In the Petrified Forest

In the Petrified Forest

October 03, 2022 1 Comment




In the Petrified Forest

by Dan Musgrave


The argument settled into silence just as my wife and I pulled off the interstate to follow signs for Petrified Forest National Park. It was one of those too-close-for-too-many-hours arguments. Born of friction between the excitement of exploring some place new and the exhaustion of getting there. Our misunderstanding grew from nothing into something as fast as clouds over the desert. On the highway, we’d traveled under an open and infinite Arizona sky, but after taking the exit, there appeared potential for change to the east. A streak of silver, the hazy hint of rain beneath, hung like an accidental brush stroke over the painted desert when we pulled off the road to rediscover our patience and tour the remains of a long-ago forest.

In the slow quiet that descended after our initial volleys, we entered Holbrook, Arizona. The audiobook we’d been listening to had been paused for several wearying minutes. It envisioned a future where interplanetary travel was smooth and dependable but interpersonal communication failed often and spectacularly.

As we drove, my hands worked at the steering wheel like I had to squeeze our route out of it while my wife stared out the passenger window, chin in palm, giving me a view of the back of her head and the crest of one ear. This was, and still is, a form of punishment—the not seeing her fully. A withholding of the potency of her profile from my, even mid-conflict, peri-prurient gaze. It was, and still is, a very effective punishment. She was wearing a casual, sporty, red dress. Easy travel wear that nevertheless clung to her appreciatively. I wanted to attend to her soft swells and curves. But, even silent, we were arguing, so I had to look at the hard-edged town around us.

While we were in it, the argument was all-encompassing. Like there was nothing beyond the four doors and the windshield. The odometer clicked and the tires beneath us thrummed but time didn’t seem to advance. It’s said that when Einstein explained relativity to lay people, he quipped, “Sit by a nice girl for an hour and it feels like a minute, sit on a hot stove for a minute and it feels like an hour. That’s relativity.” Being married and arguing, I existed in both of Einstein’s states simultaneously. The marital Schrödinger’s cat. I was sitting on a hot stove even as I was sitting next to a nice girl, and my ass was roasting with each interminable second.

Love is relativistic like that. It can dilate the world to the sharp intake of half a breath, the space between parted lips, the incremental uptick of temperature as two forms share heat. It makes it all stretch into the infinite. At will, I can still relive the first moment of seeing the woman who would become my wife and thinking, “Oh no. This could get serious.” And those unspoken syllables stretch years, so that I am still there, seeing her anew, feeling the world shift and not yet admitting that the change I suspected was on the horizon had already occurred.

But relativity cuts both ways. In discord, as in the town of Holbrook, the world is distilled down to hearing what my partner says and deploying a strategic response. My thoughts swirl, faster than light, without allowing them to reach beyond the immediate. The rest of the world fades. The history of who we were and the potential for who we will be dissipates. There is only the argument, seeming to define our entire life together, with its outcome perilously uncertain.

In our silence, where love was backgrounded and seemingly undetectable like radiation from the Big Bang, I searched Holbrook for any indication of life outside of us right then. Something to give me perspective. Confirmation that the world was continuing to spin madly on, and coexistence was still possible.

What I saw was a Holbrook devoid of other humans. The town displayed a stillness of almost post-apocalyptic levels. In that moment, the town was like the desert around it, a reminder that all things, given enough time, fade. The only three species of storefront I could see were: fossil shop, pawnshop, and vacant unit. I don’t doubt that comfort existed somewhere in this town, but it was not immediately available to me.

On our right, we approached a lot full of giant white cones. It looked like the kind of thing a child would design. Like a lot of novelty-sized nuclear warheads. As we got closer, I saw that the cones were supposed to be tipis. The Wigwam Motel, its sign said in proud neon. The rooms were two-story tall, concrete parodies. I allowed myself to hope it was a spoof made by enterprising Apache or Diné folks to fool money out of that seasonally nomadic tribe of tourists.

“Wow, can you believe that?” my wife asked. An offering. The opening I had been waiting for.

But then her inflection—the effort in it—I bristled. It was an opening, but now that it had been presented to me, it was as abrasive as the grains of desert sand carried on the wind around us. How unacceptable to force it like that. To put effort into returning things to pleasant.

“Mm,” I hummed. My lips pressed into a mesa above my chin.

Here we were, both looking at the motel and marveling at its compounding of errors. How the place was not so much naively post-truth as violently counterfactual. It took the northeastern Algonquian word wigwam—rather than the more local Apache wickiup—for its name, misapplied it to a northern plains’ dwelling, the tipi, which was historically lightweight and nomadic, and then made the whole complex out of immovable concrete. “Can you believe that” indeed.

