Monday, July 26, 2010

A Quick Drive from Baltimore to Asheville

Much like Jazzfest in New Orleans the end of April, so Bele Chere in Asheville has become my favorite late July destination. My preferred manner of transportation to both cities is to drive---from Baltimore. Doing so provides a rare opportunity to sit still, listen to music, photograph appealing scenery along the way, check out interesting restaurants, and especially make a stop or two related to minerals.

As time permits, I like to spend as much time as possible first on the Skyline Drive and then the Blue Ridge Parkway. Enhancing my trip down the former was a glossy gift shop book entitled Geology along Skyline Drive: A Self-Guided Tour For Motorists, by Robert L Badger.

This book included a trail loaded with remarkable geological phenomena and afforded a great opportunity to monitor the extent of my recovery from last year's hip replacement. It was the 1.2 mile Bearfence Mountain loop with its awesome but reasonably safe rock scramble. Setting out from a trailhead at Mile 56.4, the first several hundred yards reveal rocks that quickly change from sandstone to phyllite to conglomerate to quartzite, until metabasalt takes over just before the scramble begins.

That's where some columnar metabasaltic joints, which curiously head out in two different directions raise questions regarding how they were formed millions of years ago. The Bearfence Mountain summit with its wonderful views and numerous comfortable perches for enjoying them is about a third of the way through the scramble and as far as some opt to navigate. Beyond the summit, the oppotunity to scramble continues in a southerly direction blazed by blue markers until reaching the Appalachian Trail.

Along the way, a volcanic breccia covers much of the metabasalt. Within the breccia are occasional air vesicles filled with minerals said to include feldspar, hematite, epidote, quartz and chlorite. Visually, they could almost pass for weathered black garnets.

After Bearfence, I next stopped at Mile 74.5 to check out the slickenlines and a few relatively colorful epidote pods adjacent to the Loft Mountain Overlook pulloff. My Skyline Drive geology book described slickenlines as "parallel lines or narrowly spaced shallow grooves formed by the movement of one mass of solid rock over another---commonly found on faults or in zones where the rocks were stressed." They were easy enough to find, and an example of what they look like is shown at left.

  The epidote pods, at least colourful ones, required a bit more searching Though epidote is common in this part of the Blue Ridge, its presence is often obscured (unless you bust open rocks) by lichens, moss, dirt, and general weathering. The most colourful example I was able to find without breaking open any rocks is shown in the photo at right.

Arriving in Roanoke early enough for dinner meant having to leave Skyline Drive about 50 miles further along before it becomes the Blue Ridge Parkway and then speed west across I-64 for about ten miles then southwest down I-81 for another hundred or so. My dinner was apt reward for this effort. Traveling solo, I ended up sitting at the bar in the Metro Cafe, one of Roanoke's more upscale and envelope pushing dining establishments. What really impressed me---I used to blog about exotic food before moving on to minerals---was that its appetizer menu featured chicken feet. Chicken feet are common fare in New York's or San Francisco's Chinatowns, but even in these cities I have yet to observe them on the menu at a "new American" style restaurant such as the Metro. Messy for sure, and I had to request a finger bowl, but what a great prelude to the BLT featuring pancetta and heirloom tomato slices that followed.

The next morning, inspired by the Falcon Guide book, Best easy day hikes: Blue Ridge Parkway by Randy Johnson, I departed Roanoke via the Blue Ridge Parkway to explore the Rock Castle Gorge hike. Its trailhead is reached by turning left from the Parkway on VA Route 8 at Milepost 165.3 and heading downhill to turn right on VA Route 605, then driving to where it dead ends. Attracting me to this hike was the following quote from Randy Johnson: "Sycamores and copious quartz outcrops are everywhere (the six sided quartz crystals prevalent here reminded residents of castle towers, hence the name of the gorge)." The section of the trail noted for its sycamores and quartz outcrops, however, left me somewhat underwhelmed and hardly enthusiastic about looking for a place to dig. Blame it if you will on a heavy cover of forested vegetation. Soon after returning to my car and reaching I-81, I observed quartz outcroppings that really did seem to be everywhere in the in hilly open fields to my left. Tlhough tempting locations in which to dig, doing so would entail parking illegally along the ramp of this major interstate, climbing a barbed wire fence, trespassing, and moving earth on someone's property in the presence of a myriad motorists, some of them surely police.

