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Gem-O-Rama: Mojave Playa Interventions, Part II

Artbound's editorial team has reviewed and rated the most compelling weekly articles. After putting two articles up for a vote, the audience chose this article to be made into a short-format documentary.

 

The Mojave Project is an experimental transmedia documentary by Kim Stringfellow exploring the physical, geological and cultural landscape of the Mojave Desert. The Mojave Project reconsiders and establishes multiple ways in which to interpret this unique and complex landscape, through association and connection of seemingly unrelated sites, themes, and subjects thus creating a speculative and immersive experience for its audience.

Every second weekend in October -- for 73 years and counting -- Searles Valley Minerals (SVM) hosts Gem-O-Rama, a gem and mineral collecting extravaganza for the general public at Searles Dry Lake, located at the tiny chemical manufacturing company town of Trona. Organized by the local Searles Lake Gem and Mineral Society, rockhounding enthusiasts from around the world attend with a good deal of the participants coming from the greater Los Angeles area.

Trona, population 2,742, is overrun with nearly three thousand people converging for this well-choreographed weekend event that is hosted and directed by the local citizenry and employees of SVM. Attendees are from a mix of cultural and economic backgrounds of varying age and experience. Desert rat prospectors -- who appear to have just come off some remote gold or silver claim out in the surrounding backcountry -- dig alongside coifed housewives accompanying their kids in an effort to reap Searles lakebed's saline mineral treasures. Although a few folks search for rare and expensive specimens to sell for hundreds of dollars in secondary markets, the majority of participants are there for good ole dirty fun and a chance to hang out in a remote part of the Mojave Desert. It is a unique, festive experience to say the least.

Trona or Bust! The 72nd Gem-O-Rama, October 2014
Trona or Bust! The 72nd Gem-O-Rama, October 2014.

 

The Mud Run

Originally begun in 1941, Gem-O-Rama is organized into three field trips throughout the weekend. The first is Saturday's Mud Run, where tons of rich, black gooey earth is dug from the "Overburden Mud" layer found about 10 to 20 feet below the static brine lakebed surface. Huge piles are dumped -- more than 150 tons -- for the participants to rummage through in hopes of finding six-sided flat "barrel" hanksite crystals up to four inches across. These specimens are translucent to transparent in color, varying from pale yellow-gray to colorless with a partial or completely flat "basal pinacoid" end termination. Also found within the occluded mud are larger "twinned" hanksite formations where two or more crystals are joined together.1 Massive trona clusters exhibiting clear, sharp "bladed" crystal clusters along with halite, smaller thenardite specimens, sulfohalite, and borax (which turns powdery white upon exposure to air) may also be collected during this field trip.2

Once found, collectors must scrub their specimens in a brine bath to remove the mud to expose their shiny surfaces.3 The SVM provides long cleaning troughs where participants work shoulder to shoulder collectively washing their finds, conversing as they scrub, creating a congenial, shared experience for everyone involved. To preserve their finds, collectors are advised to dry specimens thoroughly and preserve them with a light coat of mineral oil.

A family showing off their Mud Run finds with others cleaning specimens at the brine trough.
A family showing off their Mud Run finds with others cleaning specimens at the brine trough.

Hanksite was first identified by George Hidden in 1885, but was named to honor American geologist Henry Garber Hanks. It is one of the few minerals to contain both carbonate and sulfate ion groups. Searles Lake contains 99 percent of the world's hanksite. Lake Katwe in Uganda is the only other location outside of Searles Lake where the mineral is known to exist. There are no industrial uses for hanksite. New Age practitioners suggest that this mineral "provides insight, perception, adeptness and awareness," aids in meditation and corresponds to the Solar Plexus Chakra.4

The Blow Hole

Occurring after Saturday's lunch break, the Blow Hole field trip allows participants to collect a cornucopia of crystals and minerals spewed across the lakebed. In preparation, the SVM selects a prime location several weeks before the event that is suspected to yield the best possible crystals, but also allows the public nearby parking access. Licensed explosive technicians working with SVM blast a series of holes down to about 25 to 40 feet below the lakebed. The treasures are then brought up to the surface by pumping compressed air down into the blow holes thus creating enough pressure to force the material up and onto the lakebed. Although this preparation is done in advance, a demonstration of the actual process is held for the audience to view. Participants are asked to not begin collecting until the demonstration is completed for safety reasons. A variety of crystal specimens, including fairly common terminated hanksite and the more rare and elusive sulfohalite, which look like tiny, conjoined double-ended pyramids may be collected effortlessly during this field trip. Sulfohalite is found in only 0.1% of the crystals present at the site.

