4

Ignorant Ridge the Vale and Choza Formations

 

The Ridge, Ab and Fossils

The southeast point of Ignorant Ridge stands over the magnificent valley of the South Fork of the Wichita River. As it turned out later, this was an excellent center from which to gain access to beds of the Vale and Choza formations which overlie the Arroyo. Many years before, in the 1870s, Charles Sternberg, a professional fossil hunter, had started exploring for fossils downstream along the South Fork. With his team and buck-board, he made his way to the confluence of the North and South forks of the Wichita River, passing the ridge along the way. Not until he reached the confluence (Figure 6) did he find any vertebrate remains. There he came upon a jaw, set with rows of teeth and quite unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. Its identity remained a mystery until into the late 1940s when a find by J. Willis Stovall in Oklahoma gave a clue to what it was. It proved to be an ancient reptile, about three feet long, to which the imposing name of Labidosaurikos was given.

A legend grew over the years that the beds in the area of the ridge, or anywhere west of Sternberg's find, had no fossils. So my plan to search them met with skepticism, justified enough. The late Ted White, an experienced Texas bone hunter and for years director of Dinosaur National Monument, hearing of my plans, wrote me, saying,

"Sternberg, Case and Miller went crazy trying to find bones in the 'Double Mountain.' Give it up or it will get you too." Professor Romer, in his definitive monograph with Llewelyn Price on pelycosaurian reptiles had reiterated the general opinion that, with the end of the "Clear Fork" times, recorded about at the head of Lake Kemp (Figure 6), the continent of North America had become barren of vertebrate life. The great areas now in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona were vast, desert wastelands around the saline seas of the Permian Basin of Texas. So around the ridge, to the east and well to the west lay the sands of a barren desert which gave way at length to the waters of a highly saline sea.

Still, during those long years of World War II, which I had passed in the unglamorous job of teaching maps and aerial photographs to an unending stream of GI's Civil Affairs Training School officers destined for post-war Japanese Administration -and civilians, at the University of Chicago, I dreamed in off moments of getting back into the field and having a try at those higher beds. I just could not believe the whole continent had become a lifeless desert. I reasoned that any fossils that might be there must be in the sort of beds that earlier hunters would have tended to ignore, based on their work in lower horizons. Perhaps coarse, gravelly conglomerates might offer a chance. So I dug through aerial photographs, which were becoming available, looking for likely places and hit upon some areas of high relief north of Vera, Texas. Ignorant Ridge was part of this area and my chance camping there, on Ernest's suggestion, opened the way to developing the plan.

After the war, we started looking at once in some coarse stream channel deposits that in part were holding up the terrain and producing some of the relief. Within an hour we found fossil vertebrates. With these initial finds and my "brilliant" deductions it became possible to open up this whole area and to fill out a nearly complete sequence of fossil vertebrates for the whole of the Lower Permian, adding the top layers to the extensive earlier work of many paleontologists in the lower beds.

A triumph of the scientific method inferences from data, prediction, testing and sweet success? Not really. The high relief seen on the aerial photographs was due largely to a thick layer of coarse Pleistocene rock, about two million years old, not 260 million year old Permian deposits as I had thought from the photos. The coarse channel deposits of the Permian did, it is true, form some of the relief and hunting had to be done on side hills, where no casual hunter, passing through, would look. So much, at least, was OK. In this area, the fossils were in fact just in the channel deposits, but in other places they were not. The reasons others had not found them was just that they were rare and scattered, and that the myth stemming from Sternberg's trip dimmed enthusiasm for any intensive search. The urge to "always go over the next hill," even though it is 110 degrees in the shade at four in the afternoon, was missing. So, as usual in science, sound deduction or intuition, luck and coincidence were the important ingredients, coupled with faith, hard work and a salting of stubbornness.

