In Search of Dinosaurs

Simply I learned about her; and ungrudgingly do I share –– her riches I do not hide away. For to men she is an unfailing treasure; those who gain this treasure win the friendship of God, to whom the gifts they have from discipline commend them. Now God grant that I speak suitably and value these endowments at their worth: For He is the guide of Wisdom and the director of the wise.
— Wisdom 7: 13-15

As soon as each of my children was sturdy enough to hit the desert trail with me, we hit it, starting with my eldest son who was just past a toddler then, and is now practically ready for college. Where does the time go?

In those early days he had a healthy fascination for all things dinosaur, so I remember outfitting him for that first expedition with a junioir version of a paleontologists pack. He spent all morning packing and repacking his gear which included little shovels, a small hammer, brush, sifter, magnifying glass, compass, field glasses, notebook, rope and the like.

I carried a larger pack, as usual, with the water and a snack, a fleece blanket to sit on, some extra kid clothes in case of an accident, first aid kit, and camera gear to record the event for posterity.

It was unusually overcast that day as we set off hand-in-hand up the old miner’s trail. Yep, he actually let me hold his hand in those days, the simple result of a dad’s calling to guide and protect his child combined with the child’s need to feel cared for and protected. Oh, what an uncomplicated arrangement it was in the early days.

I took much smaller steps to accommodate his limited stride, but we still made steady progress up the slope while I fielded a steady stream of dinosaur questions. Would we find any dinosaur bones? Would we see any dinosaurs? How about dinosaur eggs? How about a T-rex? Triceratops? Velociraptor?

A quick “maybe” followed by a string of “no’s”, then I switched to pointing out nearby plants and critters and sharing the wonder of God’s creation. I also pointed out the various layers of strata in nearby cliff faces and tried to give him a sense of what a patient work it all was, where the dinosaurs fit in, how that could possibly be tied to today’s critters, and so on. I really tried to keep it all very simple, but it was a still a challenging conversation. Fortunately, I had an excuse to pause as we came upon a barbed wire fence with a rusty sign warning “No Trespassing” and “Violators Will Be Prosecuted.”

Hm, private property. Actually, that was trust land with the State of Arizona as steward in those days, so as far as I was concerned that land belonged to the people.

My personal view notwithstanding, there was a fierce battle raging. On one side, conscientious citizenry who wanted to preserve the land. On the other, aggressive developers, financiers, and the self-serving politicians who wanted to make more money by plowing up desert and creating more unsustainable sprawl.

That barbed wire fence was not merely an obstacle on our path, it was the line in the sand (literally and figuratively) for a battle that would rage nearly another decade.

By an odd coincidence, I actually found myself in the offices of the main developer one day, face-to-face with the CEO no less. I was there for a business meeting on an unrelated issue, but became more keenly interested in the conversation when he started proudly boasting about developing that expanse of pristine desert.

Naturally, I was not very pleased to discover how very close they were to achieving their outcome.

What’s a little guy to do? Well, suffice it to say that there was a great deal of praying out in the desert, holy water used along the battle line… to make a long story short, the entire wilderness area was eventually designated as “Preserve” and remains so to this day. Oh, there must have been a great chorus of prayers that went up to God on that issue!

But I digress, and that’s probably a story for another day. Back on the dinosaur expedition…

Of course we forged ahead, carefully maveuvering past the barbed wire in a spot where I simply pulled it up by hand so my son could walk underneath. I had to crawl.

We hiked for about another 15 minutes until my son found a rock that he thought might be a fragment of a dinosaur bone. It was as good a place as any to set up camp and let him go to work.

He excitedly unpacked all his gear and then I showed him the proper way to use his pint-sized tools. He listened very well and watched keenly, so learned very quickly. Before long, he was digging like a pro and meticulously cataloging a wide variety of fossils. Looking over his shoulder, I could see him making squiggle marks and scratches in his notepad regarding the desert rocks he had set aside on the blanket.

He worked steadily for about an hour until he was clearly ready for a nap, so I packed up our gear and we headed back down the trail.

I carried him most of the way back, so when I spotted some shapes flitting around a mesquite tree, I was happy to set him down for a moment and rest on a boulder.

“Are you ready to see some dinosaurs?” I asked quietly. He was all ears.

“We need to be very quite, since they’re right over near that tree.” His eyes grew wide.

I ducked down behind the boulder and set him up next to me with the field glasses.

“Look right there,” I said.

He looked intently for a few moments and turned to me clearly perplexed with, “I just see birds.”

He was right, of course. There was just a very animated little flock of sparrows whistling in the tree.

“Well, those birds are what’s left of the dinosaurs,” I said.

That last part was a bit difficult to explain to a little boy on the way home, but it presented another opportunity to illustrate how great and patient our loving Creator is.

As for the dinosaur hunt, we never did run across any authentic dinosaur bones, but a couple of years later we literally stumbled upon some real dinosaur tracks preserved in sandstone. We found them up on the Mogollon Rim along the shore of a little lake, just a couple of hours north of here.

Funny, but we actually made the trip to the lake that day just for the bird watching.

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