Tag Archives: volcanoes

Stay in the damned ruts!

A pretty close to last minute super drive to Wyoming and back was an adventure to be sure. I left Friday morning, April 22nd, from Seattle and returned Tuesday afternoon.  Not too shabby to do 2,500 miles of driving, a 6 mile hike… and almost being lost forever on the top of a ridge surrounded by snow hours from anywhere… all in less than five days!

The reason for the trip is still a little top secret at the moment.  Let’s just say that I had to take some pictures of opals for a PowerPoint presentation I have to give to some very important people, and I didn’t have any good photographs.  The last time I had been to my claim I was too excited finding stones to stop, take a breath, and then take the camera out of my pocket.

I left Seattle under gray skies and the gray continued through to Montana, but it was warm. 60s and 70s the entire way.  Idaho and Montana were especially in the bloom of spring.  Everything was so lush and green.  Leaves popping, grass growing as fast as it can….  This time of year the Rockies look like Seattle does most of the time!

I stayed at a Motel 6 in Missoula.  What a rip off.  Someone hot boxed the entire third floor (my floor) and about the time I was climbing into my rock-hard bed the police we raiding my neighbor’s room.  Montana does not share Washington State’s marijuana laws to be sure.

I woke early, made my way to the Cracker Barrel next door for breakfast because I had never been to one before.  For those of you left coast, latte-sipping, Volvo-driving, diploma-having, elites, let me paint a picture as to what Cracker Barrel is for you: It’s Pier 1 Imports for people with aesthetically questionable taste who also happen to like NASCAR… with a Denny’s inside.  Rather than name their breakfasts things like “French Toast” they will call it “Uncle Earl’s Morning Favorite” or something.  The food was OK, at least they gave me real maple syrup, but the inside of their restaurant smelled like a potpourri of a thousand scented candles. Not really my thing.

I had another 600 miles of driving ahead of me so it was road time. Earlier when I stated that Montana was so lush and green, this is not true.  All of Montana is so lush and green except for Butte.  Butte is brown and depressing.  It is brown and depressing in August, it is probably brown and depressing all winter, and it is brown and depressing at the height of spring. I blasted passed the Berkeley Pit, over the Continental Divide for the umpteenth time, through thunder showers in Bozeman, passed Livingston (without stopping; so sorry, Josh and Jennie!), and through the most ironically named Montana town “Big Timber” which is in the grasslands of the plains and has about five trees all shorter than any of the houses in the area.  Finally I made it to Laurel, Montana where I left I-90 and turned South onto US310, this took me through some farming country and tiny little towns like Bridger and Fromberg (which I assume is named this because this is where people come ‘from’ but do not move ‘to’).  I peeled off US310 onto state highway 72 which quickly become Wyoming State Highway 296 (ominously named the “Black and White Road” whatever that means) complete with thunder showers galore.

I reached Cody, Wyoming for the first time since I was a child, it seems to have boomed quite a bit since then.  The town still plays up the Buffalo Bill Cody theme and has built civic centers and museums all over the place to celebrate the cowboy way of life.  Every time I am on one of these trips I wish I could stop and smell the roses and visit a little more with each little burg I come to, but alas, I am on a schedule.  On my way out of Cody I noticed that the entire Southern portion of the town is build around four circular/oval lakes.  Each of these little lakes was full of birds and reeds, but also had what looked like to be white salt deposits on the shore lines and no substantially sized trees surrounding the lakes.  Interesting… I decided that I would have to investigate this further at a later date as this could means billions of dollars to the people of Cody, and drove on.

Alkali lakes of Cody, WY
Alkali lakes of Cody, WY

At the lakes I turned South onto State Highway 120 and that takes me over lots of broken and cracked hills exposing many of layers of rock; as I drove further South past the little town of Meeteese these scarps started to reveal thin bands of coal seams.  The bands are not thick enough for anyone to commercially exploit, but evidence none-the-less that Wyoming is rich in everything.

Coal seems of central Wyoming
Coal seems of central Wyoming

The tan rocks and bands of coal began to give way to red rocks and what looked to be layers of gray/green ash resting atop of it.  If I had been blindfolded and dropped here I would have though that I had appeared in Southern Utah.  The landscape looks almost identical to the Red Navajo Sandstone and gray/green ash of the Monitor Butte formation of the area (with my brother Loch we made an awesome discovery of metallic petrified wood in this layer just outside of Boulder, Utah).  In the heart of the red rocks is Thermopolis, Wyoming.  Supposedly home to the largest mineral hot spring in the world.  It’s dinosaur museum is also home to the only archaeopteryx fossil outside of Europe.  I really need to take my time through here someday… Stupid schedules!

