Stewart's Petrified Wood
Petrified wood is the brown gold of northeastern Arizona. It's a commodity that's scattered along the ground everywhere, and yet tourists will pay money to get some -- if you can get them to stop. And that's a problem. Today's overstimulated travelers -- snug in their cocoon of digital entertainment and satellite navigation -- aren't inspired to pull off of the highway by the clunky, 1950s-era art that advertises most petrified wood attractions: a fallen cartoon log, shattered into several smaller logs, its center eaten away by some Jurassic termite.
Which is why Charles Stewart is doing such good business.
The outside wall of Charles's modest rock shop has the same bad log art -- but he's populated the rocky entrance bluff and surrounding property with large, hand-made dinosaurs, easily visible from the interstate. Some of them have motors to make them move, some are wrapped in strings of Christmas bulbs that are lit and blink all night -- and some of them have bloody mouths filled with body parts and half-eaten lady mannequins.
Oh, and he also has an ostrich farm.
"The whole idea is to show close to the beginning of time of living animals to the present day situation," Charles explains. "So you have the dinosaurs, you have the ostriches -- which were almost here when the dinosaurs were devastated -- then you've got the mannequins of present-day man." (mostly second-hand female models outfitted with red shock wigs)
And why are the dinosaurs EATING the mannequins? Charles takes a drag on a Winston.
"Well, they got to be doing somethin'."
Charles moved here from Phoenix in the 1970s and opened the rock shop in 1994. He got the idea for his dinosaurs soon afterward, ran it past his wife, Gazell (who owns the shop), and soon put his attention-grabbing theories into practice. He erected an animated, flying dinosaur on his roof ("simple hydraulics" he notes, some engeering skills he picked up in the armed services during the Korean War), two more in front of the shop, and one apiece on the east and west approaches along the interstate. The dinosaur to the west is perched atop the bluff, next to a school bus, and is making a meal of another hapless young lady.
Kids in particular, Charles told us, love his dinosaurs, "Especially because they're animated, and you hardly see an animated animal on the road without paying." But not everyone shares this enthusiasm. A gift shop worker at a nearby attraction, for example, told us that she was frightened by Charles's dummy-chomping dinos, and vowed never to visit the place. Charles scoffed at the idea. "Nobody scared of the dinosaurs! They're like the ostriches -- in pens!"
It's true. Charles has fenced in each of his creations.
The dinosaurs are only the most obvious of Charles's sales gimmicks. He parks junk cars in front of his shop so that it appears as if he always has a crowd (a classic tactic used by other interstate exit attractions such the Genoa Wonder Tower, Prairie Dog Town, and neighboring petrified wood and Indian crafts shops).
He gives every child who stops by a free piece of petrified wood. He encourages everyone to feed the ostriches, which makes him a nice profit in the sale of repackaged pellet food. "I don't want to live in no teepee," Charles told us. "I want to live in a house.'"
Charles's dinosaurs -- boxy, lumpy, with triangle teeth, cartoon eyes, and skin that's a uniform park bench green -- are definitely creatures of his imagination. But that didn't stop the owner of a rival rock shop, who also has dinosaurs, from threatening a lawsuit at one time. "He told me I couldn't build dinosaurs because he had a copyright on 'em," Charles remembered. "I told him, 'I won't have to copy off of your dinosaurs. I can make my own.' Hell, no one actually knows how they looked anyway, it's been so long."
"A copyright on dinosaurs," Charles snorts. "That's like saying you got a copyright on houses! Then if you build your own, you're copying off of somebody!"
Charles is older than he looks, and talks of retirement. But his kids -- two daughters who are lawyers and a son with a doctorate -- are not likely to take over the business. "They make too much money," Charles said. He's asking several million for the place -- property, dinosaurs, and dummies -- but admits that he'd settle for a little less if someone shows up with a bag of cash.
"People think I'm gonna give it away," he said. "But I ain't in no big hurry."
Neither are the people who see Charles's dinosaurs and pull off of the road.