The first summer we spent on the ridge was flushed with the sense of adventure. As usual, land problems soon turned up. After a couple of weeks of digging I found out that we were not on Waggoner's land, for which we had a permit, but on Nichols' Ranch. The ranch foreman in Red Springs said he could not give us permission to dig. We would have to get that from Mr. Nichols, in Dallas. I always disliked asking permission over the telephone, for it is too easy to say no. So, the foreman let us finish what we were doing and, that winter, I made contact with Mr. Nichols, who graciously gave us permission for the next year. So often, we would get onto the wrong ranch, not knowing it, and get "caught." Rarely did we get permanently run off, but sometimes it took a bit of diplomacy and a lot of

time.

Ab, as Ernest had said, turned out to be a genial man,

waiting his retirement, which was to come in a few months. He didn't work very hard and came down to the tent almost every evening with Dan, the lightning-shy dog, and sometimes Cur-ley, who stayed when Ab left. Ab loved to talk. One evening, after about a week of small talk, he got around to asking, "What are you fellers looking for anyhow?" "Fossil reptiles," I replied. "You know, like lizards and snakes."

"In them red rocks?" he asked.

"Yes," I went on, "been there some 250 million years or so." This didn't impress him at all.

"Thought so," Ab mused. "About 25 years back, an old feller come by while I was still at Hog Creek Camp, over east. Name of Miller. Distinguished sort of man with a pointed gray beard. Had a funny way of talking. Dr. Miller as I recall. He was huntin' for some fossil lizard, he said, dimeterdum seems to me he called it. Something like that anyhow. Yeah. Dimeterdum. Guess he found one, too, but I never did see him again."

Paul Miller had worked with me for a number of years and, before that, with other Texas hunters, Samuel Wiliiston and Alfred Romer. About 1924 or thereabouts, he had taken Romer on a trip to the Permian to show him some of his fossil localities. He was, indeed, among other things, hunting for the fossil reptile Dimetrodon a long spined animal, several feet in length (Figure 10). Dimetrodon was the old dependable reptile seen in early science fiction movies as the prototype of the horrible, spine-backed monster, usually portrayed by a tired varanid or iguanid lizard with a floppy web taped to its back.

That Ab would remember Paul Miller and "dimeterdum" was unusual, for most of the ranchers and town people who would visit our digs, interested while they were there, usually didn't grasp what we were doing or remember what we were finding. They even seemed a bit suspicious that there wasn't anything there and that we were really looking for "minerals" gold or uranium, as the times dictated.

One day, however, two cowboys who had seen us around with the wagon rode up and handed me several shiny, sharp, conical teeth.

"These here teeth what you lookin' for?" one asked. "Yes," I said eagerly, forgetting my Texas manners. "Where'd you get them?"

These were teeth of Dimetrodon and they had been broken out of a jaw or skull, which 1 would like to have had.

"Wall," drawled the first cowboy, "let me see. You go down this dim road there about a mile, maybe a mile and a quarter, you see a red hill off to the west. Half way up is some sand rock and sticking out is this thing with the teeth."

Down the road a mile or a mile and a quarter, of course, were some dozen red hills, each just about like the others. One stood out to the cowboys, but not to me. Dimetrodon stayed undisturbed in his final resting place, now gone with wind and weather. But the cowboys had found something and this was about the only time this had ever happened to me. Mostly it was, "I been riding them breaks for 20 years and never seen nothing like that."

 

Figure 10. Dimetrodon, the "famous" long spined, primitive mammal-like reptile from the Lower Permian of Texas and adjacent states. Approximate length 5 feet. (After Romer and Price, Review of the Pelycosauria, 1940.)


 

Ab remembered and had an idea of what we were after. This was before television had come along and done its immense, if less than well recognized, job of mass education. Now, with travel series, animal series and documentaries on fossils, coupled with readings in the Reader's Digest, everyone seems to know about fossils and what we are doing. The last 40 or so years have seen an immense change.

Next year Ab was gone, retired to Seymour, and Wade and his wife Maude had taken over the house on the ridge and the west pasture. Like Ab, they welcomed us and were of immense help to our studies and general well being.

