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A Southwestern USA Expedition: The Petrified Forest

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We had left Flagstaff early Friday in order to visit the Sedona Community Farmers market, and now we returned the favor by leaving Sedona early for the Flagstaff Sunday Farmers Market. We felt a little sad to leave the beautiful red rocks of Sedona behind without another hike, but the market turned out to be a pretty large and busy operation with lots of interesting booths with produce, crafts, and prepared foods. It was quite a different vibe from the afternoon market we'd visited in the Historic District on Wednesday. We stuffed ourselves with well-made savory crepes and finished them off with cold drinks and gourmet popsicles. It was a good way to kick off a long and hot day of travel.

Meteor Crater is just forty minutes east of Flagstaff. It's debatable how far one would want to travel to see what is essentially a big hole in the ground, but since we were passing on the highway regardless it was a pretty easy decision. The only issue was that we were back to dealing with three digit mid-day temperatures, although it wasn't as bad as Hoover Dam the previous week. We spent a short time in the small museum with some displays about the history of the crater and the largest chunk of the meteor responsible for the crater that has been recovered.

Of course the real show is the enormous crater outside. Fifty thousand years ago a three hundred thousand ton nickel-iron meteorite smashed into the ground at this spot, leaving a circular chasm that is one of the most well-preserved impact craters on the planet. While many larger impact craters exist, they are mostly unrecognizable or buried due to millions or billions of years of erosion and layer deposition. Meteor Crater is the closest thing we have to what one might see on the surface of the moon. The guided tours around the crater rim had already been canceled for the rest of the day due two cases of heat exhaustion, but we were content to look at the crater from the viewing platform near the main building. There's only so many ways to look at a giant hole in the ground.

On the ground floor was one of those annoying gift shops that prominently displays rubber dinosaurs and all the other stuff that kids can't keep their hands off of, even though it had nothing to do with craters. Outside a perfectly rectangular gap in a brick wall looked like an enormous painting of a desert landscape. Mock-ups of an astronaut and an Apollo command module commemorated the crater's role in training astronauts for walking on the surface of the moon.

We stopped once more on the way to our Airbnb in Holbrook. Winslow would be just another faded town on the track where Route 66 used to be if it wasn't for a prominent mention in one of the top rock and roll songs of all time, Take It Easy by the Eagles. It's probably the only thing anyone's heard about Winslow in the last fifty years. Glenn Frey probably never would have heard of the town either if his car hadn't broken down there while he was on his way to Sedona. In the 1990's a community group seeking to revitalize the town came up with the idea for Standing on the Corner, a monument to 1960's culture. A bronze statue of a man with a guitar stands in front of a brick wall that is covered by a mural showing the reflection of the girl in the Ford truck from the song. If you look carefully you can see that all of the windows and other features of the wall are expertly painted to appear three dimensional. A bronze statue of Glenn Frey was added to the corner after his death in 2016. I'm not sure the display ever had its desired effect of stimulating the local economy. Winslow was as dead as dead could be on a Sunday afternoon with the exception of a steady trickle of passers-through getting their photos taken with the statue. There were a couple of souvenir shops and some attractive storefronts in the immediate vicinity but not enough to make us linger in the area more than half an hour.

Holbrook was another plain little desert town largely indistinguishable from Winslow and Kingman. There was one real neighborhood full of featureless, one story houses and dusty streets that seemed way too wide for the complete lack of vehicular traffic. All the restaurants and businesses were clustered on a couple of commercial streets with gravel lots and sun-blistered signage. Are these places really as depressing as they seem to me or am I just biased by having lived in major East Coast metropolises for my entire life? I think a person has to have a very different mentality to live in one of these places and they probably think exactly the same way about me. Most of them would probably be miserable in New York City or Miami. At least the Airbnb we had chosen had some personality despite the lack of sunlight inside.

Not many people would stop in Holbrook if it wasn't the only town in close proximity to the Petrified Forest National Park. Needless to say there are a lot of rock shops in town that specialize in petrified wood, but the one that comes most highly recommended is Jim Gray's. This is a huge store that contains amazing specimens of petrified wood including some dazzling furniture with prices into the six figures. The kids found the colorful crystals even more interesting and there was enough to see to keep us there for an hour. Knowing that it is quite illegal to take any wood out of the national park I bought each of the kids a small polished piece to have as a memento.

