Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest

As another diversion enroute to the Gem and Mineral show in Tucson, I love it that these two natural wonders are right next to each other and comprise a single National Park served by a 28 mile main road.

The Park’s north entrance, which leads first into the Painted Desert, is off exit 311 of I-40 about 40 miles west of the New Mexico border and 24 miles east of the town of Holbrook, Arizona. The road begins by heading north through the Painted Desert for a few miles before looping south beneath I-40 for an additional 20 miles, mostly through the Petrified Forest before ending at Arizona Route 180 about 19 miles east of Holbrook.

Considering my multiple hobbies of mineralogy, photography, and hiking, this is about as good as it gets. The Painted Desert, which comprises the north part of the park, is particularly conducive to photography just about any time of day. Except for its clay "teepee caps" the Painted Desert is carved from sandstone where colors determined mostly by carbon content range from white to various shades of gray and brown, as well as red where iron oxide is present. The wonderful light greens at lower elevations are desert vegetation.

My main regret is becoming so preoccupied with photographing from viewpoints along the main Park Road that I missed walking the easy one-mile round trip Rim Trail extending between Tawa and Kachina points. It's the only opportunity for Painted Desert oriented walking except for a longer Wilderness trail recommended for overnight campers.
Other trails are less about the Painted Desert, more about the Petrified Forest. I walked two of them: the one mile Blue Mesa trail, and the Crystal Forest Trail. The Blue Mesa trail offered more geological diversity as well as a comfortable workout. What attracted me most about the Crystal Forest Trail was the ubiquity of colorful agatized wood everywhere along the trail.

Words on a warning sign posted on an information board at one of these trailheads impressed me. Its message was that a piece of petrified wood collected outside the National Park could be purchased for $2.00. A piece collected illegally inside the park costs $350 in conjunction with criminal charges of theft from the U.S. Government.

Not until 1962, did the area receive National Park stature. Evidence of human habitation, however, goes back 10,000 years. Petroglyphs, in fact are one of the Park’s attractions. I was amazed to see so much petrified wood still there.

The most impressive concentrations of the petrified remains of trees from 250 million years ago are along the trails leading from the Rainbow Forest Museum at the south end of the Park. They are the Long Logs Trail, which has the Park’s largest concentration of petrified wood; the Agate House Trail leading to a pueblo constructed from petrified wood; and the Giant Longs Trail, which passes the longest petrified log in the park. These three trails can be combined into a two mile loop. Having walked it all two years earlier, and with the Park about to close for the evening, I missed it this trip.

Next year, en route to Tucson, I’ll be sure to catch them again, and for sure the trail between Tawa and Kachina points overlooking the Painted Desert.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


As any American rockhound should know, the countryside surrounding Hot Springs, Arkansas, is like nirvana. Within easy driving distance are Magnet Cove, an actual field of diamonds, and about a dozen accessible places to collect quartz crystals. Ubiquitous rock shops also have plenty of local materal that typically sells at fair, if not bargain prices.

For quartz crystals, a visit to one of numerous public quartz crystal localities is likely to prove a ticket to both fun and value. The fee to collect is rarely more than $20, usually less.

Three years ago when passing through in February en route to Tucson (then as now), I either telephoned or made a quick stop at most of these locations to gain perspective. With but one day to collect(then as now), I picked the Ron Coleman quartz crystal mine.

To find it, take Route 7 to Jessiville and look for signs. Access is from a large affiliated rock shop at the end of a dirt road. Collectors recieve a burlap bag in which to carry their treasures. The crystals are mined in deep pit that's off-limits to visitors. However, for $20 (less for kids and seniors) the extensive tailings are available to comb over and dig. They are routinely topped off with fresh material from the pit.The fee is good for the entire day, and collectors can leave and come back as they please. Anyone who fails to collect $20 worth of quartz crystals can request a refund.

I like that winter is not a busy period. Not only are the dumps less picked over than in high season, but the chance of showers is greater. Rain darkens the dirt and makes the colorless to milky crystals easier to detect.

Most of the crystals are single, some are twinned, and fadens are not uncommon They range in size from miniscule to about a pound. One need but crawl about the pilings with a trowel to find crystals at the rate of about one a minute. The more experienced collectors usually opt to dig into the tailings, one spot at a time, in the most recently replenished areas .They use various tools such as shovels trowels and hand rakes. The only other collector except me on this chilly recent January afternoon used a homemade hoe/wedge/hook type contraption he’d fabricated from farm equipment.

He was Obe Willix, a friendly jovial resident of the area who’s been a collector/dealer most of his life. He favors finding spots that seem promising and digging at them quite extensively, one spot at a time. Since crawling around the surface to cover as much area as possible had worked for me before and to spare my back, opted to crawl around as in the past.

Every once and a while I checked on Obe. He was collecting at least as many crystals as I was, significantly more of them larger than mine. It interested me that three years ago, I’d been able to score at least as many of those larger crystals within a similar time frame by simply scanning the surface of the tailings.

Perhaps the pickings were leaner now that three years had passed, or maybe the soil was more rain-darkened. Next time, though, I think I'll dig.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Introducing Mineral Bliss

I’m not very religious, but there’s this feeling that the gods could be with me when it comes to the pursuit of collecting minerals, dealing in them, photographing them, and writing about all that relates to them.

Mineral collecting was a hobby and a passion for me in those pre-adolescent years before so many other concerns took over. After that, I all but forgot about minerals. From time to time, I pondered the question of what to do with all the rocks from my childhood collection that had been packed up so many years ago. The important thing was that most of them somehow remained intact, unlike the moving crate full of mid-fifties vintage baseball cards my mother threw away.

Not until one springtime afternoon when I was 55 was the spark re-ignited. My wife Nina and I had been tubing on Deer Creek in Harford County, Maryland, with our friends Mike and Judy. After a brief shower interrupted our bliss, the question arose: "What to do now?" Judy mentioned that her brother was caretaker on a nearby farm where one of the cornfields, when recently plowed---as was the case right then--- had yielded him numerous arrowheads.

Most were fabricated from white quartz and said to be particularly easily spotted when the soil was darkened by a bit of rain. Within a half-hour, we were crawling around in mud and managing to pluck about an arrowhead every two minutes. It was the kind of fun that I’d jump at the chance to do again and again. Unfortunately the opportunity didn’t arrive. It wasn’t until nearly a year had passed before it dawned on me how much the experience of collecting those arrowheads related to the all but forgotten joy of having collected minerals nearly a half-century earlier.

Before long, I’d searched the recesses of our attic and unpacked a box of minerals from my childhood collection. Suspecting that rocks could soon be all over the house, Nina suggested an area in the basement into which cabinets for them could be easily built. Shortly thereafter, I discovered eBay, and was taken with how inexpensive some minerals were at auction. The following February, I flew to Tucson for the final weekend of its grand Gem and Mineral Show and became further hooked.

For the next six years, civic and occupational commitments restricted my pursuit of minerals to an occasional hobby that would be fun to take up later in life. I stuck to my guns on that intention and now at the age of 64 have advanced into dealing in minerals, micromounting, being active in the Baltimore Mineral Society, and starting the web site That’s about minerals collected in the state of Maryland. Now there’s this blog, which should be good for a post a week.

And with that, it’s off to Tucson in my car to the Gem and Mineral Show, where the action begins the end of January and continues until Feb. 15. I’ll spend a week getting there, stopping along the way to crawl around the tailings of the Ron Coleman Quartz Crystal Mine in Jessieville, Arkansas, take in the Petrified Forest after crossing into Arizona, and hopefully also have time to visit the former mining town of Jerome.