With the exception of a few moments to send a text or make a quick call, I have little cell phone reception from Glacier National Park through most of Idaho. I choose to leave the radio in my Jeep off and the windows down, taking in the fresh country air. I have a day-and-a-half to kill before I am due to be in Spokane, WA to stay with an old friend of my mom’s. I decide to jaunt down into the Idaho Panhandle National Forrest from I-90 for a night. A day or so before, I had read about a place where visitors can rockhound for garnets.
Without cell phone reception I have no GPS, so stop at the Idaho Visitor’s Center – it doubles as a miner’s museum – for a map and directions. I have been impressed by the these information hubs in every state; the staff behind the counters have always been knowledgable and helpful. In all cases they have given me too much information, but steered me in the right direction – mostly off the major interstates to smaller, more scenic byways. The man behind the Idaho Visitor’s Center counter leads me over to a large pull-down wall map of the area where I plan to camp. He traces the road I should take: State Road 3 through the town of Saint Maries to the Emerald Creek Campground.
By the time I leave the center/museum it approaches 3:30 PM and I still have to stop for supplies (which I find in St. Maries) and find bivouac for the night. On a Sunday night, I am one of three campsites that will be occupied – the encampment is quiet and surrounded several varieties of evergreens. I’ll gain an hour tomorrow (by crossing into the pacific time zone), so the sky stays light a little later than usual. I set up tent and settle in for the night. Again I am able to stoke my relationship with the with the stars, hold a conversation with the trees and watch as the fire dances in her pit. I roast S’mores and recollect my youth.
The next day I’m up early and prepare a camp-side breakfast of hash browns, eggs and hotdogs. I drive two miles to the Emerald Creek Garnet Area, where, for ten dollars, I am given a permit, two buckets and a shovel. I didn’t realize I was going to be doing hard labor. The forest rangers explain the process: “fill the buckets, dry sift them in the sifting area, then wet sift them in the washing area. Look for dark-dark red, almost black, glass-like rocks . . . and keep anything else you like.”
I love rocks and collect them from different places. Occasionally, I will buy a semi-precious stone from a store. But, there is something satisfying and fascinating about digging my own out of the ground. As I work, I feel connected to the earth. I love that my clothes are increasingly muddy and my hands and arms (and even face) turn yellow-orange from the clay I wash off the rocks I mine. I love watching the faces of the children – both young and old – standing beside me asking “is this one?” or exclaiming “I found one!”
My prize for the day come in the form of a nearly perfect dodecahedral garnet crystal. The rangers all agree: “very nice.” Along with it, I take three grams of garnet (the rangers weigh everything that comes out of the site) and leave with a smile on my face, a song in my heart and stained yellow-orange clothes and skin. More than that, I leave with the satisfaction that connected with mother earth, I know exactly where my rocks were born.
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