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.


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