I really wanted to go the Petrified Forest.  It’s a place that has attracted me from the first time I heard of it, long ago in my boyhood when I had science books sitting on my headboard in Portland, Oregon, and a carefully organized collection of rocks and fossils in the basement of our bungalow home.  At that time I was fascinated to learn that somewhere in the Southwest was an entire park dedicated to my hobby and first great love – rocks!  Oh, it would be so grand to visit such a wondrous place.  I imagined giant fossil trees the size of redwoods and crystals the size of our car all scattered around where I could see them and touch them.  My imagination, coupled with a rather un-scientific use of adjectives by children’s science book authors, made a trip to the Petrified Forest something akin to a pilgrimage to Mecca. 

            Now I found myself in my 59th year cruising to the Petrified Forest National Park, ready to be realistic about what I would find there, but also a bit too expectant that it would be wonderful.  My perspective about the world has changed over the last 49 years, but I’m still capable of a bit of wonderment.  Plus, I had seen a good deal of landscape on the way to the park. 

            Pulling off the freeway into the official park headquarters was my first warning that my expectations might have been a bit high.  Also, a creeping sinus headache was warning me that I had changed altitudes pretty quickly in the last few hours, and say what you will about nature, it can be cruel.  My personal theory that the ruling deity isn’t too perfect (what I like to call the Theory of Unintelligent &/or Ridiculous Design, or T.U.R.D.) is proved most effectively by the design of my nose, which is (a) too large, and (b) often not working due to allergies and stuffiness.  A sinus headache is just one more point of suffering that I cannot understand.

            So with my not-so-perfect head somewhat pained, I began a trek through my boyhood wonderland.  Actually, I began my “trek” by sitting through a brief movie of the park, which always makes me wonder why don’t they save the video until after the journey?  Why do we sit watching a movie of the park when the actual scenery is literally right on the other side of the wall?

             Sadly, they did explain in the movie that the crystals that used to fill the interiors of the fossilized tree trunks had been picked out by earlier tourists, while other tourists were busy scratching out the Indian petroglyphs and hauling away petrified logs.  This was actually the primary reason for the movie, I suppose.  We humans are a pretty destructive lot, and always have been.  I wonder if older Indians were angered when the younger, artistic types began defacing the rocks around the campgrounds. 

            My journey through the West continued on to places that delighted me as much as the Petrified Forest had depressed me.  The old mining town of Jerome, Arizona, was a surprise, and while I suppose some travel writers might find it a bit commercialized, I don’t know what else to do with an old mining town.  When the town was founded, there wasn’t much to do but dig in the ground, bolt down a meal, and maybe get laid.  Mining wasn’t a fun-filled occupation for most of the practitioners.  When a town like Jerome got rich enough to build decent hotels, theatres and dance halls, I doubt many residents complained about the loss of the good ol’ days because there weren’t any.  So I liked cute, quaint, art-gallery laden Jerome with its spectacular views down into the valley, where later I discovered Montezuma’s Castle.

            Now if I were a lonely hunter-gatherer stuck in the desert of the American West, there would be few places lovelier to stumble into than Montezuma’s Castle.  Even after hundreds of years, the place gives off a Garden-of-Eden atmosphere.   Now the place has nothing to do with Montezuma, nor is it a castle.  Apparently Arizonans have a long history of creative marketing, or what we non-politicians call “lying.”  But this small bit of paradise hidden away in the middle of a rather tough looking landscape is one fascinating piece of real estate regardless of the pretentious name.  I could have easily slipped off most of my clothing and spent a while with my feet dangling in the gentle stream that nourished this little desert oasis, but the park rangers would probably have taken a dim view of that.  So I had to content myself with staring at the old pueblos hovering over this lovely, lonely place and wondering what life was like for the folks that lived here and then mysteriously disappeared several hundred years ago.  Did they get bored with the place?  Did something happen to them?  No one knows.  If you don’t like stories without an ending, Montezuma’s Castle is not for you.  I believe I know the answer to the riddle, but I’m not telling. 

            After the castle, there was one more piece of tourist business to attend to and that was the Famous Train Ride from the town of Williams, AZ,  to the southern rim of the Grand Canyon.   One purchases a ticket at the authentic looking train station, eventually boards one of the old-time passenger cars and watches the scenery pass by as the train rides along about 40 miles of track to the rim of the Grand Canyon.  It is really a rather splendid idea, and I was having a nice time until I spotted the guy with the guitar. 

            I guess the owners of the train thought that their passengers couldn’t go a whole 40 miles without some entertainment beyond the scenery, so they had hired some singing cowboys to enhance the trip.  Why this is necessary only a Disney executive would know, but for me, it just about ruined the whole experience.  When I am shut into an enclosed space without an easy means of escape, the last thing I want near me is a guy dressed in a Halloween cowboy suit and carrying a guitar.  And during the return trip, the musical cowpoke was just about the most annoying buckaroo I could have scripted.  While he had an obviously trained stage voice and some musical talent, he was also the most name-dropping, kiss-ass son of the prairie one would ever want to meet, as “my ol’ pal Clint Eastwood used to say.” 

            I did get to view the Grand Canyon, which is always impressive to see, but I wish I could have stayed longer.  As it was, I wandered around the rim, listened to the British, German and Chinese accents for while, bought a few souvenirs and called it a day.  The rest of the journey consisted mostly of imagining amusing ways of tossing a musical cowpoke off the train -- just before or just after the buffalo stampede? while singing a song?  or while telling a Roy Rogers story? 

            My impressions of the Southwest are a little different now that I am older – or perhaps because I have lived in the green of the Old South for so long.  At this stage in life a withered and dry landscape is not as welcoming to me as in the days when I hiked and camped in the California deserts.  Also, it seemed readily apparent when approaching large cities such as Phoenix and Albuquerque that the land simply cannot support so many humans, and that someday a severe crisis is going to erupt from lack of water and/or food.  Now, I realize we humans are a clever lot, and there are always some scientific breakthroughs to come, but it still makes me a bit worried to see both the urban sprawl and the water-wasting agricultural usage of the fragile lands of the Southwest.  It just ain’t natural, and perhaps that’s what the folks back at the canyon of Montezuma’s Castle discovered hundreds of years ago.  There will come a time when Nature will take back control of that region, and that may not bode well for the millions of humans trying to live a life there in the same manner as people who live in Michigan or Massachusetts or Georgia.   

            Saying that, I still love the big spaces and open sky of the American West, and sometimes I yearn for it, in much the same way as I sometimes yearn for the sea.  It is nice to have yearnings.  It lets me know that I am still living for something beyond the horizon.