As I headed north out of Tucson, Sam had never sounded better. The not-so-subtle whomping in the tire was gone. With the exhaust leak fixed, the engine purred like a kitten. Even as I chugged along at highway speeds, the car had never been so quiet. Even though my tire pressure light was still a little wonky, I couldn’t have been happier.
Following the advice of Steve and his crew, I headed north through the captivating landscape of the Mogollon Rim. Before long, I found myself dropping into massive canyons and cruising through expansive forests of ponderosa pine. I didn’t know it yet, but I was driving through the Coconino National Forest, which protects the largest contiguous forest of ponderosa pine in North America. It was definitely a far cry from the saguaro-studded deserts of the lands surrounding Tucson. My drive through the forest, however, was not without its share of macabre pageantry. Before I knew it, neon yellow and deep red splatters festooned my windshield, easily bringing the insect slaughter count of my trip into the thousands. It took me three or four rounds of windshield cleaning to clear off the gooey aftermath. Yuck.
Following a northward trajectory, I slowly left the trees behind and the landscape around me mutated back into the flat, arid plains that I had grown accustomed to. Yet I couldn’t help notice that this desert felt somewhat different. In the distance, random buttes and mounds rose dramatically from the otherwise uneventful horizon. As I checked my map, I understood that I was nearing my destination: Petrified Forest National Park.
Bisected by the historic Route 66, Petrified Forest National Park is a geographically small addition to the federal park system. What it lacks in scope, however, it makes up for in history. The petrified logs, painted desert, and fossil fields that make this park so special resulted from the massive uplift of the Colorado Plateau about sixty million years ago. The lift granted wind and water access to new layers of sediment, which they quickly began to erode. The result is a barren landscape of pockmarked desert punctuated by eroding cliffs and colorful buttes. Among that subtle topography, trees and fossils from the Late Triassic lie strewn about, preserved for over 225 million years. Although I didn’t see any fossilized animal remains, the dazzling colors of the petrified forest kept me preoccupied for a few hours.
The southern entrance of Petrified Forest National Park leads directly to the massive deposit of fossilized logs. Upon entering the park, each visitor gets a map with a green handout tucked inside. I have come to expect and welcome the map, but the neon flyer inside was new to me. In an effort to discourage vandalism, these handouts detail the consequences for attempting to remove petrified remains from the park. It even includes a report form for people who witness vandalism or theft in progress. As I strolled through the remains of this prehistoric forest, I understood their fear. Some logs would be impossible to move, but palm-sized chunks of fossilized wood were not hard to spot. I wondered how much of a problem theft actually was…
As luck would have it, fate intervened and answered my question. Upon entering the visitor’s center, a man came rushing in to report a family that he had seen pocketing rocks. Immediately, the dispatcher radioed the vehicle description to rangers throughout the park. The practiced efficiency and ease with which she handled the situation made it obvious that this wasn’t the first time she had foiled an attempted rock heist. Not wanting to stick around for the fanfare, I headed back to my car and scooted off into the park.
Once you are past the southern visitor’s center, the park begins to change drastically. The remains of the fossilized forest cease to be the main attraction and the striking colors of the Chinle formation come into clear focus. Endless cliffs, mesas, and gullies create a loose perimeter along the road. Yet it is not the diversity of physical features that astound, but the color. The Chinle formation, which that tectonic uplift sixty million years ago exposed, showcases vivid bands of sand, clay, ash, and silt. Ranging from pale browns to rusty reds, their patterned beauty is quite distracting.
The crown jewel of the park, however, is the section of Painted Desert near the northern visitor’s center. This section of wilderness stretches as far as the eye can see, filled with eye-popping color accented by pockets of mysterious shadow. I arrived at the Painted Desert overlook just as the sun was beginning to set. Below me, an alluvial fan of kaleidoscopic colors refracted the warm of the day’s last light. With the interstate tucked conveniently beyond a hill, the pleasant silence of inviolate nature coalesced with the gentle chill of dusk. If I had showed up in time to get a permit, I would have slung my pack over my shoulder and headed down into that labyrinth of muted colors and unassuming quiet. Some day…
Tucson to Payson