We awoke around seven am, in our camp off the side of a Wyoming highway. I received a voicemail from Jon Grolez telling me that he and his parents were on the dusty road which would supposedly lead us to opals. Houston, Erik and myself packed our cots and our tent, and got underway. We joked, with painful truth about the fact that the truck went through about an eighth of a tank of gas as we climbed a nine degree slope in the highway. However, the truck clawed its way up, probably over a thousand feet. We reached our target dirt road and drove for a mile inland before deciding to abandon our decidedly non-four wheel drive trailer. We parked our darling little, baby blue, white campered, broken windowed, rust flecked trailer, on the side of a dirt road. It looked remarkably natural.
Unencumbered by trailer, we blasted along a few miles faster than we should have. The dirt road would have been remarkably smooth, if not for the enormous pair of tire ruts. Those ruts, in some cases probably a foot deep, insisted on grabbing our tires and making for a very shifting and shuddering ride. In all the drive was still quick, and the call of the opal had us all excited. We caught up with Jon and his parents, Ned and Brenda, after about twenty minutes. The had stopped near a small gas well and prospected for some small stones. They had also managed to wrangle a horny toad, which to someone who has only seen them on television, was remarkably small. Likely the altitude and Wyoming winters contribute to that particular physical trait. After conferring with Jon and family, and scouting via the truck’s GPS navigator, we set our sites on a promising set of roads and ventured onwards.
Since the land we were searching is an established gas mine, we had our hopes set on finding the road cuts which the gas company had created to install and maintain their gas wells. Those cuts we hoped would have uncovered a wealthof large opals. After another ten minutes of driving, we spotted a well with a road cut! We followed the twisting road to the well and parked at the bottom of a machine made earth slip around forty feet high and twice as wide. It was mere minutes before Jon’s mother, Brenda, found our first opal encased in a larger stone. A few more small opals were found as we scoured the road cut. Eventually a white truck pulled up and a maintenance man for the Gas company asked us what we were after. Unfortunately, I personal was up the slope hunting for my own opal, and did not hear the conversation. What I did see were handshakes, gestures towards some of the other buildings and wells visible from our position, and Houston, hopping into the front seat of the truck and driving away. After searching for another twenty minutes or so, i worked my way up over the lip of the roadcut and followed a crease in the hillside likely caused by snow melt. I found a number small embedded opals along with an interesting geode, which Houston dubbed ‘hillbilly teeth.’ By the time I had turnedback down the hill with my handful of stones, the white truck had returned with Houston. Houston hopped out and quickly transferred a large stone from the bed of the company truck, to the tailgate of his. Dwarfing my own collection of interesting stones, was an opal laden stone, probably around forty pounds in weight, which will be cut and polished upon return to Seattle. Ned, Jon’s father, turned to me and said, “Uh oh, has opal fever caught you too?”
“Why of course!” I replied, “I had it before this trip ever started!” From subsequent conversations, I learned that the gas company man, a regular maintenance worker on many of the wells in the area, had picked up plenty of opals and was able to take Houston to a recently excavated area. It was at that area that Houston was able to claim the prize stone of our trip. After that stone dwarfed, by far, anything we’d picked up on our first stop we decided to move and look at other sports. We drove past some wells which had warning signs for Di-hydrogen(? H2S) Sulfide and smelled intensely of sulfur egg farts to another promising road cut. Our luck after an hour or so was limited. The most interesting part of the stop was finding a wash point which was filled with small rolled and colored stones. It was similar to digging through the numerous bins at a rock shops to pick out a handful of interestingly colored stones for a few bucks. The location, in the bright Wyoming sun, overlooking the rolling hills of sage, crouched into a jumbled pond of stone, and catching the occasional wiff of egg fart, was much, much better.
We realized, finding a monster opal in that area would require some major heavy equipment and test trench after test trench. So we decide to backtrack and find a way out to an untouched hill off in the distance with clearly visible eroded cliffs. Another twenty minutes of bouncing along dirt roads cut through sage brush, we got as close to the hill as we could. By this point, a few hours into our adventure. Erik, Houston and Myself were lamenting the fact that we had left almost all our water, and the gigantic ‘manwhich’ that was our lunch, in the trailer we had abandoned miles away. Fortunately the Groelz’s took pity on us, and fed us an enormous mound of watermelon.
