Tales from the Edge of America: Part 2
In March 2009, I set off on an adventure around the world, thanks to the goodwill of Twitter — that eventually became a modest bestseller published by Summersadale. In April 2011, I set off on adventures once more, travelling by Amtrak along the coasts and borders of mainland USA, which resulted in a second book called Tales from the Edge of America.
Except it didn’t.
I managed to self-publish half of the book in 2013, but unforgivably for the 11,000 people good enough to purchase it, never quite got around to finishing the second half.
Every few months, somebody will randomly appear on Twitter or in my inbox, asking if I could be so kind as to pull my bloody finger out and get a shift on publishing the second half. The answer, unfortunately, is no. While there are 14,893 words hanging around in my Google Drive, there are only two complete chapters. A decade of faded memories and lost notes can’t possibly fill the yawning gaps in the story.
However, it’s now 10 years since I stumbled upon the story that inspired me to travel across and around America, seeking out stories from the forgotten corners of the United States. So for Ellen, Craig and the 11,000 other readers who have been rightly pissed off at me for the best part of a decade, I spent this morning tidying up one of those complete chapters.
Here’s what happened next — Chapter 14, the first chapter from the never-to-be-published Tales from the Edge of America, Part 2.
There were two museums in Malta, Montana, one next door to the other. They were a short walk away from the Great Northern Hotel — across the street, past the First State Bank of Malta and its drive-thru ATM which gobbled up a whole block of land, across the train tracks, past the pile of sticks that passed for a station house and onto the dusty stretch of 1st Street. Flanking the roadside were a handful of trampish motels flagged by rusting signage, weathered and beaten, pretty vacant.
The museums were the reason I’d stopped in Malta, although I’d expected to visit them the afternoon before. The Amtrak service that passed through the Northern States, the Empire Builder, was still running several hours late and wasn’t due through town again until after 5pm. I was willing it to make up lost time and arrive sooner; beyond Malta to the west were the Rocky Mountains and the journey promised a spectacular accent, in daylight at least.
A museum might seem a drab excuse to stop off in a drabber town, but these museums were special. Both were part of the Montana Dinosaur Trail, two of the 13 museums across the state dedicated to beasts of the lost world; from Carter County Museum in the East to the Two Medicine Dinosaur Center in the West. During the Cretaceous Period, a shallow sea stretched across the North American continent, Malta on its western shoreline. Sand is ideal for preserving animals and marine life, which is why the region is one of world’s richest sources of fossils.
I learnt all of this and plenty more from Sue, the Director of Exhibits at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum and Field Station. Aside from a flanneled trucker touring the northern states in his oversized rig, I had the museum to myself for the day. Sue took the opportunity to assign herself as my personal guide.
She was a thin, geeky American mom with big brunette hair and taut tanned skin and glasses that loomed in front of her face. Except I wasn’t sure she was a mom. Her kids were the creatures dead to the world tens of millions of years ago. Her family never left the museum at night.
Of course the museum wasn’t on the same scale as the grand palatial collections enjoyed by major cities, but then you rarely have the opportunity for a guided tour of those exhibitions with the museum’s curator.
‘Wonder round, take in what we have to offer, we’ve got some pretty interesting critters,’ said Sue, ‘then I’ll show you something really exciting.’
It was a small museum, but modern, spacious and colourful, not a whiff of stuffiness or pretension. Its prize exhibit was Leonardo — not just a dinosaur fossil, but a dinosaur mummy, a 77 million-year-old brachylophosaurus, found intact with skin, muscle, internal organs, even its final meal of ferns and magnolias — all mummified.
Leonardo was a teenage duck-billed dinosaur when he died, but he was still a beast, weighing two tonnes, seven metres long from bill to tail, five-sided scale dappling his neck and belly. So rare was Leonardo’s condition — the corpse been protected by mud and silt within hours of death — that he was recognised as the best preserved dinosaur in the world. Forget London or New York — the planet’s top dinosaur specimen is in Malta, Montana.
