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dinosaur highway

24 august 2015

Dinosaur Valley State Park, southwest of Fort Worth, is one of my favorite places – well, as long as I don't have to camp there overnight. I have written elsewhere about my disastrous attempt to sleep there in a tent once. This has nothing to do with Dinosaur Valley, which I'm sure is a very comfortable camping spot. It's just that if I don't have a roof over my head at night, I freak out.

That's neither here nor there. But parklands are curious places. Their appeal is that they are natural, and we can go out and inhabit them, temporarily, at a much closer approach to nature than our too-artificial homes allow. Yet aside from the deepest wildernesses of the West, most American parklands were once inhabited, and thus artificially developed. Only later, in the even more sophisticated development that re-clears countryside for return to nature, were these places bought, reworked, and managed as islands of nature within the developed world.

Dinosaur Valley, in Somervell County outside of Glen Rose, Texas, is such a place. Till the mid-20th century, it was mostly private land dotted with farm fields, pastures, and amenities like wells and mills and swimmin' holes. A schoolhouse stood there, and several homesteads. As Laurie Jasinski notes in Dinosaur Highway, her history of the park, these evidences of habitation have been scrupulously erased, and the acreage of the park for the most part devoted to "primitive" campsites. It's a complicated history, and Jasinski tells it in definitive detail.

The unusual topography of Dinosaur Valley attracted human attention long before anyone knew about the trackways that gave it its name. It's in a hilly region, predominantly limestone but made up of a "layer cake" of different sediments from shallow Cretaceous seas. Rivers cut through the area and expose the layers. The visual effect is one of stark and beautiful contrast between white rock and dark-green mountain cedar. And the geology of this part of Texas means that water once flowed from the ground so freely that people left artesian wells running perpetually without any control. The wastefulness of our ancestors can punish your brain with astonishment. People simply thought that water was a free resource that could never run out. Within a few decades, the aquifers had run out.

With its supply of artesian irrigation dwindling, the land in Somervell County became less attractive for agriculture. But tourism took over when the dinosaur trackways gained fame. Discovered early in the 20th century after floods etched into the banks of the Paluxy River, the trackways gained notoriety in 1940 when R.T. Bird excavated impressive stretches of dinosaur footprints for the American Museum of Natural History and other institutions. Those trackways are still on display – or rather, as Jasinski notes, finally on display (they were crated up for many years) in New York, underneath one of the AMNH's colossal sauropod fossils. Others languish in some disrepair in Austin.

And others are still out in the open in Somervell, accessible to even timid river-waders like me. Erosion waits for no man, and the trackways are constantly changing. Jasinski shows comparative photos from the 1980s, when I first saw the main site at the park, and the 2000s, when that stretch had noticeably disintegrated. The good news, on geological time scales, is that there are doubtless tons more trackways in the strata beneath the park's hills. New trackways will emerge as the river continually cuts into its banks – and, as Jasinski notes with relief, the river will keep doing so, after plans a few years ago to dam it upstream of the park were defeated.

Dinosaur Highway is part history-of-science and part local history, the record of a community, its photographs, its living memories. It's in the best traditions of archival history and popular-culture studies. You should read it if you already love Dinosaur Valley, and you will love Dinosaur Valley after you read it.

Jasinski, Laurie E. Dinosaur Highway: A history of Dinosaur Valley State Park. Fort Worth: TCU Press, 2008. F 392 .S65J37