A Time Machine?
As a science enthusiast I often hear people debate whether
it will ever be possible to build a time machine. I am not sure
why there is such a debate as I have a time machine and enjoy
using it from time to time (so to speak)
Just recently, my family and I used the time machine at
the “airport curve” just outside of Creede. It took us back
thirteen million years. What is now Snowshoe Mountain was the
center of a large volcano. Surrounding Snowshoe Mountain like a
castle’s moat was a large, shallow lake. We didn’t have our
fishing rods with us, but it’s just as well; no other time
travelers to that place have ever caught any fish in the lake.
We noticed that most of the vegetation along the shoreline was
very similar to vegetation of today. There were many pine and
fir trees, a few poplars and alders, some currant bushes, and a
few plants we couldn’t identify. The only insect we saw looked
like a large mosquito. We were pressed for time, though, and
after about an hour of exploring returned to the present and
packed the time machine away.
My “machine” is by no means perfect. It allows me to travel only
backwards in time, works only in specific places, and gives
only a small and sometimes confusing glimpse of past worlds.
However, it is easy to use and convenient to carry. It is about
the size and shape of a geologist’s rock hammer. In fact, as you
may have guessed by now, it is a geologist’s rock hammer. We
were exploring fossil beds formed thirteen million years ago.
Were the Beds Made?
What we now call Snowshoe Mountain is part of an old
volcano. It was surrounded by a large but shallow lake. When
other volcanoes in the area erupted, a fine ash rained down on
the lake. As this ash settled to the bottom of the shallow
water, it covered leaves and insects that had blown into the
lake. More layers of ash built up on the lake bottom with each
volcanic eruption. Eventually, pressure from the weight of the
upper layers caused the lower layers to turn to rock trapping
evidence of once-living things inside.
River Runs Through It
Later, as the Rio Grande River formed through the erosion
of the San Juan Mountains, the river eventually cut through the
area where the lake once existed, washing away much of the
lake’s sediments. By cutting down through the old lake bed,
though, the river left some of the rock layers exposed where
fossils can be easily found. The hill at the airport curve is
just one of several rock outcroppings in the Creede area that
contain these fossils. This rock, a yellow-white, layered
volcanic shale, can be easily spotted from highway 149 in
cliffs above the Rio Grande River in a number of places above
and below Creede. The airport curve, though, is the most
popular place for hunting fossils because of its easy access.
Collecting Creede Fossils
Anyone willing to spend a little time searching will
almost surely find some fossils. A hammer and a chisel or
flat-blade screwdriver are helpful for separating rock layers.
One area may contain no fossils at all while rocks just a few
feet away may be filled with fossils. Pine and fir needles are
by far the most common, broad leaves are sometimes found, and
insect fossils are the rarest finds of all. No one has ever
found fish fossils in the Creede fossil beds.
Collecting Is For Everyone
Fossils give us important clues to the history of life on
earth. Some kinds of fossils are very rare while others are
quite common. Fossil hunting is not limited to paleontologists,
though. Some of the most interesting fossils have been found by
amateurs. Perhaps the most complete T. rex fossil known was
discovered and collected by a teenage girl with no formal
training in paleontology. Fossils never discovered are
eventually destroyed through natural processes of weathering and
erosion, so fossil collecting should not be limited to the few
“experts.” However, if rare or unique fossils are discovered but
never shared with the scientific community, important
information about the earth’s past may be lost.
Fossil Collecting Guidelines
The following guidelines are important to follow for
legal or ethical reasons:
Always get permission before fossil hunting on private land.
Check for specific laws relating to fossil collecting on
state or federal lands.
In general, most amateur fossil hunting should be (and is by
law in many areas) limited to surface collecting; fossil
“mining” or “quarry digs” should be left to professional
Safety should be a primary concern, particularly when
collecting with children along roadsides.
Unique, rare, or exceptional fossils should be shared with
the scientific community.
Sites In Our Area
In addition to the Creede fossil beds, several other
sites are worth mentioning. Between mile markers 273 and 276 on
La Veta Pass a variety of shells, crinoids, and horn-corals can
be found in rock 300 million years old that was once an ancient
sea bed. The rest area on I-25 south of Pueblo exposes limestone
formed 100 million years ago that sometimes yields fossils of
ancient clams, oysters, and ammonites.
Sites Of Interest
Although fossil collecting is strictly forbidden at these
places, two other sites are well worth visiting. Florissant
Fossil Beds National Monument (35 miles west of Colorado Springs
just off Highway 24) contains fossils of huge tree stumps, many
insects, and even a few animals that were buried when volcanic
ash filled a lake thirty-five million years ago (sound
familiar?). A visitors’ center provides information and fossil
displays while trails lead to views of petrified Sequoia tree
stumps. Dinosaur National Monument, on the northern border of
Colorado and Utah, contains what may be the only enclosed
dinosaur fossil quarry anywhere. Visitors get to view (and even
touch) 150 million year old dinosaur bones embedded in a rock
wall that was once part of an ancient riverbed.
Each fossil tells a story, and gives clues to a bigger
mystery--a world separated from us by time. The knowledge gained
helps us to better understand our past. For children, fossil
hunting is a game that combines a sort of treasure hunt and
playing in the dirt (something all children enjoy) with the
thrill of discovery. For me, each fossil raises more questions
than it answers. But sometimes, as I hold in one hand the
reminder of a life that lived millions of years ago, I am
humbled by the experience. Overwhelmed by the immensity of time,
I focus instead on my daughters as they inspect rock after rock.
Wondering when I’ll hear the next “Dad, Dad, I found one!”, I
lay my hammer down and try to glimpse the future.
2006 Dirk Oden