If you are ever in the northeastern region of Arizona, you should plan to stop at Petrified Forest National Park. I’ve been there several times, years ago, and highly recommend it. It looks like some kind of otherworldly alien landscape, dotted with beautiful multicolored pieces of petrified wood, large and small. It is also shrouded in legends and lore that say you will be cursed if you pocket any of the small pieces of petrified wood and take them home. According to Jonathan Romeo of the Journal:
For years, if not decades, a myth has surrounded Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park: a curse befalls anyone who illegally steals a piece of ancient fossilized wood from within the park’s boundaries.
And there are letters to prove it.
Over the years, hundreds of people who stole pieces of petrified wood and ultimately regretted their crime have returned the fossilized prizes, along with letters of apology. The practice had become so commonplace that park officials referred to the pile as a “conscience pile.”
In 2015, just before my first visit to the park, I heard a brilliant episode of the “Criminal” podcast that focused on the “cursed objects” lore:
Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona has the largest collection of petrified wood in the world. The magnificent wood is over 200 million years old and visitors to the park often take a small piece home with them as a souvenir. But stealing the wood has serious consequences, both legal and, some say, supernatural.
The episode featured an interview with Ryan Thompson, author of the book “Bad Luck Hot Rocks”. The book’s website further describes the “letters of conscience” that visitors write when they return their stolen items:
Located in the Painted Desert of northeastern Arizona, the Petrified Forest was created in part to protect a large deposit of petrified wood dating back to the late Triassic, around 200 million years ago. According to the park administration, the preservation efforts have been a resounding success. In the more than a hundred years since its inception in 1906, however, some visitors still couldn’t resist the urge to remove some wood from the park. Some of these same visitors end up returning their ill-gotten memories in the mail, along with “letters of conscience.” The content of each letter varies, but writers often include tales of misfortune, attributed directly to their stolen petrified wood. Car problems. Cats with cancer. Death of family members. For many, their hope is that by returning these stones, good fortune will return to their lives. Other common themes include expressions of remorse, requests for forgiveness, and warnings to future visitors.
The book contains images of many letters as well as pieces of petrified wood that the letter writers returned to the park. Recently, however, the park has begun to shift its message to visitors away from threatening them not to fly, to welcoming them and praising the park’s natural beauty and historical significance. Jonathan Romeo of the Journal explains:
In the mid-1900s, park managers were in a bit of a frenzy that people coming to the park were pulling out pieces of wood en masse. No real study was ever conducted at the time, but officials consistently stated that a ton of petrified wood per month was stolen from the park, instilling a sense of suspicion among park visitors.
Then, with the arrival of Park Superintendent Brad Traver (now retired), a dramatic change occurred, as Traver announced a new strategy: to welcome and celebrate the park’s 600,000 to 800,000 annual visitors.
“Now the focus is on being more welcoming, providing more opportunities for visitors, while remaining diligent with law enforcement and attendance,” Hervé said.
The park began to remove the negative posts: the park’s orientation video at the visitor center featured a scene of a person being arrested. Now, that scene has been cut, and the film instead highlights the scientific research taking place in the park.
Whether the curse is real or not, you probably still shouldn’t take pieces of petrified wood home. Unfortunately, even returned pieces cannot be returned to the park, as their original provenance has disappeared and they would be out of context. What you should however, visit the park when you can, and also check out the resources I’ve linked to in this post – they’re all great!