The artist’s impression of a brachylophosaurus alongside Leonardo was a lumbering Disney character of a dinosaur, in sharp contrast to the Giger-scrawled nightmare on display opposite in a hexagonal case. A prehistoric crab, tens of million years old, its body smaller than my fist, but with front claws as long as my forearm. Four black pearls of rock for eyes stared into my soul, the way that unshelled shrimps menaced me from a starter dish. Those black beady eyes of death followed me around the museum, far more intimidating than the sulky brachylophosaurus.
‘People here are a little too spoilt in Malta. They don’t visit too often, this isn’t a big deal to them. They can stumble over half a dozen bones from these critters in their lunch hour.’
Many of the museum’s exhibits had been found on private land, not by archaeologists searching in vain for rare and treasured specimens, but by homeowners tripping over them in the dirt. Some families would donate them to the museum, while others banked generous fees from foreign institutes.
‘We hope they’ll support the museum,’ said Sue, inviting me to a cordoned-off area of the exhibition, ‘but we haven’t got the money and they know museums with bigger budgets will pay out for a find.’ Sue sighed. ‘People here are a little too spoilt inMalta. They don’t visit too often, this isn’t a big deal to them. They can stumble over half a dozen bones from these critters in their lunch hour.’
I was a little bit in love with a real-life paleontologist who referred to dinosaurs as “critters”.
In the centre of the cordened-off space were tables where bones were cleaned and sorted. The shelves surrounding us were stacked with plastic tubs, clutters of fossilised femurs and ribs, all meticulously labelled. On the floor beside them, white tubs full of yellow sandy stone to be sorted through. And there on a low bench in the middle of the space, a wooden crate, less than a metre square. Across the right-hand corner of the crate, in marker pen, was a name:
And so began the tale of Nate Murphy, a local celebrity figure who was the curator of paleontology at the field station, and who had played a part in discovering Leonardo a decade ago.
Eight years later, Murphy attempted to steal a dinosaur.
‘He lied to the landowner and geologist who originally discovered it,’ said Sue, ‘told them it was an incomplete collection of bones. Then he called a bunch of us in to remove it, but it was already cased in plaster, told us all it was a turtle.’ Mild-mannered Sue was sharper in tone, spitting her words. She was angry. ‘We thought something was up because he wouldn’t show us what he’d found. Nobody keeps a turtle a secret, no matter how well preserved it is.’
Murphy later surprised friends and colleagues alike when he announced the second world-class find of his career — a pristine fossil of a raptor, a specimen worth up to $400,000. When cross-examined about his find, Murphy’s story began to crumble — at one point he even claimed the raptor was found underneath the turtle.
Murphy went to jail for the attempted theft, and the landowners eventually sold the raptor to a Canadian institute — on the condition that a replica was cast for the museum. Inside the crate was that replica, Julie Raptor, who would attempt to steal Leonardo’s limelight when she went on display that summer.
‘I’m not meant to, in fact nobody is meant to see her until opening night,’ said Sue, the warmth returning to her voice after exorcising Murphy’s crime, ‘ but would you like to see her?’
So long as it wasn’t alive and likely to claw my face clean off my head, of course I did. Sue lifted the lid from the crate, and there she was. Julie. A complete skeleton of a raptor, a turkey-sized skeleton of tiny, intricate bones, impossible Wolverine claws and rows of tiny razor teeth, a jaw full of hacksaws. For a long-dead carnivorous killer, Julie Raptor was a beauty and I was thrilled to have had a sneak preview.
‘Do you have kids?’ Sue asked as she lugged one of the white buckets of rocks onto the bench.
‘Yes, two, twins, twin boys.’
‘Twins? Golly. Do you think they’d be interested in some dinosaur bones?’
‘That…’ I was stunned. ‘That would be amazing. But. Are you sure?’
‘Sure I’m sure’, beamed Sue as she started poking through the tub of sandy rubble.
‘Are you trying to spot a piece of bone,’ I asked.
She picked up a long shaft of rounded rock and put it to one side. ‘Everything in this bucket is a piece of dinosaur.’
The bucket was three or four litres in capacity and two thirds full. Of dinosaur.
‘Don’t worry, like I said we have dinosaurs coming out of our ears. Look, here’s a piece of femur. This, this piece is a bone from the foot…’ Sue picked out half a dozen pieces of fossil, of dinosaur bones. Just for me, for me to keep. Well, for the kids. But really they were for me. Screw the kids, they had an Xbox.
