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Curse of the Petrified Forest

It's the Late Triassic, 200 million years ago, and what would one day be the arid landscape of Arizona is a tropical wetland covered in rich, organic mud and scored by an expansive system of rivers and streams. Immense logs, fallen members of huge coniferous forests, are swept up by floodwaters and deposited along sandy floodplains. Over time, layers of silt, mud and volcanic ash bury the logs as water seeps through the strata and carries silica downward, saturating the timber's cells with minerals. Quartz grows within the logs, replacing organic material and assuming its shape. Epochs later, Arizona reveals its rock-hard wood and an innuendo is born.

Now exposed by erosion, these stone trees comprise a scattering of rainbows run aground. Many exhibit the original umber of their mother evergreens or the white of pure silica, but trace minerals that infiltrated the wood also produce various shades of green, blue and pink. Iron oxides, for example, generate blazing reds and yellows, producing in some the only fire these trees will ever see.

Petrification occurred at such a minute level that details of the original tissues can still be seen. Apparent is the woody grain along their surfaces, and growth rings are often evident across their diameters. Sometimes you can see knots or even scars left by ancient insects. Sections of trees that were once as much as nine feet in diameter and nearly 200 feet tall lie here, now broken into logs, chunks and shards, fractured due to the frailty of their quartz. Some trunks remain almost complete, laid out as they came to rest, though now divided into nearly equal sections like a party sub sandwich.

The unique beauty of petrified wood has unfortunately been its own undoing. Since the first routes were sought through this region in the mid-1800s, travelers have been carrying off pieces as keepsakes. Specimens were seized by the handful, pocketful and cartful. Sacks and sacks of the stuff were sold to tourists. Even train boxcars full of it were reportedly loaded up and taken to be sold.

Some of the best concentrations of petrified wood have long been protected by the National Park Service, but that sadly hasn't stopped people from taking anything. Even though plenty of samples, collected lawfully from private land, are available at the countless rock shops in the area, visitors to Petrified Forest National Park insist on pinching it illegally. Park rangers cite at least one person a day for theft, and those are just the ones they catch. With an average of 3/4 of a million visitors annually, park officials estimate 3 percent of them take something with them. Every once in a while, someone tries to make off with a trunkload, but mostly they just pocket a small piece. Park rangers say people don't think stealing a tiny bit of petrified wood makes any difference, but the park loses between 12 and 14 tons that way every year.

Although the minimum $275 fine doesn't seem to worry a lot of people, there is one theft deterrent that has apparently been quite effective. Stolen petrified wood, they say, is cursed. Like with the tiki idol in the Hawaiian Brady Bunch episodes, bad luck comes to he who possesses it, which has prompted thousands to send the stuff back. For decades, Petrified Forest has received pilfered samples in the mail, returned by visitors who regret having stolen them. Notes included with the fragments describe lives wrought with misfortune since the rocks' theft. In the letters, filchers plead with park officials to return the pieces to their rightful place.

One visitor described a piece of petrified wood he had taken more than 10 years earlier. "It was a great challenge sneaking it out of the park," he wrote. "Since that time, though, nothing in my life has gone right." Another begged, "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!"

Rangers say the frequency of returns varies by season, but in the summer, they get at least one every other day. Their collection goes back decades to around the time the park was established. Usually, visitors send back pieces after only a short period, but sometimes visitors endure their misfortune for a lifetime. Just recently, according to a park ranger, one piece arrived that was stolen back in 1928.

Does the NPS believe in the jinx? Not officially. But they don't deny it, either, since anything that prevents people from diminishing the park's beauty is appreciated. Besides, even when petrified wood is sent back, not knowing exactly where the pieces came from removes any scientific value. No matter how much the reformed thieves plead, once the rocks have lost their context, they can't be returned to the park. And that's the real curse.

Weird Arizona


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