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THE QUEEN OF KITSCH

By Nick Gerlich

Photographs by Efren Lopez / Route 66 Images

Found in a lonely area of eastern Arizona is Stewart’s Petrified Wood Trading Post – an oddity in an otherwise barren-desert- that is comprised of unique trinkets, human-eating dinosaur replicas and live ostriches. Nick Gerlich traces the story of the strangest place on 66, the people who run it, and finds there is much more to it than meets the eye.

The high desert across eastern Arizona stretches clear from the New Mexico border to the edge of Flagstaff, roughly 160 miles. It is more than two hours of epic loneliness, shades of red and orange punctuated only by an occasional small town, hiccups on the otherwise beautiful, but desolate landscape. The BNSF railroad is visible nearly every inch of the way, the low roar of the trains audible day and night.

On the super slab known today as the I-40 and formerly US Highway 66, cars and big wheel rigs proceed in random progression, clickety-clacking across expansion joints 24/7, like an emotionless advancing army. The sun beats down relentlessly year-long; the stars shine almost as brightly at night. And human-eating dinosaurs and ostriches toss complimentary pieces of petrified wood to motorists slowing down for a look-see.

It is there, at Exit 303 on Adamana Road, where Gazell Stewart set up shop in 1994 with her husband, Charles, to open Stewart’s Petrified Wood Trading Post. The dinosaurs aren’t real of course, but the ostriches are, and so are the piles of petrified wood on sale; the property looks more like a back lot filming location for a ‘70s horror movie. On a road that has a storied past with purveyors of kitsch lining its pavement, Gazell has put her own spin on what it means to beckon tourists to come hither with their money.

“I’ve been here since 1994, seven days a week. I’ve had no vacations, no holidays. I’m open Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Halloween. I’ll be there every day until the day I die.”

Kicks and Kitsch

Route 66 has long been the haven of highway salespersons hanging a shingle and trying to entice motorists with calls to action: Curios! Rugs! Moccasins! Do it in a TeePee; superlatives and exclamation points abounded, as these early marketers had but a few seconds to grab your attention once their shop appeared through the windshield. Billboards along the way helped, but with trading posts located often as little as every three to five miles apart, tourists had choices, and Mom and Dad surely would not stop for all of them.

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The 1940s and 1950s were the heyday of this roadside hucksterism. It’s a story well-documented by Thomas Repp in his “Route 66: The Romance Of The West.” There were often equal doses of southwest mystery (see Indians in their native habitat and buy their wares) and fear (observe rattlesnakes from a safe yet close distance). It was showmanship at its best, all designed to lure post-war travelers and their vacation budgets before they reached their west coast destinations.

It was the zeitgeist of that happy-go-lucky era that Gazell wanted to recreate along the freeway. Never mind that Route 66 had been replaced by the freeway for more than 30 years by that point. The couple had taken a fancy to gathering petrified wood that is abundant in the area, and to attending rock and mineral shows to sell it. They had a plan and a newfound passion and set it in motion. Large or small pieces, they cut everything themselves and created everything from jewelry to bookends to table tops. Located at the first exit west of the Petrified Forest National Park, and about 20 minutes east of the sleepy town of Holbrook, they sit along what is virtually a limitless supply of inventory.

But how could they attract cruising motorists off of the adjacent highway? Charles found a solution by hand-building the odd looking dinosaurs that greet motorists as they race down I-40, pulling their attention and interest, causing many of them to take the next exit. Continuing toward the parking lot, Charles’ creations stand placidly above on the rock face, atop boulders that completely fit the strange atmosphere. The torso of a female mannequin was placed in the mouth of one maneater for pure unadulterated shock appeal, an ace played so well that it has become their calling card up and down the Route. A large pen of ostriches are set off to the side, which visitors can nourish with feed purchased in the shop.

A slew of junk cars sit helter-skelter in the parking lot, again by design, just to make the place look busy, and an aged school bus has been permanently parked rather precariously atop a small rise. It is a relic itself. It has not carried children for a long time.

More mannequins and oddities line the drive and property perimeter, producing an eerie vibe that is simultaneously a little creepy and a soft sell. The two-headed dinosaur serves as a reminder that liberties were taken in order to get tourists’ attention. After all, the Stewarts needed to set their place apart, just as others did 60 and 70 years ago along the Mother Road, and this they did in spades.

In the Beginning

Twenty-one years separate Gazell (“I’m 61 and I’m proud of it.”) and Charles, 82. Both hail from southern Arizona originally, although Charles had land interests at the Adamana Road exit long before they met. “My husband owned 120 acres of land down here. We used to go to lots of rock, gem, and mineral shows, and started collecting and collecting. I married Mr. Stewart in 1994, and moved here from Phoenix.” As for the rocks, well...”it just accumulated after a lot of years,” Gazell laughed.

Both came from middle-class large families. “I grew up in Phoenix with 11 kids. I’m the baby. Charles’ family is the same. He’s the baby of 10.” The couple lives in a small cabin about a half-mile north and behind their shop. “Charles bought this land a long time ago. This was when he was married before. He had another family before me. I am actually Charles’ third wife. He built the cabin for his second wife in the 70s.”

