Podcast Episodes

The Curse of the Petrified Forest

In a small section of the painted desert of Arizona, you can find forests of crumbled trees, preserved as stone. Over 200 million years ago, these large conifers were uprooted by floods, then washed down from the highlands and buried by silt. Water seeping through the wood replaced decaying organic material cell by cell with multicolored silica. The land was lifted up by geological upheaval, and erosion began to expose the long-buried, now petrified wood.

In the modern age, the trees have their own stories, having become one of the iconic road trip destinations along Route 66. On this episode of the America’s National Parks Podcast, Petrified Forest National Park and the curse of the Petrified Forest.


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Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Petrified Forest National Park – NPS Website

“Rewriting the Story of Arizona’s Petrified Forest” – azcentral.com

Conscience Letters – badluckhotrocks.com

Legends of America – info on the “curse” of the Petrified Forest


Transcript

In a small section of the painted desert of Arizona, you can find forests of crumbled trees, preserved as stone. Over 200 million years ago, these large conifers were uprooted by floods, then washed down from the highlands and buried by silt. Water seeping through the wood replaced decaying organic material cell by cell with multicolored silica. The land was lifted up by geological upheaval, and erosion began to expose the long-buried, now petrified wood.

They almost look like logs sawn into evenly sized chunks, just days ago. But their age is nothing short of spectacular. To put it into perspective, they had already turned to stone and had returned to the surface when the T-Rex roamed nearby 66 million years ago.

In the modern age, the trees have their own stories, having become one of the iconic road trip destinations along Route 66. On this episode of the America’s National Parks Podcast, Petrified Forest National Park.

Here’s Abigail Trabue.
_____

Between 1910 and 1920, automobile ownership in the united states increased from 500,000 cars to nearly 10 million. The impracticality of the rambling trails across the country began to turn into a numbered road system under the federal highway administration. An Oklahoma real estate agent and coal company owner advocated for a diagonal roadway to run from Chicago to Los Angeles. It would be a boon for the sooner state, ushering motorists away from Kansas City and Denver. Route 66 it was called.

Thousands of unemployed youths were put to work as laborers during the depression to pave the final stretches of the road. 210,000 people traveled it to California to escape the despair of the Dust Bowl, a period of severe dust storms that damaged the ecology and agriculture of the prairies during the 1930s. For them, Route 66 symbolized the “road to opportunity.”

John Steinbeck proclaimed it the “Mother Road” in 1939s “The Grapes of Wrath,” which was then immortalized in the 1940 film.

After World War II, Americans were more mobile than ever before. Servicemen who trained in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas abandoned the harsh winters of Chicago and the Northeast for the warmth of the Southwest and the West.

Route 66 became the quintessential American road trip, taking tourists across the nation to see the ever-changing landscape, including the painted desert scenes of Arizona, which they had only seen in pictures, and Petrified Forest National Park.

People were enamored by the uniqueness of the petrified wood, especially because Route 66 drove right through the park. You could have your top down in the convertible and drive by the massive collections of petrified trees in the park.

Travelers have long carried away pieces of the stone wood as memorabilia. Before it was outlawed, wagon-fulls would be hauled off for sale. When the Petrified Forest became a National Monument in 1906, it had been illegal to remove petrified wood from the park, yet that didn’t entirely stop people.

Many thought no one would notice one little rock missing, and eventually came to realize they made a terrible mistake – because of the Curse of the Petrified Forest.

In the 30s, people began to relate that, after taking a piece of petrified wood from the park, they were stricken with bad luck. From divorce to legal struggles, to car trouble, to medical conditions, and unemployment. Cat attacks to financial losses and even a plane crash.

How did the park find out about these afflictions? People would return the stolen petrified wood, usually via anonymous mail with a confession attached. They felt that bad luck came to possess those who took souvenirs and that their only salvation would come from giving it back.

“My life has been totally destroyed since we’ve been back from vacation. Please put these back so my life can get back to normal! Let me start over again!” said one such letter. The park has received endless accounts over the years from thieves. Notes often requested the wood be returned to the spot it was taken from, with hand-drawn maps describing the location.

“It was a great challenge sneaking it out of the park,” another thief wrote. “Since that time, though, nothing in my life has gone right.”

“Take these miserable rocks and put them back, they have caused pure havoc in my love life. By the time these rocks reach you, things should be back to normal. If not, I give up. Dateless and Desperate.”

“My girlfriend of three years finished with me on the drive home. So here’s your damn wood back.”

“Dear Park Rangers, Here’s your rock back. We never should have taken it. Maybe now the Giants will win a few games next year.”

