A roadside Tyrannosaurus marks the traveler’s arrival in Vernal, Utah, the biggest town to the west of the monument, which straddles Utah and Colorado. The creature, sporting a red-and-white bandanna as broad as a bedsheet, is an attention grabber for the farmer’s market at his feet. He holds a watermelon. His smile is hard to read. Is he offering the melon to passersby, or does he intend to drop it on them as they pass? As with any facsimile of a Jurassic behemoth—be it a skeletal casting in bronze or something more casual in rebar and chicken wire—it is almost impossible not to stop, tip the head back and gawp. Who can resist a dinosaur?
So it goes, all along Vernal’s main drag: seven roadside dinosaurs, from an old Sinclair “Brontosaurus” the size of a country sow to a three-story hot-pink theropod with eyelashes as big as your leg. Even the local museum—the Utah Field House of Natural History— beckons bored young backseaters with its outdoor “dinosaur garden” in plain view of the roadway. For parents, the allure of the giant showstopper lizards is that they are not only thrilling but educational: Dinosaurs are the gateway drug to geology and paleontology. But are they? Or do they charm young museumgoers so effectively that nothing else sinks in? How can the geological details of the Dinwoody Formation, for example, no matter how engaging the signage, compete with a replica of a five-ton Stegosaurus (with a two-ounce brain, “the same as a kitten’s”)? You catch sight of the Diplodocus skeleton in the Vernal museum’s rotunda—so tall that a man strides comfortably beneath its rib cage—and, whomp, everything you learned is obliterated. You’re as kitten-brained as the paleontologist in the Monty Python sketch (“Brontosauruses are thin at one end, much, much thicker in the middle, and then thin again at the far end”). Do dinosaurs teach evolution, or do they inspire a simpler train of thought, more along the lines of what I overheard earlier, standing under the Diplodocus: “God was right out of his mind!”
Dinosaur National Monument is effective in its simplicity and its lack of distraction. Here are earth and bones. Geological strata are a language, and you learn to read it. Outside the quarry building is a three-quarter-mile-long Fossil Discovery Trail. You begin amid 163-million-year-old sand dunes. A two-minute walk fast-forwards you 25 million years and now you stand amid the sediment and fossilized shells of a vast inland sea that once covered Utah. Fast-forward again to the famous reptilian relics of a Jurassic Period riverbed, and from there to another great surge of inland sea. You end your walk through time at a petroglyph carved in the rock a mere 1,000 years ago by the earliest human residents of the basin. Whomp. You grasp the staggering age of this planet, of life.
Earl Douglass was born to a family of devout Seventh-Day Adventists. In his 20s, newly in the thrall of paleontology, he struggled to reconcile the teachings of his religion with those of the earth’s geological record. “I wish I knew whether or not the Church has the truth,” he wrote in his journal in 1885. “...How can I believe against strong evidence? For instance, how can I believe the earth was created in six, 24-hour days?” By way of compromise, he became a Unitarian.