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BUYING TIME AT BROKEN ARROW GIFT SHOP

June 4, 1995: On my way back from Colorado, I turned north at Rifle, toward Meeker, and then west again along the White River drainage, toward the small town of Dinosaur.

In Dinosaur, I noticed a rock shop that looked interesting, so I stopped to stretch my legs. Inside, Betty Witherell was showing her grandkids some things she had in a showcase by the cash register.While they chatted, I wandered around and looked at the stones and fossils on the shelves. Most were tagged with hand-written notes. Some had prices on them. As I studied them, my mind was thrown millions of years back as I tried to imagine the time frame of when the things I was seeing had been formed.

I had just been trying to picture a million years - 10 times a hundred thousand - when suddenly I was confronted with that much time a hundred times over. On one amazing shelf, the dinosaur who had left his calling card in petrified dung turned his head in my mind and studied my presence with a casual air. I tried to picture the texture and folds of his skin.

"Can I help you with anything?" Betty asked as the grandkids scurried out the door.

"Just looking," I said. But like a kid in a candy shop, I was already picking out the fossils I liked best.

We stacked and sorted, and finally I had narrowed my plunder to five basic pieces: a fossilized turtle shell that Betty said was probably Triassic or Jurassic; a part of a jawbone from a small mammal called a merycoidodon; a piece of limestone from the Green River Formation just south of town, with fossil tree twigs and leaves so detailed you could see hairline veins in the leaves; a second piece from the Green River Formation (this one has six bird tracks in it - I tried to imagine its maker pacing through mud millions of years before Moses sauntered out of Egypt); and three of what Betty called "gizzard stones," or gastroliths. About the size of apricots, these polished beauts were found among dinosaur bones in Betty and her husband's quarry about 22 miles east of town.

"I've got something else here you'd like to see, but it ain't for sale," she said as she reached way down under the shelf and pulled out what looked like another gizzard stone, no more unique, it seemed, than the others.

She held it out and squinted her eyes.

"I found this when I was about 12," she said, "out at Red Wash where I grew up. When I showed it to my Uncle Ernie, he said it was real special. So I kept it. It ain't special just because it's a gizzard stone," she continued, "but you see those little fossils?"

I looked more closely and, sure enough, all over the stone's smooth surface were the impressions of what looked like fossil plants.

"Those are called crinoids, or `sea lilies,' " she said. "I always thought they were plants but found out later they were animals instead. They're Devonian - 450 million years old, which means that when that dinosaur was carrying this stone around in his stomach, it was already at least as old to him as he is to us."

It was late afternoon when I left Dinosaur. A few miles out of town I noticed a side road with a sign pointing to Red Wash. I decided to take it.

After a few miles the asphalt faded to gravel, and after several more rutty miles the road opened up onto an oil field where there were pumping rigs all over connected by pipes to storage tanks scattered out through the jagged hills as far as the eye could see.

Red Wash was a field office now with a few scraggly trees and piles of fittings and oil rig parts. Somewhere, though, back 40 or 50 years, this harsh land was more pristine. The people who had lived here must surely have lived a very lonely existence.

I pictured a little girl, out there in the flat somewhere, standing next to her Uncle Ernie. In her hand is a polished stone - a seerstone of sorts - which opens her imagination backward toward a world and time she cannot begin to understand. She knows, though, because her Uncle Ernie said so, that this is a very special stone.

She holds it tightly as she walks back to the house in the cool evening air, and, for the first time in a hundred million years, it is warm in her grasp. The patterns on its surface reveal one world. The round, worn surface suggests another. A third world, her own, is too close to imagine as special, but the rock has helped her to see that it might be.

Though she doesn't know it yet, someday she will show it to her grandchildren.