The highway ends and becomes US20 and then the drive gets awesome.  A hop over the Bighorn River which instantly becomes the Wind River the moment you enter one of the coolest canyons in the world.  Wind River Canyon isn’t just beautiful, but it is also a mind fuck.  As you travel up hill you have the feeling as though you are continually going downhill.  Your brain cannot accept the fact that the water is flowing in the wrong direction the entire time.  This comes from the way the entire Owl Creek Mountains have been uplifted. Coming from the North the block of sandstone slopes up gently from Thermopolis, so as you enter the canyon you have the feeling of going deeper into it as the cliffs grow larger and larger off in the distance making for the illusion that you are traveling down hill.  It will wrinkle your brain.

The Nothern mouth of Wind River Canyon looking toward Thermopolis
The Nothern mouth of Wind River Canyon looking toward Thermopolis

The canyon is fairly unique in that the river is much older than mountains are.  The river was there first, the Owl Creeks formed after.  So as the rock began to slowly uplift millions of years ago the river would slowly and steadily cut through the rising hills leaving the scar of the canyon.  At one point the cliffs are over 2,500 feet tall to either side of the river with giant boulders the size of homes strewn about the canyon floor.  If you look up you can see above you where the near-perfect cubes of rock broke out of the cliffs and came crashing down to the canyon floor below.  It must be stupefying to witness such a cataclysmic avalanche of rock.

Wind River Canyon
Wind River Canyon
Wind River Canyon
Wind River Canyon
Wind River Canyon
Wind River Canyon

Towards the head waters of the canyon you get a treat: some of the oldest rock visible on Earth, some 2.9 billion year old precambrian metamorphic rock, makes an impressive display.  This black stone is twisted and gnarled and provides for some dramatic scenery as both the highway, and the train tracks on the other side of the river, cut through antiquated, dripping black tunnels in the jagged cliffs.  As the Owl Creeks uplifted they finally cracked and pulled up this most ancient rock exposing it for the first time in billions of years.  If there are any minerals to be found here, this well cooked rock would be the place as it is seeping rust of all colors, and cross cut with countless quartz veins.

2.9 billion year old rock in Wind River Canyon
2.9 billion year old rock in Wind River Canyon
Ancient gnarly rock
Ancient gnarly rock
These tunnels are the blackest of the black.
These tunnels are the blackest of the black.

At the beginning of the canyon you will find the Boysen Dam and the Boysen Reservoir which is as alien a landscape as any.  The first town south of the canyon is Shoshone.  Sad to say, it’s a shithole in the middle of a desert.  The only nice building in the town is the school, everything else is collapsing and in disrepair, including the numerous motels all named “The Desert Inn” or some facsimile there-of (sometimes I wonder about people from these towns and if they will ever stumble upon my blog and think, “Screw that guy, I’m from Shoshone and it’s really nice there!”… and then I realize they would have to have the Internet to do that.  Zing!).  The highway gives another weird mental funk as the road makes you feel like you are descending into Riverton (my destination) when, in fact, you re gaining elevation as you reach Riverton.  It’s weird out here.  It’s as if physics doesn’t exist.

I rolled into Riverton about 8pm and headed for the Wind River Casino to get a room. It was Saturday night and they were booked. So, I settled on the Days Inn.  It was cheap, and the rooms were new. I dropped off my dinner and went looking for “The Bull”. The concierge (can you call the desk person at a Days Inn that?) said that it was the best restaurant in town and it was only a block away. Sweet.

Inside “The Bull” on one side of the room resided stragglers from a wedding party in pink chiffon gowns and in tuxes with pink chiffon vests, on the other side of the room were dozens of high schoolers dressed to the nines because it was obviously some fancy school dance that evening.  Word. If high school boys are trying to impress girls by spending their meager earnings on this strip mall restaurant then I came to the right place! I ordered a ribeye, split pea soup, mashed potatoes, steamed veggies, and anything else I could fit in me.  It was OK at best, bummer.  At least I was in the Rockies so I was able to gorge myself for like $20.

