My younger brother, Danny, and I always loved the rock formations on a cattle ranch in the Lance Creek region of eastern Wyoming.
My younger brother, Danny,
and I always loved the
rock formations on a cattle
ranch in the Lance Creek
region of eastern Wyoming. The natural
breakdown of these soft rocks had
exposed small vertebrate fossils about
66-69 million years old, there for the taking, thanks to our rancher friend and his
family. Our fascination with them started
in the early ’70s and continued through
Danny’s master’s degree in geology,
up until about four years ago when he
unexpectedly passed away.
It was easy to find fossils such as fish
and amphibian vertebrae, garfish scales,
bone-like armor plates, leg bones, jaw
fragments, and maybe an occasional
reptile claw. These were some of the
body parts of both sea and land animals
to be found, typically no larger than a
human fingernail or thumb. In death,
these varied creatures had descended
downward into water and sand, and with
a gentle tug of gravity, became part of
an ancient inland sea coastal plain. To sift
through the weathered sand and find
these treasures was a paradise of excited
exploration and chatter.
Danny was my only sibling. Over
40-some years, we sometimes brought
guests with us on our expeditions, including our own parents and our spouses—my
wife, Carla, and Danny’s husband, Wayne.
We wanted to keep the location a family
secret to prevent others from exploiting
I recall that our travels together to the
sandstone landscapes in Wyoming had
similar dialogues year after year such as:
“Danny, another summer beyond
Paleontology 101! I can’t wait till we get to
Jim’s ranch. Hope it isn’t as hot, dusty, and
windy as last year. But you hung in there
and picked up a lot of nice pieces.”
“Hey, Randy, you know it’s a blast out
there. Hope we’ll have enough water along.
Last year, I didn’t like choosing between
drowning my thirst or washing off the
sandy, sweaty dust that was all over me.”
Sometimes our talk went deep, like
when we discussed galaxies 60-some
million light years away, whose light left the
galaxy when these creatures were alive.
Our evening binocular sky views, free of
light pollution, were simply astounding.
Danny and Wayne eventually moved
from Minnesota to Arizona, but we still got
together yearly. My brother had always
been rather private about his own health.
That’s why it was such a shock when we got
a telephone call from Wayne. Danny had
been suffering from a terminal illness which
he’d kept to himself. He had taken his own
life. I felt numb and said little after this.
Wayne had Danny’s body cremated
and his ashes were placed in a boxed
urn. Danny’s wish was to have his ashes
scattered at Bushy Tailed Blowout, a large
fossil-laden sandstone hill on the ranch.
On the day of the total solar eclipse of
2017, before sunset, Wayne emptied the
urn at the blowout site. It was a breezy
day and a surprising gust of wind swept
Danny’s dust upward to scatter onto the
Tears dropped as the fine dust settled
downward. But those tears of sorrow
were tinged with a warm feeling of
eternal close brotherhood and a special
Randall Wehler (B.A. ’70) is a retired psychologist. As a lifelong fossil hunter and amateur astronomer, he ponders the depth of time. He lives in Moorhead, Minnesota.