Think twice during your visit to Petrified Forest National Park about walking away with a colorful shard of petrified wood, for that "hot rock" just might bring you a world of hurt.
What harm could taking a small piece of petrified wood from the national park possibly do? After all, Petrified Forest, located in central Arizona, is literally littered with the intricate, and sometimes colorful, shards, bits, slabs, and even logs of petrified wood.
These geologic artifacts are part and parcel of the park's beauty, and the reason this area was preserved as a national park. While the disappearance of one piece of petrified wood might not be a big deal, if most of the visitors who explore the park wanted a piece to display at home, well, you can understand the problem that would arise.
Yet over the years folks have secreted pieces of petrified wood out of the park. And some of those folks have later experienced pangs of guilt and returned the pieces along with letters of apology. But beyond guilt, more than a few of the visitors felt the "hot" rocks brought them bad luck.
One unnamed visitor in August 1980 sent a short note back with the stolen wood in which she claimed her family was plagued by bad luck tied to the theft.
To whom it may Concern:
While on vacation this summer we toured through the beautiful Petrified Forest National Park. Upon leaving my husband took these pieces enclosed with him as souvenirs; now after all the bad luck we have had I am returning them where they belong.
Upon returning home we first found that my step mother had kidney failure, then our dog died, our central air conditioning went out and our freezer. I had a really close call in having a bad auto accident, our truck broke down needing major repairs, our cat was killed and last night close by our home a gas well blew out a cap causing us to be evacuated from our home for a while.
So Please take these pieces back before we have any more bad luck and except (sic) our deepest apologize (sic).
No name Please.
Yet another woman worried that some pieces she took during a visit would doom her marriage:
I am writing this letter in hopes of easing my conscience and saving the most important thing in my life, my marriage. Against my better judgement (sic), I removed three rocks which my husband discovered hidden in my brasiere (sic). Since then, being a true christian, he has constantly told me of my wrong doing. I'm afraid that our marriage is on the rocks. I want all of my eight children to see your park in the same condition that I saw it in.
I am keeping one rock to remind me of the lesson I learned the hard way. I am enclosing twenty cents for you to buy another rock to replace the one I am keeping as a token of my guilt.
Please forgive me and keep up the good work. Thank you.
In October 1970 a very short letter was received along with a piece of petrified wood. The note, hand-written in pencil on notebook paper, said simply, "Dear Mr. Ranger, I am sorry I took this. I am only 5 years old and made a bad mistake. Andy."
In 1989, another piece came back along with a letter that recounted more bad luck thought to be associated with the theft.
To whom it may concern:
In 1983 my husband and I visited your facility while on our honeymoon. We lived in Virginia at the time. We took this rock as a momento of our visit.
I'm not superstitious but, a year later, my husband was killed in an airplane crash not far from your facility. Since then, my life has been in turmoil. I just want to get rid of this reminder. Please put it back where it belongs. Regretfully
These and other letters, and photos of some of the stolen rocks, are contained on Bad Luck, Hot Rocks, a website maintained by Ryan Thompson and Phil Orr.
Despite stern warnings, visitors to the Petrified Forest National Park remove an estimated 12 tons of petrified wood from the park each year. Some of them eventually mail this stolen material back to the park, accompanied by ‘conscience letters.’ The content of each letter varies, but writers often include stories of misfortune, attributed directly to their stolen petrified wood. Car troubles. Cats with cancer. Deaths of family members. For many, they hope that by returning these stolen rocks, good fortune will return to their lives. Other common themes include expressions of remorse, requests for forgiveness, and warnings to future visitors. “They are beautiful, but I can’t enjoy them—they weigh like a ton of bricks on my conscience. Sorry…”, reads one letter. The park’s archive—which includes more than 700 letters—documents visitors apologies for their own misdeeds as well as the misdeeds of their friends, spouses, and parents, and for events which occurred days, years, or decades prior.
According to the two, the oldest "conscience letter" in the archives dates to 1935, 29 years after Petrified Forest National Monument was designated by President Theodore Roosevelt.