Foreign Correspondence: Sometimes it takes a dinosaur to gain perspective
My Edmonds News is pleased to welcome new columnist Eijah Garrard, who will write monthly about travel and people and assorted other topics.
Every explorer must prepare for a moment when adversity sets in, the mutinous crew deserts, and dedication or madness drives them to carry on alone. I reached this point six months ago in Argentina, on an overnight bus in Patagonia. As dawn broke over the scrublands, the bus’ entertainment system kicked into full gear, blasting a Spanish-dubbed third-rate Kevin Costner movie on TV screens the size of index cards. Jamming fingers into my ears, I stared blearily out the window. My travel companions, otherwise fine with the itinerary I’d planned, had hopped a different bus, skipping ahead to our next stop in the mountains. They hadn’t seemed very remorseful about it. I planned to spite them by having a wonderful time.
When the bus pulled into the city of Trelew, I grabbed a map from the deserted tourism booth and stepped out into a dusty, silent city. Skirting a weedy park, I wandered toward the city center. Sun beat down on crumbling sidewalks and bleached storefronts. I half-expected to see tumbleweed. Already, I’d begun to wonder what possessed me to come to this windswept wasteland.
If you follow dinosaur news as avidly as I do, you’ve heard that Patagonian paleontologists have unearthed the world’s largest dinosaur: tall as a seven-story building, long as two tractor-trailers, heavy as fourteen elephants. That dig was sponsored by the Edigio Feruglio Paleontological Museum—otherwise known as MEF—which happens to be based in Trelew.
I grew up during the dinosaur mania of the 1990s. I had dinosaur toys, sheets, pajamas, and a poster of balloon-toting dinosaurs on roller-skates. Seattle Times paleontology articles were immediately clipped and taped to my bedroom door. I spent countless weekends visiting the Science Center’s animatronic dinosaurs. This was the age of Land before Time and Jurassic Park, though it was years before my mom let me watch the latter. Unlike most kids, I never outgrew my obsession.
For accuracy’s sake, I should clarify that I did not actually journey thousands of miles to the southern hemisphere just to visit a dinosaur museum. I’d spent the past year living in Argentina, not as a paleontologist—that dream had long-since fallen by the wayside—but as an English teacher. Still, the MEF wasn’t exactly on the beaten path. I’d given my friends an earful about the museum’s merits, and its reasonably good reviews on travel websites. No one else was impressed; I’d forged on alone.
The MEF stuck out as the only thing built in Trelew since 1980. Inside, it was spacious, modern, and almost totally empty. Actually, it looked a lot like the visitor center in Jurassic Park, but that’s neither here nor there. I bought my ticket from a friendly receptionist, who seemed grateful for the human contact, and plunged into the museum. Make no mistake; the MEF’s collection is excellent. But while displays were brightly lit, visitors wound through gloomy darkness to get from one exhibit to the next. Lofty ceilings gave it the air of a cavern, or a cathedral. There were maybe five people in the whole museum. We glided around avoiding one another in silence.
In the Ice Age exhibit, where a saber-toothed cat had been posed to stalk early horse skeletons, a middle-aged woman sidled out of the darkness.
“Are these bones real?” she asked. I looked up from reading a caption, and shrugged.
Not content with this answer, she reached into the display and gave the nearest horse a hearty rap with her knuckles. “No, they’re plaster. Hear that?” She tapped the bones again for good measure.
And if they hadbeen real? I was agape. Have you no respect for the distant ancestors of the modern horse?
We crossed paths again later in a room of marine fossils. She waved cheerily and pointed at a fossilized ichthyosaur in Mesozoic rock.
“Real bones!” she called. I smiled weakly, wondering if she’d scaled the glass barrier to knock on them, too.
She was gone when I reached the next room, which made the most of the MEF’s high ceilings. Along one wall, two massive dinosaurs which lived several million years apart were arranged as though locked in combat. On another wall was a life-sized painting of the Argentinosaurus which, until a few weeks ago, was the largest known dinosaur.
The sound of a throat clearing drew my attention to a tall, pudgy man of indeterminate age. He wore thick glasses and sweat pants, and his face was framed by a wiry halo of messy hair.
“Would you take my picture?” He indicated the display of battling dinosaurs. There’s a certain etiquette of reciprocal picture-taking among solo travelers, so I agreed. Posing before the two dinosaurs, he gestured himself and sighed wistfully, “The least impressive of the three.”
When it was my turn, I posed in front of the Argentinosaurus. I waited for him to snap a picture, but he stood frozen with an odd look on his face.
“Did it work?” I prompted. My camera had been acting up lately. When he lowered the camera, I realized he was staring not at my camera’s viewfinder, but at the dinosaur on the wall behind me.
“We are miniscule,” he breathed. And he was right.
Since then, we’ve unearthed a dinosaur even larger than Argentinosaurus. The dinosaurs we dream of get bigger and bigger, a continuing reminder of our insignificance in the grand scheme of things. No matter that the dinosaurs are long dead; that, too, is a reminder of sorts. Leaving Trelew on the bus, I strained for the first glimpse of mountains rising up from the flat earth, and tried to imagine huge reptiles thundering across the horizon. I’d already decided what to tell my friends: that sometimes you need to go to a dinosaur museum at the ends of the earth for an existential lesson. I had, and didn’t regret it for a minute.
Elijah Garrard was born and raised in Edmonds. He is a graduate of Edmonds-Woodway High School and Bowdoin College. He writes about travel, people, and curious goings-on in his monthly column.