Though we’ve been back for almost three weeks, I’ll write about most of our trip in present tense. It’s more lively that way. Pretend I was sending back postcards and letters that got lost in the mail and arrive long after we’ve returned home.
Before we left on this trip, our friend “Helen’s” eyes lit up when we described our itinerary. She and her husband had visited most of our destinations on their honeymoon in the 1940s, and years later they returned to several of them with their kids. “You are going to love it!” she assured us. She pulled out a photo album to show us the vintage black-and-white snapshots of Petrified Forest and the Grand Canyon. She ran a finger over the page. “You are going to have so much fun!”
I’d never heard about Petrified Forest National Park until my husband and I watched a PBS series on the history of our national parks. Helen described how beautiful all the colors were in the Painted Desert and how each piece of petrified wood almost glittered with its own streaks of colors.
“All kinds of colors,” she said. “I’ll show you. I have a piece.”
“You have a piece? You own petrified wood?” Sure enough, she owns a petrified log, the size you’d toss into a fire to burn for a couple of hours. “Feel how heavy it is,” she said. She rolled it into my arms and it was as heavy as a stone…because that’s pretty much what it is.
“I bought that on my honeymoon,” she said, “for ten dollars.” The bark was smooth and cool to the touch; the colors, subdued, shimmery. “You’ll see all kinds of colors,” she promised.
Because of the dreamy look on Helen’s face, I decided this national park would be well worth our time to visit.
We wake up in Holbrook and remark how the land seems to stretch out forever on one side of the campground. While the girls finish getting ready, my son and I walk to the office where several impressive specimens of petrified wood are on display—a collection of fat stumps and long logs; entire trees, it seems. I snapped photos with my phone, amazed.
When everyone’s ready, we drive about 20 miles to the north entrance. We stop at the visitor’s center to buy a Petrified Forest sticker and get our National Parks Passport “cancellation stamp” along with suggestions from the ranger for what to view along the 28-mile scenic drive through the park.
One of the first stops is the view behind the Painted Desert Inn. Have we landed on Mars? Or the moon?
We snap several photos and read informational signs, brochures, and pamphlets that explain how Petrified Forest National Park is situated in a broader region known as the Painted Desert. We learn that the colors come from minerals in the soil and rock and that this is technically grassland rather than desert. We see very little grass, but I’ll take their word for it.
We’ve been reading a lot of signs and taking a lot of pictures. Someone’s getting bored. He’s studying the path with binoculars, so I suggest we visit the Inn.
The Painted Desert Inn, built in the late 1930s, no longer handles guests other than park visitors who come through to tour, but years ago lodged travelers passing through on Route 66, which ran directly through the national park land. I see a petroglyph on display and the ranger standing nearby explains that it’s famous. “Haven’t you seen it on hats and bags and things?”
I shake my head and tell him I’m from the Midwest. He says, “You’ll see it everywhere now. A lot of people use it for their logo or something without knowing where it’s from. It’s a cool story.” He points at the sign but then proceeds to paraphrase what it says, adding that it was face down in a bunch of rubble. It could have so easily been overlooked, but they flipped it over to discover this beautiful work of art.
I snap several photos as the ranger talks, and ask, to confirm, “So this is the original, right?”
“Oh, yes! A lot of people don’t know that. It’s right here in the Inn. Right here in Petrified Forest National Park.”
“And you don’t care that my camera is just a few inches away from this national treasure?”
“Just don’t touch it with your fingers.” The stone is standing upright on a low shelf. A small child could easily swipe a pacifier or slimy finger along its surface.
The ranger is eager to show us around, so he invites us into the dining area and explains that the murals are by Hopi artist Fred Kabotie.
I’m charmed by the vintage furnishings, decor and artwork and snap pictures of the kids sitting at the stools. The ranger lets my son slip behind the counter and pretend to serve the girls, and we’re all laughing, delighted.
We work our way through the building and then climb back into the RV to continue our tour of the park. Next stop: Route 66.
Actually, it’s the spot in the park where Route 66 used to cut through. A park ranger is standing nearby to chat with curious visitors, and he lines me up to see where the roadbed used to be. It’s kind of hard to tell, but I snap a picture anyway, since the ranger is standing right next to me to point it out. I snap a few more shots of an old car they’ve mounted in memory of the highway’s heyday, but the dilapidated state of the car emphasizes times long gone.
We thank the ranger and continue, driving a while.
“Life is a Highway” starts rolling through my head, and I realize this is trouble. It will be running through my head for a long time.
We stop at the Puerco Pueblo ruins, where we see the village remains and then petroglyphs.
