Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline

I generally focus on children’s books on this blog, but today I thought I’d do something a little different. I think parents can encourage their children’s passions best when they participate along with them. One understandably can grow tired of reading kid’s books, but luckily, one can find plenty of interesting, broad-appeal books aimed at adults as well! Besides, today’s books has a special connection to my youth, so I’m going to count that as an additional excuse to review this here!

There’s a particular item from my childhood, which, though a silly little knickknack, occupies a dear place in my heart as a constant fixture of my grandparents’ kitchen. I speak of course of Ray Troll’s “There Is No Free Lunch” illustration, which resided on the refrigerator in magnet form.

Image from Ray Troll’s web store. Please go visit and buy his stuff! It’s great!

I have no idea how they came by it. I don’t imagine they were particularly aware of Ray Troll as an artist, or that they frequented anyplace they might have conceivably run across it. My best guess is that they got it as a gag gift from my other set of grandparents, who took the occasional cruise to Alaska, and thus had plenty of chances to run across Troll art in the gift shops up there. It certainly seems like just the sort of pithy saying they would have jokingly-yet-also-sincerely shared with each other.

I also don’t know why the magnet stuck out to me as much as it did. I suppose throughout the years of exploring their house, this strange yet interesting piece of art kept drawing me back to it. And as I said, interpreted as a piece of folksy old-time wisdom, I suppose it seemed right at home.

In any case, the decades rolled by, I moved out and got married, when one day I discovered a cool-looking travelogue titled “Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway”, written by Kirk Johnson and illustrated by Ray Troll. As a lifelong dinosaur nerd who’s been on many camping road trips, this seemed right up my alley, and the illustrations had a very unique, funky style that immediately set it apart from other popular works of paleoart. In fact, those illustrations began to seem suspiciously familiar. I’d never heard the name Ray Troll before, so imagine my surprise when I viewed his website’s gallery and discovered, “IT’S THE FISH MAGNET GUY!!!” (as I exclaimed to my wife. Incidentally, just to make my story more ridiculous, she and my sister turned out to be the only ones in my family who remembered the magnet, including my aunt and uncle who lived with my grandmother for the last few years of her life. The magnet itself had gone missing, so if my wife and sister hadn’t backed me up, I would’ve been sure I was going crazy!)

Fossil Freeway

“Cruisin’” proved an absolute blast to read. I liked how it broke away from the typical encyclopedia format that characterizes so much of the popular dinosaur literature, and instead focused more on the road trips taken by Johnson and Troll as they explored the American West. This more personal view of paleontology makes for a very engaging read, and gives Johnson and Troll a chance to introduce readers to people and places both famous and obscure that otherwise would not get much attention in the popular literature. It truly is a marvelous celebration of the paleontology of the region. (As an added bonus, Ray Troll’s band The Ratfish Wranglers released a companion album that’s great fun to listen too! Give it a listen if you want some mood music for this post!)

I should probably review “Fossil Freeway” in its own right someday, but just last month, more than a decade after the original’s 2007 publication date, the dynamic duo released “Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline”, a sequel chronicling their trips up and down the Pacific Coast. If I can get myself to stop waxing nostalgic for a moment, I might actually review it today!

Surfing with Desmos
Desmostylians become a bit of an obsession for Johnson & Troll over the course of the book. Look for the little “Desmo doodle” Troll slips into the margins any time they’re mentioned in the text!

“Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline” follows paleo pals Kirk Johnson and Ray Troll as they explore the Pacific Coast from California, through Canada, all the way to the north coast of Alaska. (Not all in one go, incidentally! They’re both busy men, and they conducted their tour in stages over the course of a decade or more. Kirk Johnson works as a paleontologist, currently with the Smithsonian, while Ray Troll is an artist from Alaska famous for his fun and funky fishing art.) The book has a similar format to “Fossil Freeway”, with a primary emphasis on interesting people and places, and paleontological musings dictated by who and what they see. Therein lies the main difference between the two books, incidentally. The first entry had the pair driving back and forth across the states of the American West, many of which have dramatically different fossil assemblages from each other. In this volume, however, they take a somewhat more direct south-north route, through states with much more directly comparable fossils. I feel like I got much more cohesive sense of the narrative of Deep Time this way. Seeing similar fossils spread across various landscapes and geologic eras really helps develop one’s awareness of both the diversity and the interconnectedness of life. (Of course that’s not to say I minded the more ambling, free-wheeling nature of the original book, either!)

