Finding Fossils Along U.S. Freeways Geologic pressures force ancient layers of rock above ground, exposing their cargo of fossils. Paleontologist Kirk Johnson and artist Ray Troll search the western United States for fossils and chronicle their finds in a new book, Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway.
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Finding Fossils Along U.S. Freeways

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Finding Fossils Along U.S. Freeways

Finding Fossils Along U.S. Freeways

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The past, billions of years of it, is lurking just beneath your feet - a layer cake of rock dating back to the earliest days of the Earth. In some parts of the country, geologic pressures have forced these ancient layers above ground, exposing their cargo of fossils.

It's those fossils that call out to collectors and scientists, including paleontologist Kirk Johnson and artist Ray Troll. They piled into an old pickup truck and drove across the western United States in search of fossils. Their book is called, "Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway." And Kirk Johnson and Ray Troll join me now. How are you, gentlemen?

Mr. KIRK JOHNSON (Co-Author, "Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway: An Epoch Tale of a Scientist and an Artist on the Ultimate 5,000-Mile Paleo Road Trip "): Oh, we're great. Thanks for having us.

Mr. RAY TROLL (Illustrator, "Cruising the Fossil Freeway: An Epoch Tale of a Scientist and an Artist on the Ultimate 5,000-Mile Paleo Road Trip "): Doing good.

SEABROOK: Kirk Johnson, you're the paleontologist in this motley crew here. For you, this expedition started literally with a dream. Tell me about it.

Mr. JOHNSON: Back in 1996, I was on the Amazon River in Peru and I had been taking this anti-malarial drug called Lariam, which has this bad side effect of making you have slasher dreams. And the problem is that I'm a paleontologist, so my - so when I have a slasher dream, I have dreams of sabertoothed animals. And I had this crazy dream with sabertoothed tigers and sabertoothed deer and sabertoothed camels, and I woke up, like, in this horrible sweat and I had this realization - I had two realizations actually. One was that walrus are sabertoothed seals, which seemed really funny at the moment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: And that Ray Troll was the guy that could paint that dream for me.

SEABROOK: You had seen Ray Troll's art, I guess.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I grew up with it. I grew up in Seattle, and Ray is well known in the West Coast for his fantastic, primarily T-shirts. And they're just really cool iconic images of the Pacific Northwest. And in 1993, I had stumbled into a show in Seattle where some of Ray's artwork had fossils in it. I was like, wow, my fish guy can do fossils. This is great, I've got to track him down. I've got to get to know this guy.

Mr. TROLL: So he tracked him down, and little did he know that I am also a lifelong paleo-convert. I was a paleo-nerd since the age of three when I picked up my first crayon, and the first thing I drew was a dinosaur.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Now, Ray Troll, did you have to take cues from Kirk Johnson, who you call your personal scientist, for how to find fossils?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yes, I am a personal scientist.

SEABROOK: I mean, you're an artist out there in the…

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. Well, like I said, Ray is basically fossil blind. I mean, he could be sitting right on top of one and not see it. And I - several times I'd say, Ray, that's a shark tooth you're sitting on or that's a dinosaur bone you're sitting on.

Mr. TROLL: He did pull one out from under my butt one day, yup, a shark tooth.

SEABROOK: And you found some really crazy fossils, I mean, explain what a killer pig is.

Mr. JOHNSON: Ray gets obsessed with the animals, and then it's hard not to follow along with him, but there are these amazing things in prehistory. I mean, there are fossils that most people have heard of, but there are hosts of extinct animals that have been known from only a few skeletons or skulls that are not that well-known.

And one that's actually known from quite a few skeletons and skulls, but is not that well-known are these killer pigs. These big animals that are called - technically, they're called antiladons(ph). They're sort of not truly a pig. They're sort of on the pig-camel line that are these very large animals. They got up to a couple of tons; some of them had skulls that were four-feet long and gigantic canine teeth that look like severed baseball bats. I mean, these were horrific pig-like animals from deep time, and we really grew on the trail of the giant hell pigs or the giant killer pigs, war pigs, terror pigs or Jurassic pork, or, you know?

SEABROOK: There's this fabulous…

Mr. JOHNSON: On and on I went.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TROLL: I became rather obsessed with the killer pigs, and wherever we go, we would find them, you know, so.

