An Odd Place To Dig - A Story


Without a doubt some of my more odd collecting experiences have occurred up on Peterson Mountain, in Washoe County, Nevada. That's if you don't count the Trona, CA field trips which comprise a stand-alone oddball event that never fails to stretch the limits of the imagination and endurance. You can read about Trona in several of my other blogs but my stories of Peterson have not been previously told. Warning, the narrative that follows contains scenes of nudity and drug use which some readers might find offensive. (It's not really that bad, but I just have to say that to avoid inflaming someone's sensibilities.)

Peterson Mountain (also known as Hallelujah) was mined for fabulous smoky amethyst scepters and other museum style crystals for at least 25 years by a Reno, Nevada fireman named Foster Hallman. He recently sold his claim, and sadly, he passed away in the spring of 2018. A giant of a man, he could have easily played Paul Bunyan with any local group of troubadors, if you could find a blue ox to stand next to him. Think of the lyrics to Jimmy Dean's “Big John” and you'll get the idea.

One hot sweaty day up on the mountain, I got word from Foster that his old buddy Pete had just gotten out of prison and was coming up. I never got the full details of why Pete had gotten into prison but it had something to do with explosives. There might have been a beer truck that had gotten blown up or something. Anyways, I was ok with having him up on the mountain, and I maybe even thought that I was kind of lucky, because I was getting somewhat worn out with hand digging, and explosives might come in handy. Upon Pete's arrival, he told us a story of the early digging days with Foster up on the mountain, which was apparently before either of them had a 4 wheel drive to get up the road. Foster had gone down to nearby Hallelujah Junction to buy some beer, and had been gone for a long time. The question was coming up among the diggers as to where the heck he was and whether there would be any beer at all that day. But then, word up! Foster was sighted and he was coming this way. He was still about a half mile or so out in the sage, wearing nothing but his boots, and carrying a case of beer. “That's right” says Pete. “I look out and here he comes, in no big hurry, buck naked, with a big smile on his face, carrying that case of beer and looking something like a giant cherub.”

Foster is laughing at the recollection but he doesn't refute it. “Uh, Pete, can we get some charges set?” He asks.

Another day, another year, and Foster and I are up there digging with my friend Blake, and it's just been kind of frustrating. We've worked all day and have nothing to show. Foster's being kind of stingy with his back hoe and not giving us much to work with and Blake and I are constrained to poking and prodding the unyielding wall with rock picks and screwdrivers, searching every crack, cranny, and stripped pocket from glorious days of yore, hoping that something will turn up. The general rule is: you get to keep most of what you find, but if you pull out anything worth over $100, Foster gets to keep those. So there is always a little bit of dynamic tension over what is or isn't worth a hundred clams, but in the end I'll say that Foster was generally pretty fair minded about it. The problem this day was that we couldn't find a crystal to save our lives. Foster leaves for the evening, and Blake and I keep scratching well into the dark, since now would probably be the time when we could keep anything we could find, but eventually we give up, miserable and defeated. However, just like fishing, even a bad day crystal hunting is better than a day at your job, right? We are up high among the creamy granite knobs which are now bathed in moonlight. The highway is far away below us, an imagined line in the darkness, with it's traffic of little twinkling stars. Our lone campfire is the only light around for miles, and the heavens run away above us into the deep peace of the starry night.

That is until about 3:00 am when an army of tweakers climbs over the rim of the mountain and descends into the pit, hooting and hollering. Ok, maybe not an army, but five or six of them anyway. Where do these denizens of the night come from? Underneath a rock? Like Tolkien's orcs, they scurry and scrounge what had been our frustrating yet still dear daytime digs. It's always a little bit awkward when you witness claim jumping. Blake and I are paying customers so we have permission to be there, but we are not the claim police. We have no real authority to send anyone packing. Yet if these goons find anything, they're basically taking it away from us and goodness knows we worked for it.

Sure enough, the ringleader reaches his arm down into a hollow pocket. It's one that I am 100% sure I checked by daylight, so I am smug in my sureness that he will find nothing. He grunts and makes other noises and gyrations before pulling his arm back ceremoniously, holding a large doubly terminated elestial. My jaw drops. How did this fool score such a cool crystal from a hole that I had checked? I am completely demoralized. The gang of hooligans is running all over the place, wreaking tweaker havoc, and we realize that it's not going to quiet down, so at some point we just join them, tearing away at the rock, as much in anger as in the spirit of discovery. At one point I tear back a slab and break into a few crystals while the invaders drool. Ah ha, I think, but it turns out to be only a couple meager and rather deformed points, somehow symbolic of how the day and the night have gone.

