Sunday, March 13, 2016

Road Tripping USA Part Three

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Author’s Note

I belong to Angels Abreast, a breast cancer survivor dragon boat race team in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada. Every four years the International Breast Cancer Paddlers Commission IBCPC) holds an international festival somewhere in the world. In the spring of 2013, my team received a notice that the IBCPC had chosen Sarasota, Florida, USA, to hold the next festival in October 2014.
     We decided to attend and while the other members were going to fly down, tour around some of the sites and head home I wanted to see more of the country and meet some of the people. My husband, Mike, and I drove from our small acreage at Port Alberni, British Columbia, on the Pacific Ocean, to Sarasota, Florida on the Atlantic Ocean.
     Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine the people I would meet nor the beautiful places I would see nor the adventures I would have on our ten week, 18,758km (11656 mile) journey. On the thirteenth day of every month in 2016 I will post a part of my trip that describes some of the excellent scenery, shows the generosity and friendliness of the people, and explains some of the history of the country. The people of the USA have much to be proud of.

 Road Tripping USA Part Three

We have been to the Great Salt Lake and the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and the Salt Plains in the Northwest Territories, Canada, so we thought we would look for the crystals that form in the Salt Plains of Oklahoma. The end of the season for digging for crystal was October 15 and it was October 13. We were just under the wire.
     We crossed the Salt Fork of the Arkansas River four times on our way to the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge near the Salt Plains State Park. The refuge is home to over 300 species of birds and about thirty species of mammals. The plains were formed millions of years ago by repeated flooding of seawater. When the source of the seawater was cut off, the water evaporated and thick layers of salt were left. The water of the Great Salt Plains Lake is about half as salty as the water of the oceans.
     Ground water continues to flow through the salt plains and when it rises to the surface and evaporates it leaves a thin crust of salt. It is a combination of this saline solution and the gypsum in the area that forms the selenite crystal. Selenite is a crystallized form of gypsum and the crystals are usually found just below the crusty surface. The iron oxide in the soil gives these crystals their brownish colour.
     We drove our motorhome to the edge of the salt flats and parked beside a wooden observation tower. There was a sign that told us to dig for crystals only in designated areas.
     The guide at the Alabaster Caves I had visited earlier that day (last month’s installment) had told me that on a sunny day the lake reflects the sun so much that I would have to wear sunglasses and sun screen. Luckily for us it was a cloudy day. Unluckily for us, it was a very windy day. The guide had also said that we really didn’t need a shovel. We could just use the holes dug by other people.
     “Most people find crystals and some of them are fairly big,” she told me.
     The crystals from the Salt Plains are called hour glass crystals. This is the only place in the world where they can be found and it is illegal to sell them. There are various sections that are open to the public on a rotating basis. This gives time for more crystals to form.
     We looked out over the large area of hard salt. There were pilings with ropes between them that looked like they marked the edges of a driveway or walkway. It went a long way out into the salt flat. We knew we had to drive on the marked roadway because in some of the unmarked areas there is only a shallow crust over quicksand.
     We weren’t sure if we should try it. We were the only ones out there. If we went off the track we could get stuck or worse yet, end up in quicksand. It was such a cold, blustery day that we doubted anyone else would come out so we would have to walk to a farm for help and there weren’t many around.
     There were a couple of restrictions. We could only harvest ten pounds (4.5kg) of crystal plus one large cluster in one day. I wasn’t worried about breaking that rule. The second one was that we were not to disturb or destroy nests, eggs, or birds. It was fall so there weren’t any nests or eggs and any birds in the area were smart enough to hide under shelter on this day.
     We decided to walk. Since we didn’t have shovels I rummaged through our drawers and cupboards. I came up with one metal and one plastic plate to use as a scoops, a large soup ladle, a soup spoon, and a metal measuring cup. We walked out onto the salt with my paraphernalia. The wind was strong and it pelted us with salt, whipped at our clothes and our hair, and blew us sideways. We had a hard time moving. There was no way we could walk to the end of the driveway where the crystals were. I tried digging in some places beside the posts. The salt was too hard to make much of a hole. We picked up a few small rocks, or maybe they were miniature crystals, and headed to our motorhome.
     We had just put everything away when a man in a four wheel drive pick-up truck drove past us and out onto the flats. We watched him go to the end and back. As he pulled up beside us he stopped and rolled down his window.
