Shell’s Secret

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When we came down out of the mountains in July of 2004 we had no real idea of where we were. This was before the iPhone and navigation systems in cars. We were traveling across country, moving from the Washington, D.C. area to California, my wife and our two grade-school-age daughters, and we came into tiny Shell, Wyoming, to stop for snacks and pop, as we still called it then.

Though it was over sixteen years ago I still remember Dirty Annie’s Country Store and the “singing cowboy” inside. I thought of him as a singing cowboy only because of his outfit–a sky blue western dress shirt and matching pants, white belt, beautiful and ornate white and blue boots, sort of a TV cowboy look. That he was a thin black man made his look even odder. But what really struck me were the guns. He wore a gun belt with holsters on either side and in the holsters, were two chromed revolvers, pearl white handles, and they looked real. I was raised in a gunless household and I had held a gun only once in my life, during one of my brief Boy Scout careers where I fired a .22 bolt-action rifle at paper targets. Seeing him, being near him, carrying a gun, that is, two guns, out in the open was a novelty for me. I hoped the man was not insane.

As if that wasn’t memorable enough, making small talk with the women at the cash register I asked if there was anything interesting that I shouldn’t miss in the area, just a random shot in the dark. She asked me if I had yet been to the dinosaur footprints.

The road out was the most washboarded my Volvo 850R had ever been on. The car shook and vibrated, twisted and bounced. By that point in my ownership of that vehicle I had already grown suspicious of the quality control of the manufacturer and I imagined all the screws in the car working themselves looser as we made our way through a desert landscape of red and multi-hued hills so alien that I thought of Mars.

There was a little structure, like a wooden bus stop, a place for a sign and some shade. A portable toilet and a single car, parked in the dusty gravel. Three people stood there chatting as we pulled up. One, a park ranger and the others her parents. She was showing off the place.

We stopped there again at the end of July of this year, my daughters now just graduated from college.

The flat rock, like some buried rough-hewn monolith, looks like nothing at first. It looks like a rock that has been uncovered and dusted off. The sign says there are dinosaur footprints there but there are not. I walk up and down the pathway of the stone, remembering having seen the footprints before but seeing nothing but worn rock now. Had the footprints been obliterated over the intervening decade and a half? Did people, stepping all over the rock in search of prints, erase the fossilized impressions with their own erosion?

Then one of my daughters calls out that she has found one, then quickly afterward, two. Then the footprints are everywhere, forming paths, forming interlocking paths, footprints of different sizes but all of the same unknown and perhaps unknowable beast walking in the sand along some ancient lakeshore.

This post is from a series of articles chronicling a 2020 cross-country trip with my wife and two daughters and a boyfriend, from California to Ohio (to visit family) and Pennsylvania (to drop off my oldest daughter at grad school), and then back. We spent over five weeks on the road during the pandemic.

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