Jurassic vacation, anyone?

TRAVEL UPDATE - Marlinda Angbetic Tan (The Freeman) - August 28, 2014 - 12:00am

My only grandson Noah Inigo, aged 6, is a dinosaur fanatic ever since he developed a penchant for things. I do believe that young minds are "tabula rasa," ready to absorb anything and everything; hence, the double-edged sword of molding a young mind. To be able to connect, I had to bone up (pardon the pun!) on my meager dinosaur knowledge in order to maintain a spirited conversation with my grandson --- since he was about 3! However, despite several attempts at memorizing those names, I still am all at sea with dino terms. Nonetheless, we somehow connect, with me doing the asking.

I hate to share this with Noah's parents, as am sure they will glare me down to smittereens, but the US is a haven for dino fans, I have just found out.  The arrid terrain of the midwest is a natural "museum" for fossilized prehistoric animals that roamed the earth some 160 million years ago. The Dinosaur National Monument (nps.gov/dino) in the eastern part of Utah offers fascinating bones under the dry tawny wind-honed bluffs. Chris Woolston, in his article for a motoring magazine, describes the place as a "dinosaur quarry -- which has over the decades churned out a mother lode of skulls and vertebrae.  Visitors to the renovated (in 2012) Quarry Exhibit Hall can see about 1,500 fossils in their natural environment, a floodplain now tipped up to become a three-dimensional mural of the Jurassic life."

Woo-hoo! That's a wallop of an adventure for young minds to immerse in, their imagination running the gamut of creative energies that make "Jurassic Park" pale in comparison.  What with being up close and personal with stupendous rock walls embedded with the fossils of an imagined smilodon (a sabre-toothed predecessor of the tiger), or what may be the 5-meter tusks of a mammoth (the predecessor of the elephant), and, yes, the awesome Tyrannosaurus Rex.  But, really, most of the unearthed findings are of dinosaurs that inhabited what were once fertile river valleys and savannas of the North American Ancient West.  Now reduced by desertification over centuries, into an arid wasteland of boulders and cliffs, repository of fossils that are treasures in paleontology.

"The wall of bones in the national monument's quarry," Woolston explains, "is a great place to start (a dinosaur adventure). Plates from the back of a Stegosaurus rest near the pelvic bone of a carnivorous Allosaurus.  And articulated vertebrae still trail from the skull of a long-necked Camarasaurus. Sauropods -- plant eaters that weighed as much as 60 tons -- dominate the scene, much as they did over 100 million years ago.  Visitors are encouraged to touch a couple of sauropod femurs (thighbones) at the bottom of the wall.  The bones feel like cool, smooth rocks somehow supercharged with meaning.  They once carried a lot of weight.  They still do."  Dan Johnson, chief of interpretation at the national monument, added: "People are awestruck when they see the wall.Those aren't just leg bones.  Those are leg bones that are as large as a person."

Be sure to be on an adventurous frame of time when you do visit along this way. You will be driving through hot, dessert country so dress appropriately. Shorts may be comfy during the day, but by sunset, the weather will cool down considerably. Hence a jacket should be handy and a pair of pants is a wise choice. Trailblazing around the monument is a fun activity where young folks can go down gullies or down hillsides, while checking out the surroundings for what may be a fossil shard or the protruding part of a dinosaur still embedded in the ground.

The Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City is relatively new. Randall Irmis, its paleontology curator, is known to entertain guests with his dramatic way of inciting the imagination of guests about the skeletons on display as "a pack of Allosaurs devouring a sauropod, its skeletal long neck twisted in panic."  They also have a walkway that enables viewers to go past the 33-ft. long duck-billed Gryposaurus which is still 90 per cent intact, a Deinosuchus - 35-ft cast of what looks like a crocodile ancestor, and the skulls of Ceratopsians including the latest finding of Kosmosceratops with its 15 horns!

The avian display merits scrutiny. Archeopteryx is a predecessor of today's bird, but it has dino-like claws and teeth even if it is relatively small. The Troodon is a sleek predator with sickle-like claws and feathers which are long shiny gray with orange tints. The recreation is scientifically based on the feather of a related species unearthed in China which showed  "microscopic hints of what the scientists described as chestnut to reddish brown tones." Which led Irmis to quip: "If you had told me five years ago that we would actually know the color of a dinosaur, I would have said, no way."

But if you want an engaging show, go near Hollywood -- the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County's Dinosaur Hall (nhm.org). A young T. Rex and an equally young Triceratops in their actual dimensions when alive, will entertain visitors in animation, while behemoth skeletons entertain as well with animation.

So, any takers for a Dinosaur Adventure?


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