August was the month for our travels for many years. My husband’s professional organization, Soil and Water Conservation Society, held a week-long conference somewhere in the United States or Canada during the first week. Jim was on the faculty for seminars or workshops most years. After the conference, we would vacation in the general area for a couple of weeks. I wrote the original of this in the early nineties and had it published in Rock and Gem magazine. I’ve decided it’s time to give people an opportunity to laugh at or with me again, so I’ve added to and deleted from the original. This is the result.
Vacation? Well, it was for Jim. My view of a vacation did not include sitting in blazing hot sun turning over dirt looking for something he considered a precious gem. Just don’t try to hand me a pick axe. I might use it on you.
Someone once said only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun. Well, I’m here to tell you that whoever wrote that song was wrong. There is another creature who goes out in the noonday sun. Also, the noonday rain and any other phenomenon the weatherman might conjure. That creature is a rock hound.
That set you back on your heels, eh? How do you like the “eh” bit? I picked that up on a trip to Canada where we heard it right and left. I nearly drove Jim crazy with my indiscriminate use of it, but I decided that was okay. Tit for tat, you might say, eh? since he nearly drove me wild in other ways. His obsession with rocks, for instance. Well, rocks to us normal people, minerals to him and his ilk. I used a derogatory tone the first time I called him a rock hound. He didn’t hesitate to inform me that if he’s a rock hound, it makes me a rock bitch. Okay. I admit I sounded off on his penchant for collecting rocks. More than once.
Perhaps you’re not sure the person who faces you across the breakfast table is, in fact, a rock hound. Well, far be it from me to cast aspersions toward anyone, so I’ll let you decide for yourself if he/she meets the following criteria. If so, be warned and take appropriate action before it’s too late. As Don Knotts says, “Nip it, nip it in the bud.” Or in this case, the pebble.
A rock hound is a two-legged creature, male or female, any age that includes the ability to walk, stoop, and bend. A rock hound is a critter that sees value in ordinary rocks. Of course, your true rock hound does not recognize rocks as being rocks—they’re gemstones and minerals. A rock hound is a creature that walks with his or her eyes gazing at the ground, carefully examining every rock (excuse me! gemstone or mineral) that might hide in its depths a tiny sliver of color indicating something precious in that otherwise dull mass of hard stuff.
And how did such a creature come into existence? Picture this otherwise sensible human being who places a handful of marbles in his pocket and goes for a walk. Every time he picks up a rock, he loses a marble. When he loses all his marbles, the creature has become a rock hound.
I’ll clue you in on what I found to be the best thing about our few days in Bancroft, Ontario one year. The beryl pits. No, not for the beryl that Jim found there in good quantity and quality. Inspiration. On our first visit to those pits, I was moved to write about my experience with automatic toilets in Toronto, a story printed in these annals some time ago. On our second visit, two days later, I found a shady spot, propped my back against a tree and jotted down these thoughts about the trials and tribulations of life with a rock hound. The sound of a rock hammer striking stone and the grunts of honest labor are an excellent accompaniment to writing. So, if you have writer’s block, find a beryl pit.
Although I lost all my marbles long ago, it had nothing to do with rocks. I am not a rock hound. As far as I’m concerned, the only logical reason for the existence of a rock is to throw at cats that use my flower borders as a litter box. I am, however, the sister of a couple of rock hounds and I’m married to one. I didn’t marry a rock hound, you understand. I didn’t learn about that quirk in Jim’s personality until it was too late to back out. I married a forester and soon learned that he is the only human alive who can inspect the tops of trees while his eyes scan the ground. For 50 years, I trudged up hill and down dale as my particular rock hound searched for that elusive gem quality rock. Stone? Whatever.
My brothers have long since given up hope I might display any intelligence on the subject, but Jim perseveres. Bless his heart. One of his early efforts to educate me began on a trip to Alaska in 1972.
A Virginian by birth, Jim had worked for the Alaska Forest Service before moving to North Carolina, but I had never been there, so I planned a surprise trip for his birthday present. Have you ever tried to save a lot of money without your spouse knowing it? It took three years but, finally, travelers’ checks in hand, we loaded our 1971 Mustang and started on a six-weeks, 11,000-mile trip. By journey’s end, I really blessed Ford for making the Mustang so small. Do you have any idea how many rocky streams there are between Chapel Hill and Fairbanks? I don’t think we missed a one and, naturally, Jim gathered rocks at each. Rocks? Well, those things, whatever you choose to call them.
