Once Upon a Forest

So last weekend I went to the Muir Woods north of San Francisco with a friend. The Muir Woods are a national monument – old growth 1,000  year old redwoods. Magnificent giants so close together that sunlight barely filters down to the ground. Neat.  It also reminded me of the time a friend of mine and I went hiking in the badlands.

Let me explain. East of the town I grew up in is a sizable range of badlands between the town and the Bighorn Mountains. Badlands are aptly named – they are hills all bunched together with no top soil – just hard-pan hills with little to no vegetation and full of rattlesnakes, scorpions, and various lizards, maybe a bobcat or two. If you’ve ever seen pictures of Badlands National Park in South Dakota, that’s what they look like. Here’s a picture actually taken northeast of town, not far from where I grew up:

I remember a time or two growing up there when a moose or elk had strayed out of the Bighorns and had gotten itself lost in the labyrinthine badlands.

Well, one day in late May of 1983 (I would have been 13 going on 14) my friend John and I were bored and decided to ride our BMX bicycles to the base of the badlands, which are obviously in close proximity to the town (as soon as you leave the river valley the town is in, and head east, you have to drive through 30 miles of badlands before you get to the base of the Bighorns). At the base of the badlands,, which now loomed right in front of us like a wall of sentinels, we found a cave. It petered out quickly into less than a crawl space, so we didn’t spend too long exploring the cave – school had just let out for the year, and it was getting just warm enough for rattlesnakes, so we definitely needed to be careful. We had brought along  John’s Crossman air rifle just in case – one could never be too careful in the badlands.

At some point on this little adventure we decided it would be kind of cool to climb the highest nearby peak of the badlands – rising perhaps 1,800 feet above the valley floor. The climb proved to be very  steep, treacherous, and arduous. So much so that we considered giving up the idea at one point. But neither he nor I were born quitters, so we pressed on. In places the climb was at a 30 degree upward angle, requiring us to lean forward as we made our way to the top, to avoid falling down the barren slope. We had no mountaineering gear with us – just our hiking boots (or waffle stompers as we used to call them) the air rifle, our youth, and that certain inner grit that really does seem to be born out of living in a place like that.

After several hours, we made it to the top, and the view was absolutely amazing. We could see half the Big Horn Basin, it seemed, in that clear, dry air, as well as the entire town. In the other direction we had a magnificent view of of the Big Horn Mountains, now unobstructed by the badlands. As payoffs for day hikes go, it doesn’t get much better than that.

At the top was a small plateau,and upon this plateau was a forest.

Or at least what had once been a forest.

We came upon a scene that is rare indeed, and something I have never really forgotten. We were standing amongst fallen trees and logs and stumps – many of the stumps were easily as big around as those redwoods in the Muir Woods – only this forest, or what little was left of it, had long since been turned into solid rock by the hands of time. We had stumbled across an ancient and undisturbed  petrified forest, millions of years old. Where we stood had once been a thick, deciduous (possibly redwoods?) forest. As the Earth changed from a time well before man, the forest must have withered and died, and this small section of it must have been covered up by clay and sediment and thus petrified over eons, and as the clay eroded slowly away over the millenia, it left these fallen logs and giant tree stumps forever preserved in solid rock.

Even at that age, we knew what we were seeing was an exceedingly rare privilege, one that few (if any) in the town probably even knew about.

I wanted to tell everyone about it of course – the born writer in me was screaming to – but John objected to this. He thought aloud, “What if people come up here and bust everything up or spray paint it or something?  We might be the first people to see this in 100 years, man.”

He was right. And so we made a pact to never tell anyone about it. And for 30 years, as far as I know, neither of us ever has. In fact, I have never spoken or written of what we found that day until just now.

While I am not saying exactly where it is, I thought maybe this blog was as good a place as any to finally mention it.

The petrified forest near my hometown is, in any event, inaccessible by anything but foot, and it is a dangerous and taxing hike. But it’s also a remainder of the wonders that are all around us, which are often mostly taken for granted, or worse, overlooked completely.  Which is too bad, really, because small wonders like that petrified forest are also subtle reminders of how very little time, in the grand scheme of things, mankind has been wandering around on this planet, and of the fact that we are nothing more than tenants here.

30 years ago I made a promise to never tell of the petrified forest. Today I am breaking that promise, because it feels like it’s time to.

I hope I’m right.

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