The empty grey highway unfurled before us. A dusty typewriter ribbon. Adventure, waiting to be written.
It was midnight on a Friday and the two lane road was the only thing visible in the pitch black darkness. The kids were fast asleep in the back, my husband at the wheel. I fought the urge to nod off, convinced (as usual) that the only thing truly keeping my family safe was my shotgun seat vigilance. It really pisses my husband off when I repeatedly ask if he is OK during late night drives. I do it anyways. Anger is energizing.
24 hours prior we’d been texting about what to order on Netflix this weekend, while I casually surfed the web. Then I read this post.
“Gem o Rama. We need to do this.” I texted my husband with the link to the post.
“What? When? Did we already miss it?”
Note: My powers of persuasion are legendary, but honestly, what kind of man says no when his wife requests a late night drive to the desert and the chance to get really muddy? Toss in a valid excuse to pack a sledgehammer and it’s a done deal.
Searles Lake in Trona, California is 3.5 hours from our home in South Orange County. We set off at 8 pm that night, stopping at a roadside Target for supplies. Our destination: Ridgecrest, CA, the nearest town to Trona, and home to several motel chains that will run you from $40-$120/night.
Trona Gem-o-rama Packing List:
- Large buckets (three or four)
- Trowels, rakes, garden tools for digging
- Bristle brushes for cleaning, plan to toss them
- Small stool, cardboard or carpet square to sit on
- Trash bags
- Boots (rubber rain boots are perfect) that can weather the mud or shoes you are happy to toss
- Sledgehammer. You don’t really need it but it’s fun to smash some of the rocks at the first dig.
The great thing about arriving in the desert in the black of night is that sunrise takes on an epic “big reveal” quality.
My daily So Cal view is populated by strip malls and school parking lots. It’s easy to forget that there’s a whole other world beyond the HOA approved sidewalk plantings. So close and so far. Part moonscape, part vintage western-movie set, Trona is a town without a single Starbucks or even a five dollar footlong. There’s is a greasy spoon type cafe and a bar and an empty shell of a supermarket that looks like it was last stocked in the fifties.
“Do we have time to stop at the Trona Pinnacles?” asked my daughter from the far back of the van – a little too loudly. She does this when she is wearing her earbuds, ie always when we are in the car.
She held up her iPhone and flashed a photo over the bench seat. “I found it it on Google. They’ve filmed movies there.”
Moments later we whizzed by them – tall, mysterious salt and rock formations congregating in the empty desert like awkward teenagers. At almost 140 feet high, they were visible from miles and miles away. No time this trip, but an intriguingly weird invitation to come back.
Gem o Rama is an all day affair. Two if you stay for the pink Halite field trip on Sunday.
The festival is run by town elders and modern day miners and frequented by a mix of rock hounds, hippies and eco geeks. Scouts travel from distant states and camp out in the desert before heading into town, troop flags flying. The parking lot, where cars wait to head out caravan style, becomes a tent city. Participants of all ages swap sandwiches, share water and show off their finds.
Everything about Gem o Rama has a sepia toned quality. It’s one part desert serendipity, one part time travel.
Field Trip #1: The Muddy One
The first field trip had us moving out of the parking lot city and driving caravan style to a vast area of salt flat on the dry lake bed. There’s something so exciting about driving on a lake – be it frozen or temporarily dried out. It requires your brain to bend and your psyche to get past that primal “we don’t belong here” feeling.
After parking on the flat, participants raced towards the bounty – rows and rows of thick trucked-in chunky black mud that stretched out for acres.
I saw a dred-locked woman in a bikini top and hip waders digging side by side with an 80 year old scientist, each equally giddy about their finds.
The mud is smelly, slightly sulfuric, and squidgey. Treasure filled PlayDoh.
It doesn’t take much digging to find a spectacular crystal. Within five minutes my 6 yr old unearthed a giant black specimin (nicknamed the “Dark Powers Crystal”) that looked like it was plucked out of a comic book. It’s impossible not to get excited by these finds.
It’s hard work, if you get into it. But it’s rewarding as well. Everyone left this field trip a big winner.
Field Trip #2: The Blow-Hole
The afternoon field trip relied less on mud and more on a magnificent water cannon for drama.
Once again we set out in a caravan, across the dramatically crackled dry lake bed. Along the way we passed the shell of long dead cabins. This one had a Coldwell Banker sign out front that may or may not have been a joke.
Brilliantly turquoise porta potties photobombed the shores of the lake, disrupting the desert beige landscape.
A canon aimed out over the water bore an ominous sign “Caution: Canon Fires at Random.” Our hopeful guess: it’s there to keep wildlife away.
At the Blow Hole the crystals were smaller and cleaner. No need for special equipment or strenuous digging here – just lots of water to stay hydrated.
Most of the crystals piled up across the flat looked like regular ol’ rock salt but on closer inspection, mixed in here and there were gems that looked more precious. The prized crystals were pink and yellow and at that location many seekers were finding pyramidal and slightly greenish sulfohalite – diagram here. The best finds are symmetrical and double headed – meaning they look much more like a child’s drawing of a crystal and less like a rock from your garden.
The climactic moment is when they fire up the drill and water canon. It’s a dramatic affair that is not without danger. A note handed out to all participants warns that any monkey business or lack of rule following will result in the immediate and early termination of the field trip. There’s a clip of the blow-hole trip in the video below.
By the end of the day we were all sunburnt, filthy, and thrilled with ourselves. We drove home with five buckets of muddy crystals and a few gallons of brine (plus extra hunks of salt to make our own) stinking up the van.
The muddy crystals must be cleaned off with super salinated brine. Ordinary tap water will damage them. Once cleaned, they can be coated with mineral oil and displayed with the rest of your Kryptonite collection.
If you’ve decided to go and especially if you bring kids to the Trona Gem o Rama festival, plan to pack a lunch and bring plenty of pocket change. In between digs there are vendors in the town center selling rocks and geodes and trinkets made from rocks, but there is very little in the way of food.
We didn’t stick around for the third dig, the following day, which focussed on the hunt for pink halite crystals and took participants to a not quite dry area of the lake bed. Next year perhaps – along with a visit to the pinnacles.
Random fact: Hanksite, the primary type of crystal found during Gem o Rama, is only found in Trona and in smaller quantities, in one lakebed in Uganda.