SEABROOK: I can tell. There's this picture in the book…

Mr. TROLL: Yeah.

SEABROOK: …of the hell pig's skull.

Mr. TROLL: That's right.

SEABROOK: The killer pig's skull, and it's got fire around it like a Hells Angel's picture…

Mr. TROLL: It is…

SEABROOK: …except it says hell pig on the top.

Mr. TROLL: Yeah. There are just such cool animals.

Mr. JOHNSON: They did not believe how many terror pig pictures didn't make it into the book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: There's this great sort of visual pun that, Ray Troll, you've done in the book that it's almost like a Far Side cartoon. It says a paleo deer hunter's den in aesthetic ice sitting in his easy chair, and his barker(ph) lounge chair with deer heads hanging on the wall, but they're all different deer heads from all different…

Mr. TROLL: Right. Right.

SEABROOK: …epochs, I guess, of geological history.

Mr. TROLL: Yeah, yeah.

SEABROOK: So you've got like a deer with this big, crazy nose, horn and the deer with twisted horns and the deer with four horns, and a deer with two horns and sort of a…

Mr. TROLL: Well, that's kind of an interesting blend of our roadside American experiences, you know, running into jackalopes. Maybe there's some sort of deep kind of geological memory, paleontological memory that somehow we, Americans are just sort of absorbing because once upon a time, in the great age of mammals after the dinosaurs disappeared, there was just all of kinds of weird-horned antelope deer things.

Mr. JOHNSON: It's so ironic because you go to Douglas, Wyoming, which is the official home of the jackalope, and there's a giant jackalope in town square, and much is made of this mythical beast. That's the official mythical beast of Wyoming. And the joke's kind of on the city of Wyoming because if you dig into the rocks beneath Douglas, Wyoming, into the rocks that are 34 million years ago, there's this whole host of jackalope-like animals, that - weird-horned deers.

And everything - so these are mythical but what they don't realize is that if you just turn your head down and look into the ground, beneath your feet, there's this amazing stacked worlds of prehistory full of things far more bizarre than your imagination could ever create. There's real stuff down there that's really cool.

SEABROOK: Kirk Johnson, you grew up in a very religious family, in fact, a family of creationists. How did you end up in paleontology?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, you know, it's an interesting thing because I think that American kids, the ones that hear most about evolution are the ones that grew up in creationist families because they're told over and over about how evolution is wrong. They're also told about other things they shouldn't do, and most of them do the things they're not supposed to do. There are fossils everywhere, and we talked a lot about it when I'm with my family. My family is very much into nature and outdoors and we go hiking in the mountains and stuff like that, and I would find fossils.

And very early on in my life, I sort of confronted the fact that fossils existed and that there was a deep history to the planet. Meanwhile, at Saturdays at church, I'd be hearing the planet is 6,000 years old, and when I was 15 years old, I found an outcrop on the side of the road, which had Lake Varves, little layers of the lake, and I countered a few inches of those and did the multiplication. And right there on the side of the road in British Columbia, there was 30,000 years of time. And I was, like, oh, something's not right there, so I - and I think just being exposed to it in the negative way made me look at it in the positive way.

SEABROOK: The last thing I want to point out is this great picture, which is, I assume, a portrait of you guys. It says, have mercy on those who suffer from PNS. And there's two of the sort of nerdiest-looking guys you could ever hope for in this picture standing in front of fossils, and it says PNS is Paleo Nerd Syndrome.

Mr. JOHNSON: Those are actually not us. Those are two guys that we happened to encounter on the trip but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Oh, sorry.

Mr. KIRK: We have yet to - to reveal their identity, but I guess…

Mr. JOHNSON: We didn't want to, we didn't want to…

SEABROOK: Oh, I see.

Mr. JOHNSON: But we are paleo nerds, and it's a proud thing to be a paleo nerd. And there are lots of isolated paleo nerds out there, and part of the goal of this book is to bring them all together and make them realize they're not alone.

Mr. KIRK: Yeah, proud to be a paleo nerd; that's me. I suffer from PNS, oh, so bad.

SEABROOK: Ray Troll is an artist based in Ketchikan, Alaska. Kirk Johnson is the chief curator of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Thanks so much to you both.

Mr. JOHNSON: Hey, thanks so much, Andrea.

Mr. KIRK: Thank you.

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