Ekalaka really is in the middle of nowhere.
It’s 260 miles from Billings and 110 miles from the nearest Wal-Mart. Even going to the dentist requires a 75-mile roundtrip. And, until recently, there was only one paved road leading into town.
Tucked in the far southeast corner of the state, the town of about 300 sits at the foot of Custer National Forest, a small island of shade in a swirling sea of prairie grass.
The town also sits close enough to the vast dinosaur-rich Hell Creek Formation that in the summertime you’re as likely to bump into a sunburned paleontologist in the town’s one saloon as you are a thirsty cowboy.
But last weekend Ekalaka was jumping with even more dinosaur hunters than usual, and something else it hasn’t seen since probably forever: a huge crowd of tourists.
It was the second annual Dino Shindig, with two days of hands-on science activities for families, a trip to an active dinosaur dig and a symposium featuring enough first-string paleontologists from the Smithsonian to start their own University of Ekalaka.
Now imagine all those big-city folks gathered at twilight on Main Street Saturday for an old-fashioned barn dance with the locals. You have not lived until you’ve seen scientists dance, joked one of the visiting professors.
Last year, the town’s inaugural shindig drew more than 500 people — a surprise to everyone involved — and more than 50 people paid good money for a Sunday field expedition to an active dig. This year, the number of visitors was higher, organizers said, especially the number of children.
Ask anyone in town how the whole Shindig happened and they’ll point to Nathan Carroll, one of Ekalaka’s own.
The 26-year-old Carroll grew up on a Carter County cattle ranch, more interested in the dinosaur bones and other natural curiosities he found laying around than in the cows.
When Carroll was a boy, his father said, “we couldn’t walk across a parking lot without him stopping 10 times to look at every ant and every rock.”
For a science project, Carroll as a teenager built a huge steel apparatus resembling an adult Tyrannosaurus rex skull and used it to crunch fresh cow bones.
After graduating high school in 2007, he rushed off to Montana State University in Bozeman and returned recently with a paleontology degree and a desire to revive his hometown and its under-appreciated museum.
Paleontologists have been drifting into Ekalaka every summer for decades, and there has long been an active Carter County Geological Society. Occasionally, one of the visiting scientists would give a little lecture at the county museum, Carroll said. But mostly the bone hunters did their work separately in the field and rarely even saw each other.
Why not get all the scientists together and organize them into a formal symposium, Carroll wondered. And, why not invite the public to come to Ekalaka and participate?
So Carroll, with the Carter County Museum, finagled a grant from the Montana Department of Tourism and then lured some of his college buddies and a bunch of Ekalaka locals to volunteer for the event.
Where it goes from here, Carroll can only guess. At the very least, the long-neglected Custer County Museum is finally getting some of the attention it deserves.
The tiny museum’s dinosaur hall is stuffed with impressive finds, like a pachycephalosaurus skull, a duck-billed edmontosaur and other rare fossils that have helped revolutionize the way scientists think about dinosaurs.
But the far-away county has lacked the money, the interest from tourists and the expertise to fully exploit its prehistoric treasures. Some of the museum’s most important specimens have remained practically untouched since they were extracted from the formation more than 80 years ago.
Last Saturday, hundreds of tourists from places like Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, Wyoming and all across Montana converged on Ekalaka. At the high school, scientists lectured on everything from Cretaceous turtles to fossil pollen and acheroraptors.
“Carter County has one of the richest fossil records anywhere in the world,” said Scott Williams, director of science and exhibits at the Burpee Museum of National History in Rockford, Ill. “All of the great natural history museums have fossils from Carter County.”
In the town park, more than 100 children made plaster casts of dinosaur footprints, had their faces painted, and dug through a sand box looking for little toys and real pieces of dinosaur bone.
On Sunday, a group of 60 people guided by paleontologists bounced down a bumpy dirt road to several active dig sites in the badlands about 20 miles west of Ekalaka.
Walking slowly among the tall, elephant-colored domes, the visitors — collecting for the museum — gathered fossilized, fingernail-sized scales from gar fish, along with several vertebrae and fragments of turtle shell.
On one steep hillside, two 9-year-old boys spotted the jagged end of a large bone poking about three inches out of the gray soil. The boys — Jackson Hughes, of Lander, Wyo., and Brody Neill, of Stugis, S.D. — spent the day with Jade Simon, a paleontologist from Boise State University, using small tools like a dental pick and soft brushes to prepare the 66-million-year-old bone for extraction. The bone, which could be from a triceratops or other large dinosaur, will go to the Carter County Museum, where Hughes and Neill will be listed as its co-discoverers.
“Finding dinosaur bones is better than not finding dinosaur bones,” Hughes said.
MaryAnn Bennett couldn’t agree more. She’s a retired science textbook editor from Rapid City, S.D., and has attended many scientific conferences, but few she said that were as loaded with big-name lecturers as the Shindig, and none that were as much fun.
“There is some intrigue in being a part of pulling theses mysteries from the ground,” said Bennett, who has visited dozens of dinosaur digs.
“There is so much we don’t know,” she said. “And, you don’t know if that little fragment you found — holding it in your hand, seeing daylight for the first time in millions of years — could be something new, unknown. It’s exciting.”