Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series.
A few weeks ago, on a quiet Sunday afternoon when we were looking for something to do, my husband suggested we visit the Fairmead Fossil Center, a place we'd been curious about for a long time but had never gotten around to seeing.
Though Fairmead is not a well-known tourist destination -- and most people would agree there is a good reason for this -- the center should be enough to make Fairmead proud. Located not far off Highway 99 on Avenue 21½, it stands across the road from the Fairmead Landfill, where thousands of fossils lie under silt and clay built up over a half-million years of seasonal river floods.
While a half-million years is not very impressive in geologic time, it is still pretty cool to know that one of the largest fossil digs in the United States is right here in the San Joaquin Valley, only a short drive from my doorstep.
The site was discovered 20 years ago, on a spring day when a heavy-equipment operator excavating a hole for garbage found a 500,000-year-old Columbian mammoth tusk.
The discovery led to the Fairmead Fossil Center.
While horses are by far the most common fossils found at the site, bones from giant sloths (as heavy as 3,500 pounds), camels, 12-foot short-faced bears, and saber-tooth cats have also been unearthed.
Today, the site is operated and managed in a marriage of unlikely partners: the Madera County Landfill and paleontologists from California State University, Fresno, who find fossils by walking behind scrapers as they excavate. The San Joaquin Paleontologist Society also helps with work at the landfill.
The day we visited we were lucky enough to encounter 16-year-old Dylan Gudgel, a Chowchilla High student who began volunteering at the center to fulfill his high school community service obligation, and who now works there as a paid employee on weekends.
Though Dylan had no real interest in paleontology before he began volunteering, he now plans to study it at Fresno State, after he graduates from high school.
Fresno State has a great paleontology program, according to Dylan. He should know, having worked for several years alongside the program's professors and students in their continuing efforts to uncover fossils at Fairmead.
Dylan showed us around after we saw a brief film in the theater off the reception area.
The center includes an outdoor pond that replicates the Chowchilla River habitat of the Middle Pleistocene, the period when mammoths and other animals lived and died in the area. Their bones eventually washed together and were buried in silt during years upon years of seasonal floods.
The center also features an authentic Yokut home, which Dylan and his boss, Blake Bufford, made together from Tule reeds, just as the Yokuts did around Tulare Lake before irrigation practices drained it.
According to Dylan, building the Yokut home was just for fun, since of course no humans inhabited the area during the Middle Pleistocene, but it is worth inspecting for its graceful simplicity.
The workers who operate the scrapers and the paleontologists who follow them are patient -- each scrape is 12 inches deep, no more. The process of creating a new dump in the middle of a prehistoric fossil site is a slow one, but one that seems to be working.
No one knows how long the marriage between the Landfill and Fresno State will last, since there is no way of knowing when all of the fossils will be uncovered. It could take two more years, two more decades or even longer.
As long as the fossils are there, the scrapers will continue to scrape one foot at a time while students and faculty, along with members of the San Joaquin Paleontology Society, continue to walk along behind them.
They are mindful of the dangers inherent in strolling with heavy equipment, but willing to exchange the perils for the excitement of being the first to see the remains of a prehistoric mammal that no other human has ever seen.
The center is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission ranges from $4 to $8, depending on one's age. Mock digging experiences are available for kids.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.