May 15, 2016

If It Is Out There

Words + Photos by Ryan C. Jones

This story appeared in literary travel journal, Nowhere Magazine, in January 2016

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, TX, but what used to be home to the Paluxysaurus – state dinosaur of Texas, named after the Paluxy River. A dirt walkway leads guests to the small stone hut, appropriately named. It’s lined with giant ammonites and neat stacks of petrified wood on both sides. American and Texas flags crisscross each other gallantly atop a “God Bless America” sign that a baby Stegosaurus rides. Scrawled on the front door in a faded white picture frame is the surprisingly existential, “IF IT IS OUT THERE, WE WiLL FiND IT.”

Morris Bussey is the purveyor of this boneyard-sale, a self-proclaimed Fossil Hunter and 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 his sentences like an excited child show-and-telling his beloved puppy to class. He shows me the mosqueetr’s suspended in amber a la Jurassic Park and the sharp arrah-heads taped to a slab of cardboard. He tells me of dinosaur treks down by the river he can show me later this week, and I tell him I’m curious about what makes Glen Rose and its 2500 inhabitants, Glen Rose. He peeks around me to make sure someone isn’t coming in, and from behind the counter he pulls up 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.

The details are spotty, but Bussey hints that moonshining is still a part of the Glen Rose culture. The Stone Hut itself was the home of 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 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 1500 miles in, on a cross country relocation from Clovis, California – my old home, to New York City – my new home. I was possessed by an insatiable curiosity for the new and the weird, and a secret ring of ancient moonshiners fulfilled my Kerouacian fantasy.

The Stone Hut is the first stop in the holy trifecta of Glen Rose tourist attractions. On the long 205 exit you can also treat yourself to the Dinosaur Valley State Park and the Creation Evidence Museum. The Park is a vast fifteen-hundred acre site of grassy hills and rocky riverbanks, bisected by the Paluxy. Near the gift shop, two T-rex and Brontosaurus models stand 30 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 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 its case for dinosaur and human coexistence. It’s mostly based on a few people-looking footprints and artifacts found around the Dinosaur Valley riverbanks in the early 1900’s. 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 also 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 most people haven’t seen. In my mind, I replay the fictional scenes where a bored and lonely Bussey says the same thing to 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, and gives me his number to call later this week, possibly Wednesday. We talk a bit about the fossil conferences he attends and the popular minerals in the area: wrap-up-the-conversation kind of stuff. We walk out together when he props himself elbow-deep in the passenger window of my rented Nissan Armada that’s loaded to the ceiling with my life’s things. He reminds me about the treks. I remind him about the moonshine, and he nods with a look that says, “Oh, that. “Yes, yes I’ll call my guy,” he says. He double-taps the car like a farmer would tap a beloved horse, and he smiles so wide his eyes disappear completely.

In the couple days in between our meetings, my expectations of the moonshining grows exponentially, and perhaps a bit out of proportion. As a photographer it’s natural to generate elaborate visuals for something I’m going to photograph; immediately I imagine the light, the people, the moments and scenes. When Bussey first mentioned the old guy, my first moonshine fantasy was a simple one, with a cute country senior making some jugs in some back-of-the-house bathtub. But 48 hours later my fantasy evolved into full blown Lord of the Rings-esque extravagance, with red-cloaked wizards churning and cranking impossible wooden machinery, the coveted moonshine glistening under a gargantuan harvest moon. I stay out there with them all night and they accept me as one of their own. I make magical, moonlit images of a mystical process hidden from the modern world. At midnight, we all get drunk together and eat off the land, and at sunrise I photograph them as they stride into the horizon, and into their huts or caves or whatever wizards live in. It’s an exorbitant fantasy, but it should also be noted that whenever I go to concerts, I secretly hope the guitarist gets sick and the band pulls me on stage to fill in.

Before I arrived in Glen Rose I drove through West Texas, which was as infinite as it’s rumored. Flagstaff, Albuquerque and my first trip to the Grand Canyon occupied the days before that. It is my first road trip where I have both the time and freedom to be spontaneous, with no accountability to family, work, or even myself. For those 19 days America is a contiguous sky that spreads 4,ooo miles, with improbable roads that somehow connect themselves to each other. Through cities, mountains, rivers, roads, friends, strangers, snow and sun: the drive was both everywhere, and nowhere, at the same time.

It’s February, and cold, Bussey 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. His enthusiasm is palpable and contagious. We hop in his truck and drive to a secluded gate miles down the road. He gets out and unlocks it and we drive down into the riverbank, slowly wading across the Paluxy, water rising up the wheels.

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

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. To the left of me are the impressions of giant reptiles that haven’t existed for eons, and to the right is Bussey’s pickup truck loafing in a brown river. 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.

I pick up some rocks and inspect them as if I know what I’m looking at. I decide I’m going to buy something, as a thank you to Bussey for his time, but also because dinosaurs still intrigue me.

Imagine yourself as a nine year old. You’re reading (in your non-Creationist textbook) that scaly beasts existed on the same land that you are currently standing on, right there beneath your feet, in a world where humankind hasn’t been born. These fantastical reptiles roamed the planet as the kings and queens of the ocean, sky and land. Some have wings. Some are impossibly huge. Some only eat plants and others hunt smaller beasts. They look like nothing that’s around today. They’re around one day, and the next day they’re not, and we only know about them through the bones they leave behind, leaving us to solve this existential riddle of how they were here, and why they left. It plays with your sense of fantasy and reality, because it’s simultaneously both. “How can it be,” Nine-Year Old You asks, “that something so majestic and powerful just stopped living, as a species? And how can these things be so real yet so impossible?”

You learn that your imagination is powerful. You learn that the real world is confusing. You learn that fantastical things can also be real things.

I say 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 nuh-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 my 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.

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 and and I’m embarrassed for my Grandmother, who I’ve never told this story to.

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 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.