Petrified Forest National Park

For our first stop of this summer’s road trip we didn’t have that far to go. We left Tucson Thursday evening—it was still in the triple digits as we headed out at 7 PM. We figured it would be better to drive through the low, hot depression that is Phoenix at night rather than during the blazing sunlight. Even so at 9 o’clock that night it was still well over 100 degrees in the Valley of the Sun. As hot as Tucson is, thank goodness we don’t live there! We celebrated each thousand foot increment in elevation as we slowly climbed our way out of the hot valley floor up to Flagstaff. At close to 7,000 feet the breeze was deliciously cool and we slept very well that night.

Friday morning we had to do a bit of stocking up and replace the car’s dead battery (it was not a surprise, and only a minor inconvenience) before driving east on I-40. The highway followed the path of the storied Route 66 for much of the way, sections of the old road were visible as we drove along. It made sense then that our RV park off I-40 would be named after the road of song, only they spelled it Root 66. No matter, it was conveniently located near our destination, Petrified Forest National Park, where our good friends Rich and Karen were volunteering.

When the area’s treasure trove of petrified wood was first identified by Army Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves in 1851 very few people could even gain access to the remote region. All that changed in 1882 with the arrival of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad. Soon brochures were touting the wonders of the colorful fossils and people were carting off boxcar loads. Some ambitious individuals were even blasting apart logs to collect the quartz, amethyst and other crystals inside them. At the urging of local residents concerned by the depletion of their “Rainbow Wood”, and with the support of champions of nature such as John Muir (who spent almost a year roaming the desolate expanse), President Theodore Roosevelt established Petrified Forest National Monument in 1906. In 1932 more acreage was added and in 1962 Congress upgraded the Monument to its current Park status.

Not only do we relish our friends’ company but when we visit them at one of the fantastic places they are workamping we are always treated to a behind-the-scenes tour. Our Friday afternoon kicked off with a swing by the historic Painted Desert Inn. Rich was just finishing his shift in the gift shop and gladly whisked us away for a peek at seldom seen corners of the old inn. From the old employees’ quarters filled with remnants of the CCC‘s handiwork to the underground storage areas to the magnificent murals by Hopi artisan Fred Kabotie, the building oozed history.

In the early 1920s the building was constructed by a resourceful character named Herbert Lore out of the most plentiful building material around; petrified wood. Not far from Route 66 Lore’s building served as a combination lodge, trading post, restaurant, and bar. Basically it was the only place for miles to get anything, so naturally he sold a bit of everything (including petrified wood). It could’ve been a lonely, desolate, god-forsaken spot had it not been for the unique beauty of the countryside.

Lore’s “Stone Tree House” was located within the Painted Desert, a geographic region slicing through northern Arizona from the Grand Canyon over to the border with New Mexico. He picked his spot well, people have been fascinated with this region and the treasures it holds for thousands of years. Not your average treasures such as silver and gold but others of a different caliber. Archaeological evidence found in the Park points to the presence of people as early as 10,000 years ago. Theirs was not a settled existence and several thousand years went by before a more permanent culture appeared in the archaeological record.

The Ancestral Puebloans left the longest record, spanning over a thousand years before they too melted away. They did not completely disappear, their descendants survive in the various pueblos scattered across northern Arizona and New Mexico. The Hopis in Arizona were joined by the recently migrated Navajos only a few hundred years before the Spanish ventured through on their search for the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola. Coronado and his men never found that place of riches but they did travel through these multi-hued hills in the 1540s, stopping long enough to grace them with the name El Desierto Pintado, the English version of which is the name for the region yet today.

After our brief tour we retired to Karen and Rich’s RV for an evening of wonderful food and catching up. Though it had only been a few months since we last saw each other, it felt like ages! As the sun set the air cooled and we enjoyed a lovely evening, conversing and watching the bats flit around overhead. Before we left we made plans for the next day. Karen offered to take the morning shift in the Visitor Center so that the rest of us could hit the trails before it heated up too much. Rich then gave us a choice of adventures: out to a hidden fossil-bearing area, along a portion of Route 66 within the Park, or over to a selection of rarely visited petroglyphs. Of course, I wanted to see everything, but we decided that 220-million-year old fossils took precedence.

The following morning as Rich led us through a maze of pink, orange, purple and gray hills it was hard to imagine the area as a large, mostly flat, semitropical floodplain along the coast of an ancient ocean. Clearly, things were different around here during the late Triassic, also known as the Age of Reptiles. Floods ripped trees from riverbanks and deposited them downstream where they were submerged. Large reptiles and amphibians inhabited the water and its swampy edges. Somewhere in the region (geologists are still debating where) volcanoes erupted covering the floodplain in thick layers of silica-rich ash. Over time the silica permeated through the waterlogged trees (and other organic matter, such as bones), slowly turning the remnants rock hard. The presence and abundance of other minerals such as iron combined to create the rainbow of colors now visible in the petrified wood.

