Rocks in Their Heads
Rolling Stones Gem & Mineral Society provides camaraderie and outings for those who get satisfaction from geological goodies.
Story and photos by Donna Clayton
Robert Waidler says don't lick your rocks. He's not kidding.
"This is Pandora's box," Waidler says, indicating the big wooden crate he's brought along with him. He opens the lid with a mysterious flourish. "According to that story, we know that there's knowledge and hope in here. . . ," he says, letting his words trail off ominously, then pulls out a smaller box and holds it up to his audience. "And there's bad things in here, too!"
A professional geologist with Freeport-McMoRan's Chino Mine operations, Waidler is a member of Grant County's Rolling Stones Gem & Mineral Society, some 50 members of which are gathered tonight for the club's monthly potluck supper and meeting. It's a pretty good turnout for the middle of winter; the club totals about 200 members.
The group has already downed dinner — a feast consisting of everything from homemade pasta salads and Swedish meatballs to chips and salsa and Domino's pizza — and held a raffle for prizes of, well, rocks. Two members have given a show-and-tell account of a recent trip and the mineral treasures they procured. The group has sung happy birthday to one of its senior members. A field trip leader has given the rundown on the club's next outing, a trip to Round Mountain to look for chalcedony (pronounced cal-SED-a-nee), a type of mineral quartz that comes in many forms and colors. The club oohs and ahhs over the promise of fields littered with the attractive stone.
Now the group has settled in for the evening's presentation. Each month, a member of the club or some invited expert gives a talk on some area of rockhounding. Waidler's topic tonight is "Toxic Minerals."
The human body itself naturally contains minerals, Waidler says. He pulls out a small box containing a sample of iron, an essential element in hemoglobin, as an example. Some minerals are especially beneficial, like silver and copper, which are oligiodynamic — having useful antibacterial properties. But too much of a good thing can be deadly. He discusses ingestion, solubility and dust.
"Wear protective equipment when you're cutting and polishing your stones," he warns. "You don't want to be inhaling these things."
And some elements are just bad news in any amount. Waidler pulls out more small boxes and goes on to listing and detailing the dangers of minerals known as "heavy metals," toxic because the body accumulates them.
"You see this? It looks like salt, doesn't it?" he asks, holding up another specimen. "Native arsenic! A half-gram of this and you'd be dead! All forms of arsenic are poisonous. How many of you lick your rocks?" he asks. At least a dozen folks in the room smile sheepishly and raise their hands.
One woman calls out, "I just spit on mine and wipe 'em!"
Evidently it's a common practice among rockhounds to lick their finds in the field in order to get a better look at the deeper colors in the rock, revealing striations and minerals beneath the surface.
"I see it every day," Waidler says. "We're out there, gathering our specimens, handling them, and then what do we do? We eat lunch! Who knows what's on your hands?"
He reaches into his "Pandora's Box" again for another mineral, this time holding the rock in a tiny box, taking care not to even touch the small specimen within.
"This is cinnabar, one of the more deadly items," Waidler says, and shares the sad story of Chinese lapidaries who died early deaths from their work of cutting and handling the deadly substance. He pulls out another small box, this one containing cadmium. This mineral was used to murder nine people in Pennsylvania a number of years back, he says. The perpetrator never was caught.
Another box holds a rock containing uranium.
"Even this is releasing a deadly gas right now," Waidler says. Noting the alarmed expressions on the faces closest to him, he quickly adds with a lighthearted laugh, "Don't worry. Your exposure here tonight is minimal, so you'll be okay."
Waidler goes on, pulling out minerals and detailing the nature of their toxicity. Antimony was used as a "reusable laxative," he says. The mineral, made into a small pill and swallowed, would irritate the bowel and the toxic effect would, er, get things moving.
"The pill was then retrieved from the excrement. . . to be reused," he says with humorously gross emphasis. "Sometimes this precious item would be handed down from generation to generation!"
The audience groans and giggles in response.
In closing, Waidler goes down a list of caveats for the rockhounders: wear latex gloves, avoid dust, don't lick your rocks, make sure to wash hands before eating after handling rocks, keep children away from your collection.