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Gazell and Charles met rather serendipitously: “My (next oldest) sister’s husband was best friends with Charles. I would see him with his other wife. They were together. I was just a youngster and I used to party a lot. I never had intentions on him being my husband. My sister’s husband died, and so he was at the funeral, and that’s when I found out he was divorced.”

When the couple married, Gazell already had four kids from a previous relationship and the newlyweds decided to focus not on increasing their family, but growing and developing the one that they already had. “I had no kids by Charles. When we got married, he was too old by then. After I had my four kids, I quit. I got fixed. This is my first time being married too. First and last! [Charles’] previous wife was never here. She would come and go. Maybe that’s why I haven’t been anywhere. He let his other wife run all around. He won’t tolerate that with me. I wish I had my childhood back,” Gazell lamented. “My dad retired from Southern Pacific Railroad, and my mom was a cook. We wanted for nothing. My Dad had that [railroad] pass, so we went a lot of places. But being an adult, I haven’t traveled.”

Charles retired about 10 years ago, after his limbs gave out from too many years spent cutting and polishing rock. He comes down to the store some, and answers the phone, but his hard-working days are over. “It’s really bad that my husband retired, because each of these dinosaurs had thousands of Christmas lights on them. We don’t light them up no more. His back and his legs have gone out. He don’t have a lot of strength no more.”

Making it Work

Standing in front of the shop, in the midst of the wacky dinosaurs and the fossils, the vintage hand painted signs and the noise of the nearby highway, it is amazing that the Stewarts have been able to make such a go of their business. Gazell didn’t study any marketing in college, but she certainly learned the ropes.

“You know what I think actually gets ‘em?” she asked, earnestly. “Free. I advertise ‘free’. You offer somebody free, and it will actually shock you. Do you know how many people I have stop here for that? But when they get in the shop and they see that I have all this other stuff, they will actually buy something.”

Spoken like a grizzled veteran.

As for the junked cars and ostriches, “Every rock shop ought to know that!” Oldest trick in the book,” Gazell confirms. “Ostriches are family with dinosaurs. You look at their feet... they have dinosaur feet. And another thing, people love animals.”

Competition among petrified rock vendors in the area is fierce, including two across the freeway, and several in Holbrook. Gazell has tried to set herself apart by not venturing into more common tourist trinkets like moccasins and rugs. “We found out the one across the street specialized more in jewelry, rugs, and moccasins, and we felt we needed a rock shop between the Petrified Forest and Holbrook. I also sell some fossils, meteors, some kachinas, some Indian artifacts. But I don’t sell nothing else like moccasins. This is a low down dirty rock shop.”

Triassic Park

Eastern Arizona once looked nothing like it does today. Petrified tree trunks, limbs, and shards are just the most obvious examples of a bygone era that featured very different flora and fauna. And it turns out that it was actually a tropical climate with gigantic trees and enormous rivers, as well as animals that no one today would recognize.

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Dr. Bill Parker, Park Paleontologist at the nearby Petrified Forest National Park, explained that 200-225 million years ago, the area was situated across the equator, and was part of one big supercontinent. Large river systems provided moisture for gigantic ancestors of the modern redwood tree to flourish. A volcanic range to the west spewed ash into the region, depositing silica and helped preserve and fossilize trees when they died. The continents then drifted apart, and the more recent uplift of the Colorado Plateau left much of this petrified forest exposed to modern peoples.

“There is petrified wood in every state, and a lot of it is from different time periods, from 300 million years ago to 10,000 years ago. What we preserve in our area is from the late Triassic period. The cool thing is that, when the 210- million-year-old trees were alive, the 225-million-year-trees had been dead and fossilized for 15 million years.”

Gazell is especially proud of the petrified wood found in the area, praising both its abundance and intense color, which Parker notes is unique. “It’s not the oldest, but what makes the Petrified Forest area spectacular is the amount. It is the largest deposit of petrified wood in the world. It is also the most colorful,” he said.

As for the dinosaurs that Charles built as eye-catchers: “He was basically modeling it on dinosaurs that came from a later period. The Triassic ones would have been little guys that people don’t think dinosaurs looks like,” Parker added. “They’re thinking about the Jurassic period. But you’re not going to get people to pull over to your place unless you do what people are expecting to see. They’re not correct, but they’re commercially effective.”

Score one for the Stewarts.

Gazell is versed in the history of the area, but is not too worried about details other than getting people to take Exit 303. “This is Triassic era. This is where the dinosaurs used to roam. Dinosaurs attract people... not only kids, but adults like them a lot too. But since everyone is going 75mph, you have to do a statue thing for them to see you. Bigger is always better, so that’s why we built these big goofy dinosaurs. Besides, nobody knows how dinosaurs actually looked.”

Which pretty much gets them off the hook for not being exactly anatomically correct.

Besides, it’s working.