Unfortunately, returning the rocks after they were taken is not something rangers can do because they are out of “scientific context.” The park is an active research site, and moving rocks undermines the scientific study. When a piece of wood is returned, the park puts it in a rusted metal box at the main office. When the box is full, a ranger takes the so-called conscience rocks to a pile on a service road closed to the public. Rangers have collected over 1200 confession letters dating back to 1935.

By the time the National Monument became a National Park in 1962, the stories of stolen rock had become nationally known. It was commonly thought that a ton of petrified wood a month, 12 tons a year, was being swiped from the park.

So much petrified wood was being stolen, that it was rumored that the park was on it’s way to extinction. Park officials intoduced stringent enforcement procedures. Vehicle inspections were implemented at the entrance and exit gates. Gloomy posters and leaflets warned visitors. Trail closures blocked up-close access to the formations. The film at the visitors’ center touted the 1-ton-a-month number, warning of the fines and damage removing petrified wood would generate.

The park did such a great job at getting the word out about stealing wood, that many people believed there was no reason to go to the park anymore. Most of the wood was already gone. And if you did go, you were admonished and warned at every turn — hardly a positive experience with nature. Going to the diminishing petrified forest was selfish.

The thing is, none of it was true.

Sure, people had taken plenty of pieces of petrified wood over the years, but the decommissioning and removal of Route 66, combined with the expansion of the park to include the painted desert meant that the new park road didn’t weave through roadside formations anymore, so return visitors thought that the petrified wood they remembered peppering the drive was gone. It wasn’t.

And nobody could pinpoint where the myth of losing a ton of wood a month came from. The lasting impression left with visitors was a ranger checking them for wood when exiting the park.

But theft was still an issue, and the park still needed to protect against it. In 2006, a team of Arizona State University psychology researchers observed peoples’ reactions to different kinds of messages. One of the experiments conducted at Petrified Forest National Park had researchers experimenting with the wording on signs meant to stop theft and found that the news that massive amounts of wood were being stolen was the least effective.

The park didn’t make any changes, though, until Superintendent Brad Traver took over. He decided that the focus needed to shift from wood thefts to history and interpretation of the 225-million-year-old historical record of the petrified wood. And he needed to eliminate the perception that the wood was all gone.

The park began photographing popular sites and compared the pictures with photos nearly a century old. Most formations looked identical, right down to individual small pieces of logs.

Instead of admonishing would-be thieves, the park now appeals to visitors’ sense of ownership of the land and its treasures. Long-closed trails have been re-opened, and a new narrative, focused on science and discovery is in place.

Conscience rocks still get mailed in to this day. Most no longer mention a curse, just profound guilt over the theft.

“To whom it may concern,

During my visit to the Petrified Forest, I took the enclosed rock. It was wrong, but I didn’t think one small rock would make a difference.

However, my parents have helped me to understand that it doesn’t matter how small it is, and is still wrong.

Sincerely,

Ryan. (Age 11)”

——

There’s a website called “bad luck hot rocks dot com” where you can see photographs of the conscience letters the park has received over the years. Many are very moving. “Sorry for my father” one short but meaningful one says.

Most people spend up to a full day at the park. Interstate 40 (the old Route 66) drives right through the North End – the painted desert area. It has its own exit, number 311, which you should take if you’re heading westbound, and then drive the 28-mile park road to the south end of the park. You can then take highway 180 to rejoin with I-40 at exit 285. If you’re heading eastbound, reverse the process. There’s no camping available, unless you’re willing to hike at least a mile into the backcountry. Outside the south entrance of the park, two privately owned gift shops allow overnight parking in their parking lots.

The north visitors center has a decently priced counter-service restaurant and fuel station with gas and diesel. Big rigs can easily drive the park road, but may not be able to park at a couple of the pull-outs.

Most sites can be seen just off the road, but a few short trails allow for a more up-close and personal experience. Take lots of water, it’s exposed and usually hot. You have to exit the park by 5pm, so make sure you get there in plenty of time to explore.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group for national park lovers. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is part of the RV Miles Network of web resources for United States travelers. If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast.

You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com, and all over social media.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is a production of Lotus Theatricals, LLC.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

 

Podcast Episodes

Pirates and Parks

Piracy, the act of seizing a ship or its cargo from its lawful owners, has been a plague since people first set sail on the high seas. By the Elizabethan Era, English piracy entered a Golden Age, as pirates plundered its coastal waters unchallenged. As Spain gradually increased its wealth through its own savagery in the New World, English pirates feasted on Spanish ships, eventually spreading piracy to the Carribean Sea.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, Pirates, and their role in the creation of America, immortalized at National Park Service units up and down the East Coast.

