Thunder in His Footsteps

The ghost of the most gigantic animal that ever walked the earth is conjured to life when a lone fossil hunter tracks down the first true footprints left by this stupendous creature, and thrills to the romance of a great discovery.

Dinosaur thigh bone

A body some 60 feet long was supported on these huge thigh bones: skeletal remains in Wyoming of an animal similar to the one that left its 12-foot stride in Texas rocks.

R. T. Bird

My surprise was partly overcome by Ryals’ casual reference to them as human footprints. I smiled. No man had ever existed in the Age of Reptiles. But here apparently was the answer to the other half of that baffling track mystery. Maybe Ryals would know of more of them. Often a simple question can save you much random prospecting. My interest was hard to conceal when I asked: “Can you show me one?”

Ryals intended to cut some cedar posts that afternoon and was reluctant to leave, but I finally prevailed on him to walk to the river with me. We didn’t have far to go to find a few dinosaur tracks and were soon peering at several under water and river silt—those at least were evident. Then we came to a place where we had to cross over to reach a track ledge beyond. Finally after jumping from stone to stone we stopped at a shallow hole with a muddy bottom. Ryals sloshed a shovel back and forth and then stood back while the current washed the surface clean. I watched closely as the outline of a foot took form, something about 15 inches long with a curious elongated heel.

A Mystery Print

What I saw was discouraging in one sense, enlightening in another. Apparently it had been made by some hitherto unknown dinosaur or reptile. The original mud had been very soft at this point, and the rock had preserved faithfully this element of softness, but the track lacked definition on which to base conclusions. There was only the one, and though my eyes itched to see a good one, the overlying ledge covered any possible next print. Ryals said he knew of no others exposed at present.

We turned our attention to other things. The three-toed prints occurred in numbers along the ledges, often at the water’s edge and under river silt. Some were the most perfect I had ever seen. A unique situation, however, had accounted for this.

The limey matrix had originally been firm, viscous mud, ideal for impressions; and the softer shales that represented the muds that filled them later, had disintegrated freely without marring the tracks. However, due to the wear of the Paluxy River, good trails, in a series, were difficult to locate. They’ll have to be in a place well protected by mud, I thought, as Ryals rambled on, telling of still other trails that had been thus torn away or destroyed by this water action. Then we came to a heavy gravel bar, curving around a bend. “Too bad,” he said, looking down at a mass of stones and boulders. “There used to be some fine things under that stuff; I wish you could have seen them.”

Biggest of All

Then he described sauropod footprints. This was startling information, for the group of dinosaurs known as sauropods contains the most gigantic four-footed animals known of any age. I questioned him at length, hesitating to believe the man. Tracks of the largest beasts in Nature! In this type of rock, where tracks were preserved so faithfully, it sounded too good to be true. A sudden desire to dig into the gravel bar almost overcame my better judgment. That indeed, would be a strike I’d little dreamed of—the discovery of these largest of all footprints. But the heavy gravel bar was several feet in depth, and there was no assurance such prints might still remain underneath. The turbulent Paluxy often plays strange tricks with its bottom at periods of high water, when ledges rip away like cardboard. As it had been a long time since Ryals had seen these tracks, I felt it best to conserve my enthusiasm for other things. We moved on, and I temporarily dismissed the subject, but it was a thought to keep in mind.

For the next few days I prospected up and down the river in the old Buick, talking with people and learning of tracks and trails they’d known of, and investigated other possibilities. I became so accustomed to the mention of “man tracks,” that I found I’d adopted the term myself in conversation, though additional specimens of that reptilian footprint with the curious elongated heel were to be found nowhere except in the memories of those who recalled that famous “fourth crossing trail.” As for further information on the sauropod tracks, I encountered only one other man besides Ryals who had ever known of them. This was Ernest Adams, Glen Rose archeologist, who knew the region perhaps as thoroughly as any man. He passed the remark that there was more than one undescribed footprint along the old river which he knew had never been reported—among the lot, those of this heavy quadruped. “I think you’ll find them,” he said.

Still, as I look back on it, I remember I hadn’t been overly excited. All the previously discovered sauropod tracks were vague, not too definable things. None had ever turned a theory, and the possibility of finding such seemed remote. I only knew of two cases, and one of these I’d visited earlier in the season. They were an odd series of 26-inch circular prints, but when one attempted to analyse the trail it failed to jibe as sauropod. The Meyers and I, and several other friends of John MacClary, had spent an exciting half day investigating these tracks southwest of Pueblo, Colorado. I was interested, hopeful, but not excited.

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