The first part in an occasional series of dispatches from two Sacramentans on a minivan voyage around, over and through the country.
GLENDIVE, Mont. There are three ways to see dinosaurs or more correctly, what's left of them in this town:
You can drop by an old downtown building, pass through a music store, turn right at the comic book racks and walk a few steps until you smack into a 38-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex.
You can visit a nearby state park named after an Indian phrase meaning "place of bad spirits," in an area geologists have dubbed "the Hell Creek Formation."
Or you can visit a warehouse-type structure just off Highway 94, operated by a fundamentalist Christian group that believes dinosaurs and people coexisted.
Clearly, you have a pretty eclectic choice.
Of course the same could be said for much of the rest of Montana.
It's hard to walk down a street in any town in the state without tripping over a stegosaurus skull. Seriously. In fact, there are so many paleontological treasures and so many important fossil discoveries here that various federal, state and local agencies have put together an organization of 14 dinosaur-themed sites throughout the state, dubbing it the Montana Dinosaur Trail.
The best of the bunch is unquestionably the Museum of the Rockies, or MOR, in Bozeman. Housed in a handsome complex behind the football stadium at Montana State University, the museum is home to one of the largest fossil collections in the world.
Even its curator, Jack Horner, is famous. He's the guy who served as the inspiration for the character Alan Grant in the "Jurassic Park" movies, right down to the hat.
The museum's displays range from really interesting to jaw-dropping: 3-foot-long amphibians that resemble tadpoles with boomerangs on their heads; the largest Tyrannosaurus skull ever found; full-sized models of deinonychus raptors, covered in gaudy feathers and ripping apart a hapless lumbering sauropod.
But if the MOR is the Louvre of the state's dinosaur depositories, Glendive is the Saturday morning swap meet. When it comes to dinosaurs, this farm town of 5,000 inhabitants, 361 miles east of Bozeman and hard by the Yellowstone River, has something for everyone.
You can start on West Bell Street, at the Hell Creek Music and More store (more being comic books and other superhero stuff.) For $3, you can also stroll through the Makoshika Dinosaur Museum. Overseen by a nonprofit organization, the museum's displays are modest but well-done.
They're dominated by an imposing Tyrannosaurus rex fossil replica, which volunteers and scientists put together over seven days (you can watch them in a three-minute YouTube video). Other items include some interesting remains collected from the region, along with representative fossils and casts from around the world.
The museum (and music store) are run by Steve and Christie Bury, who moved to Glendive 10 years ago from Seattle in large part because their then-12-year-old daughter was a fossil fanatic.
"We just put together some things we love, like music and dinosaurs," said Christie Bury. "It was a big move, but it's turned out great. And we're a little crazy."
For those who like their dinosaurs in the raw, there's Makoshika State Park, just outside of town. The 11,000- acre park on the edge of the region's badlands is a prime spot for paleontologists, who have made some notable finds there. Rock formations that mimic church spires, mushrooms and pyramids dominate the landscape, separated by steep canyons and painted by layers of black coal and red iron deposits.
But the most unusual of Glendive's fossil collections is the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum, in a huge building just off the highway. Operated by a Christian group called FACT (Foundation Advancing Creation Truth), the museum contains an impressive collection of models and fossils and some displays you don't see in other dinosaur collections.
These latter tableaus include arguments as to how dinosaurs not only coexisted with humans, but were later described by various cultures as dragons, and also accompanied Noah on the Ark. They weren't much trouble, according to the display, because they were all vegetarians at the time, were babies, and hibernated during the voyage.
Not surprisingly, there has been some controversy about this museum in the scientific community, and unlike the other two Glendive spots, it is not on the official Montana Dinosaur Trail. It's a bit confusing too, since nowhere on the outside of the building is the pro-creationist, anti- evolution theme explained.
The ticket lady, however, does explain it before she takes your $7.
She equivocated when I asked her if many people balked when they found out.
"We used to think those (biblical verses on the lobby wall) would be enough," she said. "But people just don't read signs, even when they're obvious."
Here are websites where you can find out more about dinosaur doings in Montana:
The Montana Dinosaur Trail: mtdinotrail.org
Museum of the Rockies: www.museumoftherockies.org
Makoshika State Park: www.makoshika.org
Makoshika Dinosaur Museum: www.makoshika.com/
Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum: www.creationtruth.org