If It Is Out There

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Texas, fossils, moonshiners, Paluxy River, T. rex, Glen Rose, Pee-wee Herman, ice cream parlors, Grandmas, El Dorado Springs, Missouri & Spielbergian verisimilitude.


The Stone Hut is one part boneyard, one part gypsy yard sale and a chaotic ode to both dinosaurs and America. It’s just off I-67 in what is now Glen Rose, Texas. The area was once home to the Paluxysaurus—the Texas state dinosaur, named after the Paluxy River. A dirt walkway lined with giant ammonites leads guests to the hut. A baby stegosaurus rides a “God Bless America” sign beneath crisscrossed American and Texas flags. Scrawled on the front door in a faded white picture frame are the words, “IF IT IS OUT THERE, WE WILL FIND IT.”

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Morris Bussey, the purveyor of this boneyard-sale, is a self-proclaimed fossil hunter and the owner of a quaint Glen Rose bed-and-breakfast (Bussey’s Something Special). Bussey speaks with a thick but gentle Cajun accent and rushes through sentences like an excited child show-and-telling a puppy to class. He shows me mosqueetrs suspended in amber a la Jurassic Park and sharp arrah-heads taped to a slab of cardboard. He tells me about dinosaur treks down by the river that he can take me on later that week, and I tell him I’m curious about what makes Glen Rose and its twenty-five hundred inhabitants Glen Rose. He peeks around me to make sure someone isn’t coming in, then from behind the counter pulls out a dingy yellowish mason jar filled with moonshine. He says he can’t sell it to me because that would be illegal, but that I can try it, on the house. I smile and chug it down.


A baby stegosaurus rides a “God Bless America” sign beneath crisscrossed American and Texas flags.


The details are spotty, but Bussey hints that moonshining is still a part of Glen Rose culture. The Stone Hut itself was home to a moonshine operation during Prohibition. I ask if he knows of anyone who might be interested in chatting with me, and his eyes squirrel around a bit before admitting that he may know a guy. An old guy. He says he’ll see what he can do. At this point, in Glen Rose, I am about fifteen hundred miles into a cross-country relocation from Clovis, California, to New York City. I was possessed by an insatiable curiosity for the new and the weird, and a secret ring of ancient moonshiners fulfilled my Kerouacian fantasy.

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The Stone Hut is the first stop in the holy trifecta of Glen Rose tourist attractions. Off exit 205, you can also see Dinosaur Valley State Park and the Creation Evidence Museum. The park is a fifteen-hundred-acre swath of grassy hills and rocky riverbanks, bisected by the Paluxy. Near the gift shop, two T. rex and brontosaurus models stand thirty feet in the air with a cute ferociousness, like cartoon kittens trying to roar. Imagine the dinosaur scenes in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, minus the goofy neon colors and childhood nightmares. The models were originally made for the 1965 World’s Fair, but, now a half-century outdated, have fallen victim to technological progress and Spielbergian verisimilitude. Both models were offered to the Smithsonian and rejected.

The Creation Evidence Museum attempts to make a case for dinosaur and human coexistence. It’s mostly based on a few artifacts and human-looking footprints found around the Dinosaur Valley riverbanks in the early 1900s. The Fossilized Human Finger, The Alvis Delk Cretaceous Footprint, The London Hammer and The Meister Print are a few of the museum’s exhibits that have been labeled by mainstream scientists as “impressive to someone unfamiliar with geological processes” and “ridiculously fake.” A hyperbaric chamber is under construction, designed to replicate the atmosphere that Creationists believe was present before Noah and the Flood. According to them, this atmosphere should theoretically allow them to harvest new dinosaurs—smarter, kinder and, like everything else in Texas, bigger.

Bussey says there’s a bunch of dinosaur treks down by the river, near the park and away from the cartoonish models—private ones that a lot of people haven’t seen. In my mind, I replay the fictional scenes where a bored Bussey says the same thing to nearly everyone he talks to, hungry for an audience. I appreciate the offer anyway and take him up on his secret tour of the early Cretaceous. He can’t today, he says, but gives me his number to call later that week.

Compass Rose

BBussey welcomes me a few days later. He is wearing a loud blue short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt with yellow cartoony flowers. His white beard is full, but his chin is shaved, a rebellious Fu Manchu/beard hybrid. He is chipper and excited to show this city boy some dinosaur treks. We hop in his truck and drive to a secluded gate miles down the road. He gets out and unlocks it, and we drive to the riverbank and across the Paluxy.