Walruses & Cabazon Dinos
The Cabazon Dinosaurs! (Plus fossil walruses.) I remember seeing these statues many times while on road trips of my own. PBS Eons has released an episode about these inland walruses.

As I mentioned earlier, however, “Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline” truly shines as a catalogue of interesting museums, fossil sites, and paleontology enthusiasts, both famous and obscure. On the human front, it’s practically a convention in print form! Fascinating individuals come and go, sharing their research, and reminiscing about bygone times and colleagues. Indeed, much in the same way that a vision of Deep Time coalesced in my head, so too did an awareness of the vast web of individuals all building off one another’s legacies, whether they even realized it or not! Particularly poignant was the story of Doug Emlong, who traveled up and down the Pacific Coast collecting a truly staggering amount of fossils. He left an indelible mark on the paleontology of the region, despite being something of a loner and leading a tragically short life. It was amazing to see just how many people throughout the book followed in his footsteps, whether studying his collections at museums, or tracking down his dig sites to guide their own excavations.

Doug Emlong

It was also fun seeing several paleontology bloggers make an appearance in print form when their paths crossed with Kirk and Ray. Ashley Hall makes an appearance during her L.A. days (she now works at the Museum of the Rockies in Montana). Amy Atwater, also a big Ray Troll fan and herself half of a dynamic duo at the Mary Anning’s Revenge blog, was on hand when Kirk and Ray showed up at the University of Oregon (she has also since moved on to a position at the Museum of the Rockies). It’s not for nothing that the book gives these small shout-outs; I was unaware of Robert Boessenecker’s Coastal Paleontologist blog before now, but I’ve started catching up on it thanks to his appearance in this book!

Hall, Atwater, Boessenecker
L to R: Ashley Hall, Amy Atwater, & Robert Boessenecker as they appear in the book

I’ve gone most of this review without talking about the artwork of the book. Well, as I’m sure I’ve already made clear, I am an unabashed fan of Ray Troll. I enjoy his funky and often humorous style, which finds perhaps its perfect outlet in this book about unique and often quirky locations and individuals. I don’t know if I’d go quite so far as to call any of it psychedelic, but he has a fondness for esoteric compositions that sometimes trend in a similar direction. As time has gone by, he’s made friends with several prominent paleontologists, most notably of course his travel companion Kirk Johnson. Troll’s art style fits so perfectly with his subjects I’m surprised more artists don’t follow his lead. He renders his subjects with great fidelity to their known or likely life appearance, and yet his style infuses them just a touch of strangeness that perfectly encapsulates the familiar-yet-alien nature of these prehistoric worlds. I would have bought this book exclusively for Troll’s art, and no offense to Dr. Johnson, I was probably most excited for the illustrations when I first picked this up!

prehistoric sea life

All in all, this is the perfect sort of book for the tired parent of a dino-obsessed child to kick back and relax with (or for anyone, really! Even youngsters will enjoy the pictures, though if you’re looking for something aimed more at children, consider checking out this book about Alaska’s dinosaurs). Following a scientist and an artist on a fossil road trip makes for a fascinating experience, while maintaining a casual, easy-going atmosphere that makes it easy to pick up and put down at leisure. Kirk Johnson’s writing style has a light, anecdotal feel even when describing more technical subjects that really help maintain this friendly, casual atmosphere. Don’t think you’ll be done with this in an afternoon, however: this casual style belies a great depth of content. I’ve definitely glossed over a huge amount of material in order to keep this already-over-long review down to a reasonable length. There’s more than enough to keep anyone occupied for quite some time.  I even enjoy simply leafing through to enjoy the illustrations. As popular as his art has become, I feel like Ray Troll still hasn’t quite gotten his due yet as a paleoartist, at least not compared to some of the more “realistically” inclined individuals, so I never miss a chance to champion him right alongside the rest of the paleoart pantheon. I absolutely recommend this book to anyone and everyone, even those with no particular interest in prehistoric life. The journey, the personal connections, and the artwork are sure to hold anyone’s interest, and I can’t praise it enough. “Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline” has absolutely earned the Dino Dad “Stomp of Approval”! Buy it for yourself (follow this link for the Amazon listing) and see what you’re missing!

LOGO final2

P.S. I have to give a shout-out to my awesome sister-in-law Megan and her husband Travis, who not only got me this book, but actually attended the book signing event in Anchorage, Alaska on my behalf! She even called me from the event and let me chat with Kirk and Ray themselves! I was so surprised, and so starstruck, I could barely say anything. I’m sure I made a big fool of myself, but it really made my evening! Thanks again, guys!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s