Life Along the Highway

Gazell has long grown accustomed to the stark, spare way of life in the desert and has developed a rhythm that allows her to flourish. “I like watching the trucks going down the highway at night. They’re all lit up. I like to look for meteors shooting across the sky, [but] I don’t think that many people could tolerate all the ‘peacefulness’. There are no neighbors. If I want to visit, I’ll go across the street to the other rock shop. I don’t actually get lonely. I don’t socialize. There ain’t nothing going on. My customers are enough for me. If I see two of them a day, I’m done. It makes me happy to see other people on vacation.”

At the same time, when she arrived in 1994, she was crushed by the desolation. “There were things I didn’t know. I didn’t think I could live out here! The power would go out in storms, and you would lose everything. And another thing that disturbed me really bad was no channels. I had cable TV back in Phoenix. I don’t like the wind that we get here. And the snow would cover our satellite dish. I had to go out there with my mop and clean it off. That used to make me so mad. There was a lot of stuff that stressed me out.”

Those challenges toughened Gazell, for whom city life was all she had ever known. Today, she has adapted, but hasn’t forgotten the sheer determination it took to maintain sanity and develop a firm resolve never to give up. “People just don’t realize. If people only knew what I went through. That’s what I tell a person. That’s why it is so hard for me to give it up. I have been through so much with this place. I cannot leave it. I don’t want to leave it.”

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The fact that she is located along where 66 ran is not lost on her, yet she has only a cursory appreciation for it and the people who ply it today, relying instead on her business instincts. “It’s really important because it is the mother of all roads, the only route to travel. That’s why I don’t like to close up.” She knows that there’s money to be made, and will meet people after hours at the gate, whether they be nostalgia tourists or a trucker from New York just passing through.

More important to her, though, is the pride she finds in her memories of customers who visited through the years, each day reflecting the ebb and flow of people, from common folk to celebrities. “I don’t have no day the same. Every day is different, and that’s what makes it so exciting. I’ve had Jerry Seinfeld here, I’ve had Ray Price here. I have a log book that goes back to 1994 that shows all my visitors I’ve had here. They all tell me, you got a friendly environment. Most of my customers are actually returns. They tell me they would go no place other than Stewart’s. I don’t advertise anymore. I’m trying to retire. I’m teaching my baby son Taiwan to take over. I don’t think I’ll ever be able NOT to go down to the store, because people are always asking for me.”

Her business philosophy is one seldom found along the side of the road: “Ain’t no such a thing as too expensive. I’ve got what you can afford. I don’t want you leaving here broke. You can only afford a $5 piece, I’ve got a $5 piece for you. You can only afford a $2 piece, I’ve got a $2 piece for you.”

To the Future

Today, Gazell is a proud family matriarch not only to her two sons at home and two daughters in Phoenix, but also six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. She is beginning to feel her years, and hopes that Taiwan will continue to have interest in maintaining the business. In spite of her adamant prediction of never completely stepping aside, she knows that she will follow in Charles’ footsteps and play a diminished role in the upcoming years.

To that end, both she and Charles started stockpiling at least 20 years’ worth of inventory in petrified wood, so that no more cutting or polishing will be needed for a long time. Taiwan, who currently feeds the ostriches and helps out on weekends in the store, is learning the ropes. “He’s building his own little clientele,” Gazell said matter-of-factly.

“It’s very interesting being around these fossilized trees,” Taiwan said. After 15 years of pitching in around the shop, Taiwan plans to “just keep learning from my mom.” He understands all too well that “to sell a rock to someone, they have to be really interested in it.”

Having grown up in such desolation, rather than landing in it at middle age, has made the loneliness easier to handle. “I’m gonna try to keep it going, keep it up to date. The shop used to look really good, but now it is starting to fade a little. Maybe we can work on making it look better,” he suggested.

Pop Goes the Culture

Time has flown for Gazell, who has managed to carve out a sufficient livelihood for her family on the ragged edge of the highway. She and Charles are not rich by any stretch, but they get by. The work has been hard, the hours long, the days continuous. But in the end, the Stewarts have built themselves a pop culture attraction. It’s hard to argue with wry Triassic humor and free wood.

Cindy Tafoya, the Director of the Holbrook Chamber of Commerce, confirms the appeal of the Old West, the petrified wood, and the dinosaurs: “People come this way to experience what we have, and places like that (Stewarts) provide an opportunity for them to take a little piece of it with them.”

As for the kitschiness of it all, “It’s a good bait... for kids, people with kids, and people who are kids at heart.”

A warm wind blows by, carrying a squawk of an ostrich as it caresses the rocky, barren landscape. The air of apocalypse overwhelms visitors here if they can just take a quiet moment to soak it all in and reflect on their surroundings and the history of this area. People from around the globe have sought the strange and the brazen for decades, choosing fabled Route 66 and the push West to find it. This land, the land where Charles and Gazell Stewart chose to build their business and their life together, holds a wealth of secrets, but you need to be very still and terribly patient to discover them. The somber, reflective mood that is created by nature, the fading vintage vibe and the motley crew of tacky dinosaurs, makes for a memorable experience.

The rush of traffic far below, mingled with the other-worldliness and lonely silence, make this one of the last truly unique places on the old road.

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