‘This is incredibly generous of you, Sue.’
‘Not at all, there’s plenty to share — and nobody’s learning anything while they’re in that tub.’
I asked if there was anything I could do to help the museum. Sue said no, other than to tell others I met on my travels about my find in Malta. That wasn’t going to be a challenge —out of all 6 things the world had found to do in Malta, Montana, the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum was TripAdvisor’s top rated attraction.
‘Is the museum on Twitter,’ I asked.
Sue wasn’t sure. She didn’t think so, but she made a call to check. No, the museum wasn’t on Twitter.
‘Then let me do something for you.’
I made good on my promise before leaving for my train that evening, so if you’re on Twitter, say hello to Sue at @dinosaurmuseum; she hasn’t quite got the hang of it yet, but in time people will hear about Leonardo, Julie Raptor and the rest of Sue’s family at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum and Field Station.
‘Just don’t order fish wherever you go in town. We’re in Montana, we don’t know what the hell we’re doing with fish.’
‘If you’re going to eat before you go, there’s a diner at the Great Northern Hotel and a sandwich bar just over the road,’ said Sue as I packed my dinosaur bones away in my rucksack. ‘Just don’t order fish wherever you go in town. We’re in Montana, we don’t know what the hell we’re doing with fish.’
It had been a good day in Malta. I’d befriended an paleontologist, had the run of a museum and walked away with a bag of dinosaur toes and shins for my troubles. If that was all Malta had to offer me, and it literally was, then it was enough.
The Amtrak schedule had recovered overnight but the delay was still substantial. Unlike previous days when the disruption was a mild irritation, it was about to prove bitterly disappointing. I’d jogged through the timings several times that day; unless the delays had been wrestled down to couple of hours, the train’s accent over the Rockys would be in darkness, rather than daylight.
I walked along the sandswept road back to the broken station house that sat in a heap alongside the tracks. Sad and scarred plastic chairs, the likes of which I hadn’t seen since school assemblies in 1980s Darlington, sulked along the walls of the waiting room. There had been no warm welcome the previous evening, and station house seemed keen that nobody felt remorse for leaving.
The train gingerly eased into town shortly after five o’clock, having made up four hours on the previous day’s delay but still nearly five hours behind schedule. I was the only passenger to board; nobody alighted to spend a night in Malta.
After claiming my seat I headed to the observation car, hoping to at least glance some foothills or distant sunlit peaks. Through the outskirts of Malta the Empire Builder crawled, through further dilapidation, matchstick shacks and mud tracks. It’d be no surprise to return in a decade and find the whole town abandoned, closed due to lack of interest.
‘Yehp, over there’s a bear farm, and thems mountains in the distance.’
The passenger to my right had decided to provide commentary on the view. He was a Walter Sobchak-type, a bearded John Goodman in The Big Lebowski. The frame of a retired wrestler wearing tinted hunting glasses and a stained Led Zep t-shirt stretched in vain over his belly of beer.
Far to the South West was a quiet jagged edge of snow-peaked hills, a tantalising tease of the terrain ahead.
‘Those mountains are like the Rockys,’ said Walteresque, ‘they’re real tiny at first, look like that forever, never getting any bigger, then they jes’ start getting bigger and bigger and pretty soon you’re on a steep ascent through them. You’re gonna see some real scenery.’
‘Really? You mean I’ll see the Rockys tonight?’ I wasn’t going to miss out after all.
‘Sure. ’less it’s dark by then.’
Walteresque paused for a moment while his brain caught up with the words out his mouth.
‘Yeah. It’ll be dark by then. See some scenery through the day, though.’
‘You mean in the morning?’
‘No, not morning, you’ll be long past the Rockys by then. See plenty of these though,’ he offered, gesturing to yet another overgrown lot of rusting cars. We’d past them every few dozen miles. The backwaters of America was home to more smashed back doors than a summer season in Faliraki.
‘Guys like me, nuts like me drive round tryin’ to buy them cars. If they don’t wanna sell, we might pay a visit in the night.’
