Monday, May 21, 2012

Sunstone Prospecting at the Spectrum Mine

There has been this little mini-adventure of mining for sunstones we’ve been wanting to do for a few years, ever since we saw it on The Travel Show. 

Sunstones are a ‘rock’ that is feldspar.  They look like broken pieces of coke bottle glass (those of us older than 30 would know what that is…), predominantly a yellowish-white stone.  Some of them have what is called shiller; a streak of color that is mostly opalescent orange, some have silver shiller-which is hard to tell as the caretaker told us-and some even have a green hue.  The ones that have ‘color’ or carat,  have a red dot inside not to be mistaken for rust that has seeped in through cracks in the stone, although those are rather pretty.  Sunstones were created millions of years ago when a volcano erupted, sending lava streaming all over the valley floor.  This lava was covered by a lake, tons upon tons of poundage pressing the lava.   Eventually as the lake water evaporated and the lava resurfaced, it ‘decomposed’ (quoting the caretaker) and somewhere in that process the sunstones  were created.   

So the idea is to visit an actual working mine where these are the choices that are offered: get on your hands and knees and dig and scrape into the side walls of a pit or you can stand amidst piles of gravel dumped earlier by the caretakers via dump truck.  Or you can opt to stand for one hour at a conveyor belt and pick the gems off “Lucy and Ethel” style for the going rate of $300.00.   Whatever you choose, $300.00 gets you the whole 2 days of shoveling and sifting and your cabin is FREE, or you can tent camp on the public lands outside the mine area and dig for free but not too much chance of getting good quality gemstones for that price.  Hence, free.

Now, you know how you read a brochure and it will describe the accommodations and amenities and scenery, etc.?  Our brochure stated there were cabins, showers and toilets, shade trees and an office that sheltered wonderful gems and jewelry creations.

Well, our cabin had one old futon in it and it could probably have fit two with no walking space.  The floor was new tiled linoleum and there was one double clothes hook on one wall and one six inch shelf with a tiny votive candle on the other wall.  In the corner was a metal chair with the seating all torn to shreds.  I covered that with the only pillow there was, a large dusty thing.  The three cabins were spaced together rather close, so close in fact, that I could  hear one of the gals in the next cabin snoring long after we had all blown out our candles for the night.

 When we drove up we were looking for the shade trees, there were about 7 of them, maybe 10 feet tall, all planted in a 10 foot square area and just barely budded out.  They were young and fenced.  Probably to keep the marauding jack rabbits and occasional antelope from feeding on those bright, juicy young greens.  I figure in about 5 years they will be a half-way decent shade tree transplanted somewhere else.  The showers and toilets were not up and running the first day because the winds kept blowing out the propane light, so our option was a pit toilet with a cracked and rickety green shell that could blow over in a strong wind, or get taken away by a dust devil.   If  you have never used such facilities, it could have been a bit of a shock.  Then again, out there in the desert with no electricity or real running water, it's really pretty harsh out there.  The showers and toilets are run off a generator that uses gas: at $4.69 a gallon and being 26 miles away from real civilization, you use things sparingly.  The "Office" was an old trailer, beaten to death by years of harsh sun, wind and winters.  Inside you could hear the gnawing of the office pet, a pack rat somewhere in the walls.  Jessica, (one of the caretakers) the young and willowy plains girl with long brown hair tightly braided and huge blue eyes that got bigger with every emotion, laughed that if they ever found the hide-out of that pack rat, they'd probably find thousands of dollars of gems.

We chose to do the shoveling and sifting system for a whole 2 days rather than the back-breaking crawling and scraping in a hot pit or the short-lived assembly line.  First of all, there is no breezy air in the pit, it’s hot and stifling and you get tired, parched and cranky rather quickly.  If you decide to do the one hour quick line for your money-same price as getting to dig/sift all day, then it’s over and you have nothing else to do for the next 24 hours and that may not sound too bad to some but we could not get cell phone service, there’s no tv or radio and you can only read so much in the wind.  So you would just sit for the rest of the day, or wander around.  One stroll around the mine camp which takes about fifteen minutes and you’ve seen everything.  And there’s NOTHING for miles and miles and miles but sage brush covered dessert with the mesas and plateaus far, far away.
The first day there we were amongst a handful of other visitors, six of us all together.  As the day grew later, the two gentlemen that were standing and sifting left with two good sized prizes, they found some reds!  The other two were older gals that stayed in the cabin next to ours and they had decided to pay for their cabin ($45.00) and dig in a hole for free.  They found some sunstones and some shillers but not as many as we did.

