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GREAT FALLS - During a dozen summers fossil hunting in eastern Montana, New York Times best-selling author Homer Hickam has been bitten by a rattlesnake, fallen off a cliff and passed out from heat exhaustion.

He loves it.

And, he loves the land upon which he seeks the buried bones.

"It's beautiful country and a different part of Montana," he said. "It's just glorious."

His experiences in amateur paleontology, the Montana ranchlands he explored and the people of Garfield County come together in Hickam's new novel, "The Dinosaur Hunter."

"I thought what would be really fun is to take my knowledge of dinosaur hunting and knowledge of the people who live out there and make a mystery novel," he said.

Though Hickam takes pains to distance the book from the kind of dinosaur story that involves time travel or genetic experiments, in a way his work owes itself to "Jurassic Park."

Joe Johnston, who directed "October Sky" based on Hickam's best-selling book "Rocket Boys," was preparing to direct "Jurassic Park III" by traveling to an eastern Montana dinosaur dig when he showed Hickam fossil fragments.

"Can I go?" Hickam asked.

"No," Johnston told him. The trip was only for people working on the movie.

"He finally gave in, though," Hickam said.

He, Johnston and paleontologist Jack Horner traveled to Garfield County, one of the major dino digging regions of the state.

"Coming from Coalwood, W.Va., I can climb a hill and know one rock from another," he said. "I fell in love with hunting dinosaur bones, and I was almost instantly good at it."

***

That's no exaggeration, either.

Only 36 Tyrannosaurus rexes have ever been found. Hickam has found two.

Once he learned to identify the K-T (cretaceous tertiary) boundary, he could narrow down potential dig sites because dinosaurs aren't found above the line of mass extinction, he said.

In the moonscape land of eastern Montana, the hills are "wedding cakes where you can see layers of time."

As he hunted for dinosaurs, Hickam came to know the ranchers of Garfield County.

Now when he walks into the Hell Creek Bar on Jordan's Main Street, it's like a scene from "Cheers," "where everybody knows your name," he says.

"That's really Big Sky Country out there, the ranch- and badlands of eastern Montana," he said.

Once Hickam walked into the Jordan library with a stack of books and saw a group of women chatting and drinking wine. He was told they were ranch wives in town for a Weight Watchers meeting.

"They were all skinny but they'll do anything for an excuse to get together," he said. "They may be 30 to 40 miles from their nearest neighbor."

The third-least-populated American county outside Alaska is nearly the size of Connecticut but only has about 1,200 people spread across more than three million acres. Cows outnumber people at least 50 to 1.

During summers in Garfield County, Hickam reached a point where he can say he felt like he was part of the people.

Some of the characters in "The Dinosaur Hunter" are so close to real people in Garfield County that "no one will fail to guess who they are," he said. Other characters are composites of Garfield County folks but "they live exactly the lives of people in Garfield County."

Hickam, a NASA engineer who lives in Alabama, didn't know much about ranching when he started coming to Montana digging dinosaurs a dozen years ago.

"I'm a good listener and a good learner," he said.

He also had Montanan ranchers proof a copy, as did professional paleontologists "to make it as close as possible to what it's like to hunt and find these bones and dig them up."

The book will bring the stories of these people to the world, he said.

And back home to Jordan, too.

"People who live in Garfield County are avid readers since they spend a lot of time with snow up to their necks so they're inside," Hickam said. "I brought out advanced copies to a couple people in Garfield County last summer and it traded hands a lot. It's become a big guessing game of who is who."

A bully BLM agent, Ivy League environmentalists who count cow pies and a Californian millionaire who buys up land but sells off the cows and brings to the area nasty outsiders with Mafia ties are contrasted with the salt-of-the-earth Montana ranchers.

"That's fun to write about and the possibility of some ecoterrorism going on," Hickam said.

***

The book's protagonist is Mike Wire, a retired LAPD homicide detective who left the force after being shot. He goes to Montana to become a cowboy but is - gasp! - a vegetarian.

"A vegetarian cowboy well, he's from California and was shot in the stomach," Hickam said. "The people out there said a vegetarian would starve to death in this county. I said, there's always mac and cheese."

Wire has been working away happily on the Square C Ranch for a decade pining for his widowed boss when paleontologist Norman "Pick" Pickford starts digging on her property and bad things begin to happen.

"It's really a Montana story, and it reflects the fact I adore that state," he said. "I do hope Montanans will embrace it."

And now that the ranch women have traded group dieting for a book club, Hickam hopes they'll pick up his book, too.

"What people are interested in is other people, and I wanted to bring alive for readers these special people," Hickam said. "They are living the 19th century cowboy life. ... They are truly living a rugged life."

As ex-detective Mike tries to solve a murder in the book, so too is paleontologist Pick, though his murder involves a 65-million-year-old death in a T. rex family.

"Pick believes in a concept known as deep time," Hickam said. "The surface of the ocean, the present time, is connected to the bottom of the ocean, yesterday. Today is connected to millions upon millions of yesterdays."

Pick can look at bones and begin to see the animal, how it lived and died.

"He's a very philosophical guy," Hickam said.

"The Dinosaur Hunter," reflects Hickam's fondness for Jordan and Garfield County.

"He enjoys being here and he enjoys the people," said Jeannie Fellman, owner of Fellman's Convenience Store. "They all visit with him and that makes a difference too. It's old home week when he comes down here."

 

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