I went back to the motel and turned in for the night.  There were two other cars in the parking lot and I think those were my two neighbors.  The neighbor to the right was playing Adel’s “Hello” on repeat on some tinny stereo.  The neighbors to the left were going at it like pigs in heat.  Paper thin walls, oh joy.  When the sex couple was done, the man did give Mel Gibson’s speech from “Braveheart” word for world in a terrible Scottish accent: “…just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies, they may take our lives, but they’ll never take… Our Freedom!!”

Coitus and Braveheart I can understand.  Adel on and endless loop I cannot. I cranked the air conditioner and was able to drown her out and shivered myself to sleep.  Sunday was the big day!

I awoke, filled myself with continental breakfast, and drove into the hills.  On the drive out my hear sank.  For a week each day I would check the forecast and it would say repeatedly that it was going to be 70 degrees and sunny on Sunday, April 24th.  Well, it snowed. Riverton was in the 40s and raining, and I could see the huge escarpment rising off in the distance with its fresh dusting of snow. Gah!

Snow, oh the horror!
Snow, oh the horror!

Riverton sits at just about 5000ft elevation, my claim is at 7,200 feet.  Lame.  The moment I got above 6,500ft there was snow everywhere.  Where I turned off the highway is a dirt road at about 7,000ft.  It was covered in snow.  Not much, maybe four inches, but I knew that the dirt underneath was going to be slick and awful.  I paused there and had a thought.  It was time to weigh the risk and reward: the amount of time and money this trip cost me, and wondering when I would be able to repeat this long-ass drive again; verses the time-frame I need to get the PowerPoint made and impress some investors before the mining season is in full swing in the Summer; verses being trapped in the snow-covered high desert mountains… alone… until I die…

This way there be a certain chance of dying.
This way there be a certain chance of dying.

Fuck it, if my previous adventures are any indicator, I am indestructible apparently.  I drove on.  Holy cow was this road slippery! When I had driven in the past I just remember a rather long, flat drive along this plateau out to the oil fields where the opals were.  Well, snow makes you realize how many hills there actually are in a place. Each time I was at the base of hill I hopped the truck could make it up to the top.  Each time I was at the top of hill I would hope that I wouldn’t come spinning down like a hockey puck across the ice.  My one hope was that my truck’s tires would find some good ruts and stay in them.  Ruts are like train tracks.  As is the case with trains, they are fine so long as it stays on the rails.

Making ruts.
Making ruts.

Huge waves of mud would wash over my truck as it kersplunked into a deep hidden puddle.  My wipers were going like mad as I crawled along at 5-10 mph for then next hour. What had been fresh, white snow in front of me had become a poopy brown swath of destruction behind me.  I finally reached a point I recognized where a cattle pen was but I could no longer see the road.  The oil wells of my intended goal were still miles away off in the distance and I was not prepared for a snow hike. I did a lot of cussing.  I had to cut my losses and drive back and regroup… Well, as much as one man alone in the wold can “regroup”.

The view from the captain's chair.
The view from the captain’s chair.

The drive back was now just a mud mess. Down the teensiest little hill my tires broke with the trusty ruts and I did a donut.  I’ll admit, this scared the piss out of me… or almost did.  When I righted the truck, I got out and took a piss so as not to accidentally do so in the cab on the next 360 spin.  I felt better and made it back to the highway without further trouble.  I used some of my emergency water to wash off my headlights, and windows because I could not see a thing!  My thinking at the highway was this: I’ll hire a helicopter. It will fly me right there for a few hundred bucks, I’ll snap a few photos and then fly back.

I hauled ass back to town, parked in the lot of the Days Inn for their free Internet, searched for a helicopter service, and then drove to the airport.  When I walked in the person behind the Great Lakes Airlines counter looked at me like I did not belong there and asked how they could help me. I replied, “I need to hire a helicopter.” She looked at the security guard/TSA guy and and he said, “Darrel went out of business last summer.”  Well, shit.

I drove back to the Days Inn and sat again using their internet.  I located a phone number for helicopter charter and the friendly fellow on the other end of the line said that they would have to fly a chopper in 300 miles from Jackson that that it would only cost me $5,500 for three hours of flight time.  Well, fuck that idea.  I can sacrifice another 2000 F150 for much less.

I drove to the sports store, geared up for a snow hike, and then went to the Wind Rivers Casino Hotel and this time was able to get a room.  It was sublime! It was about 1:30pm, and I decided that I would do the drive and hike the next morning… until I checked the weather forecast: Snow in frustrating quantities was expected by 10pm.  Welp, It was 2pm, sunset was at 8:07pm, I had six hours to get to photograph some opals and get out.  Let’s do this!

