A piece of a petrified log in the Crystal Forest

Life in the Desert: Camping in Petrified Forest in the Early 1990s

One of the most desolate places even in the Arizona desert, and one of my favorite National Parks of Arizona, Petrified Forest is a place we rarely visit any more. But the first time I’ve been there, camping within the park, left me in awe. My feelings were strong enough for me to write about the experience long before I called myself a travel writer. Though close enough to be a day trip destination from Phoenix, we visited the park while on a longer road trip through the state.

That was over twenty years ago. Jeff and I had just moved to Arizona, both in our twenties, totally broke, making barely enough money to pay a $300/month rent in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Sunnyslope. Phoenicians know what that meant in the early 1990s: one of the most run-down, cheapest, and “dangerous” neighborhoods in the city. Of course, we didn’t know that, just found a cute apartment right by North Mountain we could afford. I loved the fact that I could walk out of the door and hike the mountain every day, without needing to get in the car and drive to a hiking place. It was a great place – until we realized that we’ve been hearing gunshots almost nightly. But that’s another story.

Being broke meant we couldn’t afford vacations like we do now. But we still wanted to leave town at times. So, on our first vacation after moving out here, we got in our old, beat-up Jetta (the car we drove out from New Jersey to Phoenix and only broke down a block from out new apartment), took our small tent, and got on the road.

All these memories came flooding back as I found my notes about our first camping experience in Petrified Forest National Park. Without much editing, here is the piece I wrote so many years ago:

View from the Crystal Forest Loop Trail

Camping in Petrified Forest – sometime in 1993

We didn’t really count on camping in Petrified Forest. On our map we didn’t see a sign for a campground so we supposed none existed. But when we arrived to the Visitor Center, still outside the park, we knew we would do it.

When we asked, we found out that they didn’t have a campground with facilities, but they wouldn’t stop anyone with a tent or an RV to spend the night there, if they wanted to. Of course we did.

Even though the wind started blowing hard and it looked like it would rain, we sat up camp. There is no town closer than 40 miles from either side of the park, only the two Visitor Centers on each end, and nothingness. And millions of years of history.

Petrified Forest

At first glance, Petrified Forest seems desolate, only desert, with no life. No vegetation, no animals, no human habitat. It’s hard to imagine that millions of years ago, even before dinosaurs roamed the earth, this place was a green, lush forest with huge trees, animals, and lots of water.

All that’s left from those days are petrified tree trunks and chips of petrified wood. We found lots of little chunks around our little camping site. As instructed, we left them where they were. But looking at them, I couldn’t help but think of their history.

This wood was alive at some point, home and food for different animals, birds, and reptiles of the kinds we can’t even imagine. Now it’s all dead. Well preserved though, as it turned to stone. Beautiful, multicolored stone. Some have lots of black in them, others different shades of red, yellow or green. Others showcase all of these colors combined, as different elements penetrated through their bark over the millennia. Yes, these trees are dead, but still beautiful and majestic.

As about their surroundings… well, it transformed a lot, but there is still life there.

Life in the Desert

As we sat down for dinner, a couple of tiny colored birds started talking to us. They were probably yelling at us to get out of their territory, or demanded us to share our meal with them. Though it seemed they were trying to annoy us, make us go away, I liked them. I didn’t mind their chatter. There is life in the desert, I thought.

Close to our tent I noticed two beetles, crawling around slowly, looking for food. They were eating the leaves of a tiny plant – they found the plant we didn’t even notice earlier. They also cleaned up the breadcrumbs we accidentally dropped while eating. I watched them for what seemed like hours as they slowly made their way through our campsite.

Though I normally despise bugs of any shapes and sizes, this time I was careful not to step on them. Even I was surprised. Out here, in the middle of nowhere, in the inhospitable desert, I felt even bugs needed protection. It must be hard for them to survive here. Besides, they were so peaceful, slow-moving, and didn’t try coming close to me, climbing on me, or feeding on me like normally bugs tend to do. I loved these beetles, and felt the need to protect them.

Ravens, a strong wind, and rain all tried to keep us up all night. None of them succeeded. But when the coyotes woke me up in the middle of the night, I had trouble going back to sleep.

I walked outside the tent, and looked up into the night sky, where the Milky Way stretched out clearer than I’ve ever seen it before.

With the first rays of sun, rabbits and deer came into view. They were walking around peacefully, not far from us, without being bothered by our presence. Later in the day, inside the national park, we also encountered a big, beautiful fawn. Yes, there is plenty of life here, even after the beautiful, green, lush forest turned into petrified wood.

Human History in Petrified Forest

As about human life… the place is a National Park, so other than us and some fellow campers spending the night now and then, you won’t find many people living there. It wasn’t always the same though. Lots of petroglyphs and ruins are proof that earlier civilizations, prehistoric locals lived in the area. One of the largest proof of it is small prehistoric house built of petrified wood, the Agate House we visited later that day.

Yes, Petrified Forest is very different from the lush forest it once was. Though today it’s not as full of live, green, standing trees, as millions of years ago, life still prevails here.

Twenty-some Years Later…

Lots of things have changed in Arizona, especially in Phoenix since that time. But the Petrified Forest hasn’t changed much, if at all.

We returned to Petrified Forest National Park this past year, when once again, we can’t get on a plane to travel. For different reasons – we could afford it now, but a pandemic is preventing us from flying – , but we ended up in the same spot not too long ago.

Nothing seems to have changed in the park during this time. Though more people walk through them, the trails are still the same, through the large petrified tree trunks, or the surrounding Painted Desert. In a world where things change way too fast, a stroll through the petrified forest puts things in perspective, helps us appreciate life in and outside of the desert.

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