Asheville was still 200 miles away. By dark I was checked in at the Skyland Inn near Little Switzerland at Milepost 331. Close by is the North Carolina Mineral Museum, which features mining history much more so than minerals and their localities. Also nearby are resorts, gem oriented gift shops, a couple of salted "gem mines," and some great views. I stayed at the Skyline Inn, an older and somewhat rustic establishment, which comprised all these things in one package along with restaurant and a tiki bar.

Although the Little Switzerland area is completely tourist oriented, the route from here to Asheville along Routes 226 and then 19E passes near more varied and accessible mineral collecting localities than does any other stretch of highway I'm aware of in the United States. There are at least a dozen places to collect, and all the information needed to find them and know what to look for is in the book Rock, Gem, and Mineral collecting Sites in Western North Carolina by Richard James Jacquot, Jr. Depending on the amount of walking necessary, combing two or three of these localities in a day should be realistic. At some point, perhaps this fall, I look forward to returning for a week to check out as many as possible.

The more direct route to Asheville that I took continues to follow the Blue Ridge Parkway. Its scenery is breathtaking in spots, and along the way, a 1.2 mile roundtrip hike to to the Craggy Pinnacle summit from the parking area at Mile 364.5 proved to be an inordinately pleasant a leg stretcher. Aware of 98 degree temperatures in Asheville, my stroll through quasi-Arctic vegetation to a vista where with 360 degree views and 65 degree themperatures couldn't have been more pleasant. Asheville was next. The rest of my trip will be chronicled in the next Mineral Bliss post.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Masters Mineral Gallery and More

Long on my mind has been to make the trip to Elizabethtown, PA, for a visit to the Masters Mineral Gallery in the new Lyett Wing of Elizabethtown College's Masters Center for Math and Engineering. It is part of the legacy of Frank Masters, the renowned construction engineer and mineral collector, who funded the building itself and provided numerous specimens from his personal collection for its mineral gallery. Though mineralogy doesn't much figure into the cirriculum at Elizabethtown College, its mineral gallery is delightful space in which to linger.

Walk down the steps from the adjoining lounge area with its comfortable furniture, and sensors light up the elbaite-included quartz from Minas Gerais in the nearest exhibit case. This is one of five free-standing cases. The others each showcase one or two relatively large specimens. The largest holds a three foot cluster of Arkansas quartz crystals. Amethyst geodes and specimens bearing quartz, calcite, and fluorite inhabit the other free-standing cases.

Four much larger wall cases hold the majority of the collection. One case is devoted to different varieties and habits of quartz, another to fluorite. A case filled with worldwide minerals includes a list of the chemical compositions of each species therein both in writing and symbols. Most interesting to me was the case of Pennsylvania minerals. Some of them, for instance the orangish brown nodular goethite from Franklin County, I found to be quite spectacular. Others, such as the Phoenixville pyromorphite, impressed me significantly less.

Regretably, I missed and then learned later about the fluorescent case where at the push of a button, light changing from incandescent to longwave ultraviolet to shortwave ultraviolet cycles over the minerals within. Against a far wall were two more cases, one with a selection of gem materials polished into more spheres, bowls, and eggs than allowed room for labels. Another, devoted to paleontology, featured material ranging from petrified wood to dinosaur eggs.

My favorite aspect of the Masters Gallery was its inviting feng shui. Conveniently, John S. White, the former Curator-in-charge of the Smithsonian's Division of Mineralogy, played a major role in planning, organizing and developing the space, lives halfway between the Gallery and my home in Baltimore. By taking him up on an earlier offer to stop by if in the area, I soon found myself where the feng shui was yet more pleasing. Here the focus was less on the placement of minerals than space for gracious living surrounded by magnificent flower gardens. The neatly kept areas where John and wife Merle, who's Editor-in-Chief of Lapidary Journal, nurture vocation and avocation are present but not apparent.