This is what my truck looked like in the Casino parking lot.
This is what my truck looked like in the Casino parking lot.

I put on my new long-johns and wool socks, threw on a new nit cap, pulled on my Oakley Special Forces combat boots, and jumped back into my muddy beast.  When I reached the summit with the turnoff to the oil fields I was pleased to see that my mud tracks from earlier had managed to melt all the snow!  I settled the track back into the ruts and began run number two. After about 45 minutes this time I reached the cattle pen and the snow had melted enough here that I could see the road out to the oil fields where my claim is.

This part of the road was a clay-filled nightmare.  There really wasn’t much in the way of ruts for my tires to follow as it is my guess that no one had been out here since before the winter.  It’s hard to grip a steering wheel and cross your fingers at the same time.  I made it to the first oil wells and the road dropped maybe a hundred feet off the mesa.  This was covered in snow. I could drive no further.

I figured I was about a mile from my claim at this point (turns out it was more like two to three miles… Amazing how a lack of trees makes distances seem shorter).  I made for a quick pace, almost running. I wanted to get to the opals, snap some photos, and be back to the truck by 7pm at the latest so that I could get out of this god-forsaken place before sunset and before the snow showers began again.  By about 4:45 I had made it to the far oil wells where the boulders live. I poked around, snapped some photos and high tailed it back to the truck.  Round trip I was back to the truck by about 5:30.  I was beat.  I basically ran miles and miles over hills, post holing in the snow much of the way in about two hours.  The War Rig and I did a celebratory donut in the muddy parking lot of the oil field and headed back out.

The War Rig says, "Let's do some donuts in the muddy parking lot." "OK,' I replied.
The War Rig says, “Let’s do some donuts in the muddy parking lot.”
“OK,’ I replied.

This drive was a lot of me cursing at the mud and the truck. “Stay in the ruts, you SOB!” and such.  I had to stay in the ruts because the road had a ditch to either side.  If I popped out of said ruts I would lose all control of the direction the truck traveled and was subject to the whims of hydroplaning, mud-filled tires. So, of course, my tires popped out of the ruts and I spun into the ditch.  At first just the driver’s side tires were in the ditch and I was too far leaned over to try and steer back up onto the road surface, thus I concluded that the expansive desert was my best option. Before I could make my attempt the truck spun and all of a sudden my rear tires were in the ditch and my front tires were almost out of it.  It’s a wide ditch.  The truck would go no where.

Well, shit.
Well, shit.

I couldn’t back out because the trailer hitch would dig into the road, and I couldn’t go forward because, well, the mud wouldn’t let me.  The tires just spun.  I beat the steering wheel and cursed, as one is prone to do in such a situation.  I had achieved my goal, and now I was stuck in the middle of nowhere, 10-15 miles from a paved road, with darkness and snow on the way.  If I didn’t get out of this ditch life was going to suuuuuuuuck.

I stepped out and took out a shovel and the 128 feet of 2×2 claim stakes that live in the back of my truck.  I first tried to dig out the road behind my trailer hitch and then wedge the stakes under the wheels to see if I could back out.  Nope.  I then spent the next hour digging under the tires and wedging the claim stakes under them so that I could drive out and into the desert. This method go me about two feet of success and my front tires were now out of the ditch and my back tires were no longer at the bottom of the ditch.  Another 45 minutes and I was still stuck like this.

Well, shit.
Well, shit.
Shiiiiiiiiiit.
Shiiiiiiiiiit.

My brain decided on one last feat of engineering; I spun the tires deep into the mud (sounds stupid, but hear me out). I then dug out a little behind each tire with my pick and shovel and back the truck up about 6 inches.  This gave me a deep little channel in front of each tire.  I started laying claim stakes across the ditch and jumping on them breaking them in two.  I then laid these stakes perpendicular to the front of the tires about 1-2 inches apart and build little ladders of wood for the tires to climb.

Once my contraption was built I hopped into the truck and gunned it. With the greatest of ease the truck climbed out of the ditch like it was never stuck.  Asshole.

What success looks like.
What success looks like.
Sadly, also what success looks like.
Sadly, also what success looks like.

The entire cab of the War Rig was now caked in mud.  I decided that the road could suck it, I drove the most of the rest of the way back next to the road using sage brush for traction.  I made it to the highway at 7:59pm.  I had beaten sunset by 8 minutes!

