The ranger on duty at the Painted Desert Visitor Center is really, really, really into petrified trees. He has worked at the Petrified Forest National Park for over 10 years, he says proudly, pointing to his name badge and grinning broadly. In fact, he’s so into petrified trees and his work at the park that he keeps a website listing all the names of the people he’s met and with whom he has shared his abiding love for 217 million year old conifer, fern, and gingko tree stumps and logs. He is also an unabashed cowboy and tells me that when he’s not on the clock, he’s knocking around in his spurs and cowboy boots. I give him my business card and tell him he’d better include me on his website; he made me promise the same thing. (Shout-out to the rangers at the Painted Desert Visitor Center!) Sadly, I forgot the name of his website and I didn’t write it down, so I’ll never really know if I’m on there…..but….
Back to the Petrified Forest.
Don’t get me wrong–this isn’t the kind of place where you just come and look at very, very old trees. It’s a place of scientific and historic wonderment–an archive of one of the world’s most extensive collection of natural petrified wood, home to a number of astonishing petroglyphs and ancient pueblo remains, an entrance into the West’s blue mesas in the Badlands. And it’s not really a forest, despite the name. Think of it more as a preserve, a place for trees that lived on our earth millions of years ago came and laid to rest. The tree stumps are bountiful, scattered over miles and miles, and brilliantly stained from the minerals that worked their way into them, an earthy rainbow of reds and oranges from the deep wood of a burnt sienna to the bright color of a ripe tangerine. They are sparking in the bright summer Arizona sun.
As we’re scouring over the map, plotting out the points we definitely want to stop and see on the 26-mile scenic drive through the park, the ranger invites me, my husband, and my parents outside to admire the collection of tree stumps he has arranged by color to the side of the front door. (If you don’t have a lot of time, I would recommend getting your map and high-tailing it out of the visitor’s center and onto the trails as fast as you can–if you get a petrophyte like him, you may never get out of there). Because they are re-doing the steps out front, he tells us, his eyes twinkling, he had the pleasure to picking up and rearranging all of his favorite pieces. “This one,” he says, pointing to a mustard yellow rounded log laid on its side, “is yellow for a reason. You know why? I’ll tell you–it’s made from uranium.”
“Uranium? You mean, like that stuff they used to use to tint and shade in early photography?” I ask him, thinking back to the only association I have with the element.
“Yup,” he says, kneeling down and patting it. “Uranium pure and simple.”
“And this one?” he adds, pointing to a deep red stump with a hole through it. “This one is red. You know why? Iron oxide. That orange-y one? Manganese dioxide. And this greenish looking one? Pure iron. And this white one, the sparkly one that dazzles in the sunlight over there? Quartz.” He rattles off the mineral compounds that eroded the organic material and replaced the tree with a kind of stain. “It’s kind of like the mineral gets incorporated into the log’s cell walls. The same process occurs when iron stains porcelain sinks.” For a person who’s always been challenged with understanding science, I have to admit that I appreciate his analogy to a dirty sink–now that’s something I understand.
“I’d really love to see those big logs,” I say, nodding away from the ranger’s encyclopedic knowledge of the petrification process and toward the first trail–the Giant Logs trail–that we’ve marked on our map. “We should probably get started on that.”
The ranger doesn’t take my cue. “Oh, let me tell you more about the largest tree we have here in our collection!” he says, pausing for effect. “It’s on the Giant Logs trail.” It is, of course, utterly remarkable that there is an existing log as large as the one lying sideways at the end of the trail–it’s probably three feet wide and fifteen feet long–but we want to see it, feel it, touch its smooth, cool grooves, examine its colors, in a sense, commune with it. I have to be more assertive, so I tell him we’re on a time crunch and absolutely must get started. The ranger starts walking with us toward the trail, talking about how he got into this whole petrified wood business, and finally, makes his way back into the visitor’s center at the fork in the trail. “Y’all make sure to come back in and tell me what you thought of the big tree,” he says, smiling. “She’s a beauty.”
He’s right–it is a beauty, lying there, preserved for what could be eternity . My first impression of this place is that it is just so inexplicably weird–there are hundreds of thousands of tree logs and stumps over boundless rolling hills that look almost, well, blue. As we hike around the Giant Logs trail, we look at the tree remains, think about what it could possibly mean to be 217 million years old (we didn’t really have a clue), and admire the stark and bizarrely beautiful landscape stretching as far as the horizon in every direction. The only evidence of modern human involvement is the pebbly path guiding us through the “forest” and the beige-colored visitor’s center.
Now, as for ancient human involvement, that’s a different story. On the next stop of our journey, we hike in to see the Agate House, a reconstruction of a seven-room home on a hillside occupied originally around 1100 A.D. (Tip: The hike in to see the Agate House is about a mile, so make sure you’re in good walking condition and wearing comfortable shoes before going out to see this one). One of the lesser-known facts about the Petrified Forest is that it houses the remains reconstructions like this and Puerco Pueblo, a hundred-room pueblo built and occupied from somewhere between 1250-1380 A.D. Of course, standing among 217 million year old trees is one thing; walking atop the ruins of an ancient people whose drawings are still etched into the rocks is really quite another.
The next few stops go chronologically on this map, which you can easily follow in your car. Next on our list are the Blue Mesas, extraordinary badlands that are wrapped in blue, purple, and white sedimentary layers. We get out of the car, pose for some must-have tourist photos, take a short walk around the outer rims, and get back in the car. From there, we drive by the Tepees, triangle-shaped blue hills, walk through Puerco Pueblo and admire the petroglyphs etched into the walls of stones, and cross over the nostalgic Route 66. We end up at Chinde Point, where we stop and look out over the hills toward Flagstaff, where we’ll be headed next on our family road trip through Arizona.
By the end of our drive, twenty-six miles later, I’m thinking back to our ranger at the visitor’s center, his proud, happy grin, his deep love for petrified wood, his scraggly white beard, and his quirky cowboy swagger. Though I’ll never be a scientist and I’ll never really understand the ways in which our world creates these magnificent landscapes, I realize that I’m not necessarily the kind of person who needs to know. I’m a little different from the ranger in that way–I’m curious, too, but differently. I only need to see a picture of a turtle carved by a child into a cliffside over 1,000 years ago, see the smooth grooves of a millions year-old tree, and look over over blue-hued badlands to feel connected in some profound way to our earth. (But if you see the ranger, don’t tell him I told you!).
To get to the Petrified Forest National Park in the Painted Desert, take Interstates 17 North to 40 East, passing through Flagstaff (259 miles). If you’re coming from Albuquerque, travel 204 miles west on Interstate 40 to Exit 311. The Petrified Forest National Park stretches north and south between Interstate 40 and Highway 180.
Article and all photographs by Kristin Winet.