By Monica K. GuthrieJuly 23, 2015
FORT SILL, Okla. July 23, 2015 -- It's something of a secret.
Even as I'm writing this I'm contemplating deleting the whole thing and writing about the coyote I see outside my back door every other day. But I won't. The coyote doesn't like interviews anyway.
But the truth is post officials aren't too keen on the idea of publicizing the existence or location of the Fort Sill tar pits. And for good reason. I found a Lawton Constitution story from 1992 and a Cannoneer story from 1994 and in it the authors talk about walking on rocks filled with fossils and seeing bones of lizards and crocodiles. I went out there today and there are no fossils to be found and no bones to marvel at.
It turns out the pit has fallen victim to souvenir hunters and others who have vandalized the area, chipping away at the rock and hardened tar to take pieces of the past with them leaving nothing for people of today to see.
Well, almost nothing.
The pit itself is interesting to see. Pulling off to the side of Adams Hill on the training side of post, you can see a small sign indicating the existence of the pit hidden behind the tall grass. Without the sign, a passerby might mistake the pit for a small, albeit dirty, pond.
Let me just say, trying to do research on the tar pit is like looking for the Holy Grail. Everyone has heard of it, and no one knows anything about it. Some people don't even think it's real. I called universities, geological societies in several states and the U.S. Geological Survey -- all of which resulted in an apologetic suggestion to contact someone else.
In the end I did hear back from Nicholas Czaplewski, curator of vertebrate paleontology, from the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in Norman, Okla., and Neil Suneson, geology professor with Oklahoma University. From them, and from other tidbits I could gather, I learned the tar pit (also called an asphalt lake -- which sounds so much cooler) dates back to the Permian Age (about 280 million years ago). The tar most likely seeps up along a faultline to the surface where it stains the fossils and the rocks. It was discovered by Capt. Randolph Marcy in 1852, who said early Native Americans used the tar as a glue and to treat the sore backs of horses. Apparently someone tried to drain it with an 8-foot trench which didn't work (and is still there collecting tar) but no one has done any extensive research.
Armed with knowledge gathered from my high school geology class (and one geology semester in college) I arrived at the tar pit ready to unlock its secrets.
I wasn't sure what to expect from the tar pit. I expected something dark and hot with bubbles of sticky goo rising from a pool of equally hot and sticky goo. What I got was a pond surrounded by vegetation with a collection of tar on one end.
I didn't expect to see anything living in the water, but I was wrong on that account as well. Frogs swam through the water and hid behind pools of tar. I found myself curious if one of those frogs might one day get too close to the tar and become a fossil itself.
I knelt down to touch the tar. It felt cool to the touch (the summer sun hadn't warmed it up yet) and rock solid. I took a step on it and took photos from different angles and trying to decide what photos would best accompany this article. I was hopeful I might be able to find something prehistoric there among the tar residue. Maybe a fossil of a leaf, or maybe even some animal tracks, but there was nothing to be found except the growing disappointment within me.
The disappointment didn't come from not being able to find a dinosaur bone float up from the pit (which deep down I was really wishing would happen -- talk about an awesome story to write) rather, my disappointment came from my disgust of those who came before me.
I'm sure most of the people who visit are well-mannered citizens -- they aren't the source of my unrest. I felt growing frustration at those who came out to the tar pit and destroyed the area in an attempt to pull out fossils or find other remains. Tampering with or removing fossils from a natural or cultural resource is against the law, but destroying and area like this is more than just illegal, it's selfish.
Swallowing my righteous anger I stood up from my position on the ground and went to take a step back toward my car.
I didn't move.
Apparently the rock-solid tar wasn't as rock solid as I thought it was and my boots were one with the ground. For a moment I had an image of the tar sucking me in like quicksand and no one finding any evidence of me for a thousand years. I would re-emerge from the earth as a fossil, still holding my camera and my aviator sunglasses.
A few leg shakes later I was free of the goop (thanks to my boss for suggesting I wear boots) and trying to do my best to remove the tar. I failed.
Nature 1, Monica 0.
I'm not sure if I should encourage you to go find and visit the tar pit or just say it's not worth it. Part of me thinks everyone should at least see it and the other part of me feels strangely protective over this small area of land. If you plan on going out there to have yourself a dinosaur-dig, I recommend you stay away. But, if your intentions are pure, which is needed when searching for the Holy Grail, then by all means, take a look.
The pit of Fort Sill is really whatever parts are the worst in all of us. We have within us the ability to make anywhere we are the best or the worst place to be. Those who decided to disregard the law, and basic decency, and take things for themselves that ought to be protected and saved for future generations, it is those people who are the pit of Fort Sill, or of any place.