The DE gets down and dirty in Trona
October 11 - 13, 2013
By Debbie Miller Marschke
More than 3,000 people turned out for the 72nd annual Trona GemORama, including our group of 13 Desert Explorers: Myself and husband Steve, Bob & Sue Jaussaud, Ron Lipari, Mike Vollmert, Vicki Hill, Daniel Dick & Bobbie Sanchez, and Bruce Barnett with daughter Elizabeth. The Searles Valley Minerals Company opens up their Searles Lake property one weekend a year for rockhounds in October, and it was quite a spectacle. There is actually only one other place that one can collect these minerals in this form – in the Ukraine. People attend from all over the world, and we all heard many languages spoken during the course of our weekend. But the big secret is, it’s really not the minerals that attracts such a big crowd; it’s the larger-than-life, down-and-dirty fun of the hunt that brings the people back for more.
Steve and I arrived around 12:30 p.m. on Friday, October 11, at the Valley Wells facility 5 miles north of Trona. We staked out an awesome camp site underneath a grove of Athol trees, and within steps of the restroom, potable water, and outdoor public showerhead for rinsing. Friday afternoon was spent relaxing in the perfect desert weather, enjoying camaraderie and of course, happy hour. The Jaussauds were one of the last to arrive, and we had arranged a prank upon Bob when he tried to check into the campground. The amenable camp caretaker Karen worked for the Fire Department, so she had an air of Official Business as she searched Bob’s vehicle and asked him if his vehicle had been on fire. Meanwhile, back in camp, the DE watched, ogled, and giggled hysterically. The prank continued all weekend as Bob became Karen’s favorite camper to hassle! I managed to bake a German Chocolate cake in a Dutch oven in camp which was received with much appreciation.
Saturday morning we all left camp, ready to rumble, at 7:30 a.m. We arrived in the boomtown of Trona, which was already bustling with people. The DE lined up and parked our vehicles in succession; the event “stack parks” all the attendees in a massive parking lot; first come, first served. Everyone hustled over to get registered for all the events, and then we all walked over to the local Church which was serving a pancake & sausage breakfast for $5.00. I don’t know exactly how many people this church served, but they ran a tight ship and we were impressed. We had time to enjoy our meal and were able to return to our vehicles in ample time. At 9:00 a.m. sharp, the first field trip rolled out: the Mud event. The vehicles were escorted single file onto Searles Lake over a maze of dirt access roads. We arrived at a parking area where the Company had prepared a public collection site for all. Black gloppy piles of mud were heaped up. Everyone parked and made haste to the Mud piles. And then, the crowd of hundreds descended upon the mud and began wallowing in it. Well, uh, that’s how it looked. Hidden within this mud are clusters of large hanksite crystals. To win these prizes, you have to find them in the mud. As Vicki said, “Look at the sea of humanity!” It was literally a sea of butts and elbows in the mud. The scene was mind blowing. It did not take long for all the DEers to join in the madness. This proved to be delightfully fun and messy, which was part of the hilarity. I think the one thing that stood out, though, was that there were as many children here with families as there were serious adult rock hounds. What a refreshing sight to see all those children, collecting minerals! The mud was the great equalizer; everyone had a chance to score a beautiful mineral cluster. It was just as much fun to sit back and be a spectator as it was to actually hunt for the rocks. Absolutely a blast! Daniel’s favorite scene included observing several boys that were so heavy caked with mud, their pants were falling off their rears (they did not care)! Everyone was getting plastered with mud, and everyone was smiling. Once the clusters had been grabbed, a large trough was provided for cleaning. You can not clean any of these minerals with water – they dissolve. Salt/brine solution was provided, which cleaned the rocks and maintained their integrity. Another wonderful fact about attending GemORama; nobody goes home empty-handed. The DE caravanned back to town around 11:30 a.m., everyone with their extracted treasures. We immediately placed our vehicles in the line-up for event #2, The Blow Hole, which began at 2:30 p.m. Everyone left the parked cars, disbursed to have lunch and to enjoy the festivities.
The Searles Valley Minerals plant had free tours, there was a rock & mineral show going on, and lots of exhibits to see. We ran into Ruth & Emmett Harder, and Barbara & Bill Gossett. There really was not enough time to see & do everything during the break. But you have to hand it to the town of Trona, they handle the massive influx of people like champs! Very, very impressive indeed. The afternoon Blow Hole event has a different approach. Essentially, the lake bed is fracked ahead of time using explosives, and the minerals are pumped to the surface suspended in water through a large pipe and sprayed upon the lakebed. The Company did demonstrate how the minerals are brought up in a geyser of water. The Hanksite crystals are sprayed all over the hard-pan lake bed for the attendees to pounce upon – akin to breaking a piñata. Another frenzy of activity! We hunted for hexagonal hanksite crystals with dual terminated ends. Also the more rare and elusive dual pyramidical sulfohalite. These minerals are smaller than the ones we hunted in the Mud Event. Included in the other minerals brought to the surface were other evaporates like halite, which have interesting forms and composition. Actually, you really did not need to recognize the hanksite crystals during this event to have a good time --- just pick up what appeals to you. The Company only charged a nominal fee per car per event, so there was no limit as to how much you collected the entire weekend. Daniel and I were extremely lucky, we both were able to score marvelous huge specimens by and through our assertive nature (we were friendly with the right people). And, again, this event was more fun than I can accurately describe. By the end of the day, we were all tired out. But we had one more bonus coming: The Gossetts arrived in camp, pie in hand, and joined us for a pleasant evening with friends.
The only event on Sunday was the hunt for Pink Halite. This is the most challenging mineral hunt of the three. The pink halite forms along the perimeter of brine pools, under the crust. You have to walk out on the Searles Lake bed, which is rough , jagged and crunchy. To find the best crystals, one must wade out into the brine, reach underneath the submerged ledges, and feel around for formations. Once a potential specimen is located, it must be harvested by hacking it off the submerged ledge. These crystals are most beautiful, in various shades of pink or white, and have a geometric “picture frame” structure. However, this year the hunt was going to be more problematic, as we were informed ahead of time. Monsoonal rains in late August had corrupted and melted all the crystals. The best information we had was that some crystals may have grown back, but the pickins would be poor this year. Undaunted, (or maybe just looking for any excuse to nose around the Searles property for which we normally don’t have access) our group rolled out at 9:00 a.m. with the armada of hunters. We did not get a choice as to where we hunted – it was the luck of the draw in accordance to where our cars stopped. We did not get a very productive pool of brine. We attacked it anyway, hacking away at our prospects. We had to weave our way around the edges - some of us had on substantial boots, but the brine was deep. Daniel found out that some places were like thin ice - he broke through and found himself almost stuck up to his thighs! No problem, it is all part of this weird adventure at Trona. We did not get any quality pieces of Pink Halite. But I can speak for our group that nobody was disappointed with the entire experience.
Whenever I drive through Searles Valley, I will see the lake bed with a new perspective. Outwardly, it is barren and unfriendly. But hidden beneath, I will see the buried treasure of beautifully formed salt crystals in my mind’s eye. And I will smile. It is a memory that will last a lifetime.