Our theme for the month of July is “stunt journalism.” Writers were asked to try something new, take on a challenge, or perform some other interesting feat strictly for the purpose of writing about it.
Confession: I’m giving myself too much credit when I say I “found” the park.
Prehistoric Forest is located along US-12 in Irish Hills, Michigan. When I came across an article on the park a few years ago, I typed “Prehistoric Forest” into Google, and it gave me the exact location.
The eight-acre park opened in 1963 with a waterfall, smoking volcano, fiberglass dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures (like a cave man) sculpted by James Q. Sidwell—who, as it turns out, has provided sculptures for several theme parks.
Prehistoric Forest closed in 1999, but the dinosaurs remained.
That means I can essentially live the Jurassic Park movies and see if I could survive.
I pull up to Erin’s house. I was going to travel solo for this gig because I learned from watching the Jurassic Park movies that you don’t want to be the weakest link when facing dinosaurs, and I reasoned that I couldn’t be the weakest link if I was the only link.
But Erin is in town from Arizona, she’s cool, and I like the idea of company.
This does, however, make me the weakest link.
Erin knows krav maga.
I begin to worry I didn’t wear the right clothes. I’ve missed all the staples from Jurassic Park and Jurassic World. No tank top. No button shirt tied at mid-riff. No magical bra that somehow prevents boobs from moving at all while running.
My knowledge of dinosaurs hails mostly from pop culture.
I think Erin’s does, too.
“I watched Land Before Time a lot when I was young,” she says. “I wish they would’ve just called the dinosaurs what they were. Instead of ‘three horn’ and ‘sharptooth.’ It was really confusing when I got older.”
Hold on a second.
“Long neck” isn’t the correct term?
We arrive at Prehistoric Forest.
Even though I knew the exact location, I’m still disappointed by how easy it is to find. I was expecting a rough side road leading up to the entrance, or at least an expansive parking lot. Instead, a small gravel lot hugs US-12, and footpaths leading into the park are maybe thirty feet away, at most.
I’m not sure how much Irish Hills has changed in the decades since Prehistoric Forest has opened and closed, but the park’s exposure makes sense. Located between Detroit and Chicago, Irish Hills has a rich tourism industry dating back to the early nineteenth century. Prehistoric Forest’s reign lasted only a few decades, but the abandoned gift shop located just across the road suggests it was a powerful one.
Erin and I drive down a side road, looking for a more concealed entrance to the park because … well, the relative ease of finding the park presents another problem: US-12 is a pretty busy road, and there are NO TRESPASSNG BLAH BLAH BLAH VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED signs everywhere.
After a few minutes of driving around, however—and discovering that Prehistoric Forest is essentially surrounded by private backyards (I can imagine the real estate description now: two bedrooms; one bath; one mammoth)—we decide the front entrance is our best bet.
Erin decides to be an upstanding citizen and pass on trespassing. I immediately feel ashamed because historically in my life, I’ve been a law-abiding kind of human. But the part of me that wants to see the dinosaurs after driving two hours is greater than the part of me that doesn’t want to get caught trespassing.
It’s a delicate balance.
Also, I’m pretty sure there aren’t motion detectors in the park, like the articles say there are.
I can hear the steady rush of cars on US-12 behind me, but there’s no way to be discrete.
I walk up to the park entrance.
It takes maybe ten seconds. Again, I’m kind of disappointed at how easy it is. I was expecting to get stuck trying to scale fences, but all I have to do is step over one sagging cable holding up a NO TRESPASSING sign and hurdle over one rusty section of chain-linked fence that has collapsed … and I’m in.
In the park … and busting through branches. For as simple as it was to enter the abandoned theme park, I was almost expecting perfectly manicured trails. Not the case. Weeds reclaim the asphalt of the main path, and the dirt trails branching off are layered with dead leaves and guarded by brush.
The first thing I see is a fiberglass cactus that looks extremely out of place in the deciduous terrain of Michigan. Also, an egg nest.