In fact, there are so many stories of piracy and privateering in today’s National Parks, that choosing just one was difficult, so we settled on two – centered around Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Fort Raleigh National Historic Site – with many more to touch on in a future episode.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Download this episode (right click and save)


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Cape Hatteras National Seashore – National Park Service Website

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site – National Park Service Website

Pirates and Privateers – National Park Service Website


Transcript

Piracy, the act of seizing a ship or its cargo from its lawful owners, has been a plague since people first set sail on the high seas. By the Elizabethan Era, English piracy entered a Golden Age, as pirates plundered its coastal waters unchallenged. As Spain gradually increased its wealth through its own savagery in the New World, English pirates feasted on Spanish ships, eventually spreading piracy to the Carribean Sea.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, Pirates, and their role in the creation of America, immortalized at National Park Service units up and down the East Coast.

In fact, there are so many stories of piracy and privateering in today’s National Parks, that choosing just one was difficult, so we settled on two – with many more to touch on in a future episode.

First off, here’s Abigail Trabue with the story of the lost colony of Roanoke.

_____

In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh, known for bringing tobacco and perhaps the potato to England and laying his cloak on the ground for the Queen to avoid puddles, was authorized to search out and take possession of, for himself, “remote, heathen and barbarous lands.” He sent his a party to Roanoke scout a suitable location. Colonization ventures were extremely speculative at the time, so Raleigh lured investors by combining colonial plans with privateering enterprises, the disruption of Spanish shipping having been officially sanctioned by the English Crown. The colony was to be a base, underwritten by English investors, for attacks on Spanish shipping in the western Atlantic. Roanoke was ideally suited to prey upon Spanish treasure ships as they sailed up the coast from the Caribbean to catch the Gulf Stream to cross the Atlantic.

Raleigh settled a self-governing community in Roanoke bent on privateering. They were led by John White, an artist and friend of Raleigh who had accompanied a previous expedition. The were told they were to settle the Chesapeake Bay and had been ordered to stop at Roanoke to pick up the small contingent left there the previous year, but when they arrived on July 22, 1587, they found nothing except a single skeleton. The master pilot refused to let the colonists return to the ships, for unknown reasons, and they were forced to settle Roanoke.

The business of settling and the business of plundering ships were in direct conflict with each other, and the colony was failing. The colonists persuaded White to return to England to explain the colony’s desperate situation and ask for help. Left behind were 115 colonists – the remaining men and women who had made the Atlantic crossing — and White’s newly born granddaughter Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas.

In England, White procured two supply ships and set out to return to Roanoke after the winter. The ships and their crews were distracted by a piracy attempt of their own on the Journey back to Roanoke, but they lost the battle. They were badly damaged, and their supplies were seized. White was forced to return to England, and when he finally made it back to Roanoke in 1590 with another privateering squadron on his granddaughter’s third birthday, the colonists had vanished.

There was no sign of struggle, and the only clue was the word “CROATOAN” carved into a post of the fence around the village, and the letters C-R-O carved into a nearby tree. The houses had been dismantled, which signaled that their departure had been intentional and unhurried. White took this to mean that they had moved to Croatoan Island (now known as Hatteras Island), but he was unable to conduct a search.

Some evidence of English living among the Croatoan Native Americans has been found, but nothing conclusive. The fate of this “lost colony” remains one of the world’s great mysteries.

______

England’s first outing to Roanoke — the one that left the Skeleton behind for White’s colony to find — was actually rescued by another pirate: Sir Francis Drake.

Having pillaged the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean through the spring of 1586, Drake arrived at Roanoke in June of that year in time to rescue the 115-man military detachment from starvation and an impending Algonquian attack, transporting them back to England.

Drake made a name for himself as the second man to circumnavigate the globe, plundering Spanish shipping along the way. In 1588, he led an English fleet of warships to destroy the mighty Spanish Armada off the coast of England, paving the way for England to become a global superpower it is today.

Our next story, over 150 years before the Lost Colony, involves a pirate so famous that most pirate lore — especially all of those Pirates of the Caribbean movies — is drawn from him and his men, even though he was only an active pirate for two years.

_____

Edward Teach served England as a privateer in Queen Anne’s War until turning to piracy in 1713. His career in piracy began in the Caribbean with fellow pirate Benjamin Hornigold. In 1717, after Hornigold rewarded him with a hijacked ship, Teach set out on his own.

Queen Anne’s Revenge, Teach called the ship, which carried a crew of 40 cannons and 300 men. He always introduces himself as Edward Teach, but those who knew him or feared him called him Blackbeard.

Blackbeard and his men sailed the Caribbean and the Atlantic coast of North America, torturing merchant ship crewmen and passengers, stealing cargo, and gaining a reputation as one of the most notorious pirates in history.