The Ridge and Wade

Whatever a wise man may be, Wade was one of a handful that I have ever been sure of. I learned to trust his judgment as I came to know him better. One or two times he overestimated my abilities, but this was more my fault than his. Wade (Figure 11)/ in his days of riding line for Waggoner, was true to the image of the straight sitting, tall, taciturn cowboy. His bronzed face was wrinkled with the weather and, like Ernest, his forehead had the ivory cast of a confirmed hat wearer. He spoke with a sharp, tangy drawl that overrode the range winds and the cacophony of bellowing cattle.

 

 

Figure 11. Left: Wade Barker, my favorite cowboy and guide to the lands and ways of Texas, in heavy fence rider's gear with his favorite horse and dog. Photograph taken on the mud road down from Ignorant Ridge in the late 1960s. Right: Wade and Maude Barker at the annual Santa Rosa Roundup staged by the Waggoner Estate of Vernon, Texas.

Wade, to me at first, was turned over, high heeled, tooled riding boots, leather chaps, rusty spurs, a blue jacket, hard hands and blue-gray eyes that squinted against the sun and dust, in Texas ranch style, and a slow smile. Cowboy life, with cattle and range critters, seems to merge a hard exterior roughness with a gentle nature, layered with an elemental, sensitive humor. Wade had it, so did Ernest, and never did I meet a cowboy of the legendary Black Bart stereotype.

Maude, Wade's wife, taught school, for a time in Gilliland and later in Crowell, some distance to the northwest. She and Wade lived in the small house at the top of a steep, mud-gravel road leading up from the valley. Going to our camp we passed through a gate by the house. We also got our water from a tap near the house. Usually, if someone was around, I would stop and chat, gradually coming to know Maude and Wade better as time passed. Sometimes, late in the evening, I, alone or with some of my party, would drop in and talk.

"Well," Wade would start, "Where'd ya go today?"

"Oh, down past Perch Tank," I might reply. "Got in the rough breaks near the east gate of the trap."

"Get through the gate all right?" Wade would ask with a bit of grin.

"You make those gates too high and too tight for me, Wade," I would joke, for I am but 5 feet 6 inches and Wade was better than 6 feet and remarkably strong. The retaining loops on his barbed wire fence gate were so high I had trouble with them.

"Takes a man to get through them," he would say.

"It's OK if you're sitting on a horse," I would come back.

And so on for a half an hour or so.

The ranch was fairly well crossed with mud roads and the roads all went somewhere to a trap, a tank, a flat spot where branding was done but most seemed to do so in a peculiarly round-about way. The reason was simple. The first wagon or car across, often following cow paths, made a track. Coming back, the tracks formed a guide through the grass and mes-quite, so they made the start of the road. The next vehicle followed the trail, and so on until the tracks were worn. Horses and cattle sometimes kept the roads open. When a gully appeared across the road, the next passerby would detour around and start a new passage. At times the old road was lost and the new one consisted mostly of these "go-rounds."

Off-road driving, while necessary, was hazardous. Holes and bad crossings were one thing, but the worst problems were cactus and mesquite thorns which gave an average of three or four flats a day. This was before the days of steel belted radials, heavy mud grippers, and tubeless tires. Later, straight seismograph roads were cut, easy to drive, but rarely "getting anywhere."

When I first got to Ignorant Ridge I was driving a four door, 1929 Model A sedan (Figure 12). It was a fine field car and, like its ancestor, the "T," could be fixed easily. One time Nick Hot-ton and I were a long way out when the "A" quit. It turned out that the little buffer that broke the contact of the points when the cam rotated had broken off. We used Duco cement to put the buffer back on the points. The car ran fine for two days until we got in to get some new points.