Our first full day started with the sun blasting daylight through the tiny, two-paned sliding glass window somewhere around O’Light-thirty, or more like 6:30 a.m.  When you go to bed at 9:00 you tend to get up a little early.  No alarm clocks, just nature waking you up with a sunlight gong.  Kevin proceeded to make us a breakfast of pancakes and hot coffee, they were pretty darn good if I say so myself.  They were light and fluffy and drowning in syrup and butter,  a king’s fare out there for sure.
Upon first arrival we started late, long after lunch and only got a few short hours of shovel and sift in so this next day was a full one!  We were out at the piles by 8:30 and even though the pamphlet says “9:00 to 5:00”, we were on country time.  Jessica informed us she was usually out and about by 9:30 and hoped we wouldn’t mind.  That was when I said to her, “No worries, girl, we’re all on country time out here”, to which she replied in her cute Marilyn Monroe diction, “Oh, I am sooo glad you understand!”
Kevin decided he was going to attempt a crawl and scrape in The Bears’ Den before it got too hot, a huge pit littered with screens and buckets and shovels and mounds of sifted dirt.  And no breeze.  And bugs.  I chose the gravel mounds with shovel and sift style, I had already had a few good hits on that.  Jessica did say we could wander around and try just about any mound we wanted to and that later on in the day she and Terry would start up the huge monster screen-belt and give us a 15 minute run on the conveyor.  I stayed on “our” piles for about 2 hours and decided to try my luck where the two men had gotten their reds.  Somehow though, it didn’t feel comfortable and I didn’t seem to have as good a luck at getting sunstones there, even though I was using a water hose on this—I ended up getting more wet and dirty than the sifting tray.  I moved back to my home pile. 
The first shovel full in my screen landed with a puff of dirt blowing away beneath the screen and after the dirt settled, right there on top of my gravelly pyramid, like a cherry on top of a sundae, was the biggest stone I’d seen yet, almost two inches long and one inch wide.  Holy cow, I couldn’t believe it!  I snatched it up and ran like a giggling little kid over to where Jessica and Terry were setting up the screen-machine-conveyor belt.  “Look!! It’s HUGE!” I was jumping and hopping like a 12 year old.  “Oh I know it’s not a red but it’s BIG and it has a schiller!!’    Yep, somewhere under the cracks and scrapes of that rock was a bit of iridescent peach shiller. 
Shortly after this event Kevin finally crawled out of the Bears’ Den pit with a small haul, nothing big and he was just tired and hot.  He also tried out the pile that delivered the big red stones and used the hose but he eventually came home to roost on our ‘home’ digs, too.   It wasn’t long after that when Jessica asked if we would like to try the conveyor belt for 15 minutes, it wasn’t a regular fare but by this time of the day, Kevin and I were the only visitors left so we were offered the treat. 
They start up the big engine with a huge generator (more gas!) and the large rocks from the dump truck on the left fall into a bin that dumps them onto a caged belt, they run uphill and get separated from all the small rocks that get channeled down a chute to our water-covered white belt.  And the fun begins!  Terry sits at the funnel and keeps it going with  his hands so the gravel doesn’t all bunch up and clog the system, the rocks fall onto the belt and Kevin and I scramble to pick the sunstone gems off without losing any.  Jessica was on Kevins’ right side keeping the water running on the belt so the gems would show up.   Of course we felt like Lucy and Ethel in that old show about the chocolate factory (and who hasn’t seen that one?)—going so fast it almost made you dizzy.   I did find a good sized rock, about ¾ of an inch all the way around with a red dot in it, it was pretty big as the norm goes and we were excited to find that one.  That stone we’ll have cut and faceted, don’t know how it will look yet and it will take awhile.  Might be worth about $60.00 when all is said and done.  But that isn’t what counts, it’s all the fun and memories we had that will go into it that will make it special for us.
There were about two hours left of country digging/sifting time so we headed back to our home pile and resumed speed.  Nothing as big as the one I found earlier and nothing with color like what we snagged off the belt but still a good time and putting in the hours.
And this wasn’t all about the prize at the end.  There were so many ingredients in this trip that made it all a special event.  The huge expanse of bright blue sky and wispy clouds, the changing breeze that kept you cool while standing out in the hot sun—that made it bearable indeed—the mother raven that flew out on food recon every 1 and ½ hours to feed her rather large brood of three squawking babies.  There were also red-winged blackbirds flitting in and about the sage brush, even a meadow lark stopped by to sing a girl-searching tune and flew off when “she” didn’t show.  There were jack rabbits zig-zagging along the game trails and desert lizards would pop up on a sun-scorched boulder to see what we were up to.   Kevin got buzzed by a small dust devil and I was so focused in my thoughts that I forgot to re-apply my sunscreen.  There is a sunburn on parts that haven’t seen the sun since last summer…ouch!
Finally it was time to close up shop and shut down for the day, we were both dirty and dusty and sweaty and probably even a little stinky.  The thought of a shower was invigorating but we soon heard that they just couldn’t get the propane to light.  Probably that dust devil had a hand in that, too.  So, when handed lemons you make lemonade.
Back at our cabin and truck, Kevin boiled up enough water for me to add some of our cold to make 3 gallons of bath water in a big yellow bucket.  It was fantastic!  But first I used those pre-packaged wipes and tried to get most of the dirt off, then dipped my washcloth in and started with the face.  Oh I’m telling you, it was one of the best parts of the day,  besides having our spaghetti dinner.  Never has clean, hot water felt as good as it did then, literally showering over the bucket.  One does what one can with what one has….
And then there was the sunset.  After cleaning up and having dinner, we took an evening stroll to watch the sun set on that far ridge.  It was calm, no wind and the sage was just powerful; desert perfume indeed.  Brilliant bits of sunstone glittered on the dirt road like pieces of fire strewn about by the Greek god Hephaestus. 
But what was the topper to this whole trip?  Getting up at 2:00 a.m to see the sky!  Twenty six miles from the nearest light source (which is completely shut down by 10:00 p.m.), it is magical!  The sky is actually lighter than the ground due to the stars, and the Milky Way is so wide it covered 1/3 of it with its expanse.  You just won’t get that unless you are away from light pollution.   And there was the quiet.  People say it’s deafening.  Well I don’t know about deafening but it’s certainly THERE.  You feel it.  And so I went back to bed on that lumpy ol’ futon and felt blessed to have experienced Earths’ gifts.
Oh we’re not done yet. 
Somewhere around 3:30 a.m. I  heard this strangling sound.  It was coyotes.  They are capable of making all kinds of sounds, I have heard them out in a canyon when they sounded like crying babies.  Or there are the yips and howls.  But the only way I can describe this noise was like something was being strangled. 

Amazing sounds and sights and smells…

Sunstones on the screen

Yard art..creativity or boredom?