Forget the road, just smush the sagebrush. It has better traction.
Forget the road, just smush the sagebrush. It has better traction.

I washed off the windows and headlights again, drove back to the casino, took a shower, and then went to the restaurant labeled “fancy dining” and ordered a filet mignon.  It was the size of a baby and could be cut with a spoon. “The Bull” had nothing on this lonely 10pm steak. I have never had a filet that big.  This must have come from some freak GMO cow and it was amazing!

My room was comfy, the bed sublime, the soaps and shampoos to steal from the bathroom were top-notch.  Wind Rivers Casino Hotel, you have earned yourself 4 stars! I checked out at about 9 am, went to the Wagon Wheel Family Restaurant, sat at the bar and ate an omelet, and then reversed my road trip.

My original plan had been to be out of Riverton by noon on Sunday and then take the leisurely drive back through Utah and Nevada, go back to the scene of my rollover to see if I could find any more of my belongings in the desert and then hit some hots springs.  The snow ruined these plans.  So the reversal of my original drive out had to be done; back through the canyon, and back to Cody.  I used this opportunity to stop at the lakes at the South of Cody and walked to theshore of one of them and poured some hydrochloric acid solution on the “salts” and just as I suspected the “salt” bubbled and hissed.  Cody is built on a giant kimberlite formation.  After reviewing satellite photos I can see at least three kimberlite pipes in and around Cody. Several more may be obscured by farming activity.

Wyoming always perplexes me.  They will gladly chew up their countryside for coal.  Destroy their ground water via fracking for oil and gas, but won’t do a thing when gemstones worth more than any of their dirty fuel sources are more easily obtainable and less damaging to the environment.  It boggles the mind.  Literally trillions of dollars of gems are in Wyoming: diamonds, rubies, sapphires, opal, emeralds, aquamarine, iolite, peridot, etc… and no one digs for them. Instead they spend all this energy on oil and coal and dirty everything up in the process.

I blew through Livingston again (Sorry for not stopping again, Josh and Jennie!), through Bozeman, through Butte (it still sucks) and stayed the night again in Missoula at the Best Western.  The room they gave me smelled like someone cleaned a fish in there, had no wifi signal, and was across from the elevators and next to the ice machine.  Lucky me.  I asked for a new room and they gladly complied. Slept hard, and was back on the road to Seattle by 9am and in Seattle by 4pm.  Got home, washed the truck, washed my Subaru, and washed my roommate’s car, ate a salmon enchilada, watched the Mariners crush the Astros on TV and went to bed.  A productive day!

The Rare Gem Series: Black Opal

Imagination time! Put yourself in the stirrups of a Pony Express rider galloping across the Northern Nevada high desert. You stop at a creek in a pristine oasis known as Virgin Valley to give your horse a drink when you glance down to see an iridescent, magical, alien stone that must have come from space laying on the ground.  Curious, and somewhat confused and scared, you pick it up and feel the weight of it in your hands.  The stone is dark and smooth, and as you turn it in your hand it plays with the light.  Fires of bright colors flash and disappear.  Entire rainbows sear their spectrum into your brain.  You lose track of your objective and why you’re here.  This amazing stone has hypnotized you.  You are lost with out it.  Your past no longer exits.  You cannot envision a future without it.  It’s possession is your everything. It is your precious.

This is was how the black opal was discovered.

That’s a lie.  This is the myth created by the Nevada Tourism Board of how the black opal was discovered.  The truth is that the Pony Express followed the routes of the Oregon trail far to the North and the California Trail far to the South.  Also, the Pony Express only lasted 18 months, from April 3, 1860 – October 24, 1861.  In reality it was probably some ranch hand, or ranch rider that discovered the first black opal about forty years later in 1900, and his response was probably more along the lines of, “What the fuck is that?”

"What the fuck is that?" image from goldnuggetwebs.com
“What the fuck is that?” image from goldnuggetwebs.com

Lightning Ridge, Australia has a more gruesome beginning.  The town in New South Wales near the border with Queensland got its name in the 1870s when some passersby discovered the bodies of a rancher, his dog, and some 600 sheep all of whose hearts had basically exploded from being struck by lighting.  That’s something to put on the old “move here” brochure to promote your town; except that is also probably a lie, but a badass one at least.

