Did you know that our National Parks are basically the best thing our government has ever done? I can’t ever recall having been to one before this road trip, but now I’m going to shout it from the rooftops (eh internet). National Parks are awesome.

Not that our government can take credit for creating this natural beauty, but when at one point it had its shit together enough to protect it, that was a great move. I never knew how beautiful America was until I drove across the country, and these parks and their rangers have done an amazing job of pointing it out, preserving it, and educating the public on how it came to be.

Now Rachael and I were just driving along from Albuquerque to Flagstaff, when we noticed that this Petrified Forest National Park was right on our route. We had time, so we went to check it out. The first stop is the visitor’s center/gift shop where you can wet your appetite by looking at all the polished specimens of petrified wood and educate as to wtf it is anyhow. Also grab a map, because the park is on a 23 mile loop that you drive through with hikes to stop and do along the way.

Right, what is petrified wood exactly? I will quote from the visitor’s center:

“Petrified wood takes us back in time. These fossils are pieces of trees that lived in ancient ecosystems. Logs were buried in layers of sediment along a great river system, the silica gradually replacing organic material. The rainbow of colors comes from trace minerals such as iron and manganese oxides. The petrified wood found in Northeastern Arizona is from the Late Triassic, over 200 million years ago. ”

Next you start to drive, but you must stop at a Ranger Checkpoint, where they ask you to declare any petrified wood you bought in the gift shop. You aren’t allowed to take any from the actual park. But what are the going to do, search your car when you exit? (No.) It’s mostly a pre-emptive guilt-trip strike, but still, don’t be a dick. Hands off the wood. (Yikes, somehow that combination of words got unintentionally phallic…)

Once you are on your merry way, it’s time for some confusion. Everywhere they tell you to stop looks out on this gorgeous desert. But are you…supposed to be able to see the wood from here? No, what you are seeing is the Painted Desert, something you only caught vague reference to in the gift shop because it was one of the options of design on their souvenir penny machine. Nonetheless, it is absolutely stunning. The inspiration for its name is obvious. Reds, golds, greens, and oranges are dabbed across the hills below, like the strokes from a paintbrush. And I never even knew such a thing existed.

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Because we are not boys, we had enough sense to consult a map. In this way we figured out that to see the actual petrified wood we wanted to take the Crystal Forest Loop. Back on the road, there was nothing like driving through this beautiful desert with the wide open blue sky above us. The road wound through one section in particular where we were surrounded by little haystacks of hills that had those very obvious different layers of strata in bright colors. It felt like driving through one of Doctor Suess’s books.

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Wait. I just realized I’ve been living one of his books. Hot air balloons in Albuquerque…

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Jazz in New Orleans…

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Caving in Carlsbad…

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Anyway, on from that revelation.

We finally made it to the petrified forest! You could just walk all over whereever you wanted and touch anything you liked. It was like the world’s coolest science museum. If we had been brought to places like these as kids when we were learning about geology and the history of the earth, it would have made such a difference in our education experience. It felt like when I saw Starry Night by Van Gogh in real life in New York, or the Mona Lisa in France. Suddenly this thing that I’d read about my whole life in books and seen in pictures was expressed to me in actuality. Really tangible! The history of our earth was right in front of us.

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It was oddly disconcerting to look at something that seemed exactly like wood, then reach out and touch it and feel smooth stone beneath my fingertips.

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There were little petrified wood chips all over the ground. I could see why the rangers made such an effort to dissuade people from taking them. It was tempting when these pretty little splashes of hard color were right under my feet.

Ps. my hair was lookin great.

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Walking along the three-quarter mile path, the sun beat its dry heat down on us, and our ears were filled with the howl of the wind across the plains. The shattered trunks of ancient trees rested on either side of us, but rest isn’t the right word. It didn’t seem peaceful, natural, like that word implies. They were broken, smashed. We had the eery sensation of walking through the ruins of an ancient civilization. The kind we could tell had been great in its day, but now lay in shambles at our feet. Or in a more macabre view, I had this image of walking through the scene of a massacre, where the corpses and chopped body parts were strewn all around me.

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The colors and setting were so fantastical it was almost surreal.

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Then back to the highway. Now that is what I call a side-trip.

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