Thus discovered I decided to make the most of the situation and geared up for a nice trek out into the Painted Desert section of the park. By 3pm I had left Van Halen in the company of a very respectable looking tree and was on my way out into the desert. Before long the trail disappeared completely and I was free to roam around. Weirdly, the entirety of the ground in every direction was extremely muddy. Imagine a landscape with many different types of ground: meadows, dirt, riverbeds, hills, etc. etc. Now imagine that, no matter what the ground looks like, stepping on it will result in another pound of mud caked to your boots. This was my reality. I actually didn’t mind, though, and it was kind of fun squelching around the place.
Despite the scoffing of the visitor center attendant I was able to find the famous Onyx Bridge without too much difficulty and was equally pleased to find a dry spot of gravel nearby for my tent. I set up camp and continued my exploration unburdened. I’m sure this will come as no surprise, but the area had an ample supply of petrified wood and dirt/mud of a wide range of colors. By itself, and when you really think about it, the petrified wood is really cool. These are trees that are over 250 million years old. Wow! The fossils are extremely wood-like in appearance but are all hard silica rocks with fantastic colors. That said, this stuff is everywhere and is strewn about it a very disorganized and chaotic way. So, despite the coolness of it, I quickly got over the petrified wood.
I also realized that the Painted Desert was the same purgatory from outside Tuba City. Walking around it I had the same impressions; it certainly wasn’t ugly (I especially like the weird, brainy patterns formed by water channels in the cracked mud), but it really wasn’t very pretty or inspiring either. If mother nature is a poet then the Grand Canyon is a masterwork written at the height of her career when she was still relatively young and ambitious; Valley of the Gods is a piece written after she is older, more contemplative, and more subtle; and the Painted Desert is from her high school years. A talented high-schooler, perhaps, but lacking confidence and experience.
After a dinner I spent a long time looking up at the spectacularly dark sky. Around 9pm the wind shifted and suddenly I could hear trucks chugging along way out on I-40. Talk about isolation! The night was very cold in the tent (hopefully my last cold night!) and I can’t say I slept well. With dawn came a hike back to Van Halen (this time over hard, frozen ground). After breakfast I finished the rest of the park road while stopping to see the highlights along the way. After my hike yesterday all of the highlights were simply more of the same, although Blue Mesa was actually pretty cool and worth the stop. The Rainbow Forest visitor center at the southern entrance had some very cool dinosaur skeletons, but by this point I was tired of seeing petrified wood. All in all, I’d say Petrified Forest National Park is a great way to spend about 4 hours or so, but is somewhat of a one-trick pony.
On advice from my elders the destination for the night was Safford, AZ, which I reached via US 180, AZ 180A, AZ 61, US 60, and US 70. This was a pleasantly pastoral drive and ran through a wide range of scenery, ranging from NorCal-esque ranch land to the completely stunning and unexpected Salt River Canyon. I hope people raft down that river. Once in Safford I got some good beta from the BLM on nearby free camping and some hot springs (!). I spent the night just outside of town on BLM land and was overjoyed to record a low of 42 degrees. I had finally made it somewhere warm!