Instead of reconciling, after we passed the concrete affront to Indigenous peoples, I entrenched myself like a child in a couch-cushion fort. To respond to her entreaty would be to accept moving on, and I couldn’t do that because moving on would not solve anything. All it would do is make us feel better. And of what value, ultimately, is that in a marriage?

I had seen how short-lived this could be when I was ten years old. How things set aside and unaddressed could embed themselves between two people. The way they would grow and reemerge to fissure a relationship and break a home apart one unsaid word at a time.

I resisted because I did not want us to become like that. Geologic. I didn’t want to be surprised when some shift revealed the seed of this argument once again. Where, after years of being buried and entombed but steadily accumulating, the discontentment would emerge hardened into something else, bigger, transformed into an object impossible to break down. I needed all our arguments stopped while they were warm with life and vulnerable to decomposition.

Or, perhaps it is all much simpler than that. Perhaps I resisted her overture because sometimes I am as petulant as a grown man with hurt feelings.
We drove on through the heavy quiet following the signs for the national park, turning toward the edge of town. We traversed a railroad track that cut through the road at a slight diagonal. The car trundled over unevenly, driver’s-side first then passenger. My side of the car’s shocks yielded, inclining me toward the center between the two seats, while hers compensated, pressing her against her door. Then the other side, with the same results. We were a couple of magnets with like charges, repelling from contact.

Immediately to our left, we passed a historical marker for the Bucket of Blood Saloon. Another of Holbrook’s charming little spots, famous as much for a double homicide as for being over a century old. A plaque celebrated its historical significance. I wanted to make a comment about it, something about how we’d fit in there, but nothing worth breaking the silence for came. So I chuckled instead. A single “Huh.” 

The chuckle, I know in hindsight, probably seemed passive-aggressive. Looking back, I want to say I intended it as a monosyllabic commentary on the absurdity of our limited American sense of history. It’s the historical understanding of a child, incapable of imagining or acknowledging life existed before its birth. Terra nullius. Where a hundred-year-old bar was worthy of a historical marker. I wanted to laugh at the way we seem to only value history when we consider it ours. But I probably chuckled because it felt good. A little punch of breath thrown out into the air we shared.

Just before we reached the entrance to the National Park, on the opposite side of the highway, I stared at a warehouse with a red metal roof. Cross sections of petrified wood, our first good glimpse of the park’s namesake, sat on end in front of the store. Rocks littered the ground and each one, I was surprised to realize, was a fossil. There was so much petrified wood it was hastily piled everywhere. Fossil wood was mounded in white-fenced corrals that stretched around the building.

I knew this kind of place without stopping. Had seen many like it, growing up on countless road trips in the Midwest. It’d be like those roadside shops with buckets of arrowheads priced by the pound. Arrowheads likely looted from Osage and Kansa and Otoe and Ponca burials or abandoned villages. Settlements where my grandmother’s people once lived, happily and healthily, hundreds of years before the Blood and Guts Saloon served its first shot of swill. Places that are marked by no plaques. Places that, for the most part, don’t get to have histories. 

Though, the arrowheads could have just been dupes too. Newly made points knapped out behind the shop by a club of enthusiasts. I don’t know which I would find more distasteful: the physical theft or the unremitting cultural one.

The warehouse looked like the kind of business that would promise pieces for any budgets. I imagined petrified wood carved into clocks and coasters and keychains, built into chairs and coffee tables and benches, mounted on wall hangers and shaped into decorative eggs and sliced paper-thin into display pieces. I wondered how much of 225 million years ago my wife and I could buy on our humble incomes. I wanted the answer to be none, since we couldn’t reasonably afford to even drink twelve-year-old bourbon, but I knew it was probably quite a bit.

I made the final turn. With the fossil-wood dealer behind us, I felt emptier. As though that business had taken something from me, too. Where I had been rigid, I didn’t so much soften as crumble a little bit. Our argument diminished.

In the national park, we stopped first at the welcome center. Outside the car, the gentle movement of the warm desert air roused words from our mouths. It’s strange that for all the vividness of my memories of the threat this argument posed, I do not recall its actual content. I remember the adolescent frustration and the childhood fear and the adult exasperation. I remember hoping that this wasn’t us or who we would always be and being terrified that it was. I remember that on this trip we had two songs continually stuck in our head: “Use Me” by Bill Withers and “Gimme Some Money” by Spinal Tap. But I cannot, for the life of me, remember what we were arguing about in Holbrook. I think it was something as inane as directions or which exit to take.

