Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Painted in the Desert and...Petrified!

Don't touch or approach wild animals - bubonic plague is a reality!

Whose reality? I wondered. Just how many cases of bubonic plague had Petrified Forest National Park been covering up over the years?  Where were they burying the bodies in order to keep the place open and its reputation as harmless adventure unmarred by such a dire threat? Man, this was serious.

But what the heck! The risk of contracting the plague wasn't about to deter me from enjoying massive brushstrokes of red, purples and blues on huge mesas that rose majestically from desert grassland. Nor would it turn me aside from grabbing the opportunity to view millions-year-old remnants of ancient trees that glistened in the afternoon sun.

You see, my husband Matthew was about to keep his promise, a promise he had made on a previous trip home from Albuquerque when we had rebuffed a chance to see one of Arizona's greatest national parks. Taking that proffered opportunity this time would cost him $10 and nearly two hours travel time off the highway when all was said and done, but it was a sacrifice he was making for me. So damn the plague!

As we gently drove into the Painted Desert at first I wondered, Well, what's the big whoop? This is like driving through the desert in like..Phoenix! Please let there be something to convince Matthew this is really something...but we took a turn on the windy park road, and suddenly I was bouncing in my seat, obsessively clicking the camera and shouting at the kids, "Look, look! Do you see the colors? Do you see them? Isn't it beautiful?"

Our first view of an extraordinary landscape
The farther we went, the more my eyes teared up as I thanked my husband again and again for taking the time to show his family more of the brilliant, wild, incredible scenery of Arizona. Though, granted, sometimes I felt we might have, by some strange tunnel in time, landed on a different world - scanning the horizon for signs of life...

The scenery occasionally collapsed in on itself like the closing of a pop-up picture book for toddlers, leaving us to stare at the simple grass whipping in the wind. As we approached a new chapter in the story called The Tepees, we were astounded to find the book unfolding again with some of the most memorable and vivid illustrations yet.

The colors you see are created by iron, carbon, manganese and more minerals...
I wished to stop at Puerco Pueblo, a Native American ruin, but the hike was just a tad too far. As elated as I was to be seeing massive stricken logs, witnesses to the age of the dinosaurs, strewn mere yards away from the road we traveled, I was not going to make any bones about missing a ruin.

We opted instead to stop at the Rainbow Forest Museum, near the end of the park road, to eat our lunch at a picnic table. On all our road trips I have never eaten at a prettier place. The desert plants graciously encircled us, and ravens glided low on the wind near by, though how they were able to manage navigating the gusts that blew the food from our hands is beyond my understanding.

The view from our picnic table
After lunch, we were determined to walk the Giant Logs Trail behind the museum which passes Old Faithful, the largest log of petrified wood in the park. Park signs warned about near constant high winds and about the need for sun protection - hats, sunscreen, long sleeves. As we stepped out on the path with our children, the winds buffeted us badly, making me fear one of the kids would be blown away into the wilds to be raised by coyotes. The trail led up and down broad steps that wandered between broken logs of petrified wood such as this one:

The great American flag flying over Rainbow Forest Museum
The sun did indeed beat down on us (this is Arizona, after all), but in order to keep hats on our heads in that roaring wind, we would have needed to screw them into our skulls with some heavy hardware. As it was, we braved it, and I held my baby Danny's hat over his delicate blond scalp as best I could.

With joy my eldest daughter and I pointed out the colors in the wood to each other as she held tight to my free hand. The gratification I felt when we completed the trail was a beautiful thing, but more so because the experience truly was a gift from my Matthew.

My Man driving in our van through the Painted Desert
He fought his road trip killer instinct, the one that pushes him to drive and drive with only stops for gas and restroom breaks, just so he could give his wife an experience she craved, an experience she'll never forget. An experience his kids will remember, too. And so, with love, this blog post is dedicated to him.

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