, black beasts with its long black mechanical arm, pumping oil from the ground beneath our feet. We are supposed to learn about this, but I can only think how it looks like a pimple, or a blemish, or a blackhead.
Round and round it goes, pumping, and we can see it all go full circle. The bones of the dinosaurs and their flesh and all the organic compounds of all the plants from those hundreds of millions of years of history, compressed and bound by pressure. Their gift to us is this black tea. Our mammoth caravan of dirt-shined SUVs runs on this stuff.
The first time I gave blood, I’d forgotten to eat all day. My blood sugar must have been low. The nurse had a hard time finding a blood vessel in my arm and must have pricked me a half dozen times. Finally, she got it, and the bag began to fill with my deep, red blood, the same kind my heart pushes around my body and lets me live and breathe. When we were done, I got up and started walking to leave when my vision started to fade to black, and my legs went out from beneath my body. My head filled with storm clouds and a pressure vacuum, like in the deepest parts of space. I lay down, blacked out, and waited for life to return to me. I wonder if that’s how the earth feels.
I wonder what the ancients must think of us. Are they laughing? Are they weeping?
We return to camp. We go to Yellowstone tomorrow.
Sloan Scholar, Statistics