Quite a few years ago, my brother and I went on a weekend trip through northeastern Arizona. One afternoon, we went hiking in at Petrified Forest National Park. The trail was difficult to follow, so we gave up trying, and just started heading off into the backcountry. Petrified Forest NP, which lies in the middle of the Painted Desert, has hills that can look the same very quickly, and is not the place for an inexperienced hiker. After about a couple miles of this, we knew it was almost time to turn around, when something caught our attention. As we got closer, we couldn’t believe our eyes. There were two standing petrified trees! Although one was more like a tree fragment, the larger was about 9-10 feet tall.
As you take the driving tour through the park, you will see the petrified logs laying on the ground, with some I’ve seen 40-50 feet in length. I haven’t covered every square mile of Petrified Forest National Park, but I’m pretty sure these trees were the last ones standing. That day was a complete adrenaline rush, but both my brother and I knew we had to come back and see this again with different skies.
It was almost a year later when our schedules coincided and we had dramatic skies to photograph this rare find. It had been a wet winter, and the washes still had water as we headed into the backcountry. Like I said earlier, the hills can look alike, and we were having trouble locating the trees. We were joking that we were losing our tracking abilities, but then we discovered why we were having difficulty. The taller of the trees was no longer standing.
As I mentioned, it had been a wet winter, and the soft soil of the Painted Desert captures impressions very well. When we arrived at the fallen tree, there was a lone set of footprints that wandered towards the tree in an almost drunken fashion, stopped at the tree (easily in arms reach), then continued onward. When this tree eventually fell, I figured it was going to be towards the right (top photo), but it had fallen to the left. More importantly, it fell away from the footprints.
I find it highly improbable that this tree stayed upright for so many centuries, then fell on its own within the next year. The footprints and the direction of the fall lead me to believe it had assistance. This seems like the senseless destruction that only a young male would do, but then the story about boy scout leaders toppling a boulder in Goblin Valley, Utah a couple years ago makes me wonder. They were both in their 40’s, and supposed role models, but look like immature teenagers in the video. Their excuse was “we didn’t want the rock to fall on someone and hurt them”. Sounds like the bullshit their lawyer fed them.
In the case of the petrified tree, the footprints wandered further into the backcountry. I honestly hope that the asshole who did this was drunk and couldn’t find their way back, and ended up being a good meal for the coyotes and buzzards. At least there would be some purpose for this waste of life.
Even with the photos I did manage to get on the first trip, it took a couple tries before I had one published. Ironically, on the day after the magazine came out, I received a phone call from a photographer who gave me a long winded story when I inquired about one of his locations. For a brief moment, I felt like sending him on a wild goose chase, but I was still disgusted over this, and just told him how there was nothing left to go back to.