Fossils and Food Trucks

Fossil hunting is usually a long slow business, walking bent over in the sun for hours, picking up a rock, checking it out, tossing it aside in disgust. I used to spend my summers exactly that way, looking for horn coral and petrified wood on my grandparents’ ranch in Arizona. Even now, if I’m walking along some dry streambed or freshly turned piece of earth, I can’t help looking for interesting rocks.

Because one of them might have been alive once.

And this is why I love the La Brea Tar Pits. Because what rockhound wouldn’t love a place where fossils are found by the crateful, where a single chunk of hardened asphalt might contain a hundred bones. And not just lowly corals or stray bits of petrified wood, but entire sabertooth cats and mastodons and dire wolves. I mean, just imagine. Even cutting across the grassy part of Hancock Park, you could actually be walking on a mammoth.

And if I had a backhoe, I’d be right there digging to find out.

I would be perfectly happy living in the Page Museum. Just throw down a sleeping bag over by the ground sloth and spend the night. One day I’m going to sign up for their volunteer program where you get to sit in the “fishbowl” lab and clean tar off fossils. In my mind, I’d be scrubbing a toothbrush over the molars of a mammoth or the leg bone of a sabertooth. In reality, I’d probably be looking through a magnifying glass sorting out pollen and mouse toes from a pile of sandy matrix.

But I’m okay with that.

Anyway, the tickets Elaine and I had for the Natural History Museum were a twofer special with the Page Museum at the Tar Pits. We’d seen one so now we had to see the other.

This did not hurt my feelings one little bit.

The museum was having some kind of Kid Expo in the park itself. All sorts of little street fair booths teaching kids about ecology, a small stage with various bands singing about how trees are our friends and a little row of food trucks.

Now food trucks are all the rage here in LA, but I’d never actually been to an event where they had them. The concept seemed fun. Little gourmet restaurants on wheels, specializing in cupcakes or PBJ sandwiches or strange cuisine mash-ups.

And there sat five of them.

Tempting, but we had to wallow in fossils first.

And sadness. Because La Brea is all about sadness. I mean, most fossils are pretty neutral. Here is a dinosaur. It died and got covered with mud. Here is a tree. It fell over in a bog and got preserved as a rock. But the La Brea Tar Pits fossils are all about being mired in tar until you starved to death or were eaten alive by predators. Not some poor old mammoth tottering off to die, but unlucky animals fighting a losing battle against merciless asphalt.

Makes me feel guilty for liking the place.

But it wasn’t all gloom and doom. Amid all the tar-stained skeletons and audio-animatronic exhibits was a small auditorium where they were presenting some kind of live show called Ice Age Encounter. So we got a ticket and waited in line. The encounter turned out to be with a couple of sabertooth cats. The baby one was a marionette, but the older one was a life-sized puppet, actually built by the Jim Henson Company.

It was freaking awesome.

Yes, it was just a man (or possibly a woman) in a sabertooth cat suit. Yes, there was a guy on the right side of the room working the eyes and mouth with a remote control. Yes, I cried anyway.

I’m a sucker for sabertooth cats.

Anyway, after gorging ourselves on Cenozoic disaster, we went outside to browse the food trucks. The Korean-Mexican fusion one had calamari tacos. Now I had never had a calamari taco, but I was fairly certain I was going to be having one before the day was out. Elaine, however, hates seafood so she tried to talk me into the hoagie truck on the far end of the row.

She didn’t have much luck.

She settled for a spicy pork burrito.

So we sat on a low wall in the shade of the art museum, eating calamari tacos and spicy pork, cooled by the fragrant breeze off the main tar pit.

Elaine thought it was smelly.

I thought it smelled like fossils.

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California Jurassic

So in yet another chapter of locating all the dead things in Los Angeles County, Elaine and I went to the Natural History Museum to see their new Dinosaur Hall. Now Elaine actually likes dinosaurs so there was no dragging this time. She came along willingly.

The new Dinosaur Hall replaces the old Rancho La Brea Tar Pits Hall which had never been the same since the Page Museum (which is actually at the Tar Pits) stole all its best exhibits. The Rancho La Brea Hall had been close and dark, filled with bones turned yellowish black from lying in tar for thousands of years.

This room was nothing like that.

The ceiling had become one giant skylight, crisscrossed with support beams. Rounded windows ran along the outside walls. Hundreds of key lights shone down on strategic points of dinosaur anatomy. Stepping from the muted lighting of the hallway was a bit of a shock.

It was so bright in there, I wanted to put on my sunglasses.

The first room looked a little like a dinosaur SigAlert. (For those not from California, a SigAlert is officially a traffic tie-up lasting half an hour or more. Unofficially, it is a good excuse when you are late to a party. “I’m sorry, there was a SigAlert on the 405.”) A Triceratops ambles along in front, a Mamenchisaurus is right behind, sticking its long neck clear over the Triceratops in a futile attempt to reach the door. Now, granted, neither one of them would fit through the door, but if it were a race, I guess the Mamenchisaurus would be the winner because even though most of it is behind the Triceratops, its nose is in front.

At least that’s the way it would work at Santa Anita.

Anyway, some smaller dinosaur whose name I’ve conveniently forgotten is pulling up along the Mamenchisaurus’s flank, hanging on for third. And I’m thinking “That’s a heck of a lot of dinosaurs per square foot.” Cool and all, yet it was hard to concentrate on just one animal, to truly appreciate the wonder of it.

I remember seeing a Mamenchisaurus in Chicago, all alone in a darkened room, the only lighting on the dinosaur itself. I just stood there staring. I had never seen anything so long and so beautiful in all my life. The interlocking vertebrae of the neck, the huge ribcage, the long whiplike tail.

Amazing.

But here, same dinosaur, much less impact. Yes, he did stretch from one end of the room to the other, but his tiny head was battling with the way more impressive Triceratops and his back end was lost under a suspended mosasaur. Still massive, just much less dramatic.

Most poignant fossil of the day goes to the mama mosasaur with the jumbled vertebrae of her unborn baby scattered below her ribcage. Neatest/creepiest fossil goes to the turtle shell mounted so you can clearly see the turtle’s ribs fanning out on the inside of the shell. I didn’t know that turtles’ ribs were part of their shells.

I’m still kind of weirded out by that.

But I think my favorite was the Triceratops placidly blocking the way of all the other dinosaurs. Sturdy, determined, daring anyone to try and make him hurry.

Lord of his domain.

Until that Mamenchisaurus catches up with him and squashes him flat.