To be honest, I don’t know what dinosaur treks are. Then I realize that he has been saying “tracks.” It all clicks when I see the first set of tracks—muddied steps pressed into the earth and preserved in time.They’re historical and interesting, like Bussey himself, and I hang on his theories—how this one right here quietly waded into the water, and that one fell and died in the apocalypse. Bussey talks with his whole body, arms flailing in excitement, sharp forefinger emphasizing points. “Ima go find some more for you,” he says, hopscotching in and out of the shallow water, making his own tracks.


To be honest, I don’t know what dinosaur treks are. Then I realize that he has been saying “tracks.” 


I stand with my muddy shoes barely in the water. The river is brown and noiseless, and a thick winter sky sulks in the air, cloudy and quiet. The whole riverbank feels like a fossil: something that used to live, but in its current state only the remnants of life endure.

Bussey and I leave the tracks and go back to the hut. I’m getting ready to leave when a man who looks very much like Ted Nugent comes in. I wonder if he’s the Moonshine Man. He’s tall and is wearing full camouflage and sporty sunglasses. His long white hair is pulled back into a stringy ponytail. He might have just hunted his dinner, or he might be the kind of guy who wears hunting gear because men are hunters, goddammit. He looks at me, smirks and abruptly walks out. Bussey says “Be right back” and follows him.

“That guy looks like a character. I should’ve talked to him,” I say when Bussey returns.

“Well, now, I don’t know if that would’ve been a good idea,” he says.

Compass Rose

Isay goodbye to Glen Rose and Bussey the next day and drive to El Dorado Springs, Missouri (pronounced el-doh-RAY-doh), where my grandmother was born. It’s twenty miles from Nevada, Missouri (pronounced ne-VAY-da), and one hundred or so miles from Kansas City. Main Street is quaint and white, like most Midwest sundown towns. I’m thirsty, but it’s too early to drink a beer. I peek my head into the post office, buy a newspaper for Grandma, then wander through the city park and into a secondhand-clothing store.

The store doubles as an ice cream parlor and triples as a coffee shop. I don’t drink coffee. Earlier in the trip, I decided that I should probably start if I wanted to experience the classic “curious traveler in a small-town coffee shop with interesting strangers” rendezvous. I order a coffee, black, and chat with the two women hovering between the coatracks and the cappuccino machine. One is my age, the other is my mother’s age and neither of them have lived outside of El Dorado Springs. They don’t look related. I tell them I’m driving across the country and stopped to see my grandmother’s hometown. They’d never heard of her, but said her maiden name sounded familiar.

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The younger one asks what other stops I’m planning on the way to New York. Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago, Akron, I tell her. The older one says cheerily, “Chicago is great, but be sure to stay away from Niggertown!”

My heart drops, and apparently my face does too, because after a few seconds of awkward silence she follows up with, “Well, that’s not what I call it; it’s what, you know, everyone calls it.” As if it’s on a map. As if it’s supposed to make what she said better. I’m ashamed for her, because she doesn’t feel an ounce of real shame.

I hoped for the rekindling of a new place, that strange sense of missing somewhere you’ve never been. There were no beers with locals or nuggets of country wisdom, just an old racist in a fancy Goodwill. I forfeit my untouched coffee and wish them both a good day. I take a single picture of an El Dorado Springs sign in the park, hurry to my car and drive away.


I left the fossils in Glen Rose, but the real dinosaur was in El Dorado Springs: a living example of a creature incapable of keeping up with modernity, and humanity.


I left the fossils in Glen Rose, but the real dinosaur was in El Dorado Springs: a living example of a creature incapable of keeping up with modernity, and humanity. But one day, we too, may all be wiped out by an asteroid. We’ll be sleeping or working, or spending time with our family, or eating alone, then we’ll be gone. All of us, forever, and we’ll have no idea what hit us. Then in 10 million years the next species may come through. They will look at our fossils and examine our tracks. They will try to figure out how we died, and more importantly, how we lived.

And what will our bones say about us after we’re gone? Will some future man in a blue Hawaiian shirt pick up your fossilized arm and say, “ah, these are the bones of a real asshole,” or will he say with his future technology, “now this was a good one. This one cared. This one mattered.” He will declare this as we all lie there in the cold ground, destined for extinction and judged by what we leave behind. In the end, I met no Moonshine Man, but Bussey was right: if it is out there, we will find it.


 

Ryan C. Jones is a freelance photojournalist for Newsday and The New York Times. His work can be seen at ryancjonesphoto.com and @ryancjones on Instagram.

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