Some you win; some you lose – one has to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince. Tonight we ate in a Valentine, NE restaurant recommended by the hotel clerk – we would have done better at McDonalds. But on the other hand, driving across northern Nebraska, we came across two gems, one totally unexpected and one from our sightseeing list.
We have often praised the benefit of getting off Interstates. Driving across US 20, we came across a collection of old and rare windmills built from 1890 to 1930. Originally collected by Howard and Barvetta McLain from across the mid-west, they were restored and put on display by the Gill family of Jackson, NE. Since restoration, windstorms have again damaged some, but it was interesting to see and read about those there.
Our “destination,” if there was such, was the Ashfall Fossil Beds, a designated National Natural Landmark. Around 12 million years ago, a gigantic volcano many times the size of anything in historical times blew up in Idaho sending ash across North America. Glaciers scoured the ash layer away in the east, but about a foot-thick layer remained in western Nebraska. Winds scoured high areas and filled in low areas such as the pond at Ashfall.
In 1971, heavy rains eroded a gully in Marvin Colson’s farm exposing a complete baby rhino skeleton. Such complete skeletons are very rare. When the volcano exploded, birds were knocked out of the air within hours, and small animals like turtles died. Before long, horses, camels, and other larger animals including saber-toothed deer died. And within a few weeks, the barrel-bodied rhinos suffocated and occasional giant tortoises died. All were preserved in the ash.
We had never known there were rhinos in what is now the U.S. and had never heard of a saber-toothed deer. Furthermore, the ash was so fine it preserved delicate bird bones and even the lizard one crane had for lunch.
A visitor’s center provides a background introduction, and one can see excavated sites on trails, but the really fascinating place is an 18,000 square foot “Rhino Barn” protecting a large part of the deposit. Rick, a park ranger, told us a high school group had not arrived on time so he was able to give us a personal tour. He was well educated, very enthusiastic and clearly pleased that we were enjoying the display. He pointed out particular bones to us with a laser pointer. It was easy to see how they determined the order of death and sad to see the baby animals with their mothers.
Prior to the ash fall, the area was like modern East African savannahs. Fossils of partial remains of other animals were found in the sandstone layer created earlier below the ash level. They included many interesting things such as a three-horned deer, a one-ton giraffe camel, a now extinct 8-ounce hedgehog, a five-ton four-tusked elephant, a bone-crushing dog – the largest ever dog — and a bear-dog with the characteristics of both bear and dog but belonging to neither family.
The photos taken inside the barn are primarily of the excavated area, but in the distance, you can see most of the area is uncovered yet to be excavated. Rick told us soon university students would be arriving for a summer internship. They wouldn’t be guaranteed to find something, but the odds were strong, and the park gets far more applicants than needed.
Moving further west along 20, we came to the Sandhills, huge sand dunes that were probably on a beach millions of years ago. The dunes are now stabilized by grass. We moved from farmland into ranch land. Now we felt we were in the west!