Sunday, February 21, 2016

Overnight in the Petrified Forest

Full moon solo backpacking trip to the Painted Desert Wilderness of Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona. 
The map says there is a “Black Forest” down there, but from the trailhead, no trees are visable.

After several hours of romping among the petrified logs, following washes, and climbing up ridges to gain some perspective, the lengthening of the shadows can’t be ignored.  Time to start looking for well-spaced trees…er… flat ground. 
Moonrise and setting sun.
Moon is getting higher, sun getting lower.  Better find a spot soon.
Cold wind convinces me to pass up ridges and seek a site on the lee side of a hill. 
This elevated spot where I finally drop my pack for the night still has a view.
Winter means long hours of darkness.  My plan had been to do some cloud watching.  But the weather doesn’t cooperate.  Shadows are watched instead. The good thing is you usually can have one or the other, and sometimes both. 

And more to watch: Orion and Pleidies, followed by the full moon.  Much more interesting than watching a screen.  
Moon shadows proved equally riveting as their daytime counterparts.
A friend used to say that when you look at the moon, to remember how change is inevitable.  How sometimes it feels like you are in darkness and you don’t know what will happen, but other times you are full of knowing and brightness.  This has always been a good reminder, since not knowing can be scary for us planner-types.
Differential erosion gradually carved this landscape.  Changing rock made of sand and mud turn back to sand and mud again.
My mind drifts to cowboy camping under another full moonrise back in 2014 when I was on the PCT.  It was my first time going to ground after being a die-hard hammock hanger, but I was surrounded by three wonderful trail friends.  Back then, I had no inkling I’d get stress fracture 800 miles later.  I wouldn’t have imagined I’d join AmeriCorps the following year, and then end up in New Mexico wearing an NPS park ranger uniform and feeling like I am “living the dream” just as much as when I was on the PCT.  Why do we waste so much time worrying about the future when it’s so clear that there is just no way to know?
In a tropical swamp during the Late Triassic, this tree turned slowly from wood to rainbow-colored stone.
Now, what I do know is that I’ve intentionally come out here to the painted desert to cowboy camp alone.  My complaining hips say, “Why aren’t we in the comfort of a hammock? You will regret this in the morning when we ache all day.”  What am I doing out here on the ground?  It goes beyond just trying to be a more versatile backpacker.  There is something about this experience of being open to the expansiveness of the sky, to the stillness of the crisp desert air, that makes this worthwhile.
When you lie on the ground, surrounded by quiet and rock, there is a feeling of connection. 
You shape your body to the ground.  The sky opens up above you, and there is nothing between you and the vastness.  You feel part of the vastness and completely insignificant at the same time.  It is easy to be grateful for everything, especially the difficult times you’ve gone through, that have shaped you and made you who you are.

I am glad for places like this— the quiet, the being able to see forever—that allow for solitude and reflection.
Clay swells as it absorbs moisture, then shrinks and cracks as it dries, creating an intricate texture.
In the long darkness eventually all thoughts get thunk out.  Then it’s back to watching the moon shadows do their creeping. 
Arriving back at the trailhead, and looking back on where I’d been.
More information

Backcountry permits are free, and available in the visitor centers at Petrified Forest National Park.  More info on backcountry camping here.


  1. Gosh , on the ground ...can't hang on those trees ! Very thought provoking in that this place was once a majestic forest .