Later over dinner with John and Merle at a the Blue Heron, a new French bistro in York, PA, John summarized some highlights of his role in developing the Masters Gallery. He related how years earlier, when in London, he had disliked the metal and glass encased mineral display at the British Museum enough to rant about it in an article in Mineralogical Record (of which he was founder and original publisher). That the Masters Gallery also has cabinets of metal and glass reflects John's acumen regarding mistakes to avoid when working with these materials. Another important feature attributable to John is how the minerals in the wall cases are displayed on "steps" covered with fabric to which velcro bottomed labels comfortably attach. John also held forth on the ingenuity of mounts used to display the specimens. They were fabricated by David Graham.

Though not remotely comparable to the number of mineral displays with which John is familiar, I have seen enough of them to form judgmental, if not highly knowledgeable impressions. Many are too cluttered, a few too sparce. Some of America's most renowned exhibits are lighted inadequately to be appreciated. I do not know of an exhibit where the minerals are displayed in a fashion that pleases me more than at the Masters Gallery.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Beach Reading and Catching Up

Not enough time to read? Give up something to find the time? Is it practical and feasible to do so? Not always. The past couple of summers, a week at the beach has proven for me to be a great opportunity to catch up.

It's that time again, only this year we're not at the beach. Meanwhile, two stacks of reading material neatly piled up on the floor in the corner of my office had both reached a height of over a foot. I recently knocked a couple of inches off by removing about a dozen Mineralogical Record's with articles I had been waiting to revisit.

For a few months last year, Mineral Bliss offered a podcast that attempted to briefly summarize the contents of Mineralogical Record and Rocks & Minerals soon after they arrived through our mail slot. To produce this podcast in a timely fashion, I found myself skimming through these periodicals and moving on before enjoying them in the manner for which they were intended. Ultimately, the podcasting went by the wayside.

Any beach time this summer will not be long enough in any one place for very much reading. However, finding myself with an unexpected block of time during the relentless heatwave that is baking Baltimore, the confines of a well air-conditioned office proved more appealing than nearby beaches for revisiting some of the features in Mineralogical Record that most intrigued me over the past several years going back to July, 2007.

Here are a few highlights:

  • I've long enjoyed Wendell Wilson's editorials in Mineralogical Record. The one that left the strongest impression was entitled "Photographs: A Priority for Museums" from July-August 2007. It ranted about the myriad specimens stashed away at various museums, never to be seen, admired, studied or researched. Is this what those who donated or bequeathed them intended? Or is it what the museums intended by accepting them? Wilson makes his point as to the value for all concerned that phtographic documentation can provide. Is it that the museums lack the time or human resources? Give me a place to stay and a couple of unwanted specimens to take home, and we can talk about it.

  • Most collectors have their varied quirks and niches. Vintage micromounts are one of mine. What a pleasure once again to drool over the pictures and re-read the article in the March-April Minrec by Wendell Willson, Rock Currier, Carl Francis, and Sugar White: "George Washington Fiss (1835-1925) and his micromount collections."

  • The "American Mineral Treasures Issue" of June, 2008 recalled some great memories plus a lot I'd missed when an emergency on the home front mandated an early departure from that year's Tucson Show, which was one of the best, perhaps the best ever. Of course, now both a book as well as a movie have been produced about this amazing exhibit of the known best minerals from the 44 greatest localities in the United States.

  • The five part series spanning Mineralogical Record's last two editions of 2008 and first three of 2009 by Rock Currier entitled "About Mineral Collecting" is in my opinion a masterpiece. It covers all the bases of the hobby and the different kinds of players involved in it. No way I ever could have described myself as accurately as Rock did, even though we'd never met.

  • Being from the East Coast, I particularly like the way Mineralogical Record has kept readers abreast of productive localities in New Jersey. There was the Wendell Wilson piece with amazing images from May-June 2007 regarding the magnificent zeolites being collected at Millington traprock Quarry in Somerset County. More recently (November-December, 2009), and soon thereafter (March-April, 2010) appear picture packed articles(zeolites once again) by Frank A. Imbriacco, II covering the Braen Quarry in Passaic County and the Fanwood Quarry in Somerset County. With so little---at least that I'm aware of--- coming out of the classic Northern Virginia localities once known for similar material, it's great to know about recent action in New Jersey.

My next day-long read will lighten the piles in my office by about the same number of Rocks and Minerals editions. If the heatwave continues, this will probably happen sooner rather than later.