Would you take this rock? People who steal from Petrified Forest tell stories of their terrible luck.
In 1980, an anonymous writer sent some stolen rocks back to Petrified Forest National Park along with a detailed, guilt-washed letter. After her husband had nabbedthe pieces while on a summer vacation, they had been haunted by bad luck, she wrote. Her stepmother had kidney failure, their central air and freezer died, their dog and cat had met untimely ends, and their truck broke down. The night before she penned the letter, they’d been evacuated from their home after a gas well exploded.
“So Please take these pieces back before we have any more bad luck,” she wrote, adding an apology at the end.
The list of bitter complaints was unique but not the sentiment. Bad luck seems to follow people who steal rocks from Petrified Forest—at least that’s what hundreds of regretful visitors believe. So after harboring filched rocks for weeks or years—sometimes decades—they mail the specimens back, often with a remorseful letter attached.
In 2011, Ryan Thompson spotted some of the so-called “conscience letters” on a chance visit to Petrified Forest. A Chicago-based artist and art professor, Thompson was instantly intrigued; his art project, “Bad Luck, Hot Rocks,” was born soon after. On the project’s website [now defunct], he regularly posts photographs of the stolen rocks along with the rueful letters that people have been writing since 1934.
“I am sorry I took this rock. I lied to my mom and dad,” one little boy penned in uneven handwriting. Another correspondent, “Sorry in Texas,” explained that the final straw was when he stepped through the ceiling of his new house. “I’ve had enough,” he wrote, adding, “P.S. Boy what a relief!” Another woman wrote that that her husband died in an airplane crash shortly after taking a rock.
“It’s easy on the one hand to laugh them off as superstitious, especially as people go through the litany of things that have gone wrong. It sounds like a country music song,” Thompson says. “But you get to one about a plane crash—something so powerful and real—you have to catch yourself. It has humor and heartbreak simultaneously.”
In all, the park has collected roughly a thousand letters over the years, and while the stream of incoming mail ebbs and flows, staff members receive around three or four new letters each month. Most are not on display, but Thompson hopes to give a more public stage to these strange, telling missives through the website as well as a book project he and a collaborator have in the works.
Petrified Forest staff have been trying to make the park more inviting to visitors and to de-emphasize thievery, which they say was never particularly rampant. Nonetheless, they have welcomed Thompson.
“If anything, I hope people do concentrate on the individual stories and get from them what I did—that sense of being linked to human condition. And of seeing pathos and having empathy for people in crappy situations who are looking for something to lay the blame on,” says Matt Smith, a Petrified Forest museum curator. “It’s not that I made a bad decision, it’s this wood and it’s cursed. I think that’s a very human thing to do—to look for a reason and whyfor.”
Thompson is also fascinated by the magnetic pull of ancient objects and the human drive for a connection to something that reaches way, way back in time. “It’s healthy to try relating to time scales beyond our conception,” he says. “It can be depressing to think that we’re just a blip in a massive scale of time and mass, but I also think that it reaffirms what I see as a calling to steward this place that we’re inhabiting temporarily.”
Unfortunately, the conscience rocks never go back to their rightful spots. The Park Service doesn’t know precisely where they came from—or even if they actually originated at the park. For that reason, they leave returned rocks in an enormous, car-size pile that’s not accessible to the public.
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It’s an ironic twist that the petrified wood doesn’t make it all the way home, Thompson says, but he still sees redemption in people’s efforts to “do right by the world” and leave these precious resources for future generations.
“There’s hopefulness in returning these things,” he says. “I think that people somehow understand they’re not something to be messed with; they’re not there for us to take. It is something bigger and deeper and larger than them and the rocks should really stay where they are.”
About the author
Rona Marech Editor-in-Chief
A longtime journalist, Rona Marech joined NPCA in 2013. She is the editor-in-chief of National Parks magazine.