Afterward, Waidler answers specific mineral questions. Club members mill about, comparing the prizes they won in the rock drawing, talking about their plans to attend the club's next outing to Round Mountain. It seems as if no one's in a hurry to leave, but as a few people begin to filter out of the Senior Center, Waidler calls out humorously, "Remember people, don't lick your rocks!"
A couple of weekends later, the rockhounds have a chance to put Waidler's good advice into practice. On a clear, warm winter morning, 26 club members meet up at the town center parking lot in the little mining town of Tyrone, just outside Silver City.
Kyle Meredith and John Reeves, the trip's leaders, greet everyone and have them sign release waivers. Meredith says this is his third year leading trips for the club.
"This is a designated rockhound site," he says of Round Mountain, an area just over the Arizona line. "It's rich in finds and very scenic. It's great for camping! We're going in the camper and we're not coming back tonight," he adds, slapping his vehicle on the fender. "It'll be warmer there today, so it's a good destination for this time of year, too. Once people find out about it (the Round Mountain site), they usually come back again and again."
Meredith pulls out a plastic bucket filled with white rocks, all different shapes and sizes, some with orange and pink striations running through them. This is chalcedony, our quarry for the day.
"This is a particularly beautiful and unique example of a rosette," he says, pulling out a milky-white stone that resembles a flower. "You'll find it (chalcedony) in geode form, some with crystals, some like eggs. There's a lot of variety and it's a particularly beautiful mineral." Rockhounds love to make jewelry out of certain forms of chalcedony, he says, and to decorate with it. One of the club's members has created mineral-lined pillars with which she has decorated her yard.
Today's trip will be about two hours in each direction, Meredith says, and though the road will be "reasonable," he adds, high-clearance vehicles are a good idea. At that assessment, the members milling about begin choosing up the best vehicles in which to carpool to the site.
Meredith then makes some "official announcements."
"I've had several requests for a pee stop," he says with a laugh. "We'll pull over on the shoulder just past C-Bar. There are a lot of trees and bushes there."
Trip co-leader Josh Reeves humorously puts in, "Very luxurious! Everybody gets their own tree!"
Meredith continues, "Put your lights on so people can tell we're a caravan. We'll pass through a gate. If you leave the site early, please leave the gate as you found it. If it's open, leave it open. If it's closed when you leave, please shut it behind you.
"There's good camping, for anyone who wants to stay. It's easy walking to the finds. They're all over and you'll find stuff immediately. For those who are willing to walk a bit for the better finds, you go about a mile into the foothills, and we'll direct you to where that is."
The rockhounds pile into an assortment of trucks, campers and SUVs, and the 11 vehicles begin the two-hour drive. Bruce Springsteen's "Magic" CD — classic rock and roll seems fitting for a rockhound trip — helps to pass the time. The Boss' lyrics are uncannily in sync with the long drive ahead, especially in light of the anticipated rougher roads ahead and our location here in New Mexico: "We took the highway 'til the road went black; we marked Truth or Consequences on our map."
About 20 miles up Hwy. 90, it's evidently time to pass water. The caravan pulls to the shoulder and a number of the members run to relieve themselves under the cover of bushes and trees.
Others walk around and chat. A new member, Bill, says he just joined the club at the last meeting.
"I usually go (rockhounding) around the Caballo Mountains," he says. "I joined up so I can go on these trips, to see where these people go. It's fun to find new places to hunt."
After a few minutes, all are back in their vehicles and the caravan snakes out from the shoulder back onto the roadway. Again the wisdom of Springsteen floods from the speakers: "We're just countin' the miles, you and me. . ."
Farther up, we turn west on Hwy. 70 and follow it just over 20 miles to that gate Meredith mentioned, entering the Lazy-B Ranch property. We pass over dusty, packed-gravel roads, over some railroad tracks and through a few arroyos, the last of which really tests our vehicles' clearances. At the point where we must bear left, Reeves stops the caravan to wait for stragglers to catch up.