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Around Town: Living La Brea Loca

Jan 21, 2018 07:48PM

Sure, Los Angeles is lacking in gothic cathedrals, Greek columns, and remnants of lost civilizations. We all agree on that. But anyone who says LA has no history has obviously never been to, heard of, or breathed in the wonder that is the La Brea Tar Pits—and what a pity that is. If you even remotely liked Jurassic Park or Denver the Last Dinosaur and you’ve never paid a visit to the most awesome, active Historic-Cultural Monuments in the city, let me help you straighten out your priorities because you’re doing LA all wrong. (Don’t worry—so are a lot of other Angelenos). 

I can’t quite put my finger on when exactly my obsession with the Pits started, but like so many things in life I’m pretty sure The Flintstones are directly responsible. This older-than-old stomping ground for giant sloths, mastodons, and saber-toothed tigers lies smack in the middle of a Hancock Park, Miracle Mile, and Mid-Wilshire Venn diagram. Today (and probably tomorrow), archeologists, excavators, and oh-so lucky volunteers slough through 11,000 years of muck to unearth fossils from the Pleistocene Era, which was about 65 million years after dinosaurs went extinct.

Walk the dog, push the stroller, wheel a wheelchair and wander the grounds to watch methane gas bubble and boil from underneath prehistoric natural asphalt, a.k.a. tar—which in Spanish, I was shocked to learn, translates to la brea. Meaning the literal translation of the park’s name is “The Tar Tar Pits.” (Seriously?).

The venue’s most recognized feature is its notorious Lake Pit—the biggest, steamiest, death-trappiest of all the pits in the park. It might not smell so great, but people sure do love to take selfies in front of it, which is odd because in the Lake Pit is a giant recreation of a mammoth family losing one of its clan in the tar. It’s quite sad really, but hey—Instagram calls.

Named after a real estate developer, philanthropist, and amateur paleontologist, the George C. Page Museum is well worth the cost of admission (though Yelp may disagree). For only $17, you gain entry to the museum, which includes access to the exhibits, and you get to watch a movie: Titans of the Ice Age 3D—a 25-minute film narrated by Christopher Plummer that’s actually pretty
well done. Fair warning, though: there is animal-on-animal violence, so if you’re bringing your young ones (admission is only $5 for kids ages 3-12), you may need to explain to them that this is not the same Ice Age with Scrat the saber-toothed squirrel that they’re used to. This one is far more bloody—and in 3D.

If you’re not satisfied scaring your kids with the movie, there are plenty of other exhibits in the Page that can make them squirm: there’s the bad animatronic animals,
the rows upon rows of tiny bird skulls, and over 400 dire wolf skulls, plus there’s Zed, the 12-foot-tall-skeleton of an actual Columbian Mammoth. There’s also the lone human remain of the Pleistocene Era—the leg bone of what researchers have dubbed “La Brea Woman”—and the skeleton of a Paramylodon harlani, or giant sloth. Harlan sloths (a.k.a. the OG Rodents of Unusual Size) grew up to 10 feet long and could weigh as much as 1,500 pounds. That’s bigger than your Mini Cooper, brah—and probably holds more gas. And whatever you do, don’t miss
the hologram of the saber-toothed tiger (the same kind the Flintstones had as a pet). It’s not to be beat.

If you follow the path that weaves you around the pit-sequestered lawn, you’ll eventually come across the Observation Pit. Here, during regular visiting hours, you can see what an active fossil deposit looks like. Further around the bend are some of the findings from Project 23, an active dig site that started when LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) began construction on an underground parking garage next door to La Tar Tar. Over 16,000 bones have thus been catalogued since the first fossil was found in 2006. They even excavated the remains of a prehistoric camel. No word yet if they will be naming him “Joe.”

For those of you who think you could unstick yourself from a clumsy fall in la brea (where many a modern pigeon and squirrel still go to die), you can test your strength at the Tar Pull. Kid at heart? Roll down the grassy hill bookending the Page Museum—or better yet, twirl across it Sound of Music-style like this La Brea Woman does. And the absolute best part about visiting the Pits? No one’s ever there. Much like the Ice Age that killed the saber-toothed tigers inside the museum, the Pits are virtually devoid of people. This, to me, is as close to earthly bliss as I can get. Well this, and driving on the 405 during the Oscars.

La La Land may be lacking in prewar pretension, but it’s definitely not lacking in prehistory. Spend a day at La Brea and experience what it was like to actually live like a
Flintstone—brontosaurus burger not included.
Lifestyle