What Draws Hundreds to This Lake Bed? Spellbinding Crystals


Welcome to Gem-O-Rama, California’s new gold rush.

At the 77th Annual Gem-O-Rama last October, hundreds of professional and amateur rockhounds descended on the tiny community of Trona, Calif., for a weekend of treasure hunting. Gem dealers, geologists, retirees and school children dived into the mud and brine of Searles Lake to extract specimens of spellbinding molecular order: hanksite, pink halite, borax and other salt crystals.

Crystals, the now ubiquitous wellness accessories sitting on your desk or bedside table, all come from somewhere. Some come from this dry lake bed in the California desert. “A lot of people don’t pay attention to what’s going on under their feet,” said Alexandra Gama, president of the geology club at California State University, Sacramento. But for the weekend at Gem-O-Rama, what’s going on underfoot is the main event.

Since 1873, Searles Lake has been mined for borax and other minerals, which are sold by the ton for everything from fertilizer to cleaning products, glass manufacturing to gunpowder. The mining operation spawned a small company town, Trona, and with it, the Searles Lake Gem & Mineral Society. The Society has worked with the mining company, now called Searles Valley Minerals, Inc., to host Gem-O-Rama every year since 1941. (Before you grab your pickax, note that Gem-O-Rama 2019 was canceled because of severe damage caused by earthquakes this summer. The epicenters of the July 4 and 5 quakes were just west of Trona.)

Over the course of the festival, there are three field trips, each heading to different locations and excavation challenges, during which attendees can pursue their quarry. For the “Mud Trip,” Searles Valley Minerals employees have turned over sections of earth 10- to 20-feet deep, revealing clusters of hanksite — a rare, greenish six-sided crystal — in the thick black goo. Later, at the “Blow Hole,” stones buried as far as 50 feet beneath the lake bed are pumped above ground in an impressive geyser.

The final trip is to the crimson brine pools of pink halite, which grows in a cube shape and is made pink by the salt-loving bacteria that inhabit the water. Gem hunters wade directly into the pools, braving the sting of its high salt concentration and wielding crowbars and pickaxes to break off chunks from hardened crystal reefs.

“It’s hot and acidic and salty, like a mixture of salt and lemon juice and sulfur,” Reeve Peterson, a gem dealer, said of the pink halite pools. “And the minute you get out of it, everything that’s wet on you, which is all of you, immediately crystallizes. Your legs and pants are covered in salt crystal, so every time you move you get scratches. Then you go back into the brine and it’s like dipping a cut in a lemon.”

The rich sediment at Searles Lake has been millions of years in the making. Volcanic activity upstream produced mineral-laden rocks. Glaciers ground up the rocks, leaching their minerals and dissolving them in water. The runoff flowed down from the mountains and into the lake. As the earth warmed, the water largely evaporated, leaving layers of brine that the desert sun bakes into crystals.

Rocks and minerals are standard fourth-grade science curriculum in California, said Moira Talan, a teacher at Topanga Elementary Charter School in Los Angeles County. “Topanga,” Ms. Talan said, “is kind of a crystal place.” For more than 10 years, Ms. Talan has brought students to Gem-O-Rama, where they can become geologists for the weekend, collecting and identifying minerals.

Ms. Gama, the geology club president, pointed out in a telephone interview that once you’ve collected your specimens, it’s very important to clean each one with salty brine. (Not freshwater; all of the crystals at Searles Lake are water soluble.) “The hanksite doesn’t smell that bad because its in mud,” she said. “But the halite smells horrendous. The brine pools smell like something died.”

“The total chaos is what makes it so fun,” Alison Jean Cole, a jeweler and lapidary artist from Portland, Ore., said. She leads “rock-hounding” adventures for women and Gem-O-Rama, she said “epitomizes the spirit of the rockhound, somebody who is beyond obsessed.”

The crystals at Searles Lake are more ephemeral than most. The rainy season that follows Gem-O-Rama will wash the majority of them away. But that doesn’t dampen these rockhounds’ enthusiasm.

“Crystallization is the only place in nature where you see straight lines,” Mr. Peterson, the gem dealer, said admiringly. “Everything else is wobbly, round and wiggly. I think that we are innately drawn to order and organization in the midst of all this cosmic chaos.” Or perhaps more simply: “human beings like shiny things.”

Surfacing is a weekly column that explores the intersection of art and life, produced by Alicia DeSantis, Jolie Ruben and Josephine Sedgwick.

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