In the parking lot, our sentences were rushed, louder than intended, and clipped before fully concluding. A family of six skirted past us. The youngest children sprinted up the path to the waiting fossils. The parents pretended not to notice us.

Evening was drawing down on the park quickly. It overlay the landscape in a blanket of flaxen light and, somehow, I had the sense that my wife and I were running out of time. The sky above flirted with clouds and the encroaching spot of rain, though they remained like a rumor, distant and ill-defined. All around, the desert smelled not wet, not like the plains before a storm, but expectant. Like anything could happen.

“We can just get back in and keep going,” I suggested.

“No,” she said. “We’re here. Let’s check it out.” 

We were there and that simple fact of proximity was probably what saved us. But, also, I suspect we both felt the same pull that had put a burst into the legs of the children that ran by.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“I’m sorry too,” she said.

A concrete walk wound up a small rise. With each step, it took us further from the car and our disagreement. Our shoulders brushed. There were a few light comments floated out on passerine wings. They flapped once, then tucked and gave themselves to gravity, not knowing where they would land. We smiled quickly, meeting eyes in passing before glancing at the ground.

Despite the strange modern amalgam of concrete beneath our feet and the painted steel railing that lined some sections of the walk, there was a sense of traveling outside the present. Like we were entering an eddy at the edge of the normal flow of things. A reprieve.

The fossils lay on their sides all around us, as if they’d always been there exactly like that. There was no sense that the trees had ever fallen. Instead, it was as though they had chosen to take an extended repose. Standing among them, their stillness seemed to touch even our hearts, which slowed in their steady presence.

My wife leaned over one. “They still have bark,” she said. Her voice was soft as she said it. Reverent. For all the discoloration of the now mineralized pulp, the bark looked the same as that of the conifers outside our apartment. She moved delicately and put her hand on the log as though not to wake it. Her shoulders relaxed and her lids grew heavy. She leaned closer. Paused. Leaned closer still.

In slow motion, in the way of seconds relativistically extending and becoming more, she knelt and put her ear to the crystalline face of the fossil. Her eyes closed. She listened.

Here, in the golden light of the retreating sun, in her red dress, with her hand laid on the stone bark of the tree as if to comfort it and her ear to the multihued crystal that was once phloem, cambium, and xylum, she blazed. The desert seemed frozen and even my breath, which was weary and hopeful and shallow, felt like an intrusion.

She stilled. Her expression was the same contented look she gets when she plays piano and leaves me to become a part of the music. A few feet back, standing somewhat unsteadily like a sapling, I wondered what she heard.

Did the trees sing of the soil of the western portion of the long-split Pangea? The way their roots were threaded into a landmass that was united and whole and millions of years away from fissure? How, from the threading of those roots, they stood tall, two hundred feet up in the oxygen-rich air of the late Triassic, shading proto-crocodilian phytosaurs, rumbling herds of stocky herbivorous dicynodonts, and scores of armored, spiny archosaurs? Did they revel in the fact that they were giants before the age of giants?

Or did they retell, with warmth, being there for the taxonomic infancy of mammals? The way those small, novel creatures, with their fur and mewling dependent young, would scurry up the trees’ trunks, touching the same bark that now rested beneath my wife’s palm? How, in the twilight when the darkness offered some small measure of shelter from the dinosaurs, their small, clawed forelimbs and twitching snouts investigated the larvae’s boreholes that still, even now, dotted the fossil’s surface? Did it swell with concern for those pinecone-sized refugees adapting to, and settling for, the niches left mostly untouched by the cold-blooded proto-reptiles that owned the world?

Or was it a lament? Did it relive their fall? How, amid a swirl of ash and volcanic spew, they were brought low? Was the river that became their pallbearer cold and shocking in its contrast to the burning air, as it caught and carried the trees to this final resting place? Could they sing of their regret that the ash and stone and silt buried them before the flora and fauna of the waterway could set to work repurposing their bodies into nutrients to feed the next cycle of life? How they lay below the surface in darkness, gradually hardening in the absence of oxygen and sunlight? Did it tell of how the silica, dissolved from the ash, infused their very cells as if they were a mold waiting to be filled and, combining with minerals from the water— the iron oxide, hematite, limonite, chromium and cobalt— cast the trees as yellow, purple, ochre, grey, and green quartz sculptures of their former selves?

