Arizona Kitsch on Highway 40

Stewart’s Petrified Wood and Rock Shop

Midway between Holbrook and the Painted Desert, you see the first sign of the singular lifestyle a few hardy souls mold out of the desert. Rising up like a mirage is a paper-mache dinosaur in all its kitschy and weathered splendor. A mile on there’s another and then the entire place comes into view. It’s Stewart’s Petrified Wood and Rock Shop.

Now, dotting the whole stretch of Highway 40 there are souvenir shops selling Native American artifacts. Some boast impressive rooftop Indians out of cement. Some resemble a small encampment of teepees or an old fort. All are effective at recreating the atmosphere of the Old West and all come well-stocked with a tempting array of beaded Indian jewelry, souvenir shot glasses, and cold pop. This is something altogether different.

A Ramshackle Outpost

Stewart’s is a ramshackle outpost of quirky advertising, geologic authenticity, dusty entropy, and the unique entrepreneurship born of the west. The visitor explores the place piecemeal for each step reveals to the eye something unexpected.

This might be another dinosaur-like the pterodactyl on the roof bedecked in Christmas lights and straddled by a dime-store mannequin in a red dress whose out-thrown arms suggest a Las Vegas showgirl finale. Or the chunks of petrified wood strewn about the grounds looking like the aftereffect of a Krakatoa. Or the abandoned yellow school bus on the bluff, faded and broken but peopled by the same fun-loving mannequins that frolic with the dinosaurs.

It is one of those places tourists enter thinking they might never be heard from again. Yet it ropes them in. It promises geologic wonder and the kind of adventure they enjoyed as children in some dark attic or a hidden cavern.

A Treasure Trove for Rock Hounds

Passing the threshold is indeed like entering a cave and it takes a moment for the proprietor and his dusty domain to emerge out of the gloom. Shelves of petrified wood take form; there are polished balls of it, raw chunks, and bookends carved into abstract or animal shapes. Semi-precious stones and rocks of every kind round out the assortment, with a mad jumble of pure junk thrown in for fun.

Here Stewart, a seasoned African American man with a persuasive sales technique, holds court with the sun-struck pilgrims who become, for a brief spell, rock hounds, panners for gold and intrepid explorers. They fall under the spell of the place and by the time they leave, the mesmerizing influence of the triple-digit heat, Mr. Stewart’s congenial sales pitches, and the site of that bounty of rock have worked their magic.

With their dusty treasure in stow, they drive away in a cloud of dust, happy as prospectors who have hit gold.


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