‘You mean you steal them?’
‘Never said that.’
‘Good morning,’ announced the over-friendly train conductor across the tannoy, another local-television-anchor-turned-spree-killer in the making.
‘We’re passing through the downtown of Wilson Creek at high speed, which is the best way to pass through it. Although I’m sure it’s a lovely place if you stop there. But we’re not, so take my word for it that you’ve missed nothing and instead we’re heading to a place that, like heaven, is far more rewarding.’
I’d slept through the night and over the Rockys. Through the window there had been nothing whatsoever to take in, no shapes or lights, no shadows or silhouettes. The only clue as to our whereabouts had been the obvious incline the train had taken at slower speeds than normal.
The long night of nothingness had been briefly illuminated by the passenger in the seat next to me for a stop, a middle-aged housewife who boarded at Spokane, and whose husband was kayaking up the Thames in London.
‘He’ll wrap himself in a brown blanket and sleep on lawns to save the price of an AirBnB,’ she said by way of polite conversation at a shade after 3am.
‘Has he been to the UK before,’ I asked.
‘No, it’s his first time!’ The lady was positively proud of her husband’s endeavours, and not at all concerned by him sleeping outdoors in the UK in early May and contracting pneumonia.
‘As long as he has his blanket, he’ll be fine!’
It was a short, faintly surreal but friendly conversation, to be expected between two sleep-deprived passengers in the twilight hours. You don’t get much of that in the UK. Partly because we’re British, and therefore keen that strangers keep any inconsequential pleasantaries to themselves and fuck off to another carriage before they consider talking to us, while we busy ourselves furiously frowning out the window and avoiding eye contact — and partly because our trains mostly travel in daytime hours, because there’s only so far they can go on our tiny, unexceptional island. Even if you were to disembark in the dead of night, your station would likely be in a large town or small city, not a nowhereville like Malta, that British trains abandoned sometime in the 1960s.
12 hours later and the Empire Builder had crossed another state line, weaving its way through a stone valley topped and tailed by cliffs and long fingers of lake.
I pulled on my trainers and pottered along the aisle to the observation car, which had vanished overnight — the train had split along our journey. Through the door of what was now the rear carriage, Washington State looked unlike every other state I’d travelled through so far, an evergreen vista. The cliffs mellowed into gentler forms and orchards appeared, acres of them.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, we’re approaching Wenatchee where we’ll be taking a short comfort break, so you can get a breath of fresh air and enjoy a rich, full-flavoured tobacco product.’
Wenatchee, Washington was a town with a well-fought claim to fame as the Apple Capital of the World, a fact celebrated every year since 1920 with a fortnight-long Apple Blossom Festival — brass bands, classic cars, fairgrounds and floats and excessive drinking by hockey teams that eventually saw them barred from the majority of downtown hotels. Wenatchee wasn’t the world’s largest exporter of apples and nor did they necessarily taste the best but, like Rugby in North Dakota, Wenatchee saw an opportunity for a snappy sounding slogan and pounced on it.
They weren’t the only parties guilty of such humdrum celebration. Hundreds of communities across the states believed that associating themselves with outlandishly banal claims would enhance their image and stature, rather than make them sound all the more one-horse and parochial. Who cared if a town is safe to raise your kids in, or enjoyed a lower-than-the-national-average crime rate? What everyone really wanted to know is — could it claim to be the Fruitcake Capital of the World, like Claxton, Georgia, or demand respect like Kalamazoo, Michigan, the Bedding Plant Capital of the World?
It may surprise you to learn that Dekalb, Illinois with a population of less than 50,000 is the self-proclaimed Barbed Wire Capital of the World. And Germany was no doubt devastated when it heard that Bucyrus, Ohio was the real Bratwurst Capital of the World.
But if there was ever there was a town where advertising slogans went to die, it wasn’t Brunswick, Missouri (Home of the World’s Largest Pecan) or even Ash Fork, Arizona (Flagstone Capital of the United States) but Andover, Kansas:
“Where the People are Warm Even When the Weather Isn’t”.
Yes, the world is often mundane, in all sorts of ways. But mundane is comforting, wherever you happen to be.