Searles Valley Mineral technicians "blowing" minerals from below the surface of the lakebed for participants to collect.
Searles Valley Mineral technicians "blowing" minerals from below the surface of the lakebed for participants to collect.
Blow Hole collecting begins as the water recedes from the demonstration.
Blow Hole collecting begins as the water recedes from the demonstration.   
Gem and mineral collecting during the Blow Hole field trip.
Gem and mineral collecting during the Blow Hole field trip.
Cleaned hanksite crystals and other mineral specimens collected during the Blow Hole field trip.
Cleaned hanksite crystals and other mineral specimens collected during the Blow Hole field trip.

The Pink Halite Sunday Field Trip

The lovely pink halite found at Searles Lake is its second most abundant saline mineral. It forms annually after winter floodwaters begin to recede and evaporate slowly, producing cubic-shaped salt crystals up to two inches across. The pink to reddish coloring of this halite is due to the halophilic or salt-loving bacteria present in the brine that, as they die, produce a warm colorization present in many desert salt ponds. Halobacteria are a microscopic, rod-shaped bacteria that produces a red carotenoid pigment similar to beta carotene. Some bacteria become trapped during the halite crystallization process, thus yielding its distinctive pink coloring. Other halite found at Searles may be a glowing pale-green color to simmering aqua blue, the result of algae contamination.

Pink halite is found close to the surface in brine pools about six to twelve inches under a hard salt ledge. Only the halite near the surface of a pool that has been protected against direct sunlight retains its pink/red color. Collecting it requires wading through the brine ponds and some physical effort to break through the hard salt crust with a pickaxe or a steel pole to reveal and dislodge the crystal formations found submerged below.

Collecting equipment is available at a modest rental price at the Searles Lake Gem and Mineral Society's building in town. The two Saturday field trips, The Mud Run and The Blow Hole, cost $10 per vehicle, with the Sunday Pink Halite tour costing $15, allowing for two and a half hours of collecting. Other events include a lapidary and mineral show.

Collecting pink halite in brine pools during Sunday's field trip.
Collecting pink halite in brine pools during Sunday's field trip.
13.	Pink halite specimens collected during Sunday's field trip.
Pink halite specimens collected during Sunday's field trip.
A young boy with a bluish tinged halite specimen.
A young boy with a bluish tinged halite specimen.
Desert rat prospectors -- who appear to have just come off some remote gold or silver claim out in the surrounding backcountry -- dig alongside coifed housewives.
Desert rat prospectors -- who appear to have just come off some remote gold or silver claim out in the surrounding backcountry -- dig alongside coifed housewives.

 

The 2014 Gem-O-Rama will take place over the weekend of October 11 & 12. For information visit this page.

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Notes:

1Twinning occurs from a flaw during the crystallization process resulting in two or more crystals appearing to have grown out from each other like conjoined twins.

2 Trona, the town's namesake, is the second most abundant saline mineral found at Searles Dry Lake, with Thenardite the second most abundant sulfate mineral found here.

3 Because these saline minerals are soluble in water they must be washed and cleaned in brine, otherwise their surfaces will become etched or they will simply dissolve into solution over time.

4 "Healing Crystals, Healing Stones at Crystal, Rocks & Gems: Hanksite," Web. 3 Jun 2014.

 

For further reading on the various minerals found at Searles Lake visit mindat.org. Search in Locality for "Searles Lake, San Bernardino County, CA" or a specific mineral name.

This article is a Desert Dispatch from The Mojave Project, an experimental transmedia documentary by Kim Stringfellow exploring the physical, geological and cultural landscape of the Mojave Desert.

All photos courtesy of Kim Stringfellow.

 

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