The Socially Distant Hobby That Might Make You Rich
The business of semi-precious stones is in the billions, and breaking into it is both fun and easy.
Were you one of the 350,000 persons who tried, unsuccessfully, to find Forrest Fenn's treasure chest? One man found the trove this June in the Rocky Mountains, after a decade of searching. If so, it’s not too late for you to find other valuables in U.S. public lands and to start collecting a bounty any pirate would be jealous of.
People around the world spend billions of dollars on precious stones, sometimes for their beauty, while others hope these rocks and crystals will change their lives for them. The practice of Feng Shui uses special rocks to supposedly draw luck and bring order to various aspects of people's lives. The crystal healing craze is now a billion-dollar industry.
Want in? You can pay $300 for a woman to take you rockhounding or you can do some research and do it yourself for free. It's especially great during the time of social distancing.
In the hunt for decent gems, you'll find yourself out in the middle of nowhere in the clean fresh air, turning over rocks and digging holes. There are many resources to help you find your claims. The Bureau of Land Management gives tips of where to go to find your treasure. Start with their basic guidelines and suggestions. They usually allow you to take out 25 pounds of rocks per day.
Every state in the union has a “state gemstone,” just like each has a state bird and a state flower. Do you know what yours is? Arkansas's is diamonds, however the state is full of its beautiful state mineral—quartz. If you want to see what you're missing, look here. A recent quartz find in the town of Jessieville is worth $3.5 million. At mines owned by the Miller brothers (Ron and Jim), you can pay $10 a day to dig through tailings (piles of dirt dug up by the mine getting its huge gem deposits).
A bit further down the road is Crater of Diamonds State Park, where you can keep what you find for free. When I visited in 2010, an older Black gentleman there said to come look after rainy days and that he put six children through college with his finds there.
Megan Garza is a therapist who used to buy crystals and geodes for her office. Now she hunts for them in the wild instead. “A few years ago I had surgery and we took a road trip to follow up with my doctor in Wisconsin. Since we were up there, we thought we would head up to Canada and ended up at two amethyst mines in Thunder Bay,” she told me. Megan, her partner and friends now trade rocks for the holidays.
Auston Ferris started rockhounding when he was stationed in San Diego and has since dug in Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Georgia, South Carolina, Michigan, and Texas. He recommends Diamond Hill Mine in South Carolina for beginners: “You actually get to dig in the ground, not tailings, and it’s pretty full of crystals.”
Rockhounding provides for great adventures and exercise. For many, it also holds a deeper meaning.
Evan Schmidt, a woman who grew up in Illinois and now lives in Los Angeles, says, “It has always been a part of me, like, deep in my soul.” She has a primal connection with the activity. Same goes for Douglas Bragg of Oregon. He told me, “My self-collected collection is my lifetime trophy case.” Bragg digs free sunstone in Southern Oregon (the state's gem) and says the camping site by the dig site is beautiful. He says that with rockhounding, “You gain intimate knowledge of far-off wilderness areas.”
Rocks tell us about our collective geological history and the ones we find can also be markers in our personal life histories. Schmidt tells us more: “I'm just compelled to hunt for these things and I've learned so much about the way rocks are formed in different regions of the world … It's a great peek into the past and what the Earth was like eons ago.”
“I feel a big connection to the universe being a rock hound,” she continues. “I think about the female fossil hunters and geologists who have inspired me and it all just feels so bad ass like we can all go dig in the dirt and get messy and find these treasures. But there's a peacefulness to it as well and I think anyone can do it. Anyone can take the time to learn about the earth or they can do this really sincere thing and go, ‘Hey, I like this color’ or ‘This feels good in my hand’ and pick up a rock and keep it. When my best friend was about to have her baby we went to the beach in San Diego and we both picked up smooth stones from the shore and held on to them so we'd have the memory of when her baby went to beach for the first time. It is a simple way to cherish memories.”
Schmidt is inspired by another woman rockhound. “I met Sue Hendrickson who found Sue the T-Rex,” she says. “That experience was a dream come true because she was able to make her career as a fossil hunter, among other things. When she described finding the T-Rex, she mentioned being drawn to the spot by a force greater than herself.”
For some it’s a become a tradition passed down between generations. Take Bronwen Boulton Scott, for whom “rockhounding is an obsession.” She would spend hours swimming in a lake to pick up agates as a kid. Her father got her into it and now she's gotten her children into the activity.
For Sue Brown Morris, her lifelong passion started young. “My dad shared with me, his love for rocks when I was three years old. He picked up a piece of sandstone with wave marks on it, and then explained to me how it formed. He taught me that each rock tells a story. I began to bring home rocks and have him tell me their stories. His love of rocks inspired me to go on and become a geologist. I am still an avid rock collector to this day, I am now 68 years old and I can tell you a story about every rock I have collected.”
But perhaps its greatest draw is as an escape.
“Rockhounding is the only euphoria I have left in my crazy life. I have PTSD from the Marine Corps, which causes great anxiety, and other issues,” confesses Scott Evans. His favorite rocks to hunt are quartz, amethyst and garnets. He's saving up for a masters degree in gemology after studying at Gemological Institute of America. Scott says he still has quartz samples with gold in them, found on his family's land in Northern Washington State, right by the Canadian border.
If you’re worried about not having a clue what you’re looking at, the folks at Clemson University can help you with their identification guide. So the next time you're on a hike or a swim (in a place that permits collecting) and see something colorful, shiny or interesting on the ground—take a closer look. You never know what you might have found until you do.