Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Petrified Forest National Park

If you've seen the Ken Burns/Dayton Duncan film The National Parks: America's Best Idea, you're familiar with the background music that emotionalized those incredible video images. When we were in Bryce Canyon a few weeks ago we bought the soundtrack of the film on CD -- which is now in the toad's CD player slot 3. Since that time, as we're driving through a National Park we often play that music and the result is very much like watching the film, except that we're actually there, in the Park, and in the "film". We've driven winding Park roads through jaw-dropping scenery at Zion, Bryce, The Grand Canyon, and now here, at Petrified Forest N.P. -- with the soundtrack playing -- and we can go for miles without saying a word, just the scenery, the music, and the motion of moving through the scene. I've got to tell you, it's a powerful way to add a little emotion and enjoyment to what's an already incredible experience.

The Park is spread out with a generally north/south orientation and a single park road running down the spine. We're boondocked at the south end, just off US-180. After establishing camp yesterday we toured the visitor's center at the south entrance, did a short hike, and drove to a number of pull-outs and points-of-interest in the lower half of the Park. Today we explored the rest of it.

The quick story about the petrified forest is this: Over 200 million years ago this land was a tropical forest and very wet. During floods, heavy rains, periods of high water, full sized trees would be swept downstream by the currents of water and deposited in wet swamps, lakes, shallow seas where they became waterlogged and sank to the bottom. Due to all the erosion, and possibly from volcanic activity as well, they were soon covered in thick layers of silt and debris. They became entombed. Under the right conditions, natural chemical processes slowly dissolved all the organic matter of the tree and replaced it with minerals, most often silicates like quartz. The petrified log amazingly retains nearly all the original structure of the wood and appears amazingly like the original.

Petrified wood occurs in nearly all 50 states and many places around the world. It's not rare. What's different here is the concentration -- the amount of it in one spot. Discovered here in the last half of the 19th century, petrified wood was carried of in great quantities by tourists, treasure hunters, and rock hounds for the better part of a hundred years. In 1906 Teddy Roosevelt made it a National Monument, but lack of manpower meant little change to the amount of material being taken from the area. It was made a National Park in 1962 and security was greatly improved. But, sadly, even today tons of petrified wood are being taken from the park each month -- much of it in the pockets of tourist who believe their few pieces won't make a difference.

Dar's working hard on photos, but lately it seems we're taking pictures faster than she can process them. And we're moving again tomorrow. With a little luck we'll camp somewhere around the Magdalena, NM area -- still relatively high at about 7300 feet. Old Man Winter is threatening to make things interesting this coming weekend so we'll keep one eye on him as we make our plans from there.

Thinking the wood in my head may be petrifying...
Thom Hoch