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Petrified in Arizona


Perhaps rains had covered it or moved it.  Or maybe this wasn’t it at all.  I sure hoped this wasn’t it.  But standing  atop one of the highest hills in what was once a verdant forest, I could see nothing for miles that broke the perpetual wavy rust landscape and certainly nothing nearby that looked even marginally like the ‘onyx bridge’ marked on my tattered little map.  There was just this awkward black roll at my feet.

If you can read the earth, that is to say, if you can look at land and read both its history and future from the present, a whole new world can open up…right at your feet.   That little log told me its story – how there was once a huge swamp teeming with ferns, extinct trees and bizarre life in its murky waters.  And how it fell, how many trees fell, splashing down into the water, rolling to the bottom and getting smothered by all the mud and muck of the ancient marsh.  The black shards and old imprints around the log told me it hadn’t been alone.  Someone had come and taken those trees away.  All they left was my little friend, gleaming alone, one lonely little ebony log that could have passed for a bloated Christmas sausage frozen in red mud.

The worst part is that it happens all the time.  The Petrified Forest in Arizona’s Badlands is one of a handful of places in the world where stone wood can be found in such abundance.  It seems as a result of this, visitors realize they’d better take some home as a souvenir.

The stone forms as the tree compacts under layers of mud and sand, depriving it of the oxygen necessary to decay.  Here’s where it gets tricky.  Any living thing can form a fossil or imprint, but you need just the right type of organic matter in just the right type of mud, properly baked and undisturbed for a few hundred million years for the silica in the mud to replace, molecule by molecule, the tree.  Along the way various other ingredients can be added to get a wide variety of gems such as amethyst and onyx to name a few.

Early miners found these wonders so fine that they hammered them out or in some cases blew them up with dynamite to get at their precious insides.   In the ensuing decades the ‘exploding our national treasures’ fad fell from grace and now people must surreptiously make off with them.

Not just a little bit though – the average amount stolen every month hovers around one ton.  Every month.  I’ll let you do the math for a year, but it seems a slightly staggering figure.  It’s even more appalling when you realize that not only can petrified wood be found in every US state, but that it’s sold from legal sources right outside the park for a few bucks.

Whether or not I had arrived at my destination as marked by the hand drawn topographic map the backcountry office gave me wasn’t important.  It had pulled me up, sloshing through this mound of loose red clay to survey a desolate expanse of area that hadn’t seen much water since the Triassic.  Every inch of the surrounding hills were tattooed with fractal fissures.  The smooth lumps of wine colored earth covered with a thin, cracked crust were juxtaposed at the bottom of a royal blue sky that seemed to rebel against the blanching sun.  At the bottom of the slopes lay patches of a dark rocky mulch made from the splinters of the stone trees.  And on my legs, jumping for joy, were hundreds of fleas.

It is unclear what the fleas subsist on out there, as I never encountered the associated rodents they lived with.  Every crunching step through the clay seemed to hatch a hundred more, all of whom took up residence in the lush hair of my legs.  I stumbled down the slopes, slapping them off, frantically trying to halt their advance to my upper body.  I stumbled up the slopes.  And, down again. 

Through haze of the battle, I realized some units might try to outflank my assault and ride the backpack to my head.  I took it off and hoisted it’s forty pounds over my shoulder with one hand, the other vigorously swatting at my legs as I ran.  I blasted out of the clay fields into a sandy wash,  spotted a ledge on one of the Badlands’ trademark red and gray concentric layered ledges and, praying it had no fleas, decided to set camp there.

When I realized I had forgotten my tent few miles back in my car, I engaged in a brief but spectacularly foul shouting match with no one inparticular.   I took in my options:  sleep outside and wait for the swarm or make the dash for the tent.  The sun was starting to paint the horizon and I knew time was short.  I threw down my pack and began.  My legs and arms swirled in synchronized strides and slaps as I rumbled across the desert in what must have appeared to be a slight demonic possession to the observers on the porch of the distant visitor’s center.

I finally retrieved the tent and set camp in the first glow of the moon as the sun slid down the opposite horizon as if both were attached to the same axis.   As I stood there, my beads of sweat turning cold in the desert dusk, I looked down to see scores of smushed and sweat drowned fleas.  I could find not one alive on the entirety of my body.

The next day I said goodbye to my onyx friend and returned to the pavement as I had heard something about a local canyon of interest and didn’t have the heart to fight the fleas again.  As I sauntered into the backcountry office to turn in my permit, the ranger was posting a small sign:  “Bubonic Plague has been spotted in the area.  Please exercise caution.”  Now, it would seem to me, that one of the most destructive diseases in human history would have garnered a little more attention and certainly warranted telling, say a backcountry hiker, a little bit about before he went out.  Especially considering that the well-touted hanta virus can be avoided by simply not sniffing rodent feces, but the plague can be carried by the common flea, which of course was very common.  I mentioned this concern and my recent experience to the ranger with the understated tension one speaks when contemplating a painful death.  She admitted I had a good point and agreed to tell other hikers about this curious ailment.

I watched for any festering black boils on my body, to my delight I found none and still like to think of myself as plague free.   On my way out I visited a few more former trees.  One woman next to me remarked how beautiful they were and wished she could take them home.  She retreated to her car and drove off after a few photos, leaving me behind in the presence of a 230 million year old masterpiece of creation and wondering how much longer it would get to be where it belonged.

I’m glad the fleas are out there.  I’m glad they serve sentry to the undiscovered marvels of that desert, prohibiting entry to only those that pass their tests.   And I’m glad the park service stops people and constantly recovers the stolen stone.  Someday, I hope to visit my onyx friend again.  And I hope its glittering darkness is still out there, lounging in a sea of maroon under a bright sapphire sky like it has for so many years.

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