The tweakers vanish before the first light. Foster arrives and Blake and I go back at it again, sore, tired, and feelin pretty inadequate. Blake takes a break for lunch and a gal who was with the previous night's gang appears on the rim of the pit. Her blonde hair is dishevelled, and her shirt is in tatters, basically just a few rags barely clinging to her shoulders. She's still a little wigged out, and she also advises Blake that she's for the most part blind, claiming to see only shadows and light, but that's about it. While she talks, what's left of her shirt kind of just slides off her, and she doesn't move to pull it back up. She's just sitting there topless and talking away like nothing happened. My buddy Blake is good at taking things in stride and he's a gentleman. He gives her his shirt and gently encourages her to put it on, lest these miners get the wrong idea!

It took me a few years to ponder that night on the mountain. Eventually it dawned on me that the guy who pulled the crystal from “my pocket” was doing the shaman thing. He already had the crystal in hand, and he was just performing the magical Lucky Digger ceremony so that the gods of the mountain would smile upon them. There's no other way I would have missed that drop dead big old there?

If you work at it long enough, you eventually will find a world class crystal at Peterson Mountain. My day finally came and I found one, but, as you might imagine, it didn't happen in a straightforward manner. Pretty early in the morning, the back hoe tore out some rock and a fairly good sized hole yawned. Crystal digging up here is a funny combination of extreme force and the most delicate little pokings and proddings you can imagine. Once the pocket was opened, it was careful hand digging time, and I got on it, I guess because I simply happened to be closest when it was revealed. But it was probably also my turn! Clearing back some vug mud, I immediately pull a 10 inch smoky from the mouth of the pocket. Again as you might expect, Foster got that one. About 30 minutes of careful work later and an amazing 10” x 10” plate of smokies comes out, with at least one fat scepter beautifully placed right in the center. Of course Foster took that one too, since smoky plates with multiple crystals are actually quite rare here, especially one that size with a scepter to boot. (Can I get a Hallelujah? Wink!) All through the afternoon I worked that sweet large pocket, until it was bare, and I piled up several pounds of nice thumb sized points. Another large (probably 6 inch?) scepter came out and passed through my hands to Foster, and there may have been more that I have forgotten. It is a little disgruntling to see such treasures float before your eyes, and get snatched away. But those were the terms and conditions.

Late in the afternoon, we hear a shout and suddenly we have an emergency on the mountain. A young boy of about 9 or 10 who was up there just poking around the perimeter of the dig with his father has fallen down the hill. He's conscious, but he's bleeding from multiple wounds and his pupils are dilated. “He's in shock”, Foster says, and proceeds to take the boy down the mountain and on in to the hospital in his own rig, since the father and son apparently walked up from somewhere below.

Once the excitement settled down, I got a notion to go back there and check that now empty pocket, since it had been such a good one, and so fun to work all day long. Maybe there was something that I had missed.

But there wasn't. The pocket was bare. I am a discerning collector after all, and I like to think I don't miss much. Still, after working all day at this marvelous vug, you don't want to believe that your fun is finally done. I haphazardly scoop away at some of the dirt piled in the bottom of the pocket from my day's digging. I can still smell the enigmatic aroma of vug mud that only comes when you hit a pocket up here. It's as if the mountain was teasing me. I had seen some of the best crystals that the locality produces come out today. I looked at my pile of nice but small crystals still laying there by the side of the pocket. I'm happy, but like most diggers, I always long for something more. I take one more scoop of dirt out of the rock bottom of the pocket and the impossible happens.

 A crystal face appears in the last glow of the dusk. And it's a big face! There's some kind of crack opening down at the bottom of the pocket and over the centuries it had filled with falling mud and decomposing granite and one giant crystal that had slipped from the wall of the vug in a bygone age and lay buried until this moment. I had completely missed it, but now, here it was, emerging from the mud and the dusk, and into my hands. It was a large turkey headed scepter with a smaller but still good sized scepter bridging into it at the base. A definite museum piece, it filled my entire hand and struck lightning into my heart. If it had been the only crystal to have come out that day, I would have probably had to surrender it to Foster just on principle. He was the claim owner after all, and he had to brook the expenses of keeping the claim operating. He certainly deserved the lion's share of what came out. But he had gotten 3 or 4 other very nice pieces from this pocket, so he had definitely not gone without a good payday. Was I wrong to take the big crystal? I don't know – I think about it still so that must mean that I feel some level of guilt. But given the crazy circumstances of that afternoon, and the sheer fluke of my finding this piece at all, it really did feel like the mountain had handed this one to me. Yes, at long last, that old mountain spirit had smiled upon me!