About a month ago now I went on a road trip with my wife, son, and parents. The impetus for the entire trip was a statement I made: “Ever since I was a little kid I’ve wanted to see that place where they built a building over all those dinosaur fossils in the cliff side.”
That place turns out to be the quarry at the aptly named Dinosaur National Monument, located near the city of Vernal, Utah.
I had quite a bit of vacation time saved up, so we decided to do as much as possible on the way there, then visit my sister’s family in Black Forest, Colorado before coming home. We spent the first night in Amarillo, Texas, visited Palo Duro Canyon the following morning, drove to the top of Capulan Volcano that afternoon, and made it to Alamosa, Colorado that evening.
Finding a vacant room in Alamosa proved to be a real problem, because it was the middle of the busy tourist season and nearly all of the motels in town were booked. After trying several motels without success, we finally found two nice rooms and spent the night.
The next morning we visited Chimney Rock before traveling to Mesa Verde, arriving just in time to get our fill of the cliff dwellings before the park closed. This time we found a nice enough room on our first try.
Day four had us driving through some of the most beautiful mountain passes I’ve ever seen. We visited the Black Canyon of the Gunisson under welcome cloud cover that afternoon, then proceeded on North quite a few more hours until we reached our ultimate destination of Vernal, Utah.
Vernal was a small town, a little smaller than my city of 18,000 I would guess. There were a lot of motels, each one of them completely booked for the evening. The only hope we were offered was to drive two hours north through another mountain pass to a town in Wyoming on the slim hope of possibly getting a single smoking room they knew to be available for the five of us to share. We were not willing to do that. We ultimately resigned ourselves to the idea of parking at a KoA campground and spending a horrible night sleeping in our cars.
On the way to the KoA, my dad wanted to try “just one more” motel. As he went into the office, the rest of us sat in the cars and prayed silently to ourselves (except for my four year old son, Sid, who simply suggested that we just drive back home to sleep…not understanding that home was 1400 miles away).
I saw my dad signing papers. He came out with a smile on his face. “They just had a cancellation. One room with four beds, two queens, two doubles.” We were ecstatic.
So with a huge potential disaster narrowly averted, we got some dinner and had a good night’s sleep, excited that in the morning we were finally going to see the dinosaur bones we had driven so far to see.
The next morning we pulled up to the national monument sign. After I set up the tripod and we all posed for a family photo, we entered the park. There was no one manning the booth to take our money and the gate was open, so we just drove on by. As we approached the road up the mountain to the monument itself we saw a sign blocking our half of the road that said, “quarry closed” and another nearby sign that said “Park here to ride shuttle”. My wife expressed concern that the park was closed, to which I responded, “Honey, national parks are only closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Years. They’re open, we just have to ride a shuttle up to the building.”
We parked near several other cars at a small pavilion at the base of the mountain. As we walked up, we noticed that a tram was about to leave, so we ran ahead to get on. A park ranger walked along the side of the shuttle and addressed the group. It was 10:30 in the morning, but the temperature was already in the 90s.
“Wow, it’s very encouraging to see so many people here,” he said. I thought that was strange…there were at most twenty of us.
“Well, when we get up to the building itself I’ll explain to you why we can’t enter. Then we’ll…”
He said some other stuff, but I was no longer listening. Something about driving around, hiking through the heat, and other things I did not give a flying flip about. When he was done speaking, I said, “Why is the building closed?”
“Well, I’ll explain that when we get there.”
I successfully fought the urge to say, “So I’ve got to ride around in the heat in an open air vehicle while you run your mouth for an hour before you’ll tell me why the building I just drove 1400 miles to see is CLOSED!?!”
Instead, I got off the tram and started walking back to the pavilion. I don’t really remember doing it…I was about as angry and disappointed as I had ever been in my life. I had been building my son up for this day for weeks. I remember seeing him crying, and I remember picking him up and whispering “I’m sorry” to him. At that point I lost my own composure, which caused my wife and mother to cry, too. It was one of the most horrible moments of my life.
I had visited Dinosaur National Monument website before we left the house. It had not been updated since the year 2000. I was fuming at the fact that if someone had spent the two seconds it would have taken to add “building closed” to their website, we could have been saved all of this grief as well as the grief from the night before.
A female worker came and tried to console Sid by showing him some fossils they had brought down from the facility. She started a VHS playing on an ancient television screen with some metal folding chairs set up in front of it. Sid put his head on my lap and tried to watch for a minute, but quickly lost interest.
I took him to the bathroom, where he was immediately cheered up by the fact that the toilets were flushed with a foot pedal. Then he noticed that they had a bookstore on a bus that he could shop in, and he was amazed. Just like that, he was over the whole ordeal. But I wasn’t.
After talking to one of the workers we finally found out what was going on. The building had been deemed unsafe merely a week before we arrived. Apparently the building was built on clay and had suffered from structural problems since it opened in 1957. Weak government funding had finally forced it to be condemned right in the middle of their busiest season.
I calmed down when I looked around and realized that these workers were more annoyed and put out than I was, and with good reason. Some of them had nothing to do now, and this was the job they had been fortunate to get for the summer. They were forced to make do with what they had and to try and appease the thousands of visitors who would undoubtedly show up and possibly not be as nice about the situation as we were. I don’t envy them.
On the drive back across Colorado to my sister’s house, I spent a lot of time staring blankly out of the windshield. I felt like Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Vacation, but I couldn’t find a moose to punch in the nose.
We had a nice visit with my sister’s family for the next six days or so, and we actually started joking about the Dinosaur Monument fiasco quite a bit. I’m just glad we didn’t drive two hours out of our way or have to sleep in a car before we found out the sad news…otherwise I don’t know what I might have said or done.
So I’ve set up a Google News Alert for “Dinosaur National Monument”, and as soon as I learn that the building has been rebuilt or reopened, I’ve decided we’ll use that as an excuse to visit my sister again and make a quick 8 hour jaunt over to visit the bones.
I think I’ll call ahead this time.