Curse or coincidence? Letters from Petrified Forest thieves
"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."
In a barren land far away, people gather to see a collection of artefacts more than 200 million years old. But in the process, it seems they've been cursed. Call it the Hope Diamond of the geological world.
Back then, all those millions of years ago in the wilds of Phoenix, Arizona, the landscape was a lush tropical wetland; huge trees climbed towards the sky more than 60m in the air as the first dinosaurs roamed the land below.
Today, though, the land is a vast desert that lays across a massive 125,000 hectares, stripped of its former glory it is filled with rock crevices and jagged slopes. They call it, "Triassic Park" - and it's biting back, with reports of strange events, stories of misfortune and a desperate desire to be free of evil.
What remains in this place, and what draws visitors back time and time again, is its Petrified Forest. Within this place lays a treasure trove of bejewelled fossils. It might not look it on the outside, but within the petrified wood are the fossilised remains of the giant trees that fell here all those years ago; semi precious gems packed with quartz crystals, opal and amethyst, among other gems.
But with treasure, comes terror - and for decades, visitors have described dark tales of woe, imprisonment, death and a whole lot of bad luck. Apparently, it's all because of this wood.
Since 1935, visitors to The Petrified Forest National Park have been stealing pieces of wood as a souvenir. Most of the time, down people's pants. Or in their bras. Or under their car seats.
Taking the bejewelled fossils has been prohibited for years; punishable by fines and imprisonment.
Serious attempts by the national park to thwart the thieves, including vehicle inspections, spying on visitors and foot patrols, all failed to make an impact. The thefts just kept coming.
Until around 2015, according The New Yorker, "a display in the visitor centre warned that rocks were disappearing at a rate of 12 tons per year, meaning that soon none would remain for future generations".
Alongside the warning was a bizarre collection of letters from visitors referring to a curse that would rain upon those who stole from the forest.
"I was immediately drawn to them for their humour, heartbreak, and humility," artist Ryan Thompson, who published the letters and rocks in a book, Bad Luck, Hot Rocks, explained in his introduction.
The letters, from repentant thieves pleading for forgiveness after stealing the precious wood, are quite compelling reading. The park had received around 1200 letters and returned fossils by 2015, and reportedly, they were continuing to pile up.
"Deep down, people know it's wrong to steal from our nation's collective heritage," a spokesperson for the park told news.com.au.
"When someone does, I'm glad it gnaws on them, that there is regret (eventually), and that there is an attempt (after the fact) to right their wrongdoing. Conscience kicks in!"
"The final straw was when I stepped through the ceiling of our new house. That's when I told my wife. I've had enough. I am sending it back," wrote "sorry in Texas".
Dateless + Desperate said: "Take these miserable rocks and put them back into the rainbow forest, for they have caused pure havoc in my love life and Cheryl's too."
And this, from Jenny: "I was so excited that I could be a part of something that took place millions of years ago … I don't know if that's the reason for my bad luck or not but I know it doesn't belong to me … Please forgive me."
Some letters included detailed maps of the rock's original location, as if by some miracle mother nature would magically heal from the crimes of the past.
"These rocks cannot be scattered back in the park; to do so would be to spoil those sites for research purposes," artist Ryan Thompson, who published the letters and rocks in a book, Bad Luck, Hot Rocks, explained in his foreword.
Instead, the returned fossils are dumped in a "conscience" pile, in the hope to build a monument to humanity's disastrous relationship with the Earth.
There was a time the park itself said the irreplaceable resource was "decimated". When the Criminal podcast interviewed Melissa Holes, a protection officer for the park in 2015, she claimed she had caught a visitor stealing just 45-minutes prior to their interview.
The park has since backed away from its aggressive policy; a spokesperson told news.com.au "the vast majority of visitors to the park in the last 100+ years have not stolen from the park, which is why the park is still as spectacular as ever".
Instead of using the curse as a frightening technique, they now estimate that of the over 700,000 people that visit the park each year, those who steal are "a small fraction of less than 1 per cent of our visitors".
These days, they will only receive "a dozen or so" letters. "Rarely, but occasionally," the park told news.com.au.
"I imagine there will always be a few 'bad apples' that violate law/steal from our collective heritage," a spokesperson said.
Whether the curse lives on, only time will tell.
- To see more letters from "Bad Luck, Hot Rocks," a book edited by the artists Ryan Thompson and Phil Orr, visit the website.
- To find out more about the Petrified Forest, visit the National Parks website.