PeFo Phytosaurs

February 9th, 2019


After a ridiculous 35 day government shutdown our National Parks are finally open so I hurry up to Petrified Forest National Park from Tucson where I’ve cooled (?) my heels for two weeks.  As a former NPS ranger, and now also retired from 35 years of dentistry, I’m anxious to get back into the saddle, so to speak.  National Parks allow volunteers to help out and I’ve always been interested in geology and paleontology.    PeFo supplies me with a simple campground and a magnetic sign for my car, and it’s a short walk to the office……

There are two labs, of sorts;  a paleontology prep lab (my assignment) and a demonstration lab which is available to visitors who can interact with the paleontologists a few days a week.  The staff here is incredibly educated not only in educating the visitors, but extending the science of the upper Triassic fossils in northern Arizona–chiefly Phytosaurs here at PeFo.

I spend most of my days looking through a dissecting microscope picking apart matrix from bone fragments, then carefully assembling the pieces into a complete anatomical structure.  The matrix is chiefly bentonite with calcite crystals and other exotics which are easily teased from the bones.  Take a look:

The whitish matrix is removed with a tungsten-carbide tipped tool.  The bone is a whitish mineral-replacement material surrounded by a thin iron oxide residue which allows separation.  It’s tedious to say the least and this prep lab houses thousands of specimens that need to be cleaned and reassembled–which is why I’m here.  My undergraduate degree was in Geology so here I go!

My first project was to prep and assemble a Phytosaur femur.  Phytosaurs were pre-dinosaurs and looked something like 25′ crocodile except more terrifying.  This was a small one which I named Otto.  Each black/white scale is 1 cm–which took me three days to assemble–about 35 pieces.  See below:

Some are extremely small.  I can’t say how detailed this process is but every piece of bone and matrix must be separated and later screened.  The right hand dot is about 1 mm wide.  The two trapezoid pieces to the left would amount to a large grain of sand in your shoe.  Everything is eventually accounted for.  For those who know me, this a good practice for patience, although not unlike dentistry….

My second project is to dissect out bones in what was thought to be skull fragments, but turned out to be a vertebrae with rib sections.  This specimen was cast in the field by an open “jacket” –a plaster mold poured over a partially excavated find.  It is separated from the earth matrix, brought to the lab and then taken apart.

Half way through, bones emerge.  The matrix flakes away however some of the bone material is very flaky and must be stabilized with a glue cut with acetone.  This is the test–separating matrix from bone!

Along this road to discovery, I uncover a small bone fragment about one inch long–still don’t know what it might be.  It broke in several pieces as I teased the matrix away.

Here the bone fragments can be seen as the matrix is removed.  Fractures are common and frustrating but with glue can be stabilized until exposed.

One can only stare through a dissecting scope for so long so I catch a ride with the road patrol rangers–you’ve seen them–cruising around our parks keeping track of everything.  I did this for 7 years in Grand Teton National Park and loved it.  So, after nearly 50 years am back in the saddle again.  Today, I took a drive into the Eastern Expansion area–a recently acquired region east of the hourglass of PeFo.  It’s amazing country with hints of 100 year old cattle grazing (fences, wells) to ancient Puebloan civilizations.  The scenery is exquisite.

Land forms are bizarre and the colors and geology amaze.  This is near the Blue Mesa stratigraphy which is upper Triassic.  There were no birds then, only reptiles anxiously competing for dominance.  Here and there, petrified logs are perched on tops of mounds of debris.  Utterly amazing.

Here is a 4′ diameter log emerging out of the surrounding debris; this was once a teaming jungle near the equator.  The ground is littered with beautiful fragments; we literally walk through a jewelry store.

Google Earth shows stark differences between each side of the Petrified Forest National Park boundary–here at North Rainbow Forest.  Log miners have stripped everything leaving nothing but tire tracks and pilfered sand.  This is the reason we have National Parks.

A small debris field of iron rich quartzite or chert pebbles exfoliating from the cliffs above–each like a gemstone and undisturbed.

A Marscape perhaps.

An ancient log slowly releases it’s chemistry back into the cauldron called Earth, to be recycled.  I am lucky to happen by–another million years and it would be gone…..  Below is the loop drive beyond the Painted Desert Inn, built in 1920 and remodeled by the CCC in 1938 when the bentonite foundation started swelling and fracturing the building.  This vista captures old and new.  It’s a privilege to be able to work again in our national parks–I hope you visit them and support them.  Stay tuned!

Boot Hill & Botched Borders

January 25th, 2019

Boot Hill was established in 1878 according to this monument and was closed just six years later in 1884 because it was full; one hundred seventy four are identified in a brochure guide–admittance is $3.   It was a segregated cemetery with different quarters for the normally deceased, bad hombres, Chinese (Row 10) and Jews.  It took Judge C. Lawrence Huerta, a full blooded Yaqui Indian to get the Jewish quarter recognized after 100 years of disrepair–in 1983.

