Visit Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park

If you're ever in the northeastern area of Arizona, you should make plans to stop at the Petrified Forest National Park. I've been a couple of times, years ago, and highly recommend it. It feels like some kind of alien, other-worldly landscape, scattered with gorgeous, multicolored pieces of petrified wood, large and small. It is also surrounded by legends and lore that say you'll be cursed if you happen to pocket any of the small pieces of petrified wood and take them home with you. According to Jonathan Romeo of The Journal:

For years – decades even – a myth has surrounded Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park: A curse would strike anyone who illegally stole a piece of fossilized ancient wood within park boundaries.

And there are letters to prove it.

Over the years, hundreds of people who have stolen chunks of petrified wood, and eventually regretted their crime, have sent back the fossilized prizes, along with letters of apology. The practice had become so commonplace, park officials named the stack a "conscience pile."

In 2015 right before my first visit to the park, I heard a brilliant episode of the podcast "Criminal" that focused on the 'cursed objects' lore:

The Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona has the largest collection of petrified wood in the world. The beautiful wood is more than 200 million years old, and visitors to the park often take a little 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 'conscience letters' that visitors write as they return their stolen objects:

Located in the Painted Desert of Northeast Arizona, the Petrified Forest was established, in part, to protect a vast deposit of petrified wood dating back to the Late Triassic period—roughly 200 million years ago. According to park administration, the preservation efforts have been an overwhelming success. In the more than one hundred years since its establishment in 1906, however, some visitors have still been unable to resist the urge to remove wood from the park. Some of these same visitors eventually return their ill-gotten souvenirs by mail, accompanied by 'conscience letters.' The content of each letter varies, but writers often include stories of misfortune, attributed directly to their stolen petrified wood. Car troubles. Cats with cancer. Deaths of family members. For many, their hope is that by returning these rocks, 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 of the letters along with the pieces of petrified wood the letter writers returned to the park. Recently, however, the park has begun shifting its messaging to visitors away from threatening them to not steal, toward welcoming them and praising the park's natural beauty and historical significance. Jonathan Romeo of The Journal explains:

Throughout the mid-1900s, park managers were in a sort of fervor that people coming to the park were taking out pieces of wood en masse. No real studies were ever conducted at the time, yet officials consistently said a ton of petrified wood a month was being stolen from the park, sowing a sense of suspicion at park visitors.

Then, with the arrival of park superintendent Brad Traver (now retired), a sea change happened, as Traver heralded a new strategy: embracing and celebrating 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 presence," Herve said.

The park started removing negative messages: The park orientation video at the visitor center used to have a scene of someone getting arrested. Now, that scene has been cut out, and the movie instead highlights the scientific research happening at the park.

Whether the curse is real or not, you probably still shouldn't take any pieces of petrified wood home with you. Sadly, even the returned pieces can't be placed back into the park, because their original provenance is gone and they would be out of context. What you should do, however, is visit the park when you can, and also check out the resources I have linked to in this article—they are all terrific!