Thursday, March 22, 2012

La Brea Tar Pits: Who knew methane gas could be so entertaining?

You ever get that feeling that you have seen everything there is to see in a particular destination? Perhaps you have been there a number of times or maybe the last time you were there, you were particularly active on the sightseeing front. For whatever reason, finding new ways to fill a day have become increasingly difficult. Los Angeles is one of those places for me. It is a city that I really enjoy and always look forward to visiting, but a recent 5 day stay had me scrambling to find new things to add to my itinerary (as opposed to just repeating the same old haunts from prior visits).

Some googling led me to a place I think I may have visited as a child, but since clearly I don’t have a whole lot of recall on the matter, I decided to treat it as something new. It was in this quest for novelty that I planned an outing to the La Brea Tar Pits.
Sure, it doesn’t sound terribly exciting but one can only visit Mann’s Chinese Theater and compare shoe sizes with Marilyn Monroe’s imprint so many times (note: she was either a midget or a western pioneer in the art of Chinese foot binding, I haven’t bothered to research which). And it does possess a very agreeable cheese factor, with its 70‘s era statues of distressed mastodons gracing the entrance.

Once past Dumbo's struggling kin, the level of excitement does spike a bit.  This is when you realize that methane gases trapped beneath the earth's surface is burbling up through tiny fissures in the earth and up to the surface of the oily tar pit, causing it to look like it is boiling.  Yes, I know in a town as famed for its debauchery as LA, bubble-watching does not sound like the most thrilling way to spend your time but there is a certain amount of anticipation that occurs when you see the ripples started to really kick in.

The pit directly in front of the museum seems to get the most visitors but it pays to follow the signs to the ones in the back of the part.  These are the ones where they are either actively or have recently been excavating, with the results on display on site at the George C. Page museum.  What they are finding are fossil bones dating back up to 40,000 years ago.

These more remote pits are also much more active, bubble-wise and seem to have a thicker upper layer of tar for more dramatic effervescent globules.  I will never admit to the number of bubble pictures I came away with from this particular outing but suffice it to say, it was a lot.

Sitting there with helicopters whizzing overheard (due to a nearby shooting, I think, although whether it involved cameras or bullets, I'm not sure), it is tough to wrap your brain around the idea that this very area was once teeming with mammoths, bison, saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, crazy looking ground sloths and even a species of American lion but the fossils, much like Shakira's hips, don't lie.

The reason for such a wealth of fossilage (pretty sure I just made that word up but I like it, so it stays) is told, rather gruesomely in the two films screened in the museum.  Apparently, the prey animals would be crossing the plains of what is now downtown LA and would become mired in the sticky tar.  They would cry out in distress, which would lure hungry predators expecting an easy meal, only now the predators would get stuck as well.  And then everyone would die, either from starvation and dehydration. The end.  Neither movie sugar coats any of this in the least, which I imagine is a bit problematic for the loads of school kids that come through there.  Or perhaps just for me.

There is something of a scientist's terrarium in the center of the museum where you can see them working on their latest discoveries.  Disappointingly, they were all out on break during my visit, but it was still interesting to see the ancient-looking equipment they were working with.  I got the feeling that more modern equipment would be made available for them if they wished so I chalked it up to a quirky scientist thing that had them using the same microscopes I had struggled with in 1st grade.  If I'm wrong and the museum is just insanely cheap, my apologies to those poor people.  Isn't it bad enough that they have to work under conditions that require a "do not tap on the glass" sign?  Have some mercy, museum backers. They have a lot of fossilage to work through.

The undeniable highlight of the museum (and the tar pits as a whole) are the actual fossils.  The displays manage to be both interesting and informative.  Plus, how can you not be impressed looking at the variety of creatures that inhabited the same burbling tar pits you just took a bajillion photos of?

Looking back on it, I'm somewhat surprised that I left this place for my list of 3rd string sites to see.  I think I did not realize that there was so much more to it than just the famous tar-mired mammoths.  The question is: what happens on my next visit?  Perhaps, I'll mix it up and compare how a saber-tooth cat's paw stacks up against's Marilyn's stilleto..


  1. Berti - i am so proud... I heard you are voting for Romney!!!!!!

  2. That is correct, JP. In the contest of which candidate emits the greatest amount of methane gas, I have indeed cast my vote for Gov. Romney.