Halfway across the world from Virgin Valley, in 1902, Charles Waterhouse Nettleton, a struggling opal miner from White Cliffs in Eastern New South Wales, migrated North into Queensland in search of his own strike.  He struck out.  Pretty much like he had every other time he tried his hand at prospecting.  Nettleton, defeated but ever the optimist, and since he was a stoic, kept on chuggin’ along.  He decided to walk the 400 miles back to White Cliffs, and on his way back Nettleton stopped off in Lightning Ridge and camped with the Ryan family .  The family showed him some freaky black stones that flashed color.  Nettleton recognized them as opals, but like nothing he had ever seen.

With nothing else to do (or lose) Nettleton gave a shrug and dug a big hole.  He set up camp and sunk his first shaft on October 15th, 1902.  Yeah, Nettle didn’t find shit.  Again.  Not to be deterred, Nettleton moved his camp and sunk a second shaft in 1903 and struck pay dirt.  Tens of pounds of the crazy black stones ranging from a carat to a hundred carats in size came tumbling out of the walls of Nettleton’s mine.  The hill where he made his strike is known as Nettleton Hill today.  Excited from his success Nettleton made his way to Sydney (over 350 miles by foot!) to show the stones to a jewel dealer who was not as impressed with them as Nettleton was, and only offered $1 for the lot.  “Well, fuck that,” said Nettleton, and in November 1903 Nettleton walked back to White Cliffs (remember, this is another 503 miles BY FOOT) where he knew there were people who where knowledgeable and could give a good price for his opals; unlike that dickweed, suit-and-tie pissant in Sydney.  On November 11th, 1903 an opal merchant in town offered him $30 bucks for his lot. “Oh hells yeah!” said Nettleton (or whatever the backwoods, Australian-hick equivalent would be) and sold them right there.  Think about this, Nettleton was a brute; he had dug several giant mine shafts (by hand), walked over 1,800 miles, and for his two years worth pain and struggle was psyched to be given $30 for his life’s work.  Stoics, what would this world be without them?

The connection had been made.  The opal dealer started sending his partners to Lightning Ridge to purchase large quantities of the stones.  The rush was on.  Nettleton was a hero.

A beautiful full-spectrum harlequin black opal from Richard W. Wise at rwwise.com
A beautiful full-spectrum harlequin black opal from Richard W. Wise at rwwise.com

By this time Australia had already become the opal capitol of the world with strikes in White Cliffs, and the boulder opals of Queensland.  It didn’t hurt that Queen Victoria loved the stone, and soon after Nettleton’s first rich strike in Lightning Ridge opals were discovered in Andamooka, and Coober Pedy, Koroit, and Minitabie.  While these stones are beautiful, nothing except the stones from Virgin Valley, NV and Lightning Ridge were truly black bodied.

The first big mines opened in Virgin Valley in 1905.  The first big mines opened in Lightning Ridge in 1905.  The rock that forms the area around Lightning Ridge is sandstone from the early Cretaceous Period that formed a shallow sea.  Not only are there opals there but important fossils dating back some 110 million years… Then again, the opals are fossils themselves.

What’s that?

Oh yes, opals are fossils.  What happened was that there was a volcanic eruption from somewhere nearby that coated the area in silica-rich ash.  If a creature or a plant kicked the bucket while in a puddle of water and got coated with ash, the water and ash worked together to preserve the dead critter/plant.  Over millions of years (likely) the silica combined with the water to replace the cellular structure of the organism with opal.  Opal is just a combination of water and silica creatively known as “hydrated silica”.  SiO2 is quartz, SiO2nH2O is opal.  Volcanoes pump out silica during an explosive eruption, if that silica ash buries something wet there is a good chance opal may form.  The water content of the black opals from Lightning Ridge is about 5% making them not likely to craze or crack when unearthed from drying out.

In Virgin Valley it is a different story.  Around 16 million years ago there was a series of volcanic eruptions of rhyolite that lasted for darn near two million years.  These eruptions spit out all sorts of silica-rich ash and the volcanic rock formed a series of hills that encircled an ancient basin that geologists named Canyon Rhyolite.  These volcanic eruptions are no joke.  Once the mountain goes *boom* a superheated blast of air and ash can travel across the region at hundreds of miles per hour killing everything in its path.  Combine this with a few hundred feet of ash covering the Earth around the volcano, and nothing survives.  Nothing.

