At Earth's Treasures in Bozeman, Montana, owner Patti and manager Gail are looking for fireworks noises.
You know what we mean -- the sudden, involuntary expression of "ooh!' and "aah!" that accompanies seeing something truly, well, cool.
And it's not too long before they get one out of me, elicited by a close look at a Septarian Nodule. I examined it with a loop, a small magnifying glass used by jewelers and gem nuts, and reacted with an amazed "wow!"
"That's the fireworks noise," Patti laughed.
As I talked with Patti and Gail, their excitement for geology and archaeology palpable, my eye was being drawn to glints and flashes of color all about the room: mounted butterflies, colorful geodes, million-year-old fossils, and a bumpy piece of stone that particularly attracted me. I picked it up and looked it over, wondering what geologic process could possibly have created such a thing. "Pick it up," they say. "Really feel it."
"It's fossilized turtle poop," they tell me a moment later.
Interesting. Never in my lifetime of experience have I seen poop that I would be more proud of having on a shelf.
Earth's Treasures provides a unique experience in that it is an educational experience for the whole family, with museum-quality pieces like a Triceratops brow horn complete with the unmistakable imprint of blood vessels on its surface, or a chunk of a meteorite that fell in China in the early 16th century.
But it's also a place where a kid can walk in with two quarters in her pocket and leave with something awesome that will last, well, forever. This happens so frequently, Patti says, that the store has an official policy regarding kids who are spending their own money -- they get a discount. It's a savvy tactic designed to appeal to the "saggy pants kids." Those, they tell me, are the kids with their pockets weighed down with all of their treasures.
Certainly kids love dinosaurs and poop. This much is inarguable. But are they really into the finer points of geology? Why, yes!
"One day," Patti says, "we had a kid who came in and asked if we have any moldavite. We said yes and walked him right over to it. His mother asked him 'how in the world do you know what moldavite is?"
I admitted to her that I didn't know what moldavite is, but that it sounded like the resident of an Eastern European country.
I happened to be in the shop because it was my mom's birthday. She is an inveterate rockhound, but also considered a geode the kind of extravagance she couldn't justify buying. I figured maybe this would be the year to surprise her with one. But which one? What was the biggest piece of fossilized poop they had?
But Patti and Gail were kind enough, not to mention wise, to lead me away from the fossilized poop, as they thought it might send the wrong message about how I felt about Mom's parenting. So they patiently walked me around the whole place, showing me options that were very reasonable, to my pleasant surprise. Maybe I could buy the old girl's geode and still have enough to get a six-pack!
As Gail wraps up my presents with a meticulousness I could never have managed myself, I noticed that much of the store, from the jewelry to the the mining supplies, from the gorgeous butterfly wing earrings to the fossils, were from Montana, Morocco, China and Europe -- something from nearly every continent. But much of it from Montana.
I then went on a hunt for the oldest thing I could find, which turned out to be a fossilized blue-green algae called stromatolite. At 220 million years old it predates dinosaurs; this really is the kind of store where you can find things you absolutely won't find anywhere else.
Just by going to the store and looking around, you've taken, as Patti puts it, a trip "around the world and outer space, too." The store is also a museum, after all, and a free one at that. But unlike most museums, this one is unusually tactile. With staff supervision, there's plenty for you and your kids to poke, prod and feel!
But for me the real test would be whether or not dear ole Mom would light up when she saw her present. I ended up choosing a geode cut down the middle, with a creamy yellow color that sprung up from the center like flames. It was, in fact, the first one I inspected - the one which had prompted firework noises in the first place.
But I don't have to tell you Mom loved it. I bet you've already predicted that.
Earth's Treasures is located at 25 N. Willson Ave in Bozeman, Montana, and is open Monday through Saturday from 9:30 AM to 5:30 PM. Check out their website or give them a call at (406) 586-3451, or see them in person - but beware, they will make you touch million-year-old poop!