Biking to Dinosaur Monument


There were five of us -- ten and eleven year-old boys in a small and isolated Utah town. We were bored. Summer had stretched on and on. We didn't want school to re-start but real boredom had set in. Swimming at the city pool was not longer a novelty.  We were tired of the fort we had built in a tall oak tree on the vacant land near our neighborhood. We wanted some excitement to finish off the summer vacation. I don't remember who had the idea but it was soon unanimous -- we had decided to ride our bikes to the visitors' center at Dinosaur National Monument.  It was about 20 miles away.  We had no idea if we could make the round trip and still be home before we were missed.  There was risk and that made the idea even more exciting.


Each boy went home to get his bike.  We were to meet at Grant's as soon as we could get our bikes.  This was before thin-wheeled ten-speed bikes.  We had fat-tired single-speed bikes, some new, some hand-me down's from older brothers. Soon we were all there but Craig.  We couldn't wait any longer so we rode to his house.  There he was fixing a flat tire.  We all helped. Before long we had started on our biking journey.


We rode west on 350 South Street and then south on 500 West Street, past Vernal Avenue and on past 500 South.  Soon we were at the Vernal airport.  Just as were about to pass the airport we heard the prop sound of the daily Frontier Airline flight from Denver.  We stopped to watch it land, airplanes were still a fascinating miracle to us.  It was a DC3.  Three people got off and one got on.  Soon the plane was on its way to Salt Lake City and we were on our way once again on our last summer adventure.


U.S. Highway 40 was not far. We turned right and hugged the shoulder.  For most of the rest of the way cars would be zooming past us at 60 mph.  The first time a large truck past us at a high rate of speed, it almost blew us into the borrow pit. We considered abandoning our journey.  But our youthful bravado would not let us quit.


Soon we were at Naples, the rural community just southeast of Vernal.  We rode past the Naples Elementary School.  Soon the fifth-graders from Naples Elementary would join us as we moved on to Ashley Valley Junior High School in a little over a year. Future friends and enemies we didn't yet know, except for my cousin Dale.


On we rode, passing the few stores and gas stations in Naples, then past the farms that lined Highway 40.  A few looked prosperous but most looked dry and shabby.  Alfalfa was ready for its second cutting.  Some fields had already but cut and baled -- the bales waiting to be stacked to feed the cattle during the coming winter months.  The familiar caw of magpies could be heard whenever the noise of the traffic subsided.


Now the terrain was mostly barren.  Only tumbleweeds and other species of drought resistant plants lined the road.  Beer bottles and other litter added what little color there was to see along our route. The morning coolness was gone and weather had turned hot and dry.  We wished we had brought some water.  The road was no longer flat but instead rose and fell over a series of gullies and gulches.  Pedaling was more difficult on each rise but we could coast down the other side. Kent yelled back, "I wish we had some water."


In the distance we could see Split Mountain Gorge.  It represented our goal.  The visitors' center was located just this side of the magnificent gorge cut through a sandstone mountain by the might forces of the Green River.  The open faces of the cut sandstone were illuminated by the sunlight.  Each time I return to Vernal, I spend a few minutes staring at the beauty of Split Mountain Gorge.


A few more miles were behind us when we saw the green head of a painted plaster dinosaur appear above the next rise. A Conoco sign soon followed.  We knew where we were.  Each of us had stopped here before with our parents.  It was the only gas station between Naples and Jensen.  A large green and brown dinosaur stood on its hind legs near the gas pumps, built there to attract passing tourists.  The owner had a button in the office he could push to make the dinosaur roar and scare young children.  We, of course, were too old to be scared and besides we had been here before and knew what to expect.  The good news was that there was a drinking fountain on the front of the service station. The water was warmish but each of us drank heartily.


As we returned to our bikes, the owner made the fake dinosaur roar to tell us goodbye.  As we traveled further east, riding became easier as the landscape descended toward the Green River. Pedaling was easier now but that meant the return trip was going to be more difficult.  A hawk glided effortlessly in a great circle over our heads.


Just before Jensen is the turnoff to Dinosaur National Monument and its visitor's center.  We decided to go on to Jensen and throw a few rocks into the Green River.  Jensen has only a few building built on the western bank of the Green River along Highway 40.  There is a narrow silver metal bridge spanning the river, the kind with trusses over the road. We parked our bikes and ran onto the bridge, the longest bridge any of us had seen. We stopped in the middle to throw the rocks we had placed in our pockets.  The river looked green from the silt it carried.  Having sacrificed a few rocks to the river gods we headed back to the turnoff.


Now we headed north on a much narrower road but fortunately the traffic was far sparser than on the highway.  The road soon paralleled the Green River and the green farms along its banks.  We rode past horses, goat, cows and other farm animals.  A few jackrabbits crossed the road in front of us. Then the road left the river and began to climb the sandstone hills.  We were tired; on some steep spots we got off and walked our bikes.  The last two or three miles seemed to take forever.


"There it is," called Brent. And then we all saw it, the v-sloped roof of the visitors' center perched above the pinkish brick that were meant to blend in to the surroundings.  The visitors' center had been built by the Park Service to cover one of the largest concentrations of fossilized dinosaur bones found anyplace in the world.  In addition to hosting tourists, the building served as a workplace for paleontologists meticulously uncovering dinosaur bones from an ancient graveyard of dinosaurs now encased in stone.  The large diplodocus now located in the Smithsonian museum was recovered from this site.


Now our pace quickened as we rode the final yards to our goal.  We parked our bikes amid the cars of tourist from many states -- Colorado, Kansas, Arizona and even New Jersey.  We walked up the front steps and into the air-conditioned building.  The cool air felt cold on our sweaty bodies.  We rapidly passed the instructional displays and went right to the balcony that overlooked the quarry.  There were three or four men in white uniforms using small chisels and even brushes to remove the rock from the fossilized bones.  On some uncovered fossils, plaster was being used to make casts of the bones. The work seemed excruciatingly slow and boring.  I have returned to the visitorsº center many times in the intervening forty years.  I have been unable to see visible progress.


We were soon bored again and off we went, bounding out of the building and back to our bikes. The Split Mountain campground and the river were nearby.  We decided to take a short detour and throw some more rocks in the river. It was downhill to the campground and we coasted the whole way.  As we stood on the bank of the Green River and looked across the broad river at the Split Mountain Gorge, it was unbelievable to me that the river had cut its way through the solid rock that now stood bare. How did it start?  Had the mountain acted as a dam at one time?  Even now after two college degrees, I am still amazed at the power of erosion working slowly over many years.


As I looked at the broad expanse of the river, I remembered my father telling me that he had swam across the river at a teenager.  He had always ended the story by telling me that it was a stupid thing to do because the river was treacherous with numerous eddies that could pull a man under with no chance of escape. I was never tempted to swim the Green River. 


After we had skipped a few flat rocks over the surface of the river, we started home.  Somehow the journey home was less exciting than the trip to the visitors' center.  Mostly it was just tiring; more uphill than down with scenery we had already seen.  As we finally rode down 350 South and I could see my house at the end of the street, I knew that we were finishing our last great adventure of 1958.


"So what did you do all day?" My mother asked.  "Oh, I just rode my bike," I answered.