Canyon Rhyolite, since it was a basin, held a series of lakes and ponds where critters flourished in a rich forest dense with ginkgo, sequoia, spruce, hemlock, birch, cedar, larch and chestnut.  The region was spared from major volcanic events for about four million years when a jerk of a hotspot decided to flood almost the entire region of what is today the Northwestern United States with flood basalt.  This buried Canyon Rhyolite under a dense, solid layer of lava that solidified above it.  Over the course of the last ten million years hot springs began to bubble up through the Earth yearning to break free.  With the hot trickles of water came bits of that silica-rich ash that permeated the buried remains of the lush forests of the now vanished canyon.  What did we just learn about the combination of silica and water?  You guessed it; opals!

The hot spring squirted through the basalt and started dribbling downhill.  Today that hot spring has carved quite the path and formed what is we know today as Virgin Valley.  Along the Valley’s walls, at about the 5090ft level you will find a layer of moist gray clay.  This marks the floor of the ancient forest.  The clay layer may vary from a few inches to a few feet thick, but here is where you will find your opals.  Petrified wood, opalized tree limbs, even the teeth and skeletons of forest creatures preserved forever as majestic hunks of gemstone.  A pretty noble way to go if you ask me.

When I die, I want someone to lay my carcass down in a bog next to an erupting volcano so that maybe, someday, several million years from now I can be dug up and brutally bandsawed and then ground down and polished into ornamental pieces of jewelry for some rich housewife.  A boy can dream can’t he?

The problem faced with many of these Virgin Valley opals is their extremely high water content of 20%; much higher than that of their Australian counterparts.  This makes many opals gorgeous but notoriously unstable.  When these opals are unearthed the majority are placed into containers of water to keep them from drying out.  When an opal dries out it crazes (forms cracks), will loose it’s dark color, and quite often will explode!  Some apply sealants to the stones to retain their water content, some just roll the dice and dry them out and hope for the best, but most just keep them submerged.  While it would be awesome to have a nice large, dry Virgin Valley opal, putting a $100,000 stone in the sun in hopes of it not exploding or just fading into a $10 rock takes some serious balls.

A Virgin Valley black opal being preserved in water. nevada-outback-gems.com
A Virgin Valley black opal being preserved in water. nevada-outback-gems.com

Throughout Ethiopia new opal fields are being discovered almost every year.  These precious opals may have white or blue bodies, and some even chocolate, but the black bodied opals resembling those of Virgin Valley or Lightning Ridge haven’t materialized in the numbers hoped for, or possibly at all!  That doesn’t mean they haven’t been sold.  A process known as “smoking” is putting lower quality crystal opals into the market and trying to pass them off as the elite black opals.  Essentially, the tricksters are taking normal light bodied stones and “smoking” them until the soot permeates the interior of the stone’s matrix.  To the common eye they look amazing, but in the long run, the stones are more likely to crack, pit and fade than the real deal.  Just don’t pay a bunch of money for a black Ethiopian opal just yet.

Other black opals discoveries have reportedly been make in Indonesia (but some of those stones have been “smoked”); with two recent discoveries in central Wyoming, and along the North Fork of the Snoqualmie River in Washington State!  With the incredible ash fallout that originates from hotspot volcanoes like the Yellowstone Caldera and the Long Valley Complex in California I would surmise that there are thousands of undiscovered sites for precious and black opal from Wyoming through Colorado and Nebraska; and in California, Arizona, and Mexico.  Get hunting!

I know, you just read a ton of words and all you want to know is, “what are they worth?” Fine.  A precious black opal with small blue/green shifts in color covering about 50% of the stone will get you about $200 per carat.  The more of the stone that is iridescent, and the larger the color flashes are, and the more of a red/green shift those stones have the more money they are worth.  A stone that is 90-100% covered in red/green flashes, with a black body, can expect to sell for upwards of $5,000 to $10,000 per carat.  These are among the rarest fine quality stones in the world, so keep your eyes out for fakes!  Fakes may include treated or smoked stones; doublets and triplets (stones that have a thin veneer of actual opal glued to the outside of an otherwise boring stone); as well a created matrix opals (stones that are the shavings and cuttings of larger opals that are then glued together using resin); and synthetic stones that are made of weird space-aged polymers and shit.  Just don’t get screwed.

Some helpful guides from OpalAuctions.com:

Black Opal Grading Chart from opalauctions.com
Black Opal Grading Chart from opalauctions.com
Types of black opal from opalauctions.com
Types of black opal from opalauctions.com
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