In the archives of a small museum in the middle of nowhere, there are piles and piles of letters from remorseful senders dating as far back as 1938. These letters were accompanied in the mail by returned pieces of petrified wood, stolen from Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. Believing they are cursed and condemned by the karma of ancient hot rocks they stole on vacation one time, the writers report strange happenings, stories of sudden misfortune and express their urgent desire to be free of their ill gotten souvenirs.
Lead image (c) MultiMueller
In 2011, photographer Ryan Thompson happened to take a trip to the park and discovered the extent of the museum’s letter archives. Humorous, tragic, superstitious, and profound, the letters (and their rocks) first became an online documentation project for the photographer, and are now part of a unique book called Bad Luck, Hot Rocks.
For those us that weren’t paying attention in geography class, petrified wood is basically wood, that’s turned into rock over millions of years. Once upon a time, 225 million years ago, Arizona’s Petrified Forest was just that; a forest. Instead of the impressive but barren landscape you’ll find there today, this place was once inhabited by huge 200 foot tall trees– and dinosaurs!
The petrified wood is all that remains of this fallen forest; now fossilised, exposed and bejewelled with quartz crystals, jasper and amethyst (and admittedly, rather tempting to pick up and put in your pocket).
No place on earth has more petrified wood that this national park in Arizona. But at one time, the park claimed they were losing one ton a month of the stuff to visitors sneaking off with it in their cars, stuffed down their pants or hidden under car seats.
There are signs throughout the park prohibiting the collection of petrified wood and an orientation video at the visitors centre used to play on loop, warning of a $250 fine or possible imprisonment for what was a federal offence. There were even checkpoints for the rangers to search families and their cars before leaving the park.
I came on vacation went through your Forest. I did not believe that anything would happen but here is what has happened to me that is why I am sending the rocks back to you. On the first morning my wife gave me a Vitamin Pill it lodged in my throat I thought that was the end of me. Next we went on to Grand Canyon got in my Van the next day the van would not start cost me $256.00 to get the van going on the way the fans in the van would not stop running had to pull the wire loose form the fan to get it stop. so I don’t think I need the rocks I picked up so I am sending them back to you. sorry I i got them in the first place. Oh yes the radio in the van stop working and my C.B. won’t work so you see why I am sending your rocks back.
The letters of remorse and curses returned went on display at the little Rainbow Forest museum to serve as a warning to visitors who dared steal any petrified wood. And even when returned, as so many have done anonymously over the years, the petrified wood that comes back through the mail, cannot be verified and therefore, cannot be scattered back in the park, to avoid the risk of spoiling the natural environment for research purposes.
And so, it ends up getting dumped in a great big pile of rocks known as the park’s “conscience pile”, which sits down a private service road in the park. The present day pile is apparently much larger than the one pictured above in 2011 by Ryan Thompson.
While the letters still come and the conscience pile still grows, in recent years, the park has decided to loosen up a little and try not to ruin everyone’s vacation with their strict searches and suspicious farewells. But they still keep an eye out.
One of my favourite podcasts, Criminal, actually produced a great episode about this unusual story, and interviews one of the park’s protection officers, who jokes about making herself a t-shirt printed with the words: “Ruiner of Vacations”.
As it turns out, the park isn’t being decimated by theft. The “ton a month” figure had been exaggerated by rangers over the years, and research recently revealed through archive photography that this Triassic park pretty much looked exactly the same as it did 100 years ago. In fact, researchers found that there’s even more exposed petrified wood than before and the landscape is actually eroding faster than vacationing families can steal it.
September 6, 1975
I took these stones when I was their in August on my vacation, and since I’ve been home as of this day, had nothing but bad luck.
1. I brought a beautiful vase from Mexico my daughter broke it.
2. a couple of weeks later my dog was killed by an automobile instantly.
3. I found out my sister-in-law is dying of Luekemia
4. and now my cat was just killed, by the dogs next door.
So take this Petrified Wood or Stone what ever you call it and keep the bad luck there, I was fine until I brought them into my home.
Bad Luck, Hot Rocks documents this ongoing phenomenon, combining a series of original photographs of these otherworldly “bad luck rocks” with facsimiles of intimate, oddly entertaining letters from the park’s archives.