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Tucson Weekly Petrified With Fear!

The curse of an ancient forest dogs park looters.

By Leo Banks

DECEMBER 15, 1997:  Don't trifle with the curse of the Petrified Forest. Steal a piece of ancient wood from this 93,000-acre national park in northern Arizona and some version of hell on earth will surely come your way.

That's what Park rangers suggest to visitors, and the hundreds of letters they've received prove it. They're on display in a glass case in the Museum of the Forest, just inside the Park's south entrance, and in notebooks on a nearby coffee table.

Settle into one of the cushy chairs and read the pathetic, touching and hilarious words of thieves so overcome with fear and loathing they had to confess.

"It sparkled and the devil made me pick it up," wrote one tortured soul, in returning his swiped sample. "I can't live with the guilt anymore."

It's a wonder some had the strength to sit down and put pen to paper, given the seizures, hernias, giant blisters, plane crashes, drinking binges and wrenching divorces that have occurred since their moment of weakness.

And lousy luck in love? Judging by the letters, we can safely assume that Cupid is deceased.

"You're right," declared one man, "it's a curse to take wood from the forest. My girlfriend of three years finished with me on the drive home. So here's your damn wood back."

Another: "These miserable rocks...have caused pure havoc in my love life, and Cheryl's, too. By the time these rocks reach you, things should be back to normal. If not, I give up. Dateless and Desperate."

Some writers refer to the wood as rocks. Actually it's both. The forest consists of trees that turned to rock through a complex chemical process that took 225 million years.

The letters amplify more than just bad luck. They provide a fascinating peak into the cauldron of human nature, with all its fears, insecurities, excuse-making, superstitions, paranoia and old-fashioned weirdness.

The fact that Park officials talk about the curse, and display the letters, is itself a brilliant use of the power of suggestion.

"I'm not saying there is a curse and I'm not saying there isn't," says Paula Hosking, an education specialist at the Petrified Forest. "But from the amazing letters that come in, we know a lot of people believe it. If it keeps them from stealing wood, so much the better."

It's undeniable that the curse generates powerful emotions, and it has no statute of limitations.

In 1988, a fellow named Robert Young--one of the few to attach a name to his confessional--returned to the Park wood he took in 1924. "Had it a little over 63 years," he wrote. "Not long when you think of its life span of millions of years."

One woman returned a piece of wood that her sister had stolen on her honeymoon trip in 1958. The marriage collapsed and ended in a bitter divorce, and for 20 years the sister was involved in a live-in relationship with an abusive man.

"I don't know if any of these unfortunate things happened as a result of the wood," said the letter, "but I do know that it was a negative thing to bring into the family."

For many, the curse provides explanations for disasters great and small.

A woman wrote about her mother-in-law stealing a piece of wood in 1945, but not finding out about the curse until 40 years later. The news made her wonder if that little Arizona fossil wasn't the reason her husband died in his 40s, her grandkids suffer pneumonia and seizures, and she's even had terrible luck buying lottery tickets.

"Now she has decided to apply to elderly housing and faces waiting lists of five to seven years," the letter said.

Blame it on the curse. Blame it on the bossa nova.

The guilt is nearly universal, except for the fellow who wrote, "Found this is my room. You can have it back. I got busted the other night."

Makes you wonder what else was in his room.

Two summers ago, a researcher from Virginia Tech came to Arizona to study the swiped-wood phenomenon. Carolyn Widner strolled the Park posing as an everyday visitor. She carried a pair of binoculars as if looking at birds. Only she was looking for people stealing wood.

Widner, now a professor at Humboldt State University in California, confronted the thieves and promised them immunity from a federal offense in return for an interview. "The project could've been called rationalization 101," said Widner. "Most people said they did it on impulse and didn't think of it as stealing. One tiny, little piece of wood isn't going to be missed."

Widner came away from her work with an interesting theory: Thieves who return wood might actually feel better.

"If things are going bad in your life, you might think, I can't change losing my job or my mother dying, but I can send that rock back," she said. "It could really have a positive effect because it's a way of taking control."

Hosking says the Park loses about 12-15 tons of wood a year. Some of that is returned in the mail, and some is gathered in the monthly sweeps rangers conduct along the exit road, past the sign warning of an inspection station ahead. Seems visitors read the sign and begin heaving their ill-gotten booty out the window.

But discarded wood is no longer of value. It can't be returned because rangers don't know where in the park it came from, and replacing it would skew the many ongoing studies scientists are doing on the wood.

"We have a no-tolerance policy," says Hosking. "But it's a difficult practice to stop."

Bras are a favorite hiding place for Petrified thieves. A woman told of jamming three samples into her brassiere, only to have her husband discover them. It not only killed the mood, but possibly their marriage as well. The woman said her husband, "a true Christian," was profoundly disappointed by his shocking discovery.

In the summer of 1991, five girls smuggled out three pieces of wood, also hidden in a bra. Strange things began happening almost immediately.

"One person had stomach cramps and diarrhea all night," the letter said. "That same night we were the only ones to be attacked by flying ants in the camp ground. The following morning the second person became very ill, vomiting and weak. She was also unable to see the Grand Canyon as planned. The third person has knocked over and spilled everything she touched.

"The other two people, being guilty only of transporting, have yet to suffer bad luck, except having to put up with us. So just in case this legend is true, we decided to end our bad luck and return the rocks."

Once Hosking opened a package containing a hunk of picture agate, a stone the writer said was purchased at a Park gift shop. The writer thought it was petrified wood and was furious.

"She was using four-letter words and cussing us up and down for selling something that would put a curse on her," said Hosking.

This confused individual neglected to describe her particular tragedy, but judging from her hysteria, we can assume it was something big.

Like the experience of the fellow who swiped a piece of wood, but didn't tell his pal, Billy, until they were approaching the inspection station. This forced Billy to lie when the ranger asked if they'd removed any wood from the park.

"This made him unhappy," said the writer, "and I think he's still a little mad at me. What's worse, Billy's Mercedes won't start now."

Talk about your curses.


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