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The bone collector

Scientists praise dinosaur hunter Harley Garbani for his keen ability to find fossils. A visit to his Hemet trailer is a journey to the ancient past.

June 10, 2007|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

Harley Garbani excused himself, ducked out of the room and returned with a savage set of 6-inch teeth and claws.

"Take a look," he said, displaying the finer, if sharper, points of a Tyrannosaurus rex. "If he picks you up with these, you can kiss your butt goodbye."

That fate seems unlikely these days even if Garbani's home is more appropriate to, say, Jurassic Park than the trailer park in Hemet where he lives. Moving from room to room is a journey of a few feet spanning millions of years.

On every shelf, in every drawer, in old cigar boxes lie bones, skulls, teeth and horns, along with hundreds of early Indian artifacts. Battered journals chronicling a lifetime of discoveries are piled in closets.

For decades this 84-year-old plumber turned fossil hunter has prowled North America's deserts and badlands searching for that odd glint or sparkle in the sandstone, the protruding bone or sun-blasted skull.

He's staked out anthills, relieving the insects of tiny prehistoric teeth they were lugging to their nests. He's dug up duck-billed dinosaurs. He's unearthed woolly mammoths in Baja California, and he has sweet-talked wary ranchers into letting him scour their land for bones.

In 1966, Garbani found the world's third and most complete T. rex, a fierce-looking skeleton now locked in mortal combat with a triceratops at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. He discovered the triceratops as well.

Along the way, the painfully humble, slightly stooped collector has become a paradox: one of the nation's foremost paleontologists who isn't a paleontologist, an amateur whose work dwarfs that of professionals.

"I don't like the word amateur," said Bill Clemons, a curator at the Berkeley Museum of Paleontology and longtime friend. "He's an avocationist."

Whatever the term, Garbani is revered by scientists who speak in near-mystical terms of his facility for finding fossils.

"I am not a superstitious person, but Harley has a sixth sense about where things are found," said David Archibald, a professor of biology at San Diego State University who has worked with Garbani. "I have seen him walk along and find a one-inch jawbone."

Paleontologist Lowell Dingus, a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, devoted an entire chapter to Garbani in a book about dinosaur-hunting.

"He has figured out from his decades of experience which kinds of beds, which kinds of rocks to look into to find fossils," he said. "He is a remarkable collector, the best I have seen in the field, by far."

Though there may be a bit of intuition involved, Garbani's gifts more likely spring from a keen eye honed growing up on a ranch near Gilman Hot Springs in the San Jacinto Valley.

There at age 8, he made his first find.

"It was a large point, like part of a knife or spear," he recalled. "I was trying to catch a pony and I came across it. I was hooked ever since."

When his dad drove an earthmover, young Harley followed to see what it would kick up. One day something big and white emerged.

"It was petrified bone, a femur. It came from a very large camel from the Pleistocene Age," he said. "I was 9 and had a collection going."

He amassed dozens of smooth rocks used by early Indians to grind acorns and chisel arrowheads, which he kept by a flower garden.

"I knew them all by name," he said.

As he grew older, Garbani began hunting fossils in the Anza Borrego Desert State Park area. He found prehistoric camels, ancient fish, mastodons, enormous birds, saber-toothed cats and a giant ground sloth with its desiccated hide attached.

Elsewhere, he found scattered pot fragments and painstakingly reassembled them. The result is one of California's most complete collections of Indian pots, or ollas, experts say, numbering about 75.

Garbani's tactics were fairly elementary. He looked for what didn't belong in a landscape. He scanned the geology. For human artifacts, he sought out water or remnants of water -- dry stream or lake beds. For fossils, he headed for badlands and sediments.

His eyes did the rest.

"Once you find your first fossil, your eye will focus and will know what to look for," he said. "It was just a hobby. I was a plumber for 12 years in San Jacinto and made a living at that. Whenever I had free time, I'd go out."

He was often accompanied by his two sons, David and James.

Garbani gave his fossils to the Anza Borrego park visitors center, which handed many over to the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

Impressed, the museum hired Garbani in 1965 to locate its first T. rex. He quit plumbing and headed off with his family to eastern Montana to begin digging.

In the little town of Jordan, Mont., Garbani hung out at Hell Creek Bar, where he employed charm and free booze to loosen up ranchers before questioning them about the local landscape.

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