It was a memorable trip in many ways, but the part I remember best was panning for gold. We’ve all heard of the old-timers who made fortunes this way, and perhaps there are still those hardy souls who work at it. Personally, I found it boring. Utterly boring. Until, that is, I saw the bear. There’s nothing boring about being in the wilds and seeing a bear coming toward you. Trust me on this. Been there, done that, have the tee shirt. My first scream didn’t reach Jim, just a few feet away, but I assure you the second one was heard in Haines, 35 miles down the road.
Jim graciously informed me it was only a cub and calmly proceeded to watch as it circled around us. I must admit it was a pretty creature, a golden-brown color and cuddly in appearance. Hindsight tells me it was more scared of us than I was of it, but at that point I just wanted to put distance between us. Jim decided we probably had its fishing hole, and knowing that Momma Bear might not have abandoned her baby yet, we casually retreated. Sure enough, when it reached where I had been crouched, it ignored us and started searching for dinner. Jim said it was never closer than 50 feet. I can only say that was the shortest 50 feet I’ve ever seen. And can you believe, that was the only day Jim was not carrying his camera?
So much for gold. Maybe diamonds would be easier to find. Yeah, sure. Any woman who believes diamonds are her best friend hasn’t sat in the hot Arkansas sun in August, turning over dirt looking for them.
Our first trip to the diamond mines near Murfresboro, Arkansas was in 1975. I had a reasonable amount of enthusiasm as we gathered the required paraphernalia and chose a likely spot to dig. Twenty minutes later, I was ready to leave. A thermos of water didn’t help. Pepsi might be the right one, baby, under most circumstances but definitely not on that day and in that place. I found a lot of small shiny things, but Jim was never satisfied. About the tenth time I asked, “Is this a diamond?” and he replied, “No, it’s quartz,” I, in my infinite wisdom, inquired, “It glitters, so who cares?” He gave me a thoroughly disgusted glare and didn’t bother to answer. After a couple of hours, Jim decided he’d had enough of my repetitious question for one day and we left, sans diamonds.
On our next trip to the mines a few years later, Jim chose a shady area and we were there a large part of the day. Ever helpful, I pointed out he didn’t need to do any digging and sluicing, there were “diamonds” scattered all over the top of the ground. He was not amused. The diamonds eluded us once more.
Since gold and diamonds are so elusive, maybe we should just get some petrified wood. That seemed reasonable enough a few years ago when we were in Montana and learned it was legal to gather it in Gallatin National Forest. So, with permit in hand, we drove the 12 miles on a not-so-wonderful gravel road and parked at a campground, from which we were assured a short hike would take us to the wonderland. Apparently, they meant as the crow flies. We climbed a steep, and this mountain woman knows steep, hill. And climbed. Jim walked ahead and then came back to pull me along, assuring me our destination was just ahead. After being told this several times, I decided enough was enough. We climbed for two hours and never reached the promised land. While I rested, Jim filled his pockets with rocks. I seriously considered rolling down the mountain, but Jim declared that was not one of my better ideas. My knees protested every minute of the hour and a half return to the car. I still think I should have rolled.
One year, while spending a few days in southwest Texas, Jim located the Woodward Ranch where he intended to search for agate. We walked all over that pasture and I dutifully picked up rocks after making sure they were, in fact, rocks. None were pretty on the outside, but a visit at the gift shop convinced me that the insides were pretty and apparently that’s what counts. I’m still waiting for Jim to slice and polish some of “my” rocks and make wind chimes. Hope springs eternal. Momma knew what lay ahead for me when she gave me ‘Hope’ as a middle name.
And then there was the time we went to the salt plains in northcentral Oklahoma to get some selenite crystals. I wish I could say we went to a store and bought some, but, no, that is not what a rock hound does. We dug for them. Rather, Jim dug and I watched. In case you haven’t been there (how lucky can you get?), the plains are perfectly flat, not a tree in sight naturally, and the sun reflecting off the white salt surface is blinding. To obtain the crystals, it’s necessary to dig a hole and let it fill with water seeping in from below. Then, practically standing on your head, you splash water against the side of the hole until the soil washes away from the crystals. When a crystal formation is found, the splashing continues until the formation is free of the supporting sand and clay. Then it is gently removed and placed on the surface where it will dry and harden. What fun. After an hour and a half, even Jim admitted he’d had enough.
Intermingled with these rock-hunting episodes, we pursued opals and garnets in Idaho; topaz in Texas; smoky quartz crystals in New Hampshire; petoskey in Michigan; geodes in New Mexico; agate in Utah and Alberta; fossils in Colorado and the Northwest Territories; and so many others they run together in my mind.
Much to my relief, my rock hound has stopped braving the elements in search of rocks to add to the bejillion he already has. He maintains their value and I don’t argue. However, I still think the only thing rocks are good for is to throw at cats.