 

 

Figure 12. Getting around over the years. Upper left: Our Model A, a fine field car, at a river ford in 1949. Bob Miller and Nick Hotton, now Curator in Vertebrate Paleontology at the US National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC. After his years working toward the Ph.D., Nick spent seven years teaching gross anatomy at the University of Kansas at Lawrence and then got back to his first love, vertebrate fossils. Nick was a constant companion and coworker during our early exploratory forays into the higher Permian of Texas. Upper right: A 1951 Ford pickup, solid but skittery in mud. Ralph Johnson, another of my student teachers and one who made me conscious of field ecology, is seated on bank. From herps, especially snakes, to invertebrate ecology and geology, Ralph's ventures into shallow marine invertebrate assemblages set the stage for the studies of many to come. After becoming a professor at the University of Chicago, Ralph was appointed chairman of the Department of Geophysical Sciences, an onerous but rewarding task. On the side, he was also a two term Mayor of Park Forest, a suburb on the south side of Chicago. Both Bob Miller and Ralph Johnson passed away, much too early, at the peaks of their careers. Lower left: Our chevy pickup, even more skittery than the Ford, following a muddy road in Texas. Lower right: A CJ 5 Jeep, which would go almost anywhere, aided by a winch on the front. Everyone worked hard for subsistence, not salary. With Jeep and scoop to help, Robin Zawacki and Jim Edwards managed the drag while taking blocks from the Kahn Quarry in 1970. Robin strayed from geology and paleontology into computer science. Jim received his Ph.D.; working under David Wake of the University of California at Berkeley. After productive scientific work on amphibian locomotion, Jim went to the National Science Foundation, from where he aided his colleagues with their many financial problems.

 

 

The car, parked on a high flat, did startle a cowboy named Tony. He found us later, for we were in his pasture.

"That old 'A' yours?" he asked.

"Yeah," I replied.

"Sure is strewed out," he continued. "Reckon you'll get it back again?"

"Hope so," I answered.

We were about 15 miles out from the nearest town and in trying to find out what the trouble was, after first looking too hastily at the points, we took off the carburetor, coil, and various other parts. They were lying about, with the points out to dry the Duco, when Tony found the car. Later we had a 1933 V8 Ford, then 1951 and 1966 pickups, and finally a CJ 5 Jeep. Except for the Jeep, the Model A was the best for off road especially wet day driving. Not much comfort, but it got there and back. Wade proved to be an excellent guide in getting us about the 100,000 acre pasture he rode. He knew every blade of grass and every rattlesnake on the place, or so it seemed. Sometimes he suggested places we might go, having a sense of the kind of rocks we were looking for. One day he put us onto one of our best sites.

"Doc," he asked, "have you ever been over by those green sand rocks near the north-south fence? Looks like it might be a good place to hunt."

"No," I replied, having no idea what he was talking about but believing he did.

"Wall," he drawled, "you go in past Perch Tank, through the trap and the east gate (that high gate again). Keep on for about four miles, you'll come to an old well, dried up now. Kinda wind up the hill northeast from the well on a dim road to the top of the ridge. You'll drop down east to the fence, and drive north a half mile. Then you got to walk about half a mile, up, down, up and then down along the fence. That's the place." Wade had consummate faith in our driving. We got to the well, but the "dim road" had gone so we just plugged along up hill and then east and, by good luck, did hit the fence at about the right spot. This was a rich site, but there was no way to get even the "A" into it. So we carted about several hundred pounds of rock and bones on our backs, on several trips up, down, up, down to the "A."

Another time Wade had an idea of a good place, but couldn't figure how to tell us to get there, so he went with us. We turned and twisted up, down and around, and finally he said we would have to walk. I looked at Wade's rolled over, high heeled boots and thought to myself, "He'll never get very far." Cowboys don't like to walk, but you can't sell them short. This one, at least, blistered our feet and taxed our wind while I was praying we would never find anything wherever it was we were going, for we would never get it out. We did, but Wade came to the rescue and figured a way to get the car fairly close in.

One time later, Wade did overestimate our abilities. Ralph Johnson and I followed his directions, now with the 1951 Ford pickup, which was skitterish, and managed a flat tire half way up a loose, gravel hill, with a steep slope to the right of the car. So, flat tire and all, we had to reach the top, without flipping over. Ralph, 6 feet 3 inches tall and 200 pounds pushed mightily from the downside of the car and finally, in jumps and starts, we made it and changed the flat. This was more or less in a day's work, but when we got back there was Wade, waiting. "Had a little trouble, did you?" he asked. "Yeah," I said, still disgruntled by the whole affair. Then Wade proceeded to outline to us in detail what had happened, what we had done, which tire was flat, who had done what and why we had missed the path he had outlined for us. He must have trailed our tracks by horse, knowing our tread. I always scoffed at the old stories of Indian guides and trailers who could practically know the life history of a party after following the horse's footprints for a ways. No more.