This is the main street of Tombstone today–many of these buildings stood 140 years ago when the shootout at OK Corral occurred.  Killed in this shootout were Billy Clanton, and Tom & Frank McLaury at the hands of the Earp Brothers and “Doc” Holliday.


They lie only three feet below the ground (hard-pan prevents deeper burial) so rocks are piled on graves to keep coyotes from rearranging things.

About 75 of these graves are marked with crosses with the word “unknown.”  Others like John Hickey, 1879 read:  “Hicks was shot by Jeremiah McCormick, superintendent of the Lucky Cuss Mine.  A saloon brawl.”  Another was Geo. Johnson “Hanged by Mistake.”  He innocently bought a stolen horse and suffered the consequences.  The classic epitaph: “Here lies Lester Moore, Four slugs from a .44, No Les, no more.” marks Lester Moore’s grave.  Read here for more Boot Hill history.

Bumbling idiots in Washington have now kept our National Parks closed for 34 days so I’m sitting on my heels here in Tucson at the doorstep of Saguaro National Park.  I did visit the Sonoran Desert Museum which is world class.  The Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) are the defining plants in the Sonoran Desert and are generally a protected species.  They grow to 40+’ and live over 100 years.  Weighing several tons, it is mystifying that they don’t topple over.

Another beautiful NPS unit unable to be accessed is Casa Grande Ruins, just southeast of Phoenix.

“Park Closed”

Not only is Saguaro and Case Grande Ruins closed, but so is Tumacacori National Historical Monument (Tumacacori rhymes with quackery) an old Spanish mission occupying three properties (two of which are protected).  I talked with the ranger who is keeping an eye on things; he receives a check every two weeks with zeroes.

This Park unit is located about half way between Tucson and Nogales in southern Arizona on Interstate 19.


I capture the dome and old mission buildings over the wall.  Speaking of walls…….

After my presentation to the Tucson Historical Society in Green Valley, I received a tour of the I-19 corridor down to Tubac (pronounced Tubeck); later driving all the way to Nogales–where I hung out in 1978 while working for the Indian Health Service.  We passed dozens of huge trucks hauling Caterpillar earth movers and huge military trucks–they are all heading down to Nogales to build the wall.  Forget that they are not yet funded–let’s waste some more taxpayers dollars.  Here, about 25 miles north of the Mexican border is another border check-point.  After driving through this (I was racially profiled to pass right on through), I noted two Homeland Security officers chasing a person under the next freeway overpass….    I think we should eliminate all borders with both Canada and Mexico and send down a caravan of 25,000 American RV campers with yapping poodle dogs (and mac & cheese dinners).  That’ll teach ’em.

Jackson Hole Airport

December 23rd, 2018

I’m back in Jackson en route to Tucson (where I’ll make a presentation to the Historical Society and elsewhere) but my first stop is Jackson Hole where I’ve visited now for 52 years. I am driving but many people fly in and out.  The Jackson Hole Airport is unique–it is the only airport within a National Park; a huge intrusion to this sensitive valley. 

One night back in the 1930s a couple cowboys cleared some brush on what then was the center of the valley; not in the current park but on Rockefeller land, and flew a few planes in.  They never left and Rockefeller looked the other way.  Today, the airport complex has grown, sitting on 533 acres and has expanded in every capacity except the runway length which Grand Teton National Park refuses to allow (the park expanded around this land when Rockefeller donated it).  Also increasing is the lease terms–the last signed lease in 1983 was for 50 years (30 + 10 +10) and signed off by none other than James Watt.

Albeit, this is holiday season but this parking lot was absolutely full with likely 500 cars.  Last year (2017), there were nearly 29,000 aircraft operations according to Wikipedia.  It’s Wyoming’s busiest airport with about 1/3 of a million people passing through.  It’s also built on sensitive sage grouse habitat which our current SOI has nixed protections for.

Yesterday’s flight statistics for the later half of the day.  The approach route us usually directly over the Moose Visitors Center.  During my drive up to Moose and back, I tracked about 10 flights booming overhead.  Very intrusive and getting worse.  If you read the lease ( much of it relates to mitigating intrusive noise.  Now, how do you do that with jets?  My solution is to remove the airport.

In the 1970s many of us tried to do just that, moving the whole thing over to Idaho (Idaho wanted it then, but not now) and punching an all season tunnel under the steepest part of Teton Pass.  It never happened and Wyoming #22 forged over the summit instead placing a bridge spanning Glory Bowl–a textbook avalanche chute.  The bridge lasted one year.  Opportunity lost.

Four jets exchange passengers.

This is a pet friendly airport……

And a smelly one.  Why do people have to bring their dogs everywhere?  I sat next to a dog on my last first class flight back from Hawaii.  I quit flying that day–Alaska Airline  gave me 400 ff miles–oh gee whiz!  They also lost a long time customer.  Alaska Airlines also allows  miniature horses!

Service animal?  Horsefeathers!  It’s selfishness.  I sneezed the whole way…OK, I’m on a rant again…..  Time to go back home, light a fire, pour a stiff drink, and take in the sunset on the Grand Teton.  Happy Holidays!