RV Traveling with
The Mojave Desert brings to mind "single digit" humidity and barren white-washed landscapes. It also is one of the most uninhabited and inhospitable places on earth and hosts the lowest spot below sea level on the planet. We had heard of a once a year gem and mineral show open to the public that offered mining for crystals over a three day period and knew we had to make the trip. When we asked our children if they would like a hot adventure that meant getting their hands, faces and clothes dirty. Well, they did not waste a moment at the chance at finding that perfect crystal. Our destination was a place called Trona.
In 1862 John W. Searles discovered Borax on the dry barren surface of Searles Lake while prospecting for gold and silver with three other people in the slate mountain range. Today, Trona's main sources of income is still it's mining operations. For more than sixty five years, countless thousands of visitors have come to Trona during the second weekend in October for the annual Gem-O-Rama. Each year more collectors converge for the 36 hours of frantic, non-stop activity called "field trips" to collect some of the best and most desirable evaporite mineral specimens in the world.
An idea came from our friends David and Nancy who, along with their son Drake, were considering RVing to the area located 150 miles east of Los Angeles. With a Recreational Vehicle we would at least have some comforts of home to rest our weary bodies after the long dig in the pits.
Cruise America is a national RV rental company that accommodated us with vehicles for both parties. Ours had queen sized beds, a shower, separate toilet, frig, stove. All the amenities that a small apartment would provide except this place had wheels. We live in Moorpark, California and our next door neighbors, who own an RV, provided us with their essential check list for our weekend.
Trona, is a area far removed from civilization and we quickly found out that our cellphones and iPads did not work. This was turning out to be a total escape from our normal reality. We set up camp about 5 miles north of Trona with others adverturers that had traveled for this event. The desert can be brutal with temperatures swinging 40 to 50 degrees between day and night. We were fortunate that the RV had a thermostat and on the first night we slept cozy and warm from the desert chill. We also brought along a tempurpedic topper for the bed which would make any surface comfortable.
Our first dig was the Mud Trip which started with a 9am departure and $10 per car. A week before this dig the technicians are out scouting the lake for prime crystals areas which typically lay ten to twenty feet below the surface. Once found, the crews come in and dig up 15-20 truck loads which carry the mud to the collection sites where it is dumped. There's about 150-200 tons of mud available for the picking. This was a messy job, digging around in clumps of mud for crystal treasures, but the kids especially enjoyed this one. For them it was searching for hidden treasure. We came home with a bucketful of complex and interesting crystals.
Our second dig was later that same day with a departure time of 2:30pm to the Blow Hole which also had a nominal fee of $10 per car. Preparations likewise for this field trip begin about one week before the show. Technicians first have to choose the correct site where they think will be good crystals available and enough area for the field trip parking. They then drill six to eight holes about 50 feet deep which provide access to the crystals. A few days before the dig, Explosives Ordinance Technicians from the U. S. Navy at China Lake arrive to do the blasts. These blasts enable the crystals to loosen so that they are later able to be "blown" to the surface.
Over the next couple of days the technicians blow the crystals to the surface by blowing compressed air through the holes to the bottom. As the air rises it forces brine to rise at very high speeds which in turn carries the crystals to the surface. Typically they have a demonstration and blow a hole for several minutes during the show. But when we arrived, their drill truck's support leg had broke through it's surface foundation and turned onto it's side. There was no demonstration that day! That's okay, everyone had a good time anyway.
Our third and last dig was the next day with a departure time of 9am to Pink Halite. This one was $15 a car and is the most anticipated of all the digs. This field trip starts new each year because the surrounding area floods with water during the winter. By May each year the Halite is just beginning to Crystallize. There needs to be enough sun and warm weather to create the natural pink color.
Throughout the hot, dry summer, the water starts to evaporate from these ponds which creates an environment for the salt crystals to grow slowly. They can get quite large, up to two inches across. The pink color of the crystals come from the "salt loving" bacteria that live in the highly concentrated brine. When the bacteria dies, it creates a darker red in the brine. As summer comes to an end it gets darker and darker, sometimes the color of a fine port or burgundy wine.
As the crystals grow, they can become an array of colors such as, white, pale pink, dark cranberry. The best Halite will be found where the crystals are actively growing, specifically in the brine. The largest can be found on the underside of an overhanging ledge. A pick or heavy bar are ideal for getting at the crystals. Also recommended are a pair of old tennis shoes, or hip waders. Also, water-proof gloves. The brine can be quite harsh on your hands. Our children, Jonathan and Jessica, had a blast looking for that special crystal and laid out all of their favorite picks after washing them clean using the brine from the local area.
The show also offered other activities such as exhibits, demonstrations, games. They had a raffle drawing with hourly door prizes. They also offered lunch or dinner in a catered cafeteria. The community offered events as well, like breakfast at the Trona Community Church, a picnic at Round School and a dinner at Trona Elks Lodge. You could also visit the History House & Old Guest House Museum.
At the end of each day, there was nothing like dinner around a good camp fire with friends and family. Of course, you can't have a camp fire without s'mores! We enjoyed beautiful sunsets and good conversation and an all around getaway from the clutter of the city and work week. This was definitely a trip to remember that our whole family enjoyed. In the middle of the California desert, Tona is an special kind of oasis.
If you would like more information on the Gem-O-Rama in Trona call the Searles Lake Gem and Mineral Society at (760) 372-5356 or visit their flyer at: http://www1.iwvisp.com/tronagemclub/FLYER.htm This years show is October 14-15, 2017 Saturday 7:30AM to 5PM - Sunday 7:30AM to 4PM.