You know you’ve got a unique book on your hands when the cover spots a eurypterid snagging a jackalope from under the cab of a Ford pickup carrying a disgruntled ammonite while dinosaurs stomp towards a “last chance” food & gas stop in the background. If you’re a fan of artist Ray Troll, however, such a vibrant and motley assemblage probably will pique your interest rather than shock you. His artwork graces the pages of Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway, a collaborative work with paleobotanist Kirk Johnson, a wonderfully nerdy “Epoch Tale” of paleontology. While it may at first seem unusual, Ray’s uncanny ability to meld together the past and present is a perfect compliment to Johnson’s easy-to-approach writing style, the pair weaving a tale that (just as the cover might suggest) joins together the unique present and ancient past of the American West.
From a backstage meeting with Ziggy Marley about a potentially new species of ancient marijuana to tracking down the ever-elusive fossilized tooth whorls of the shark Helicoprion, the book places the reader in the cab with the authors as they search the American west for fossil bones, ancient footprints, and a good country-fried steak. As any good paleontologist knows there’s much more to the science than bones collecting dust in museum drawers. Paleontology has an incredibly rich and adventurous history, and there’s no better way to pay homage to the great bone sharps of the past but to hop in the truck and kick up dust on the way to find the perfect ammonite or Triceratops skull. During the course of their trek the authors stop in to see local rock hounds, professional paleontologists, amateur fossil freaks, and others, illuminating the ever-changing landscape between searches for a decent hotel and a hot meal. What makes this book truly enjoyable, though, is that the authors realize that every fossil has at least two stories to tell; one being the story of the actual organism exhumed from the rock, but also the tale of its discovery (and in the case of some like the Tyrannosaurus “Sue,” even controversy).
Given this constant mix of past and present, the authors make a formidable team. The illustrations are lavishly spread across bright pages, Johnson’s prose making what might feel like inaccessible geologic concepts seem as familiar as a stack of pancakes (or was that baklava…). This isn’t a journey of know-it-alls dryly relating their travels in a stuffy leather-bound book; Cruisin’… is wonderfully dynamic and the authors are just as enthralled with the fossils they’re after as anyone they meet along the way, their joy being magnified by the fact that it seems that they can barely go 10 miles without coming across a major fossil locality. This impression is further driven home by a companion map produced for release with this book, and while I don’t as yet have one snippets of it are present in the book to give the reader some idea of what each state can claim as far as prehistory. Dinosaurs, ammonites, sabercats, trilobites, scientists fleeing the jaws of Arctodus and strategically-placed cheeseburgers (marking notable greasy-spoons of in each state) dot the beautifully-designed piece, a true “treasure map” to the spoils of western paleontology.
I read a lot of books over the course of a year, often hoping to cram the information inside the volumes into my head so I can start incorporating it into my understanding of nature and prehistory, but Cruisin’… isn’t the kind of book I’d want to do that with. Much like the journey the authors undertook, the book represents a meandering car ride where there’s always more to see than there is time and there’s always someone with a good story to tell just up the road. Dinosaurs cross freeways and bizarre extinct mammals stare down artists in the glossy pages, but such images never seem strange; they are what those who appreciate the history of life on earth are often daydreaming about anyway. Beautifully illustrated and engagingly written, Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway is the kind of book that makes me want to pack up the car and head out West to cross the ground once tread by noted paleontologists and bizarre beasts alike, but if the book spurs you to similar action please watch your step. As the book illustrates, “fossils really are everywhere.”