National Parks of the US give their visitors a park map and newsletter as they enter. The contents usually cover the local flora and fauna, popular hiking trails and park history, as well as recent goings-on like nature walks and seasonal advisories. Newsletter introductions are proud ones, affirming the importance of the park — Mesa Verde’s reads “Mesa Verde preserves an extraordinary record of the Ancestral Pueblo people” while Yosemite’s simply starts “You made it! You’re here!”.
Petrified Forest’s however, begins “Of all the wonderful attractions in Northern Arizona, thank you for visiting Petrified Forest National Park.” It’s almost apologizing for not being more, rather than believing it in itself is worth the journey. Immediately I wanted to swaddle the park against my breast and rock it back-and-forth, cooing that it’s loved. After hitting up Meteor Crater 75 miles to the West, we drove into Petrified Forest from the South Entrance and started with two of the more popular hikes in the park — Giant Logs and Agate House. Immediately my heart sunk a wee bit.
Coming from the National Parks of Utah and the red rock terrain of Sedona, the flat paths of Petrified Forest were significantly less wondrous. The signage lackluster and confusing at times, with one sign simply stating “Thank you for doing the right thing” with a waving park ranger next to its text. I passed by the notice unsure what I was doing to deserve this praise — Not smoking? Not littering? Not pocketing petrified pieces? (It’s been estimated that up to 12 tons of wood have been carried off in a single year, a large problem the park has to contend with.)
Sure, the petrified logs are indeed beautiful in their own right, with the fossilized wood retaining its rings and bark texture as the fossils become streaked in fuschia, adobe and silver, but the landscape was a bit bland.
However, this is not the story of a sad park.
This is of a land that is unique in its beauty and worth a trip in its own right. Of a place that deserves its National Park status. And while it may be a bit of a “B-Circuit” park, I’d blame the decline of Route 66 for that.
Route 66, once winding from Chicago to LA (as the song belts) was a national icon for 60 years — As American as Apple Pie and fireworks on the fourth of July. A symbol of escape, Kerouac defined the Beatnik generation writing of the highway in On The Road, transforming it into two lanes of youthful exploration. The asphalt embodiment of the longing to just get in the car and drive.
Birthed in 1926, the decline of Route 66 began when President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, granting billions of dollars towards expanding the highway system by 41,000 miles. With the country still healing from WWII, he had national security at heart, as an increased highway system would transport troops and supplies across the country quickly in the event of a land invasion. Signing the act led to fewer cars on 66, but the final blow was dealt in 1985 when the highway was decommissioned after completion of Route 40, at which point the highway lost funding and Route 66 ceased to exist. Towns that had prospered along the route had already begun to fade, and Petrified Forest, which had 66 cut through the park felt the loss.
And like an aging film star, how quickly the people will forget what’s beautiful when it’s no longer at its prime.
Fearing we’d already seen the highlights Petrified Forest had to offer, we started our drive North making a pull-off for the Blue Mesa, and immediately my entire opinion of the park was transformed. We’d entered the aptly named Painted Desert area and were met with hills colored in ivory, plum, silver and aubergine, each hue stacked on top of the next, baked into the hills like a layer cake.
We hop into the car and in a few miles are met by the body of a 1932 Studebaker parked in the grass. Rusted beyond belief, it sits where the intersection of old Route 66 passed through the park. A nod to the millions that hopped into their seat-belt-less, non-air-conditioned vehicles and drove the hundreds of miles to Petrified Forest. Undergrowth envelopes the car and when the desert wind blows through the tall grass it feels like a dreamscape.
Another hop in the car and the road leads to the Painted Desert Inn at the top-most point of the park. Once providing lodging and a cafe for travelers, it’s now a park museum.
Standing empty, the cafe space is the stuff my fifties decor fueled dreams are made of. Doorways and booths are painted powder blue and the white walls are scalloped half-way up in salmon. Wooden bar stools are carved in an apache pattern, and tin punched light fixtures hang above. In front of us, propped over the bar is a painted desert fountain menu from who-knows-when, featuring buttermilk for 10 cents and a pineapple sundae for 20. I take photos for home decorating inspiration then venture downstairs.
Having seen no one else since entering the Inn, I’m almost alarmed when we’re met with a lone woman, sitting at a wooden table and carving away at a stamp. Two styles of postcards cover the table surface. One says “Arizona” bold against a background of magenta and orange. The other has “Route 66” written above the Studebaker we just passed. We’re free to take one she says as I glance at her table — In the moment I grab the more brightly hued one, like a moth to the light. I have the postcard in a box of treasures, but part of me still wishes I took the other option: The deserted landscape. Arizona is a wonderous state that I’ve come back to several times for red rock sunsets and cacti, but the moment I’m standing in just now, that aligns with the second print. Petrified Forest to me is the Studebaker along the highway no one drives on, surrounded by abandoned towns whose neon cafe signs are burnt out and lit only in moonlight.
There’s always a sadness that lingers when you realize what you’re witnessing is ephemeral. That you’ll never be back to where you’re at, and that the moment you’re in is ending as you take it all in. I felt that as I pocketed the post card, and I feel that now as I recall the memory. Overwhelmed with the emptiness of the space and the ghosts that come with discarded places, I step outside without Carl, onto a balcony that overlooks Kachina Point. The red hills below roll away into the Arizona desert. The land flattens ahead, and the gray sky hovers over it all.
It’s now that Carl steps outside, and hands me a rootbeer float in a plastic cup. Confused, I’m told there’s a soda fountain downstairs that, while lacking draft sodas, can still dish out a mean float with bottled Barq’s via a surly teenager who does not want to spend their summer break scooping out vanilla ice cream.
There’s nothing I love more than stumbling upon a discontented teenager when traveling, just to really drill in that no matter how far you travel to get somewhere, there’s always someone with a freshly printed drivers license who cannot wait to pull a Kerouac and get outta there.
I shovel rootbeer float into my mouth and take in the scene — Carl and I are the only ones outside as he gently touches my shoulder with his thumb, then moves it up and down. Covering no more than two inches of my skin, this slight movement feels momentous in the empty landscape. As if the hills can hear as the finger touches each hair.
As we cross over a small bridge on our exit, a cargo train pumps along beneath us. Neither the grandeur of the Blue Mesa can be seen from here, nor the details of the petrified wood shattered in the grass. It must seem as though there’s so much nothing behind the tracks and so little ahead. I wonder if the conductor will see the park as I do — An apparition in the desert. A break from the heat which rises from the road in waves.