While the park’s land has remained undeveloped, the park hasn’t remained untouched by humans. There’s probably more mother taxi graffiti than NO TRESPASSING signs.
I still haven’t seen any dinosaurs.
I do, however, come across this creepy tunnel.
Reason No. 1 I wouldn’t survive Jurassic Park: I’m bad at adventures. Obviously, I need to go in there, but I swear: the longer I stand looking at this tunnel, the darker it gets.
Run out of tunnel. Creepy tarp hanging down from the ceiling about thirty feet in. No pictures. Too scared.
I finally come across my first dinosaurs, but something is wrong with them.
This reminds me of the scene in Jurassic Park when Laura Dern’s character runs up to the sick triceratops (aka: three horn). The path bends just ahead, so I double back to inspect from the other side. I realize my fatal error—and get very excited.
One of those dinosaurs isn’t a dinosaur.
One of those mossy fiberglass masterpieces is a MOTHER TAXI DODO BIRD.
I continue along the path, and it’s not long before I come across another fallen dinosaur.
At this point, I realize I should probably be making some revelatory connection between this park and the human condition. About a theme park and its dilapidated dinosaurs dedicated to a lost age, also failing to withstand the test of time.
But all I can think is: Science was right … the dinosaurs are all definitely dead.
I find the long neck.
I mean, the brontosaurus.
The brontosaurus hasn’t fallen over. He doesn’t have a body though—just a head sticking out of the ground—so I hardly think he counts as “standing the test of time.”
I can only assume the sculptor didn’t want to use all the materials on the body of this massive beast, and saved it for the T. rex.
I saw pictures of a T. rex in the articles, and I’m a bit agitated I haven’t found him.
Or the velociraptors.
If I find them, I can ask them where Chris Pratt is.
Reason No. 2 I wouldn’t survive Jurassic Park: In the two years I’ve been wanting to explore the abandoned dinosaur theme park, I never considered the possibility of getting lost.
But I’m lost.
When I came to a fork, I took “the road less traveled” because, when used as a metaphor for life, taking the road less traveled is a divine idea. And I thought I might find the T. rex if I just took a leap of faith.
But this is hell.
The path is no longer a path, and I’m just walking through thorns.
I found a random bench but still no path and still no T. rex. Nobody really dies a dignified death in the Jurassic Park movies, and I finally admit to myself that my exit would be pretty lame: tripping.
The graffiti finally proves its worth. I find the path again after recognizing a tag, and follow it to a path that loops near the park entrance.
What is this?
I come to a dead end and turn around in defeat. I have officially walked every visible path I can find in this park, and the T. rex is nowhere to be found. I begin walking back.
I come across this thing again, and I stop and look around a bit because I now notice the path that leads through it, but I’m more afraid to walk through that thing than I was of walking through the creepy tunnel.
And that’s when I notice something I didn’t see before.
Reason No. 3 I wouldn’t survive Jurassic Park: The T. rex has been there all along, towering above the entrance to the park. I have walked beneath him and around him without realizing. He was so perfectly camouflaged with branches surrounding him—and I was so consumed with the NO TRESPASSING signs, mother taxi eggs, random cactus, and weird structure—that I completely missed him.
I stare at him a bit, and get this unsettling feeling because … well, partially because that is the face of all faces only a mother could love. But mostly because I was wrong.
Not all the dinosaurs are dead. The T. rex is has not tipped over. He is not tagged in graffiti or covered in moss. His survival seems to stand as a symbol for Prehistoric Forest’s timelessness. It may not be the tourist trap it once was, but its continued existence holds relevance for the residents who live near it, the graffiti artists who haunt it, the dumb trespassers who try to photograph it with their iPhone 5c camera and get lost in it.
Prehistoric Forest hasn’t fallen prey to time. It’s just changed with time. It still has purpose, meaning, and wonder.
And if it was a real-life Jurassic Park, I definitely would’ve died.