     “Did you go out?” he asked.
     “No,” Mike said. “We weren’t sure if the salt would support our motorhome.”
     “It’s fairly firm. I went to check on it because my daughter is bringing a class of high school students tomorrow in a school bus. You probably wouldn’t have any problems with your motorhome.”
     But our time had passed and we were leaving.
     When we arrived at Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, there was a sign on the lawn stating the fort was being renovated and we could visit for free. We walked into the bakery and looked at the huge stone and brick oven. The magazine building held boxes of ammunition. In the Commissary a video was shown giving some information about the history of the fort and then a man dressed in a union uniform gave a talk about the civil war.
     Fort Gibson was founded in 1824 and a town was established nearby soon after. The fort was abandoned in 1857 but reoccupied during the civil war. The army again abandoned the fort in 1890 and the town relocated to higher ground in 1900. The town is one of the oldest non-native settlements in Oklahoma. It was the first community in the state to have telephone service, a drama theater, a steamboat landing, and a school for the blind.
     When we were there, the stockade and barracks were closed to visitors because of the renovations to the log buildings. As much of the original material as possible was being used. We drove to them and from the road did see some of the log buildings with their huge brick fireplaces.
     We crossed into Arkansas and reached Board Camp where we saw a sign for Board Camp Campground and Crystal Mine. With the poor luck we’d had at the salt plains, we stopped in and talked with the owner, Cheryl. She gave us the choice of going into the field and digging our own or buying some already dug. We weren’t interested in digging so we looked at the large rock-encrusted raw crystals in the yard. Then we went into the store and browsed the crystals that they had cleaned up (removed the rock from around them), the crystal jewellery, and pails of raw crystals still in rock.
     “I’m open to any type of bartering,” Cheryl said. “Nothing has a fixed price.”
     “Joan is a mystery writer,” Mike said. “Would you be interested in some books?”
     “Sure, I like reading.”
     I went to the motorhome and brought back my set of mystery novels. I traded them and $20.00 for a 2.5 gallon pail of rock and crystals.
     “Where are you from and where are you going?” Cheryl asked.
     “We’re from Vancouver Island and we’re on our way to an international breast cancer dragon boat festival in Sarasota,” I told her.
     When she asked for an explanation I told her the story of how dragon boating was a great exercise for women after breast cancer surgery.
     “I had a friend who died from cancer not long ago,” Cheryl said. “She fought hard but didn’t make it.”
     By the time we left we were new friends and the next time I went on the Internet I friended her on Facebook.
     We stopped at a Flea Market and bought two folding shovels then continued to the Crater of Diamonds State Park.  After dumping the crystals from the pail into a box, we grabbed our shovels and gloves, and headed out to find a huge diamond. We paid our entrance fee, received some papers on what to watch for, and walked out of the building to survey the field. Someone turned the soil over every couple of weeks with a breaking plow so the land had long furrows with dips between. We were told to look for anything shiny. We walked to one of the furrows and began digging. I quickly found two shinies and showed them to Mike. He told me one was mica and the other quartz and he broke both of them. So I quit showing him my shinies.
     There was constant movement in the field. People carried pails, shovels, rakes, and hoes, and pulled wagons on their way to find a lucky spot. Others walked up and down the rows scanning the ground.
     We spent about two hours digging and searching before calling it a day. Mike stopped to talk with a woman who had found a diamond the day before. She showed him the gem and the certificate she had received. She said she had just been walking and watching the ground. Anyone who finds a diamond can take it to the shop where the staff will grade it for carats and give out a certificate.
     I spoke with a couple who said a woman had found a diamond that morning but somehow on her way to the building to get it looked at, she had lost it. She retraced her steps but never did find it.
     A man named John Huddleston owned this property in the early 1900s and found the first diamond in 1906. He eventually sold the land and, as it changed hands over the years, there were unsuccessful attempts to make it into a commercial mine. In 1972, the State bought the site and developed it into a 911 acre state park along the Little Missouri River. Thirty-seven of those acres make up the Crater of Diamonds.
     It is believed these diamonds were formed millions of years ago and were spewed out to fall to the earth during a volcanic eruption. There are about 700 diamonds found each year and over 28,000 have been found since 1972. It is the only such site open to the public in North America and is thought to be the eighth largest diamond reserve in the world.

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