Dr. John Rutherford brings the Petrified Forest alive for visitors

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Dr. John Rutherford

We met John Rutherford last month in Arizona. He’s an 87-year-old retired doctor from Oklahoma, who has figured out how to put his love of science, history, and his people skills to good use in this chapter of his life.

When I was a kid, the Petrified Forest was one of those exotic-sounding places that those of us who weren’t lucky enough to be taken on the classic Route 66 trip to California we heard about from our friends who did get to go there. I remember that Dennis the Menace went there with his family in a comic book, and I’m pretty sure Archie and Jughead did, too.

For many travelers, Petrified Forest National Park has been little more that a brief pit stop on I-40 — or Route 66 in the old days — a welcome break in the monotony of the drive across the great plains and high desert. The family could pile out, take a few pictures of the weird rocks, take a bathroom break, and push farther west. But if you take a little more time to see this place, you’ll be rewarded.

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Woody’s version of the line, “Like a woodpecker in the Petrified Forest.”

I’d been here once, over 40 years ago. We bought our senior lifetime National Park passes last September. Inspired by Ken Burns’ documentary and the recent 100th anniversary of the National Park system, vowed to see as many as possible. So, on last month’s trip to Arizona, we wanted to make sure we took some time in the Petrified Forest. We thought we’d give it a couple of hours on the way up to Canyon de Chelly, but (of course) ended up taking half a day for the 28-mile drive from the Rainbow Forest Visitor’s Center at the southern end of the park to the Painted Desert Center near the north entrance. It’s easily worth more time than that. This National Park, like every National Park or Monument I’ve ever visited: 1. doesn’t disappoint, and 2. makes you always wish you had a little more time to spend there.

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A family with young children takes a break and enjoys the view of the petrified logs at the Rainbow Forest Visitor’s Center.

At one of the overlooks, we were greeted by man in wearing a National Park Service uniform. He told us he was a volunteer interpreter and offered a free guided walking tour down into an area that had a large concentration of petrified wood pieces. We heard the word “free” and signed on immediately, as did two people from West Virginia.

Version 2Retired Doctor John Rutherford was our guide.  As we followed him down the trail into a valley full of colorful rocks, he explained to us how the volunteer program works and told us about some of other National Parks and Monuments he’s worked at since his wife passed away nearly a decade ago.  He’s had to learn a lot about each of parks he’s worked in to be able to lead tours and answer questions. His knowledge of this park and its geology and history was very impressive, as was his physical ability to hike a mile or so down into the valley and back up in the warm sun.

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John Rutherford shows us a fine example of the colored rock that was once a living tree.

John gave us a crash course on the geology of the park. He started with, “I’m going to assume you know nothing”.  (Nothing to disagree with there.)  We learned a lot from him in a short period of time. For instance, did you know that because of continental drift, (“plate tectonics”) that this part of Arizona was located about as far north of the equator as Cost Rica is now when these trees were alive?

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In some areas of the valley where John took us, the ground was completely covered with color.

As a doctor, he was, of course, a man of science, and he’s found a way to continue his pursuit of scientific knowledge — and do some teaching — for many years after his retirement. It’s obvious that this is a big part of why he’s so physically healthy and mentally sharp.

I asked him how he explains this place to visitors who, for religious reasons, believe in the “young earth” theory — that the the Universe, Earth, and all life on Earth were created by acts of God about 6,000 years ago — a far cry from the science that puts these trees at 225 million years old. He paused for a moment before saying, “Yeah, we get those people here from time to time. When they start saying that kind of thing, I just tell them that if they believe that, then in this park we don’t have much more to talk about.”

What a great answer. Thank you, Dr. John Rutherford for caring for America’s special places and teaching us about them.  You were a highlight of our trip and an inspiration to a couple of fellow senior citizens.

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