Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Enchantment of Old Rocks and Mudflats

From a distance, the landscape just outside of Holbrook, Arizona, seems to be about as unappealing a terrain one could envision (let alone blogging about at least twice now); certainly not one that would be enjoyable hiking through, and most definitely not one that would end up on my personal list of all-time favorite hikes.

Hellooooo....anybody out there?

And is, and it did. My husband and I continue to be drawn to this area, specifically to the Petrified Forest National Park. It's very hard to describe the feeling I get here, because the more I touch and smell and see this land, the bigger--and smaller--both it and I feel. With feet firmly planted on the ground, I am an integral part of this moonscape--surrounded by rainbow-colored sand and rocks full of treasures, the quiet broken only by a gentle wind and my feet softly crunching through dry crusts of mud. As the low rays of the winter sun warm my face on a frigid, but clear, cloudless day, I glide my fingers over oddly colorful rocks that were once trees (!!), fossils that were once clams thriving in a riverbed (!!!), or dinosaur bones (!!!!), and realize with a shock that I'm barely a blip on this 250+ million year-old radar screen.

It's an intimate experience with our very own Earth, felt strongly in my bones and in my spirit. At the same time, I feel incredibly meaningless. I am so present, and yet so fleeting (Look at this stuff! Everything in history is right here! I am right here! I am everything! But wait! I will become this dust! I am nothing!!! Ack!!! Must Facebook this now!!!). So what can you do? Enjoy the ride, and Facebook away!

And what a ride (or hike, really) it was, yesterday, December 30, 2015 A.D., Holocene Epoch, Quaternary Period, Cenozoic Era. It all started with a perusal of our local paper, seeing a notice of "free guided winter backcountry hikes in the Petrified Forest" and thinking that would be a marvelously fun thing to do. Joined by neighbors Julie and Glen and Julie's sister Jeanne, Bruce and I loaded up the truck and headed out to meet our intrepid National Park volunteers Gary and Connie at the appointed time at what I thought would be a trailhead.

Dawn, from Flagstaff, joined us as a near-regular participant for these interpretive guided series of hikes. The current Petrified Forest artist-in-residence (a really neat program, info here), Jaini, who was weaving a tapestry representing her vision of the Park (me: "you weave? with yarn? it is clear we must be friends!"), rounded out this group of nine. This particular guided hike was the longest of the lot, an estimated nine miles that Gary indicated would take most of the day, with interpretive stops, lunch, and time to take in the vistas, examine cool things, and of course...snap those photos (so Facebook readers 250+ million years from now can Like and Share...).

I don't even know if it was above freezing, and I couldn't see any semblance of a trail. We gathered ourselves together, tucking hair into hats, and pulling on gloves. "Ready?" said Gary. And off he heads, into the hillocky clumps of grass. All righty, then!

I found out that Petrified Forest isn't your typical National Park. Aside from the visitor roadway stops where you're told to stay on the trail, and from highly-sensitive resource areas closed off from the public, this isn't a "hey you rotten kids, get off my lawn!" kind of National Park, like many are. You wanna walk over here? Okay! Over there? Okay! It must be said, however, that having a guide to walk you through this kaleidoscopic maze is pretty darn useful.

We spent the day wandering through humpy-bumpy grasslands, dried mudflats, rocky outcroppings, eroded boulders, striped hills, fossilized clam beds, and, of course, petrified wood. The colors were sublime, yet radiated brilliance; the rocks had such character as to give them personalities. While Dawn hummed "America the Beautiful," I hummed the Flintstones theme song. It's just that kind of place, evoking both awe and joy.

Now, for the photos. In the beginning, the vistas made us catch our breath, while the ground glistened with rocks and the ever-present petrified wood:

Petrified logs propped up by mud were evidenced everywhere.
Could man engineer such a marvelous pedestal?

We soon saw that this landscape, indeed, was not as flat as we thought.

Nor was it perfectly round, or sharp-edged for that matter:

"Flintstones, meet the Flintstones..."

"...they're a modern stone-age fam..ill..eeee...."

"From the
town of Bedrock..."

We were escorted into an area Gary and Connie simply called "clam beds." Rippled rocks showed evidence that not only was this place once wet (a river ran through it), it was a hotbed for all sorts of life. This chunk of the planet, in northern Arizona, was once part of Pangaea, the supercontinent. Located approximately at the equator in a wet, humid, tropical place, it fostered the beginnings of a forest with massive trees. As Pangaea broke up into the tectonic plates we now know as the continents, this one drifted northward, dried out, and slowly created the fossils and petrified wood we see now. Ta-da! Simplified? Well, yes, just a bit. Find out more here.

Clam shells in rocks

Thousands of 'em!
 We continued on, seeing approximately one live tree (unpetrified), which was worth the stop.

Then it was lunchtime. A table was handy, and the vistas were stunning:

We packed up our stuff, and continued on.

Seriously, check this out. Little rocks and petrified wood on mud pedestals.
The mud around them has long since eroded. 

How did this get here? Wha...???

We took a side trip to a rocky hill full of petroglyphs. Our ancestors were driven to create art, mark waypoints, or tell stories. We can only speculate on their intent, which is part of the magic.

At a different site, we encountered evidence of human life and and survival during a different period in this arid land.

A tucked-away spot buried by wind and sand
over time, with some signs of humanity exposed

Broken pot shards

A mano, used to grind nuts/seeds/grains on a metate 
Later, modern-day settlers ranched in this area (much to my continued amazement...I mean, really?)

"Look, honey, THIS is where I want to raise
a bunch of 1,000-pound animals!"


The last few twists and turns, homeward bound:

And...we made it! With the ubiquitous must-have Fitbits and GPS units checked, we clocked in at a little over nine miles for the day. We then proceeded to the visitor center where our co-hiker Jaini, artist-in-residence, housed her weaving project. When she first came to the Petrified Forest from her home in Lancaster, England, she spent time exploring the park for inspiration. She memorialized her experiences and interpretations in a large sketchbook, which eventually helped guide her in constructing her woven masterpiece.

Soon to be completed, this tapestry will include petrified wood imagery, and will be fringed in the texture and likeness of these logs so randomly strewn about this special place.

Imagining the tapestry's fringe

The near-completed weaving, housed proudly in the Petrified Forest National Park visitor center (south end):

Artist-in-residence Jaini Hadley; thanks for being a part of
our most excellent adventure!

A special day, a special place. Some memories are blogged about and Facebooked, but others are too complex to put into a two-dimensional format. I am just not that good of a writer. Sigh.


  1. So, this made you think of The Flintstones??? You are one seriously odd person! My Sis - acorns fell close to the same tree!

  2. Wonderful description but you're right, words just can't describe the awesomeness of that land. ..we did some guided hikes there a couple years ago. Amazing!

    1. We did all this?? and all in one day? You did a wonderful job chronicling this awesome hike. Yabadabado!! Dawn

  3. Your photos and story capture the mystery. . .thanks.
    Liz J.

  4. Wow, what a great way to spend the last day of the year! Great perspective on our being, and you captured the imagery beautifully!! Never thought this experience would be included on my bucket list, but I'm starting to reconsider...

  5. I love your writing but then I hear your voice so well when I'm reading it. What a complex and surreal landscape captured beautifully in your photos