Dinosaur State Park

August 21, 2009 — I often wonder if the Earth misses its glory days. And that’s definitely how I anthropomorphize it. Like a universally adored high school quarterback growing up to become a mere anonymous cubicle barnacle with screaming kids and a resentful wife. You see, once upon a time, the planet had giant majestic creatures of massive power and terrible beauty dominating its surface. We know them as dinosaurs, and the Earth must certainly have been prouder of calling them its own than the naked monkeys it currently has running around worrying about stock portfolios and the latest television technology.

Still, like that ex-high school quarterback, the Earth has its own trophies from that bygone era that it keeps in its basement to stare at wistfully in the few moments of solitude that it’s able to lie itself into. The fossilized bones of these ’assic creatures abound in the Earth’s crust, and we’ve dug up so many of them and strung them together in so many museums that it’s a testament to the awesomeness of these extinct creatures that not only do we not get tired of them, we still clamor for them.

I mean, I know I’m purely anecdotal evidence, but I’m pretty sure that I personally have seen enough of these saurians to recognize a diplodocus long before I would a humpback whale if both walked up to me in a Best Buy. I realize there are a lot of I's in this paragraph, even for I.

But I was still more than pleasantly surprised by what I found at Dinosaur State Park...and it doesn’t even have a single dinosaur bone on display.

Dinosaur State Park sounds like it should be located somewhere in Utah or the Dakotas, but it can be found right in the center of the Stepford state of Connecticut.

Located on 400 West Street in the town of Rocky Hill, the park sits on 63 acres of land crossed by 2.5 miles of hiking trails. If it’s your first time visiting, you’ll only be interested in about 50,000 square feet of the park, though.

A surprisingly tiny, almost embarrassed-looking sign denotes the turn-off to the park, and as you pull into the parking lot you’ll see the low, silver geodesic dome that is the heart of the park and which automatically belies the idea that the Exhibit Center of Dinosaur State Park is just some random display cobbled together on donations and a small historical society budget. Once inside the entrance and past the gift shop (filled with shelves of rubber dinosaur toys, natch), you’ll find yourself in an enormous amount of empty space that you just paid five bucks to access.

But then you look down.

At 500 dinosaur tracks.

Dinosaur State Park is one of the largest dinosaur track sites in North America. Just as amazing (from a tourist point of view, at least, paleontologists have their own criteria) is that the fossils are displayed in their natural state, having been left exactly where they were found, after being fitted and topped off with the dome of the Exhibit Center.

More astoundingly (to both us and paleontologists this time), the park actually has around 2,000 tracks. The other 1,500 were re-buried for preservation reasons and in preparation for when the extra-large geodesic domes come back in stock at Wal-Mart.

The fossils were discovered in 1966 by the State Highway Department while attempting to build a new facility on the spot. Little did they know it was already a high-traffic area. A surprisingly rapid two years later, Dinosaur State Park officially opened.

The type of fossil footprint found embedded in the rock is called Eubrontes, and the fossil itself has its own name because nobody can tell which specific bipedal species of dinosaur turned this area into Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Eubrontes are characterized by their size and three-toed structure and are actually found throughout the world. Incidentally, Eubrontes is also the state fossil of Connecticut, although I’m not sure what privileges it’s awarded as a result of that honor.

Around the interior of the dome is a raised walkway that takes your around the entire track site, while a light system sequentially highlights some of the more prominent track paths just on the off chance that 500 dinosaur tracks look merely like a confusion of pockmarked rock to you. I’m not pointing fingers.

Also along the outside of this walkway are scattered a few exhibits on the history of the park, a complete imported dinosaur skeleton still embedded in rock (I lied a few paragraphs back for dramatic effect), and a large diorama featuring various dinosaur recreations, including one ten-foot-tall dilophosaurus that moves and roars whenever the computer program that takes the place of its tiny brain tells it to. Meanwhile, a prehistoric sound track that I assume was gleaned from the fossil record filters over the loudspeakers.

If you were trying to beat a record, you could do the circuit of the entire dome in about thirty seconds. But you’re going to want to hang out for a bit and try to figure out what it means that something so ephemeral as a footprint can survive scadzillion years beyond anything else. Makes me re-think how I was planning to leave my legacy, threadbare and laughable as it is. Oh, and scadzillion is the number I hear anytime somebody tries to describe a time epoch bigger than ten years to me.

I’m not sure how clear it was in this article, but I was trying to present fossilized indentations as being on par and perhaps even cooler than 20- foot-tall lizard skeletons. While it might be a stretch to say that mere footprints are more compelling than those giant skeletons, the truth is that there is no passed-on wisdom about seeing another man’s bones, but there is some about walking in his shoes. And while both types of fossils show the foundational quality of existence and bones tell us all kinds of things about biology and lifestyle, footprints show literal activity...something a lot easier for our naked monkey brains to connect to than mere rib cages and skulls. And standing above a sandstone field of that literal activity in the exact location where it occurred feels like being at the confluence of multiple time streams, a feeling I’ve never had at any other museum.

It also makes me re-think the floor treatment of my house.