The Ecphorizer

The Sandstone Footprints
Paul W. Healy

Issue #29 (January 1984)

The two men sat quietly under the cliff which hung over the dry section of the stream bed of the Paluxy River. They had worked all day on a section of the bed which had been exposed by the spring floods, now subsided, which had exposed a section of [quoteright]fossil-bearing strata. Beyond

...these explorers must have come from a distant part of the galaxy...

them the river wound sluggishly through its new bed, reflecting the late afternoon sun. Putting down his canteen, the younger man spoke.

"Well, Professor Diller," he said, "when we've published our findings here, with the photographic evidence, it should just about write finis to the fabled Glen Rose tracks, and expose them for the amateurish hoax they are. I compliment you for being willing to do this; you've usually been unwilling to publish in the popular press, or even to give interviews."

"I felt this particular cause was so important I had to make my contribution. But I'm afraid you greatly underestimate the gullibility of the average American, Jim," said the Professor. "It's true, when I showed the film Footprints in Stone to my paleontology class they all laughed. They pointed out that when I showed a single frame the crude attempts to make the prints appear human by putting a shellac varnish over selected parts made the fraud painfully evident; but the creationist group for which the film was intended will not be so critical. After all, they want to believe that men co-existed with dinosaurs, and that both of them originated only a few thousand years ago, so they'll find the film convincing."

"How did it all get started?" asked Jim.

"It happened during the depression. Some of the good people of Glen Rose decided to augment their income by removing some genuine dinosaur tracks from their own backyards and selling them to tourists. But the supply of the real article soon gave out, so they started manufacturing them. Their early attempts were very crude, but the average tourist is not too critical, and they were able to sell them. Then some creative soul noticed that some of the tracks bore some resemblance to human footprints, and they began faking those alongside the genuine dinosaur tracks – you know the rest, you've seen the film."

"Yes, I've seen it. I also read the account of the Paluxy River tracks which Professor Roland Bird wrote in Natural History back in the early forties. Those articles should have ended the matter. He recognized that the footprints were faked and exposed them. The whole thing is just as phony as the tales about flying saucers and the little green men who fly them - and look how long those have persisted. There are von Däniken's books about ancient astronauts - still popular."

The Professor leaned back and lit his pipe. Then he spoke, very slowly: "I quite agree that all the recent accounts of visitors from space are ridiculous. I'm not so sure that I can dismiss the fact that it seems certain that we were visited by aliens, but a very long time ago."

Jim stared at him in disbelief. "Surely you don't believe any of von Däniken's 'evidence'?"

"Of course not. None of it would convince anyone with the intelligence above that of a cretin that any super-beings had ever visited us, or that they had left any traces of those visits behind. Yet I have reason to believe that once, long, long ago, there was a visit from someone - or thing from outer space."

"Can you tell me about it?" asked Jim.

"Yes, I can. But first I must have your assurance that you'll never tell anyone what I've told you, nor reduce it to writing. If you do, I shall simply say that it was a tale I made up to pass a hot summer afternoon, and that there is not even a fragment of truth in it."

"Fair enough - I promise I'll never repeat it," said Jim. The Professor settled himself against the ledge, and began.

"About thirty years ago, just after I finished my doctorate at Chicago, I spent a summer in the West. I'd always been fascinated by the marvelous Eocene fish fossils I'd seen that came from Wyoming. In those days the little filling station was still open at the base of the Fossil Fish Cliffs, and every summer the man who operated it went up the side of the butte and carefully blasted out the twenty feet of rock which covered the fossil beds, removed great slabs of material which he took to the station and sawed into sections. These he worked up during the long winter months, when there were no tourists on the highway. I had a letter of introduction from my professor, who knew the old man, and he welcomed me cordially enough. He should have - I wasn't being paid, and I bought my own food. He did let me sleep on a couch in the station, though.

"I'd been working there for about two months, learning to recognize the presence of a fossil fish beneath the surface of the top layer of rock by detecting the 'shadow,' and then how to laboriously remove the top layers of stone and reveal the fish underneath - usually complete in every detail. I became pretty expert in the first month, and toward the end of the summer I asked if there were any other interesting fossils in the area. After some hesitation, the old man told me that about thirty miles to the north there was a small ledge that showed a lot of promise. The rock was a lot older - late Cretaceous, in fact, but he recalled seeing part of a dinosaur track on the shelf. He'd never told anyone about the spot, but I'd been a big help, and if I wanted to have a look, he'd pinpoint the spot on a topographic map, loan me a couple of horses and supplies, and I could have a look.

