The “The Tar” Tar Pits

People should be a little more conscious of foreign languages when they name places. “La brea” can be translated to “the tar” from Spanish to English. So, the La Brea Tar Pits are technically called the The Tar Tar Pits.

Honestly, I’m kind of fond of this name.

I love anything having to do with dinosaurs, so when I went to visit a friend of mine in Los Angleles, he took me to see the La Brea Tar Pits. Yes, I know the animals that perished in the tar pits aren’t technically dinosaurs, but they are, however minimally, connected to the idea of dinosaurs. They belong to an era not our own. They’re otherwordly, fantastical creatures that once walked the earth.

You know how coffee lovers get stimulated by the scent of freshly-ground coffee beans? That’s me at the sight of fossils. Even if they’re casts of fossils.

The exterior of the La Brea Tar Pits
Morbid mammoth models meant to traumatize children

When we first arrived at the pits, there was this thick, noxious smell pervading the entire area. I thought it was the smell of nearby LA traffic.

It’s not.

The tar pits reek.

It’s not technically tar bubbling behind those fenced-off areas. It’s natural asphalt. Mounds of asphalt rim the pits, looking for all the world like ordinary street bumps. If you ignore the stench and approach the largest pit (called the Lake Pit), a model mammoth has been placed in the “tar,” sinking to its fake death. To up the drama of this staged moment, model mammoth family members stand at the pit’s edge, reaching out with their trunks to their doomed brethren.

Aside from the pits that pock-mark the area, the surroundings are extremely pleasant. Rolling hills are reminiscent of your average park. Some families even congregate for picnics on these grassy knolls.

Part of the La Brea Tar Pits is a museum. It’s rather small, but it’s filled with the bones of La Brea victims.

Giant Sloth skeleton

I never knew sloths could be so huge.

There’s even a display case that shows more than a thousand skulls of dire wolves that have been discovered in the pits.

Dire wolf display case

Apparently, these wolves sank into the tar trying to nibble on other unfortunate animals and in the process of doing so, they became unfortunate animals too.

The mammoth skeleton is what really caught my heart. When you stand next to it, it completely and totally dwarfs you. It’s clearly larger than an elephant, and it gave me a bit of my dinosaur fix.

Mammoth Skeleton

It’s not always a soothing experience to be humbled, but when it comes to facing the massive remains of what used to be, I say bring on the humility! The mammoth skeleton was a towering edifice to former beings, and I’m always grateful to be reminded of just how small I am in the grand scheme of things.

Surprisingly, the funniest part of my trip to La Brea occurred as my friend and I were walking outside amongst the outer pits. We came across a two-feet-by-two-feet square fence that appeared to be randomly placed on one of the hills. As we approached it, we found that the fence guarded a small circle of tar that’s beginning to emerge from underground.

It’s mind-numbing to think that the next time I go to the La Brea Tar Pits, yet another pit may have oozed from beneath the earth.