Blackbeard developed a reputation for being superhuman in battle, partly because he knew the importance of image. For battle, he dressed in all black. He strapped 6 pistols to his chest, and swords to his waist. His beard was wild, covering most of his face up to his eyes. He would twist colorful ribbons into it, and slow-burning cannon fuses that would flash and smoke, enveloping him in a supernatural fog that lit his wild eyes.

Most of his victims simply surrendered their cargo rather than fight, which was good business for Blackbeard — he rarely lost any men taking over a ship, and he often rewarded a quick surrender with respect. A damaged ship was less useful to pirate than an undamaged one, and if a ship sank in battle, the entire prize would be lost. So pirates sought to overwhelm their victims without violence, by building a frightening reputation.

Blackbeard vowed to butcher anyone who resisted and to offer tolerance to those who resigned civilly. He built his reputations on acting out those promises: killing resistors in horrible ways. Those who surrendered survived, and lived to spread the stories of mercy or revenge.

Despite the terror Blackbeard inflicted, he only spent two years as a pirate. After the Queen Anne’s Revenge sank, Blackbeard and his crew approached North Carolina’s governor Charles Eden for an official pardon. Eden, who was likely paid handsomely, granted their request. Blackbeard settled in the coastal town of Bath marrying and joining local society. But the temptation to plunder again was too strong, and one day, he set sail out of Bath and came back with a loot-filled French ship. He swore it was abandoned at sea when he found it.

Blackbeard’s pardon only fueled piracy in North Carolina, which was commonly ignored, as Blackbeard and several other pirates found the coastal waterway an ideal target. Eden helped Blackbeard appear legitimate, and Blackbeard returned to piracy and shared his takings.

After tolerating Blackbeard’s terrorism for eighteen months, North Carolina residents and merchant sailors begged Virginia’s colonial governor Alexander Spotswood for help. Acting in secrecy, Spotswood arranged an ambush of Blackbeard, offering a bonus for Blackbeard’s death.

The end of Blackbeard came at the hands of the Royal Naval Lieutenant Robert Maynard, sent by the Governor of Virginia. The legality of the intrusion of one colony on another was questionable, but North Carolina residents had begged for help. On November 22, 1718, Maynard cornered Blackbeard with two ships, Jane and Ranger, which were immediately fired upon by Blackbeard and his crew, severely damaging the Ranger. When the Jane began to take damage, Maynard ordered the crew to go below deck, creating the illusion of an abandoned ship.

Blackbeard took the bait. Leading a charge aboard the vessel, he and his men were surprised by Maynard’s crew. When he was finally killed, Blackbeard was found with twenty-five stab wounds and five gunshots. He was decapitated, his head hung on the Ranger’s bowsprit, and his body tossed overboard, bringing a literal end to Blackbeard and a symbolic end to Atlantic Coast piracy.

The governor of Virginia had it mounted on a pole near the intersection of the Hampton and James Rivers, where it stayed for years as a warning to other pirates.

______

On November 21, 1996, a private research company found the wreck of the famous Queen Anne’s Revenge, just over a mile off the shore of the Fort Macon State Park in North Carolina. The ship proved to be one of the most successful diving sites in the entire world, bringing to the surface over 250 thousand artifacts, including the combat gear and personal belongings of the pirate crew.

Blackbeard and his gang, as well as dozens of other pirates, ruled off the coast of North Carolina in an area now set aside as Cape Hatteras National Seashore. A 70-mile portion of the of barrier islands that rin from New York to Mexico.

The main activities are sunbathing on the pristine beaches, exploring the historic structures, fishing and birdwatching. From the third Friday in April through Columbus Day, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the Bodie Island Lighthouse are open for climbing. Those with off-road vehicles can access the ocean and the sound with a permit seasonally.

Four campgrounds offer tent and RV sites near the ocean. No water, sewer, or electric hookups are available.

At the north end of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is Roanoke Island, home of the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, where you can see the now partially restored raised earthwork of the Lost Colony. There’s an interpretive nature trail, and a play entitled THE LOST COLONY has been performed since 1937 at the adjacent Waterside Theatre, telling the story of the settlement by the Roanoke Island Historical Association. The First Light of Freedom monument commemorates the Roanoke Island Freedman’s Colony that was set up during the Civil War. The colony provided a safe haven and education for former slaves to help prepare them for a new life.

While you’re in the area, make sure to also visit the neighboring Wright Brothers National Memorial, where you can follow the path of the first powered flight.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and Narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group for national park lovers. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is part of the RV Miles Network of web resources for United States travelers. If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast.

You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com, and all over social media.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is a production of Lotus Theatricals, LLC.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.



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