"I think you can imagine my excitement. Here was a chance to make an important discovery, for I knew the spot he indicated had never been worked. Next morning at dawn, I loaded the pack horse, swung into the saddle, and set out. When I reached the location on the map the sun was setting, for the going had been pretty hard. I pitched camp at the base of the cliff, and next morning as the sun rose I threw some C rations into a knapsack, filled my canteen, and set out. It was nearly noon when I found the ledge. I soon discovered that the strat that was most interesting was only exposed for about twenty feet, and ended in a clear vertical drop, clearly an old fault, while the other end ran beneath a hundred feet of solid rock. Over a layer of sandstone was another of what was once volcanic ash - now, of course, turned into a fine-grained pumice. This layer was only about one inch thick, and could be removed easily with a chisel. in some places it could be removed with a spatula.

"I had only removed the pumice from a layer about a yard square when I found the first beautiful footprint of a Cretaceous three-toed dinosaur. The beast was seemingly in a hurry, since the toes were dug in deeper than the heel. By now the sun had nearly set, so I left the ledge, made sure the horses were comfortable and securely hobbled, rolled up in my sleeping bag and didn't awaken until dawn.

"As soon as I finished eating breakfast I scrambled up the slope to the ledge and began work. Then, In the second square yard of pumice I removed, I saw something that made me jump in astonishment. It was an oval-shaped print, about six inches long, quite flat, except that dotted all over the surface were tiny depressions as though a leather sole had been covered with thumb tacks. A foot and a half further on I found another footprint, parallel to the cliff face but slightly to the right. With mounting excitement, I feverishly removed another square yard of pumice and found two more prints. The tracks of the three-toed dinosaur were nearer the cliff, but also parallel to it. By the end of the fourth day, I had uncovered tracks almost to the edge of the fault, and as I was removing the last square yard of pumice I had my final shock. There, in the finegrained sandstone, was the print of a box-like container. It was a perfect rectangle, and was criss-crossed by a regular pattern of rods. The whole thing was 7 by 10 Inches, and beside it were two of the alien's prints, side by side.

"Evidently the creature had stopped and set down some sort of container on the sandy stream bed, and then gone on. Since the ledge dropped away for a hundred feet at this point, there was no more I could do; I gathered up my tools and went back to camp. You may well imagine I slept very little that night. I stared up at the stars - now so close – and wondered what I should do. If I revealed my discovery it would mean instant fame and fortune; that I knew. But it would also give all the more credence to the flying saucer nuts - and this was a period when reports of sightings were appearing nearly every day. It might even produce a world-wide panic. That the tracks were at least 65 million years old would be brushed aside. After all, if aliens had come then, why shouldn't they return?

"But it seemed to me that these explorers must have come from a distant part of the galaxy, and had visited the third planet of a mediocre star. They had found no life forms with whom they could communicate, and had left - leaving no evidence but these tracks. It was possible, but most unlikely, that they would ever return. Our galaxy is rather large, and it would take many millions of years to visit all the planets it contains.

"By morning, I had made up my mind. That day I toiled up the cliff with an extra burden - drills, fuses, and a sack of dynamite. I placed the dynamite in strategic locations along the cliff face which rose above the ledge, knowing that when it was set off, it would bring thousands of tons of rock down on the ledge, and thoroughly discourage anyone from working the site again, even if they heard of it. I hated to do it, but I felt then it was the best course to take. Most of the time, I still do. Anyhow, after I had set the charges, lit the fuses, and scrambled down the cliff, I watched the explosion with mixed feelings. The secret was safe; I knew that. Today I can assure you there is no trace of the ledge, or the explosion - which is why I can tell you the story, since there is now no way you can confirm it. The old man died twenty years ago and no trace remains of the filling station. The fossil cliffs still yield their annual harvest, though the fishes in their stone slabs are not nearly so fine as the old man's.

"So that is the story - I hope it has amused you. I don't think about it often, but sometimes, when I'm out in the field rolled up in my sleeping bag I stare up at the stars, and wonder if I might see a dark shape slide slowly across the sky - and if, inside some giant ship, there are devices which will scan our planet for signs of intelligence. Then I wonder what our visitors will think of us - whether they'll wish to contact us, or feel we are better left alone. I think that a return visit is most unlikely but I still wonder."

The Professor stopped and looked at Jim with a searching glance. But Jim was watching the sky, as the stars appeared one by one. 

Erstwhile magaziner Paul W. Healy ventures this month into fiction.  As a professional mathematician and scientist of many interests, he brings a wealth of knowledge to his fabulations.

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