If a strange car or strange horse came on his land, Wade knew it. If a fence was down, or damaged, he knew how it happened and whether it was caused by a cow, horse or man. If some stranger had opened a gate, even though he had also closed it, Wade knew. If it was going to be a bad day for rattlesnakes, he told us so. His ability to recognize detail totally astonished me and how he did it escaped me. It was not only on his land. He confided to me one evening that he liked western movies but had to quit going because they were too inaccurate, not the plots but the props. The wagons might have the wrong wheels, the gun might be a few years too soon, or the particular hats were not worn then in the part of the country. I still don't know how he knew all of this, but I guess he did.

A good many years later, after visiting Central Asia and pondering on how the widespread empires of Ghengis Khan and Tamerlane could have been held together, I said to Professor Efremov, another of my wise men, that I couldn't see how the "war lords" could do it. How could they control such vast expanses without telegraph or telephones? His answer took me back to Wade.

"Only a big city man like you couldn't understand the 'long ear'," he said. "It's a wisdom of the land you will never know."

I never fully fathomed exactly what went into this "wisdom of the land" that I saw in Efremov, who had spent some years in Asia, or in Wade. It is passed down in legends from all continents. We city folks become adroit at dodging automobiles, we survive driving freeways, mostly, and our nervous systems stand up to the roar of passing trucks and trains and even the tensions of crowded airports. As a countrified urbanite, as I became during my many years in the field, I found that there are some senses so subtle that they never developed in me and that seem almost to smack of ESP. Perhaps they really do.

Unlike Ernest, Wade rarely swore or cursed around our group and never did at all when Maude was present. What he did elsewhere, I don't know, but I expect he could get off a fair selection of expletives under the right circumstances. He was always gently spoken with us, in sense although not necessarily in tone. One day we came back to camp to find Maude waiting for us. She wanted to tell us that Wade was in the hospital in Seymour and that she would be spending the night there with him.

"He came into the house about 2:30," she explained. "His face was all dirt and blood, his left arm was dripping blood and he was carrying his hat full of chicken eggs. Take 'em,' he said. His face was a blank stare. I asked what happened," she went on.

"'Goddamned if I know,' Wade said."

"I knew he was hurt," Maude said, "for he never did swear in front of me."

What had happened, it turned out, although he never remembered it, was that Wade, coming in early, decided to drive a loose heifer across the road into his horse pasture. Somehow, he didn't know just how, his horse shied or slipped and threw him so that his leg became entangled with his saddle rope. The horse spooked and dragged Wade some 50 yards. During this time he was slashing at the rope but mostly lacerating his left arm. Finally, freed, he walked back to the house, stopped to collect the eggs in his hat from several nests, and came in to see Maude. He was completely unaware of what was going on, having sustained a moderate concussion.

Getting thrown, breaking bones and having concussions are standard cowboy hazards. Getting dragged seems to carry a particular stigma. But if you cut yourself free, that's not so bad. At least this is how I interpreted it. Late that afternoon, Tony, another cowboy from up the way, came by and he and I retraced the steps of the accident in detail. Wade had been on his feet, behind the horse, for about 20 yards, his heels dug in and his spurs raking the ground. At that point he tripped and, with his free hand, he took his knife, a small one, and started to slash at the rope. With the jerking and rolling he hit his arm more than his rope.

Now, the critical point was, had he cut the rope or did it just break. We examined the part of the rope that Wade had left in the barn while he was collecting eggs. Tony asked me.

"Yes," I said, "I'm sure he did. There are good cut strands all the way through. I'll tell Maude."

"Oh," Maude said, "Wade will feel so much better when I tell him."