Petrified wood appeals, but leave it there

November 10, 1996|By Linda DuVal | Linda DuVal,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

They come to Arizona from all over the world, visitors eager to see the largest concentration of petrified wood anywhere.

They come back from all over the world -- letters and packages, returning bits of that wood, apologizing and offering a litany of bad luck they've had since stealing it.

"My wife left me

"I lost my job "

"Our house burned down "

"We lose about 12 tons [of petrified wood] a year, mostly little tiny pieces," says Robin White, ranger at Petrified Forest National Park. "Someday, it'll all be gone but the pieces that are too big to fit in a purse or backpack."

It is said that there is a curse on stolen pieces of wood. The letters that accompany the returns indicate as much. White is not sure of the source of that reputation.

Rangers are quick to point out that petrified wood can be purchased inexpensively at nearby gift shops -- the samples taken from surrounding private lands, not the park itself.

Many of the 1 million or so annual visitors to the park stop at the Painted Desert Visitor Center and the Rainbow Forest Museum. At the latter, there are paleontological, archaeological and geological exhibits that explain how the site came to be and what has happened there since it was formed.

Walk the trail

There's a Giant Logs self-guided trail behind the visitors center. The easy, one-third mile loop winds past ancient stream beds, bentonite clay hills and petrified stumps and logs, including Old Faithful. The estimated weight of this giant log is 44 tons; it's 35 feet long. The repaired portion is where lightning struck it in 1962.

Remains of five dinosaurs have been found in the Painted Desert portion of the park, as well as the fossils of large reptiles, small sharks, giant ferns and other inhabitants that date back 225 million years -- the Triassic Period of the Mesozoic Era.

The petrified wood was formed when the pine-like trees of the Mesozoic flood plain fell and were submerged in swollen streams. They were buried in silt, mud and volcanic ash, which cut off the oxygen. As the wood molecules slowly decayed, they were replaced by silica deposits. Some of the silica crystallized into quartz.

Later, forces of nature raised the area, cracking the petrified logs. Wind and water have continued to break down the petrified pieces.

Trees aren't the only relics. Prehistoric people settled the area about 6,000 years ago.

One of the more interesting sites in the park is the Puerco Indian Ruins. A few rooms are excavated and partially restored, so visitors can see how they might have looked when in use. Rock art is found here and, more abundantly, on nearby Newspaper Rock.

A fascinating find at Puerco ruins now draws tourists to the site each year for the summer solstice. A petroglyph etched into the black desert varnish on a rock, resembling a C in a circle (long before the Cubs were a team), seems innocuous until that morning. As the sun rises, it spears through a crack in a nearby rock, sending a shaft down the face of the petroglyph rock, till it illuminates that circled C symbol.

"Until the late 1920s, archaeologists did not believe that petroglyphs had a significant role to play in the history of these places," says ranger Mary Knight. "Then they found one in Chaco Canyon that showed definite interaction with the sun's movement."

As others began to emerge, those early explorers discovered that the symbols most commonly associated with celestial movement were concentric circles, of which this may be a variation.

Creating a monument

In the mid-1800s, the U.S. Army's mappers described this area. Soon farmers, ranchers and tourists began taking the wood. By 1906, the local settlers realized the resources wouldn't last forever, and lobbied for it to be set aside as a national monument.

In 1931, about 2,500 acres of the adjacent Painted Desert were bought and added to the monument, and, in 1962, the entire area became the Petrified Forest National Park. In 1970, another 50,000 acres became a designated wilderness, bringing the park's total to more than 93,000 acres. A 27-mile scenic drive takes you from entrance to entrance, with short side trips to the most interesting sites.

If you go...

The Petrified Forest National Park is near Holbrook, Ariz., accessible from either Interstate 40 or Arizona Highway 180. At 5,000-6,000 feet, it has temperatures above 100 in the summer and below freezing in the winter. Best times to go are spring and fall. For information, call(520) 524-6228.

Pub Date: 11/10/96

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