One fascinating set-up is a petroglyph that marks the spot where, on the summer solstice, sunlight streaks between two rocks creating a narrow band illuminating a round drawing looking like a bullseye. We are at the park just days before the summer solstice, and just a couple of hours before the right time, but don’t have time to linger.
In this photo above, I think I’ve captured the line of light on the left rock inching closer to the circle, which is hard to discern on the right rock. As I attach my long lens and try to get closer shots of the artwork, a man standing nearby says to anyone within earshot, “Someone sure had a lot of time on his hands!”
He says it again, because no one responds. “Someone sure had a lot of time on his hands!”
I ignore him, trying to take it all in, trying to imagine these early artists creating figures and shapes. No one knows exactly the purpose behind all of these designs. Perhaps the person who made them just loved creating art.
Maybe it was one person with lots of time on his or her hands, or maybe that person had to make time for it after returning from a hunt or fishing expedition.
Sometimes people do that. They work around day-to-day obligations to create art. Sometimes they have lots of time available, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they make the time, because art is a priority.
While I’m snapping pictures and thinking of the artist or artists, the man says it again. He shakes his head almost disparagingly. “All I can say is, someone sure had a lot of time on his hands.”
All I can say is, I’m glad someone had time on his hands. He or she or the community of artists who created all of this has left behind some charming, whimsical images for us to ponder.
These people carved a life out of this barren land, building a village that looked out across a valley to a long mesa. Everyday life must have been hard sometimes. Yet, long ago, someone took time to climb down and etch onto rocks the shape of a hand print, a bird with a frog in its beak, spirals and lizards. Someone called this home and added something more than a container to store provisions through the harshest months. Someone took time to tell stories in pictures, to give the villagers something to look at besides mesas and cacti. Someone added beauty.
The buildings are mostly gone. The outline of their foundations are all that remain. But the art…we can still see the art as clearly as ever.
We finally load into the RV and continue. The kids are grateful for air conditioning. Before long, we see cliffs streaked with color, and I remember what Helen told me, that the Painted Desert has all kinds of colors.
We find ourselves in the midst of a bunch of these mounds. To the right and left, these eerie shapes encroach upon the path.
“Have we seen any petrified wood yet?” asks one of the kids.
“No, we haven’t,” I say, equally perplexed.
“It’s funny this is called Petrified Wood National Park and we haven’t seen any petrified wood.”
But we’re on the lookout for the Agate Bridge. I’ve wanted to see this since renting the PBS national parks series. The Agate Bridge is a spot where a tree fell and formed a bridge, and people used to get photographs of themselves standing on it or walking across. The agate tree began to crumble over time, so workers shored it up with concrete support underneath. But today, in the name of preservation and safety, people are no longer allowed to put weight on the bridge.
We read the sign carefully to confirm, and it stays to stay off the bridge. So we climb down a different way and touch it, instead.
We get into the RV and continue toward a spot where the ranger said we could view lots of wood. I see logs dotting the landscape. “Look! There’s a bunch of petrified wood!”
“Finally!” one of the kids exclaims. Everyone’s excited. We get out and walk among the logs.
We drive on, because we’re told there’s yet another viewing area with lots of wood where we can get up close. We stop along the way, in case this mound is Blue Mesa. I don’t think it is, but find it interesting nevertheless.
Then we realize that the last spot to walk among the petrified wood is just this side of the exit. We hop out and walk the path a ways, but the kids are feeling hot and have run out of steam. I’m sad, because this is the last big collection, the last chance to get up close and personal with the wood out here in its natural habitat. We may never pass this way again.
The kids say that the only thing they want to see here is “Old Faithful,” the largest log in the park. On the way, I snap a photo of a cactus in bloom and then see a particularly colorful chunk of rock and think of how Helen tried to find words to prepare us. “All kinds of colors,” she had said.
I can’t get a good shot of Old Faithful, so I try to capture the place as a whole, and even that doesn’t do it justice.
I want time to explore everything and take better pictures than what the midday sun is able to offer, but everyone else seems ready to move on. We’re on our way to the Grand Canyon, so we do need to go. I would, after all, like to try capturing this evening’s soft light illuminating the Grand Canyon. But I’ve enjoyed this place, and I’m glad that people like John Muir pushed to have it preserved as a national park.
We stop at the gift shop and one of my daughters spends her souvenir money on a Petrified Forest National Park T-shirt. She shows it to me when we’re in the RV getting ready to go. “We saw so many different things in one park,” she says. “I really liked this place.”
Photos by Ann Kroeker.
Posts about our trip:
Photos by Ann Kroeker.
For about a year, I’ve followed this blogger with interest. His stories and photos inspired some of our planning.