Did they embrace their new, fortified composition with the defensive vigor and underlying bitterness of those who have been hurt too often and betrayed too dearly? Did their time in darkness warp them? Were theirs the ululations of the badlands, of cliffs and gullies and buttes? Did they embrace their bentonite bed with its swings of temperament? The way it swelled and cracked according to the whims of the desert rain, making it nearly impossible for any other plants to take root and consistently thrive atop their resting place? Were they comforted by this fact and its suggestion that perhaps this site was and always would be theirs? Had they spent so much time with their own loss that they could only feel relief at the misfortune of others?

The unlined serenity in my wife’s face suggested this could not be it. That this was just me letting my present permeate into, coloring and recasting, the past. Still, I broke my focus from her and the fossils and us, and I glanced around. The growing clouds were approaching.

The precarity of the desert brushed against me in a gentle breeze. I felt foolish and small and unnecessary. My wife had not moved. She was there with her ear against the fossil and peace on her face. Such is relativity that I could be so privileged and yet I had not been able to escape the conviction that our utterly forgettable argument had been everything while it was happening. Such is relativity that the threat of losing her, no matter how unrealistic, once acknowledged could still feel tantamount to my world ending.

Perhaps, maybe, the tree intoned a tale of patience and the unending progression of all things. How there, entombed, the trees lay and waited and rested in the Earth’s embrace. And for millions of years, they were still and, maybe, content even as the continents broke apart and drifted. Maybe they muse about the 165 million years the dinosaurs ruled. About how it was like watching grandchildren in adolescence. Maybe they spoke more of the way that rule gave way, first in an explosive flash and then steadily over eons, to birds and mammals? How ice encroached, regressed, encroached and regressed again and again and yet the warm bed of the earth held constant?

Was there a smile as they noted how those first furry beings not only survived but grew and changed? Did they relay the stories from a hemisphere away of how some of these small hairy creatures continued down that tree-dwelling path to become primates? Would they chuckle, knowingly, about those big-brained, visually oriented, perpetual troublemakers? And would they slow as they sung of the genus Homo, and its immediate antecedents, and how there had once been numerous species of them all living at the same time, all vying for the same resources to keep themselves and their offspring fed, all with varying sizes and shapes of skulls but with nearly identical hearts?

I was not listening, and so I cannot say exactly what it was that she heard that smoothed her face that way. But I was watching, and I absorbed every fractional release in my wife’s jaw, how the wind stirred only certain hairs from the nape of her neck. Seeing her hearing that song was almost too much for me to bear. Despite all the history all around us and built up within us, for now, this moment was all. For now, it was ours.

And as the sun settled down to couple with the horizon, throwing wide, orange shafts of light out like arms stretching to embrace the landscape, and the clouds directly above opened up in heavy drops that fell so slowly they looked like strokes of calligraphy in the air, cooling the evening further, I saw so much. How small and transient I was, as fleeting as the wetness that blossomed on our clothes where each pregnant raindrop landed. 

How the fossil field, that aeon-spanning graveyard, would soak up the moisture and, briefly, throughout the evening, would awaken. Flowers and shrubs and cacti with names like small spells would bloom and reach skyward as if they could draw it closer. The scattered yellow bursts of summer poppy, chinchweed, desert marigold, burroweed and Coulter hibiscus, interspersed with the purple of devil’s claw and trailing four-o’clock, punctuated with the off-white of sacred datura. For a few days— maybe less—for a racing moment, the ground would thrum with life and rejoice. The trees would be surrounded by the brief, opportunistic life of their descendants. Reckless and exuberant. And just as quickly, they would recede. The landscape stilled, waiting for the rain to incite another sweet burst of flitting fullness.

And I knew, suddenly, seeing my wife framed by a nimbus of now-crystal wood with her closed-lip smile spreading, what it must have been like for these fossils when, eventually, the tectonic shifts of the crust finally thrust the Chinle layer up once again to the surface and these great trees got to greet the sun for the first time in millions of years.







Portrait of Dan Musgrave

Dan Musgrave is a writer and photographer whose work often focuses on the intersections of the human and animal world. Most recently, his writing has appeared in New Letters and The Razor. He is currently working on a memoir with his father, John, about the intergenerational legacy of combat. He lives in Miami, Florida.



1 Response

Matthew Rettino
Matthew Rettino

October 27, 2022

I love how this story blends geological timescales with the personal and immediate. You brought eons into impressions that pass away in instants. Considering the age of the earth can indeed make us seem small and insignificant—and just maybe a life partner’s scorn can make us feel the same way, for a moment at least. It was beautifully said, and I’m fascinated by the different ways science and art can come together in narrative.

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