University of Minnesota Alumni Association

The Last Word

Dusty Return

My younger brother, Danny, and I always loved the rock formations on a cattle ranch in the Lance Creek region of eastern Wyoming.

Illustration by James Heimer

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 the specimens.

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 land below. 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 partner friendship.

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.