Every year on the second weekend in October, the Searles Lake Gem & Mineral Society in Trona puts on the Trona Gem-O-Rama in conjunction with the nice people from Searles Valley Minerals (who mine the lakes for borax and other minerals), who open their property to collectors from all over the country to collect evaporite minerals. After seeing fabulous big slabs slathered with pink and white halite at the local rock and gem shows, I wanted to get in on this opportunity.
Fellow Ventura Gem and Mineral Society members Maria Flores and her husband Raul Barraza had never been and wanted to go too, so we hatched a plan to go together to the 2013 Gem-O-Rama, two or three hours northeast into the desert. The Trona adventure takes place on Saturday and Sunday, so we decided to drive up Thursday and use Friday to do a little sightseeing. The nice thing about sharing rides on long trips like this is that you get a chance to know each other. We talked the whole time and before we knew it we were approaching Red Rocks State Park, a short distance from our final destination. We wanted to stop and see the beautiful red and buff sedimentary formations. The soft cliffs erode into fantastic shapes. This park has a lot to offer, including petroglyphs, and I’d like to return next time and see more of it.
We rolled past China Lake and into Ridgecrest as the sun was going down, and checked into the Motel 6. (We considered dry camping, but given the muddy collecting conditions, decided $35-ish a night sounded a lot more fun.) Friday morning the three of us headed east on 178 to take in the sights. We passed through Trona where people from the local gem society were busy setting things up, then decided to look at the dry camping area on the other side of town to see if anybody was there yet. There were a few people set up, but I was more interested in seeing what was behind the Trona Golf Club sign at the turnoff. Remember, this is the Mojave Desert. Beyond the camp was a chain link fence with a beat up sign and a few buildings. Not really believing this was anything more than an overgrown relic from the boom days of Borax mining, I checked the satellite view on my phone’s map, and sure enough, it looked like a golf course, albeit a brown one. We got out to take pictures and darned if there weren’t a couple of guys actually teeing off not far from the fence. We went inside for a closer look at a real desert golf course. The tees consisted of pieces of carpet and the greens were actual grass with sprinkler systems to keep them going, but the rest of the place was natural gritty desert. If you’re a golfer, pack your clubs. It’s a public 9-hole course with a $5 green fee.
We continued east toward the Panamints, ignoring the big “Road Closed 17 Miles Ahead” sign. This road ultimately takes you to Death Valley, but we weren’t going that far. Right at the turnoff for the ghost town of Ballarat, the road was indeed closed with big piles of dirt (and a well worn track going around them). We turned right, passed over a dry salt flat, and ended up in Ballarat, parking in front of a closed general store to have a look around. We inspected some old tumble-down adobe structures, picked up bits of broken purple desert glass while a wild donkey flirted with Maria and me, and then settled on the shady junked-up porch of the general store for lunch. Raul became the de facto local as car after car stopped asking him for directions to Death Valley (because of the road closure). He confidently sent them ahead on the same lonely road (and luckily nobody came back).
The last site of the day was the Trona Pinnacles. These tufa pinnacles, south west of Trona, are the result of some fantastic underwater voodoo involving calcium carbonate that happened dozens of millennia ago. Many movies, TV shows and commercials have been filmed among these striking formations. Back in Ridgecrest, we had a great Mexican dinner at the Golden Ox, catty-corner from the Motel 6. Even though they didn’t have chile rellenos that night because the owner’s mother was out of town, I’d highly recommend this place.
We got up bright and early Saturday morning to get good positioning in the parking lot. You line up your cars in a laned parking lot so they can lead the 100 or so cars to the collecting area in an orderly fashion. We arrived around 6:30 and ended up about 10th in line, parked, then walked over to the local church for pancakes. The breakfast was pretty simple – pancakes and sausage, hot drinks and OJ. (Note to self: pack a container of real maple syrup and some real butter next year. If I’m going to eat pancakes, I want to go all the way.) Then back at the parking area we got our tickets for the 3 trips and milled around until the 9 am kickoff.
The first trip is mud collecting. From beneath the brine, they dredge up mud studded with jumbo hanksite crystals, and spread it out for everyone to muck through. Turns out, this is the only one of the 3 trips where it really pays to get in line early. We got to park on the first row, and got to the mud before the onslaught of fourth-graders on their field trips. Right off the bat, Raul found a beautiful cluster of crystals that was one of the day’s big prizes. I immediately grabbed a few quart-sized crystals before hoards of people descended. The hanksite is abundant so you can get in and out quickly. I washed my finds in one of the brine troughs provided and bought a jug of brine later so I could finish off the job at home. Plain water will dissolve the crystals, so you really do need the brine from the lake.
Back at the gathering area, we parked near the front of the lineup for the afternoon trip to the blowholes. The second trip involves the blowholes, where they drill down 40 feet and set off a charge to loosen hanksite, sulfohalite, borax and halite crystals. Then they shoot compressed air down one pipe to force crystals and brine up the other, spraying the slush into semicircles. The crystals come out pretty clean, so the challenge is to find the somewhat rare sulfohalite double pyramids (octohedrons) and nicely formed double-terminated hanksites (hexagonal). We all came away with nice specimens.
Sunday morning we weren’t as frenzied about getting in line first, but as it turns out, we got good placement anyway. The collecting area for the pink halite was extensive, so everybody got to park close. However, chance had it that we parked right next to a small deposit of blue-green halite, so that was the first thing stashed into the truck. There were dozens, if not hundreds, of pink brine pools in the playa. The brine needs heat and sun to encourage the bacteria to thrive, then when they die and the water evaporates, their little bodies turn red and get trapped in the growing salt crystals forming on the underside of the salt shelf. We trudged out with our buckets and settled into a random area and hacked away. Mostly I collected very pale pink to white crystals on a pink base (not pink crystals per se, but quite attractive overall).
After a last run through the gem show and lunch of awesome pulled pork on nachos from the local club’s food concession, we headed out. A pleasant drive back to Ventura with my new friends Maria and Raul wrapped up a wonderful trip.