Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: The Dinosaur Track

Sep 2, 2016

The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah is home to countless fossils and ancient pictographs. It's where commentator Scott Thybony went to look at some dinosaur tracks. But he also found something else: a unique rock art panel that Thybony sees as a bond between ancient and modern people, both trying to understand  the world around them. 

The plan calls for an early start before the heat can take hold, but 3:30 in the morning isn't what I had in mind. After lying in the dark listening to the staccato notes of an owl, I get up and find my friend Chuck LaRue calling a pair of screech owls into camp. That's as good a reason as any to get moving, I suppose. So at dawn we find ourselves climbing the Vermillion Cliffs to investigate a dinosaur track site and the only known pictograph of a dinosaur footprint in North America. 

After scaling one cliff and scrambling up others, we reach the top of the escarpment a thousand feet above the red sands of the canyon floor. Along the rim we find a series of enormous dinosaur tracks, with claw marks clearly visible, set deep in the rock formed 190-million years ago. Paleontologists suspect they came from a Dilophosaurus, which stood nearly 8 feet tall and stretched 18 feet from tip to tail. The main trackway leads straight to the cliff edge, and I follow it to where the trackmaker appears to have kept going and taken flight. 

Prehistoric Indians would have studied these footprints with intense interest, observing how the three-toed animal had walked on two legs. They also would have estimated its size and weight with some accuracy. I once watched a Navajo tracker do this at another dinosaur track site to the surprise of the paleontologists with us. Centuries ago, the people living here likely concluded the bird-like prints had belonged to an immense creature, truly mythic in scale.

The two of us drop below the rim and make our way to where dozens of ancient pictographs cover the back wall of a rock shelter. I'm drawn to the central figure of a three-toed track, clearly recognizable as a dinosaur footprint. Painted red, it matches the size and shape of the fossil impressions 100 feet above us. At this site the hard evidence of an actual fossil track lies close to the unmistakable painting of one. 

The toes of the pictograph point down, giving it the appearance of a stylized bird. And other images depict birds and bird people, some in the trident shape of a track and others as birds in flight. Next to the painted track I notice two lines of human figures dwarfed by the scale of it. The stick people face the giant footprint with their arms raised and legs lifted as if dancing before it. 

Clues to a wider reality lie embedded in the landscape, and the human impulse is to make sense of them. Prehistoric people came upon something extraordinary on the edge of the Vermillion Cliffs and attempted to draw meaning from it. They let their imaginations follow the unknown tracks into the empty space beyond. We do much the same by following the images left on a cliff wall into the thoughts of those who painted them long ago.

Before descending, Chuck wants to check out the perch where he spotted a golden eagle yesterday evening. We work along a ledge below the track site and find the bird has taken flight. It left no tracks to follow, only a down feather in its place.