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.

sauropod illustration

“Thunder Llizard”—a sauropod dinosaur approximating the one which left his footprints in Texas mud 120 million years ago. He bulked the equivalent of four or five 6-ton elephants. Man would have reached only to his knee.

George F. Mason

There had been snow on the window of Jack Hill’s store when I looked in; so I wasn’t certain if the things were real or not. Even at that, I had been a great deal more than startled. I walked on past the store window, on down the street facing the whirling cloud of flakes that were northern New Mexico’s first taste of winter, trying to think, trying to find in my mind and in my category of fossil track experience, a niche for these strange objects. It might not do to go back and enter the store appearing too excited over them. Owners of fossils picked up in the rough sometimes are quite ready to place exorbitant value on them, and I’d never met Jack Hill. I stole past the window once more in the casual manner of a man disinterested and glanced in. Yes, they apparently were real enough. Real as rock could be . . . in that Indian trader’s store in Gallup!

I took a last look and resolutely reached for the doorknob. After all, I only wished to see these odd prints at closer range, analyse them more carefully, and identify them if possible. It seemed too good to believe any living creature had made prints like that to turn up here unnoticed and unsung in a trader’s store. Still you never can tell about such things. Anyway I turned the doorknob and squeezed into a large room in which it seemed half the Indians in West Gallup had gathered to escape the vileness of the weather.

A busy clerk nodded assurance when I told him I only wished to examine the strange objects in the window. I made my way past a group of dusky squaws with their bundles on the floor, to the window. My fingers sought the stones, turning them to better light. For a moment I had them to myself —the strangest things of their kind I had ever seen. On the surface of each was splayed the near-likeness of a human foot, perfect in every detail. But each imprint was 15 inches long! Then a big Hopi moved closer, grunting in my ear, laughing. “Zuni tracks,” he said. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the clerk smile: “Do you know of anything, have you ever seen anything, that looked like that before?”

No Known Animal

I had to admit I hadn’t. Furthermore, I could conceive of no animal that might have made them. It was ridiculous to think they were human footprints. They were too large and bear-like: and yet they weren’t like the largest prehistoric bear I could think of, the great Pleistocene cave bear, for the toes were not typical. I felt a keen sense of regret when I told the clerk: “I’m afraid your Jack Hill has found himself a pair of fake footprints.”

It really seemed too bad for both of us. I was finishing a field trip that hadn’t been very productive of fossils for the last two months. True, there had been a couple of rare, rather incomplete dinosaur skeletons collected earlier in the season in Montana —thanks to the assistance of my good friend George Shea of Billings. But here it was almost the end of the season, with almost no hopes for new prospects. If these things had only presented something more tangible to go on. . . .

I was explaining this to the clerk when I learned Jack Hill had some other tracks from the same locality in Lupten. When I heard they were dinosaur tracks in exactly the same type of stone, from apparently an identical stratographic level, my thoroughly revived curiosity could scarcely be retained. This put things in an entirely new light. Even the possibility of such an association seemed incredible. Could I have been mistaken in my first conclusions? I couldn’t believe anything until I’d seen what Hill had in his other store, so that night I drove to Lupten.

The entire affair now presented one of the strangest problems in all my fossil hunting experience. The dinosaur footprints were found as represented and, like the “mystery tracks,” they were fine specimens—too fine. I had every reason to suspect the entire lot had been fashioned by some stone artist, but how they had been so neatly done, how a man could have duplicated the dinosaur tracks at least, without an intimate knowledge of something genuine, there was no means of telling. The latter were typical of some large three-toed carnivore, and all the friction pads showing in the impressions were correct in every detail. Although Jack Hill hadn’t been in town, it was learned both types came from Glen Rose, Texas. A conflicting multitude of questions at once arose: If the dinosaur tracks were genuine, could the strange prints be those of some hitherto unknown reptile? If they were all copied after genuine prints, would there be any chance of finding such if I went to Glen Rose? If a basis could be established for the dinosaur tracks, what might be learned about the others?

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