Monday, October 31, 2011

A First Rate Appalachian Mineral Vacation

It began on a rainy Oct. 19, 2011, the only day for the next eight of anything less than picture postcard perfect weather. First stop was Harrisonburg, Virginia, to see the great James Madison University Mineral Museum. On display there are some of the greatest Virginia minerals known to exist (note the Amherst County amethyst at left), much of Elmwood Tennessee's finest, a Franklin/Sterling Hill fluorescent room, and an amazing selection of worldwide minerals. Nearby, I overheard heard two men who had recently entered the museum discussing a pair of smithsonites that Peter Via of Roanoke, Virginia had donated. Shown at right, these two different coloured smithsonites were collected at the same particularly noteworthy locality, namely the San Antonio El Grande Mine in Chihuahua, Mexico. Having just finished gawking at them and with plans to visit Mr. Via the next day and see his collection, I could not restrain myself from barging in. Turned out I was interrupting the Museum's legendary curator, Dr. Lance Kearns, as he was escorting the renowned collector Frank Hissong on a tour. They couldn't have been nicer, and we enjoyed a conversation touching upon subjects that hopefully Mineral Bliss will be in a position to cover in future posts.

I didn't really know what to expect when visiting Peter Via the following day in Roanoke. My friend John White had helped to arrange this meeting. On the other hand, I should have known. After all, it was John who had  pulled similar strings on my behalf a year ago for a visit to meet Jack Halpern and view his collection in San Francisco. And once again, I found myself in the company of another unique, gracious, and genuinely
interesting collector who had put together one of the premier private assemblages of minerals on the planet. Though with endless stories to share that were often embellished with a sense of humor leaning toward the wild side, Peter rarely attends mineral shows, even Tucson. He prefers to deal more privately, often purchasing specimens of such fragility and value as to require hand delivery. What a privilege to interact with such a collector and view the treasures he's accumulated over a lifetime. Labels don't accompany the specimens filling his intricately illuminated display cases, and some pieces were spectacular enough to occasionally belie my visual perception regarding their species. Upon complimenting Peter on the "cadmium smithsonite" at right, he had to inform me that in fact, it was Mexican mimetite.

I spent the night in Floyd, Virgina, enjoying a rootsy hotbed for Appalachian music then climbed nearby Buffalo Mountain the next day before heading on to Asheville, North Carolina. Included among my activites there was a visit the Colburn Earth Sciences Museum at Pack Place in the heart of town. Along with plenty of impressive mineral specimens, many of the Colburn's systematically organized worldwide specimens and even a few pieces in a separate North Carolina suite could have passed for study pieces compared to much that I'd seen at James Madison University and in Peter Via 's collection. Fine with me: The Colburn is far more conducive to learning about and understanding the earth sciences than most such museums, and I applaud them for this. But darnit, I've written to the Colburn as well as mentioned here in Mineral Bliss that what is pictured at right is NOT cacoxinite. It's goethite! Someone once suggested to me that making the correction could prove sensitive to the the (anonymous) donor. Heaven help me if I'm wrong.

Upon leaving Asheville, my next stop was Corundum Knob in Clay County, North Carolina, where I managed to actually dig up and break open a rock with a bleb of near-gem-quality ruby in it . This was probably sheer luck. I've since learned that the best technique for finding ruby here is to inspect the surface of boulders with a laserlike ultraviolet light, and break up any that show spots of fluorescence.

My next stop was Gatlinburg to spend the night prior to taking the delightful 2.3 mile hike to Alum Cave Bluff in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is the type and only locality on earth known to have yielded the rare earth microminerals coskrenite, levinsonite, and zugshunstite. Don't expect to go there and find any. I can pretty much attest that such an effort would prove fruitless and can assure that anyone attempting to do so without a special permit would be subject to federal prosecution.

After fortunately falling asleep back in Gatlinburg while watching my home team Baltimore Ravens worst game ever on Monday Night Football, it was time to begin heading homeward. I stopped along the way to climb Mt. Pisgah, and then put in at Asheville after dining at Curate, this city's new first rate and very cosmopolitan tapas bar.

Thereafter my plan had been to return to Baltimore with a detour into Pittsylvania County,Virginia to check out a site at Coles Hill near Chatham, Virginia, where 119 million pounds of uranium are said to lie beneath the ground. My excitement over this jaunt had diminished somewhat after reading on the Internet that finding any collectible uranium bearing mineral specimens thereabouts would be most unlikely.

More intriguing was the blessing of another postcard autumn day along a route that just happened to pass directly by Grandfather Mountain. I wonder now what John White must have thought when he was helping me line up my visit with Peter Via. Why had I overlooked Grandfather Mountain when boasting to him about all the other mineral spots in this part of the country that were on my itinerary? John knows that I know he played a major role in putting together the mineral display at the highly regarded nature museum there.

Misinformed prejudgment on my part had perceived Grandfather Mountain to be akin to a tourist theme park. I really should have known that Grandfather Mountain offers some of the most interesting and exhilarating hiking in the Appalachians, while its nature museum displays, largely through John's efforts, what obviously are numerous best of species North Carolina minerals. One good example is the amethyst at left from the Reel Mine at Iron Station in Lincoln County, North Carolina. And for those such as myself who just as much crave some of the rarer if less visually spectacular minerals, the bikitaite at right should prove to be a mindblow. Is it conceivable to anyone that a larger or finer example of this species could ever have been unearthed? Hopefully, in the future, with input from John, who at present is in Munich, Mineral Bliss will provide its readers with a lot more regarding this fascinating museum.

With a bit of time remaining to hike, I drove on from the Nature Museum to the Black Rock Parking Area and from there hiked the half mile trail up to Grandfather Mountain's Mile High Swinging Bridge. The view from here is amazing. About 15 miles off in the distance was a peak that for many years I'd viewed from the Blue Ridge Parkway with awe and mystification. A ranger informed me that this was Table Rock and provided me with directions to the base of the trail leading to its pinnacle. With yet another consecutive day of perfect weather predicted, the opportunity for that delightful and easier than expected climb added a final extra wonderful day to one of the best vacations of my life.

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