Pants around my ankles, I squatted over the fossilized dinosaur footprint — a goofy grin spreading across my face. It’s one of those memories that I carry like a tattoo. It’s skin etched. Maybe it’s because I’ve told it so many times, each recount darkening the ink at the edges. Or perhaps it’s what it captured. An entire childhood in one simple snapshot.
The image of six-year old me, bare-bottomed in the wide open Oklahoma panhandle, pissing in an Apatosaurus print screams, “Here you go! This was my big, fat exotic childhood.” My dad was a museum man — of the Natural History variety. Half desk job, half field work with a family tagging along for the latter.
We were a breed of our own, my sister and I. Barely batting an eye when dad brought home shrunken heads and Megalodon teeth to discuss at our 6pm sharp family dinners. Fuck bounce houses. We had corn snakes and baby gators in wading pools for our parties. Airport souvenirs? Ha! Blowguns smuggled from the Amazon jungle and clay figurines from the base shops of Machu Picchu seasoned our bookshelves.
We were tethered to my father by bungee cords. Head lamps were adjusted at the entrances of caves. Snorkeling fins were forced over wet heels as we waded in waist deep near the reefs. Mother dutifully stood vigil on the sidelines — never failing to see us off or to listen to our breathless recounts when we emerged on the other side.
We know what we know as kids. My family constellation was drawn in private planetarium shows and the muddy knees of fossil digs. This was my norm. Only now, with certain memories curling up at the edges, do I long to piece together the whole. To see it projected sky high in the darkened dome above my chair.
First, you’ll only see the stars — some twinkling more brightly than others. Then, a shape emerges and you begin to connect the dots. That line that gave us form is my mother — the thread that anchored us to the sky. But to look at the constellation of my youth from any distance undermines the details. So today I zoom in — on the star that’s dusty from the great Black Mesa. Where the corners of Colorado, Oklahoma, and New Mexico meet.
The bit where, upon close enough examination, you see me squatting over a footprint that preceded me by 165 million years. A footprint stamped by a giant — his legs, pillar-like. His neck serpentine. I’m an ant in a canyon.
Dad was mixing business with pleasure. With our pop-up camper back at the park, we’d driven out to the site of the prints, tasked with taking some photos for the exhibit back home. The casts had already been taken — soon to be staged and served up to the oooohs and ahhhhhs of young visitors.
But the photographs weren’t panning out. The dry sediment was camouflaging it’s own Jurassic past. “It’s working!” I screamed, watching the print darken between my skinny legs as the yellow waterfall splashed my ankles. A prehistoric watering hole. “Great. Move out of the shot,” Dad commanded, eager to get some photos before my efforts evaporated. My sister had been keeping time, marking her own turf just a footprint away.
With one eye, we briefly surveyed mother. Forever the conductor of this mad symphony, she was always attuned. Today, she laughed. It was hard not to. This prehistoric pissing contest rivaled all former roadside squats and emergency tree pullovers. This was one for the family scrapbooks.
So what begins as a story about a road trip out West, becomes a story about footprints. The tattered maps and fossil tracks are now boxed neatly in Dad’s garage — a retired past, yellowing. Someday, my father will go out like the Sauropods. With a Big Bang — leaving footprints I can sit in.
And then there will be the smaller, softer tracks in my periphery (the ones my mother’s been leaving) that remind me what I’m anchored to —and why I’m brave enough to walk with dinosaurs.