Have You Fossilized Your Summer Vacation?


During a brief summer interval, it seemed safe to do a few-days’ jaunt to visit relatives. Traveling with siblings and visiting cousins, everyone vaccinated and practicing safety, we visited several sites.

Just when you think there is little of interest in a rural area, I was introduced to an archeological find, the Ashfall Fossil Beds. The Beds are located near the Missouri River on the Nebraska plain.

Can’t Expect the Unexpected

We need reminders now and then of how life is, and always has been, volatile for any living species. We work to be diligent in hygiene and immunization, protecting ourselves from a virus we cannot see. Still, the unknowns can take us by surprise.

My reminder was the visit to the Ashfall Fossil Beds. What was about to happen at that location could not have been known by any species hanging out at a waterhole 12 million years ago.

A Little History

So, this is what befell those creatures. A volcanic explosion around 1,000 miles west, in what is now Idaho, sent a plume of ash carried by the wind and driving downward over the lake. Many animals died instantly, the smaller ones first.

Birds, ancient breeds of horses, camels, rhinos and many more species of animals, most of which we would not be familiar with today, were suffocated in ash. This waterhole and the instant and near-instant death of the many animals is preserved as it occurred those many million years ago. The layers of ash preserved the site.

Then, one day in 1971, a paleontologist and his wife took a walk across gullies on a Nebraska farm and happened to see a rhino skull sticking out where a gully had eroded. After being unknown for these million years, their story unfolded.

The site is now the Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park. One of the many incredibly interesting sites across rural America we rarely hear about.

The Nebraska State Park System built a huge barn over the area where university students and staff continue to excavate. A walkway allows visitors to observe as paleontologists and university students continue to work, carefully unearthing carcasses that reveal the detail of animal life.

In one case the fetus of a pregnant mother is visible, in another the contents of a stomach. New discoveries of fossils continue.

I came away from this extraordinary exhibit with some thoughts to share.

It’s Not All About Us

As I left that barn after looking at the preserved remains, I had a sense of being very small and insignificant. We humans are playing just a tiny part in the history of time on this earth.

Whether we are an ancient giant turtle, or a modern-day human, we can do our best to use our instincts, educate and protect ourselves and our family from the many dangers around us, but nature seems to get the last word.

We Never Know What Is Beneath Our Feet

Mother Earth seems to have many hidden treasures, some not too far below the surface. I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to experience the Ashfall Fossil Beds site.

What do any of us know about the land where we live. Who inhabited it 1,000 years before our arrival? How was the land used? Perhaps more curiosity about what is under our feet would encourage us to treat it with more care.

Are There Interesting Sites in Your Back Yard and State Parks?

Our National Park System in wonderful. I expect they get far more attention and more visitors than our state parks in each state. I expect there are more sites, archeological and otherwise, that are not widely publicized, located away from cities and towns of any size that would be ideal locations to visit during a time when we strive to avoid crowds.

Carefully planned travel with fully-vaccinated relatives brought me to the fossil beds. Should you be doing a drive across the Midwest, I encourage you to make a stop as well. Leave yourself time to take in this wonder. The small and carefully distanced number of visitors was ideal. The staff on site are knowledgeable and the ongoing work is intriguing to watch (although not an Indiana Jones in sight).

So how was your summer vacation? Were you able to do local travel or see local sites that you always intended to visit? What was the experience like? Would you do it again?

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