A fond description of America’s premier fossil site.
Hell Creek lies where the Missouri River cuts rugged canyons into the Great Plains of Montana. Dingus (co-author, Walking on Eggs, 2001, etc.) recalls traveling there as a young paleontology student, recruited by the rancher on whose land the dig took place to help brand calves. Dingus found it a fitting initiation to the American West. Lewis and Clark explored the Montana badlands, dodging grizzlies and shooting buffalo along the banks of the occasionally dry creeks. It was a favorite hunting ground of the Sioux as well. Custer’s nemesis Sitting Bull came to provision his tribe near Hell Creek after the battle of Little Big Horn, only to be driven away by US troops under the command of Col. Nelson Miles. Later, as the buffalo was hunted to near-extinction, the Smithsonian Institution’s chief taxidermist came to Hell Creek country to gather a few specimens for an exhibit of the endangered creatures. But Hell Creek made its name in science as a mother lode of Cretaceous fossils. Legendary Victorian fossil hunter Barnum Brown discovered Tyrannosaurus Rex near Hell Creek, and in the 1960s Harley Garbani found still more specimens of the great carnivorous dinosaur. Garbani’s technique for fossil hunting included making friends among the locals, buying rounds for all comers at the Hell Creek bar. It paid off: not only did he become one of the greatest fossil hunters of the modern era, he built a lasting bridge between the paleontologists and the insular ranchers of eastern Montana. Dingus concludes by looking at recent events: a tax revolt by a group of militant ranchers and the gradual depopulation of the plains states. The future of Hell Creek may be like the past in a place that retains much of the wildness of the Old West.
Scattered, but charming.