It might seem odd that there are so many rock shops selling petrified wood in the area when the National Park Service is so rigorous about prohibiting removal of the tiniest specimens from the park, but there are large quantities of the material scattered around and buried in private and public land in northeast Arizona. Probably the best place to experience the thrill of discovering one's own specimens is the DoBell Ranch which is located fairly close to the southern entrance of the National Park. I knew if we went the next morning it would delay our entrance into the park until the heat was already oppressive so we decided to go that same evening as the sun was still up. I called and confirmed they would still be open and we set off eastward on US 180. After about fifteen minutes on featureless grasslands Google Maps instructed us to turn off onto a bumpy dirt road. For the next ten minutes we passed through some parched-appearing farmland with cows that barely moved to avoid our car as we drove by. The road ended in a cluster of cars and sheds that clearly had to be the ranch but even after scouring the property we couldn't find any sign of human occupancy. I called the ranch again and this time only got voicemail.

The kids were the first to realize that there were chunks of petrified wood all over the place. Not stuff that had been collected and set aside, but lying around all over the ground. It seemed like half the rocks in the field were clearly petrified wood or possible fragments. I was a little uncomfortable since we hadn't found anyone to pay yet but I figured we could take care of that once someone showed up. The sun started to drop quickly and hung like a yellow basketball over the horizon, diffusing colorful light through the clouds. The kids discovered some beautiful black pinacate beetles, also known as desert stinkbugs, crawling through the blades of grass.

A short while after that someone texted me a confusing photo of a broken outdoor plumbing fixture, which I figured was a wrong number. The kids had already gathered hoards of petrified wood in their shirts when I got a call from the same number. It was the guy from the ranch telling me he'd gotten hung up fixing someone's plumbing and was on his way back to the ranch. We occupied ourselves playing forced perspective games with the descending sun. Eventually it dropped below the horizon and we could barely make out the shapes of the sheds and the cows still grazing in the fields. I was starting to get a little creeped out by the darkness and isolation. I realized that no one else on the planet had any idea where we were and I was starting to get some chainsaw massacre vibes, even though I knew it was ridiculous. I began rehearsing lies about having friends in Holbrook who I had told where we were going. Twenty minutes after the guy texted me "four minutes" we decided to leave.

Naturally as soon as we got back on the dirt road we ran into the owner's pick-up coming towards us. He didn't bear any resemblance to Leatherface. I apologized for leaving and offered to pay for the petrified wood we'd taken but he declined and we resumed driving. We had to stop a couple of times as black cows appeared in our headlights in the middle of the road, and heaved a sigh of relief once we'd made it back to the highway before we were in complete darkness.

The following morning we packed up, had a quick breakfast, and headed straight to the south entrance of the Petrified Forest National Park. There are a lot of trails in the park so I had to do some research to determine how we could get the most out of the experience without getting overexposed to the heat. Our first two stops were focused on seeing actual petrified tree trunks rather than the chips and chunks the kids had collected on the farm. The Giant Logs trail that starts behind the museum is a short loop that passes by many of the longest and thickest logs in the park. The wood on the Crystal Forest trail isn't as impressive in size but shows more detail in the way the organic material has been replaced by mineral. The kids were a little disappointed at first because the name of the park had led them to think they'd be walking through an actual forest with standing trees of stone, but they enjoyed being able to clamber on top of the logs and experience their surprising hardness and coolness. It was fun to explain to them that petrified wood and dinosaur fossils were actually formed by similar processes, with nothing remaining of the original organic material that had been so faithfully reproduced by mineralization.

The northern part of the park is more notable for its landscape than for petrified wood. The Blue Mesas form an alien landscape of striated lumpy hills sculpted from Chinle sedimentary rock by millennia of erosion by wind and water. Repeated expansion and shrinking of the bentonite clay in the mesas due to cycles of water and sun exposure gives them their characteristic cracked appearance. The driving loop through the mesas provided enough viewpoints that we didn't feel the need to take the paved walking trail as well.

Eventually the Petrified Forest Road crossed under I40 and entered the Painted Desert area. The landscape opened up into a vast badlands filled with buttes and mesas in hues of red and gray. In terms of pure visual impact it was the most impressive area of the entire park. The Painted Desert Inn, actually a museum, offered us a harbinger of the stunning adobe architecture we would soon experience in New Mexico.

After we passed the northern entrance station the road deposited us gently onto the interstate. Instead of following the well-worn cross-country pathway along I40 to Gallup and then Albuquerque we detoured south on US 191 and then east on State Route 61. Soon we would be in New Mexico, one of the nine remaining states I had never visited.

Posted by zzlangerhans 22:20 Archived in USA Tagged petrified_forest family_travel travel_blog meteor_crater tony_friedman family_travel_blog winslow_arizona

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