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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Catching up from a trip to Arizona

The past month has been kind of a blur. But it reminds me of why I like to take pictures. After a two-week trip to Arizona, we came back to yard word and the usual list of catch-up things to do. When I finally sat down this morning to look at the photos from the trip, I realized how important it is for me to have some sort of reminder of each day, a visual cue to trigger other memories of people and places we visited.

So, while I haven’t posted photos since April 8, I’ve been shooting every day.  Now I’m going to “post-post” photos, a week’s worth at a time, until I get up to date.

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(4/9/17) The trees were leafing out, the golf courses had been open for a month, and spring was in the air a couple of days before we left for Arizona. This was definitely not going to be a get-away from wintery weather.

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(4/10/17) Happy birthday to Karen on a rainy evening.

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(4/11/17) After flying to Phoenix, we picked up a rental car and headed north.  Holbrook, AZ is on old Route 66. The newer chain motels and chain restaurants are on the other side of I-40, and the older businesses try to survive by playing up the kitsch and schlock (and spirit) of a bygone era.

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(4/12/17)  This guy was galloping south on U.S. 191 in the Navajo Nation near Ganado as we were going north. I really wanted a photo, so I turn the car around and drove past him a ways and stopped to wait for him to ride by.  He saw me hanging out the car window with my camera and gave me a big smile and wave. I don’t know your name, sir, but “Baa ahééh nisin, díidí” (translation: “about this, I feel grateful”).

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(4/14/17) Canyon de Chelly is one of the most under-visited of our National Parks and Monuments and one of my favorite places I’ve ever been.  It’s located in the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona, and probably shows more respect to the native people that any other national park.  In fact, it’s the only unit of the National Park Service that is entirely owned and operated by a Native American nation. The “White House” trail is the only place where non-residents can hike into the canyon without a Navajo guide.  The trail zigzags down the steep walls of the canyon and then follows the river to the “White House Ruins”, an abandoned ancient cliff dwelling that lies below a dizzying, overhanging, 800-ft shear cliff.

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(4/13/17) Spider Rock is a famous formation in Canyon de Chelly and is a historic and sacred place for the Navajo people. It’s a magnificent spot to watch the early evening light soak the canyon floor as the sun goes down behind you.

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(4/15/17) Elgean Joshevama, Jr. is a full-blooded Hopi from the village of Lower Moenkopi, whom I met on the street in Flagstaff.  I bought this Kachina that he had carved.  He thanked me and said he was going to buy breakfast for himself and his friend. He’s a very nice man and he makes beautiful art.