Within the Park the products of fossilization vary dramatically from mere imprints to fully intact limbs (of both plants and animals) replete with internal cellular structures intact. Most, but not all, of the fossilized trees were petrified, meaning the overall shape of the tree was preserved but none of the finer details. Many of the animal fossils however were permineralized when silica-rich water seeped into the bones and filled the empty spaces between cell walls and other structures, leaving behind a detailed record of the internal workings of the bone.

During our trek through the clay layers of the Chinle formation we kept our eyes peeled for fossils, other than petrified wood. Scattered here and there amongst the colored hunks of wood were thin flakes of gypsum that glinted in the sun. Rich had mentioned that the animal fossils were generally dark in color so after a cursory investigation we ignored the shiny bits of rock. Venturing out within shouting distance of each other we combed the surface for anything different. It can be difficult to look for something specific when you have no idea what that thing looks like! Finally, Lance caught our attention, pointing at a flattish dark gray rock, he asked, “What’s this?”

Rich and I hustled right over and Rich, with knowledge gained from the Park’s paleontologist, identified it as a Metoposaur fossil (a large, salamander-like amphibian). As further proof, Rich held it to his tongue, explaining that if it pulled moisture from your tongue it was a fossilized bone. I tried it and was immediately rewarded as my tongue stuck to the fossil (it kind of feels like when your tongue gets stuck to something cold, though without the painful result). The peculiar divots on the bone’s exterior were where animal’s skin and muscle had once been attached. We pored over the specimen, especially delighted to see the detail preserved within the cross-section of the bone. After carefully replacing it exactly in the small depression where Lance discovered it we fanned out with a renewed sense of purpose.

I followed a trail of dark fragments up a small hill and was rewarded with a large tooth! Though quite broken it was easily recognizable and again, the internal detail was phenomenal. After sharing it with Rich and Lance (and replacing it) I refocused my eyes to the ground—there were fossil fragments everywhere! I was like a kid in a candy store—it was so cool. Well, the finding of fossils was cool but in reality the harsh summer sun had boosted the temperatures on us. Finally, since there wasn’t a stick of shade and the heat was intensifying we called off the hunt and trudged back to the car.

It had been so tempting out there to pick up a couple fossils or samples of rock yet we resisted the urge, for not only did we know it was against the law (a federal law, no less) but we knew about the curse. Funny thing is no one is sure where the idea of a curse on the Park’s petrified wood came from—all that matters is that people believe it! Though it is very clearly stated that removal of any objects from the Park is illegal and though there are local vendors that sell legally harvested chunks people still insist on stealing the stuff. Many of them get caught by the Park’s law enforcement and end up facing stiff penalties such as thousands of dollars in fines or even jail time. Those are the people that, as Karen’s Grandma used to say, “Don’t know giddy-up from sic-em.”

Unfortunately, not everyone gets caught, the Park estimates it loses an astonishing one ton of wood a month! Some of the stolen goods eventually make their way back to the Park courtesy of the curse. Letters, usually unsigned, that accompany the wood relate all manner of suffering that the thief incurred since picking up that pretty rock: “I lost my job”, “My wife left me”, “My car broke down”, “Our house burned down”, “It ruined my life”, and my personal favorite, “It’s a curse to take wood from the forest. My girlfriend of three years finished with me on the drive home. So here’s your damn wood back.”

After a nice lunch in the Painted Desert restaurant Karen took us out to see the petroglyphs at Puerco Pueblo while Rich took over in the VC. It was still quite hot so we didn’t linger too long, just took enough time to wander the short trail through a section of the ruins and look at the rock art. Of course nobody really knows what the symbols, animals and stick figures mean, though there are some that closely correspond with figures still used by extant Puebloans, such as the Hopi. There is also a new body of work exploring the relationship between several spiral shapes and the summer and winter solstices. At Puerco Pueblo last month, on the summer solstice, a ray of sunlight streamed down through a crack in a rock and lit up a certain petroglyph. It makes sense that a culture so reliant on the seasons would have designed a way to track them.

That evening we lingered over yet another lovely meal by Karen long past sunset, swapping tales. Eventually we had to tear ourselves away—they had another long day of work ahead of them and we had a long one of travel in front of us. As always, we had a wonderful time and learned a little something too. We will be happy to see them again in the fall when we return to Arizona. And, since we only scratched the surface of what the Park has to offer we look forward to returning there someday—when it’s cooler.

Photos: View the photographs from Petrified Forest National Park visit.

Dates: We stayed near Petrified Forest National Park from 07/17/09 to 07/18/09.