I’ve somehow in the past missed this corner of Utah during my travels. But heading south from the Grand Tetons, I followed the Green River into the land of dinosaurs. This is the path that John Wesley Powell, one of my heroes, traveled twice in the post-Civil War years. It seems appropriate that I am retracing his route at this moment.
I am still one-handed, having broke my left hand recently. Of course, mine will soon heal, while Powell’s would never heal. He lost much of his right arm in the Civil War, but that certainly didn’t slow him down. As many of you know, he was leader of the first party to navigate the wild Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
I love the photos produced by John K. Hillers during the second Powell expedition. Take a look at his photos, which include much more than the Green and Colorado River basins. The party boated down the Green River, through Flaming Gorge (now sadly drowned beneath a reservoir), then into the land of dinosaurs, south towards the confluence with the Colorado.
This area of northeastern Utah, still quite remote, exposes Mesozoic-age sedimentary rocks, including the world-famous Morrison Formation. It was in the Morrison and similar formations that the so-called “bone wars” erupted in the late 1800s. Not a real war, but a dinosaur fossil-collecting frenzy, the bone wars was a rivalry between two palaeontologists, both with healthy egos. Their names were E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh, who each represented a different prestigious eastern museum. Both men yanked tons of dinosaur bones from rocks of the American west.
Neither of these two discovered, however, the richest trove of fossils in the Morrison. That was left until 1909, when Earl Douglass of the Carnegie Museum found eight tail bones arching out of the ground. They belonged to an enormous plant-eating Apatosaur. Today, this dinosaur quarry is the centerpiece of Dinosaur National Monument, not far from Vernal, Utah. It’s a beautiful patch of land, watered by the Green River and surrounded by gorgeous canyons.
This is a fantastic place to get off the beaten track in the American west. Most people visit the dinosaur quarry and a few drive up to the main road’s end at Josie Morris’ cabin. But there are great sights and short hikes to do along the Harper’s Corner Road as well. This road actually starts off Hwy. 40 just east of Dinosaur, Colorado. In the warm months, consider a float trip on the Green River.
I camped inside the monument, alongside the Green. During the night I was awoken by the sound of raindrops on my van’s roof, the first time in quite awhile I’ve heard that sound. We’ve been in a long period of dry weather in the west. In the morning I got a nice (and rare) morning rainbow.
I was interested in Josie Basset Morris. Her homestead included a small cabin by a spring, backed by box canyons and surrounded with shade trees. Josie was a character, the kind of independent pioneer woman I admire greatly. How can any woman today think that women magically became stronger and more independent when they were finally liberated in the late 20th century. Women have been strong for all human history, and it can be argued that today’s women simply can’t match the grit displayed by women of the past. Neither can the men.
Josie cavorted with famous western outlaws, who often holed up at her place along Cub Creek. She also divorced 4 husbands, running one off of her homestead with a frying pan. She occasionally rustled cattle, made bootleg whiskey, wore pants most of the time, and cut her long red hair short. She lived the last 50 of her years, alone most of that time, caring for livestock on a remote ranch without plumbing, electricity, or other conveniences. She died in the 1940s.
Dinosaur National Monument reminds me much of the John Day river country of eastern Oregon. The canyons are a bit more spectacular here, but otherwise there are many parallels. For instance, in the John Day country the rocks are laid bare, as at Dinosaur. But being much younger, the badlands are rich in mammals instead of dinosaurs. The whole feel of the land, with valleys covered in sagebrush and bunch-grass, badlands and canyons stretching in all directions, and with few people around, made me feel I was back in my old stomping grounds in the Clarno Basin of Oregon.
Hope you enjoyed this little slice of history. I really encourage anyone with time who is traveling Interstate 80 across southern Wyoming to take a jog south into NE Utah. The Flaming Gorge, Uinta Mountains, and Dinosaur National Monument make the detour very worthwhile. Our adventure (Charl and I) continues, as we make our way south through western Colorado, headed for Four Corners and Monument Valley.