What do Iran, Huntsville, Alabama, and Midland, Texas, have common? According to The Washington Post, all have had more snow so far this winter than Washington, DC. Yes, it is hard to believe, but that was not what we thought when we made our flight reservations way back in September. We figured to play it safe by going to LAX a day early, just in case DC had one of its infamous “snowmageddons.” Happily, we were wrong, left BWI in 50-degree weather, and arrived in the City of Angels with temperatures in the 70s and clear (as much as they can be in LA) skies.
Our flight to Melbourne (Mel-bun, according to the natives) did not leave until late Wednesday evening. So what should we do with a full day, another one in the 70s, in LA? Based on recommendations from my brother and the LA-based Southwest flight attendants, we focused on the La Brea (Spanish for “tar”) tar pits, which are located about ten miles from LAX. It is the only active tar pit urban excavation site in the world, 23 acres of park, museum, and tar pits.
It turned out to be a good choice. We found out that the tar pits are actually asphalt, the crudest form of oil and naturally occurring. Tar is a manmade product, so really the place should be the Le Brea Asphalt Pits, but that just does not have the same caché as “tar pits.” The asphalt seeps up through a fault line from a huge subterranean oil lake, bubbles up, and has that lovely sulfuric odor.
The iconic view (see above) of the tar pits with the Columbian Mammoth caught in the pit is dramatic but somewhat misleading. In reality, the pits are only a few inches deep, but they are covered with twigs and leaves. The unsuspecting victim might wander in for a cool drink and get stuck in only eight to ten inches of asphalt. They cannot extract themselves from the goo (the museum has a hands on “tar pull” exhibit…I nearly hurt myself on it). When the animal gets tired, it falls over, gets even more mired, then endures a slow, brutal death. Of course, the decaying carcass is too easy a meal for the saber-tooth cats, dire wolves, and other carnivores to pass up, and they get stuck, too. That’s the reason that carnivores are 90% of thousands of fossils that have been excavated.
The museum was full of skeletons composed of actual fossils as well as the Fossil Lab in which workers and volunteers picked out minute fossils of tiny shells, plant particulate, and bones while peering through microscopes. Others were painstakingly cleaning off fossils with toothbrushes and Q-tips.
The kids’ groups there were into the active excavations and hands on exhibits as well as the docents showing them fossil skulls and teeth. As the shadows grew longer, we bid a fond farewell to the Tar Pits and braved the traffic back to LAX where we now await the 16-hour flight to Melbourne. Since we sprang for business class, we have access to the lounge, where the free food and drinks are sorely tempting us. We will check in next time from down under.