After fortification with fruit, it was about a ten minute walk from our cars to the bottom of the hill. Another five minutes saw us up the side near the cliffs which had looked so promising from a distance. We all complained about walking uphill at altitude, though physical fitness level might possibly have been a culprit. We split up and covered nearly the entirety of that large mound. Unfortunately, our search of the hill was fruitless. For myself, lust of the eye kicked in and I became more focused on reaching the summit than I was on scouring the earth for opals. The view from the top was striking. The wind was whipping so powerfully that i was forced to abandon my hat, held down by the head of the pick I had been carrying. I spent a good amount of time on the summit, splitting my attention between the ground and the view spreading in every direction. I found a US Geological marker from 1948 pegging the altitude around 7500 feet. As I searched a section of the summit which looked promisingly dug by wildlife, a large hare jumped from cover. It raised a white tail and skipped away, disappearing over the edge of the hill. Although sighting a hare might be trivial to someone from Wyoming, or anywhere else for that matter, it has maintained a prominent spot in my memory of that day. Prior to my accent up the opal-less hill, I had spoken with Brenda about the scale of the landscape and the differences of continental geography compared to that of my home islands. Now, in hindsight, I find that those small things, such as hares and horned toads, which exemplified the differences I was observing, have stuck prominently in my mind. Of course, having already found a forty pound opal, hiking up a hill on a beautifully sunny day with seventy degree weather and blasting wind, make a pretty good impression on their own.
As I noted, our success on the hill was limited. There was hope that one spot which Jon had spotted might contain nice brown opal, but this was not the case. The only success was my own. After hacking into the side of the hill for a short time, we determined Jon’s site had no opal. As I reclaimed the hat and bucket I had set a few feet away, I found a relatively large shard of brown opal sitting on the surface. We looked around briefly but could not discover where it might have originated. However, we had already decided to change spots, and Ned and Erik were nearly back to the trucks. So we clambered back down the hill with our single opal shard. Returning to the truck, we decided to continue on the road we had followed to our hill. The road was nothing more than a discoloration caused by a pair of semi-visible wheel cuts through the sage brush, it wrapped halfway around our hill and looked to cut back towards another more obvious road. We followed the bouncing path, through a couple herds of cows, and past a large herd of pronghorn antelopes. Unfortunately we misjudged our bouncy rut of a road and wound up right back where we started – next to the first roadcut and the fart wells.
We decided to press on in the opposite direction, having just made a giant circle. What a choice. We found another relatively fresh road cut, and a recent construction project. This final site was the jackpot. “Oh, there’s one.” was the first thing out of my mouth as I stepped from the truck, and everyone seemed to repeate that statement every other step. Most of the opals were embedded in host rock, and many more had begun to change colors in the sun. We did realize however, that to take the opal laden boulders which we found the most impressive, we would need a flatbed with a crane. Our last stop lasted a long time. We continuously picked up promising opal stones, only to promptly drop them for more promising stones. Eventually everyone found their choice examples to take home. Around three pm the Groelz family decided it was time to get on the road back to Utah, and we had decided it was time to find our trailer which held the promise of an enormous ham sandwich. We said our goodbyes, piled into our respective vehicles and followed the now familiar dirt roads out of the Wyoming hills.
After stopping to reattach the trailer and to eat a sandwich so full of ham it made our jaws hurt, Houston, Erik and I worked our way towards Wheatland, Wyoming for our next stop. The initial plan was to stop and camp somewhere and finish the drive in the morning. But fortified by caffeine and wondering if we would outrace the thunderstorms over Wheatland we ended up pushing into the hills. We followed a four wheel drive trail until we reached a section of road flat enough to pitch our tent. We did so, cursing the clouds of flies and mosquitoes which were drawn to our headlamps and open mouths. It was too late to cook dinner, but the sheer number of bugs I swallowed managed to tide me over.
Erik and I poured two fingers of celebratory whiskey. Some nice Glennfiddich scotch, which we drank from the sawed off bottoms of twelve ounce water bottles. Fortified, we settled down to sleep and dream of man sized iolite… That is to say, sleep as well as we could in a tent which repeatedly tried to pummel us to death through the night.
Again, any errors are my own, including such things as maybe using the wrong or multiple names for Jon’s Mother. Sorry.