My 82 year old mother likes to remind me now and then that I’m getting too fat. “Tommy,” she’ll say, “You’re starting to get a double chin.” Then she promptly sets huge plates of homemade food directly in front of me. All my life warm hearted older women have been doing their level best to see to it I don’t get too thin. They’ve been doing a mighty good job of it too.
Three years ago I took a much needed break from my writing and drove several thousand long lonesome miles to go crystal digging in the low, green mountains around Mt. Ida, Arkansas. I arrived in Mt. Ida late and spent the night in the funky but cozy Mt. Ida Hotel, twenty bucks a night.
The next morning I found a few small pieces of clear quartz crystal right by the parking lot. There is crystal everywhere in Mt. Ida, a rock hounds dream place if ever there was one. At a rock shop I paid my two dollars and was given a key on a rope, and a map to a crystal digging mine up on Fisher Mountain. I was advised to dig deep into the hard sandstone walls, to chisel out the best pieces and clusters of the beautiful crystal. But once at the open pit mine I found so many incredible treasures lying around in the dump piles that I spent most of my day just walking around gathering.
The trick I found quickly was to walk with the sun at my back and to catch the sunlight as it beamed on the discarded quartz. Once in awhile I’d find a tiny clear piece sticking up from the reddish clay soil and when I pulled it out it was much bigger than I’d first thought. I found a dozen or more quite perfect fat crystal points like this.
Eventually I did start breaking rock though. I swung the sledgehammer for several hours under the warm sun and by nightfall I was filthy, tired, and hungry.
The ride back to Mt. Ida took about twenty minutes and after a quick shower at the motel I walked down to the Mt. Ida Café. The menu looked good and not too expensive for my penny-pinching tastes. I sat down alone at a table for four and over coffee looked over the menu. At a table nearby several women perhaps, twenty years older than I, caught my eye. One of them called over to me, “Would you like us join us?”
So I did join them for dinner and almost immediately one of them told me, “Your meal is on us.”
These two ladies didn’t look like they were in the slightest bit rich and I said no, but they insisted. I had a great dinner of mashed potatoes, gravy, fried chicken, green beans, with apple pie for desert. The ladies, Peggy Cardwell and Patty Amons, told me several times that I should have ordered the steak, but my meal was excellent. The conversation was equally fine too as we swapped tales of digging crystals and breaking rock.
Patti worked for a crystal company and Peggy, an American Indian, was an artist who made jewelry and beautiful feathered dream catchers. Peggy and her husband, Rod, traveled around the country selling her wares but they always spent at least a month every year in Mt. Ida.
The next day I dug crystal again and on my return to town I ran into Peggy who invited me for dinner at the Stanley place. Irene Stanley, in her nineties, lived in the old family house and it was her grandfather who had first started the Fisher Mine. The entire huge house was filled with the most glorious crystals I’d ever seen and by the time I left that night my belly was filled from repeated helpings of crackers, bread and butter, and a fabulous spicy stew that Peggy had cooked. Irene and everyone else treated me, a total stranger, as though I were family.
The next morning I left Mt. Ida but before I left I gave Peggy a nice fat garnet crystal I’d dug in the mountains of Nevada and I got her home address in Soccorro, New Mexico. A week later, safely back home in San Luis Obispo, California I wrote Peggy a note but I never did hear back from her.
Last week I took a much needed break from my computer and work and drove some 300 miles from my home in San Luis Obispo to Quartzite, Arizona. I had always meant to visit Quartzite in January or February to see for myself what the great attraction was. I went with an old childhood friend, Johnny Banks, whose dad loaned us his nineteen foot motor home and this was real luxury for an old hard rock tent camper like me.
Quartzite is said to have a population in the summer months of less than three hundred souls. In January and February though it swells to over 400,000 people. More snowy white beards and deeply tanned skin than I’ve ever seen in one place before. Snowbirds from all over the US flock to Quartzite for the sun, the huge flea markets, swap meets, rock, gem and mineral shows, and for the free RV parking all over the surrounding desert. Quartzite boosts two Post Offices, two grocery stores, a couple of restaurants, a bakery, an XXX Adults Only Shop, cheap gas, and snail-slow traffic through it’s dusty one main road.
Johnny and I pulled into town, gassed up the gas guzzling motor home and started to roam one of the giant rock swaps. About an hour later we stopped to look at some tables full of beautiful clear quartz crystals. I asked the lady if this was Arkansas quartz and she told me that it was indeed. “I’ve been digging crystals in Arkansas,” I proudly told her.
“Where?” she asked me.
“Mt. Ida,” I said.
I could immediately tell my stock had gone up in her estimation.
“You find any of this crystal yourself?” I asked, and she told me with obvious pride that she had dug every single piece of it herself. It was then that I noticed the dream catchers fluttering in the warm breeze, just behind her. I looked and there behind another table of rocks, crystals and Indian jewelry was a face that looked very familiar.
“You sure look familiar!” I told her.
“She got up from her chair, her big, sweet round face beaming. “Tom!” she said, “Is that really you?”
“Sure is,” I said, totally pleased to find her again and to see that she even remembered my name three years later.
She gave me a big, warm hug and then announced to everyone nearby, “Tom’s the one who gave me that beautiful garnet. He’s a writer.”
“Yep,” I said, and since I last saw you, Peggy, I even sold a book. Sold two of them actually!”
Well,” said Peggy, “I got me a big mess of fat shrimp in the freezer in the motor home that Rod and I got right off the boat in Corpus Christi. You and your friend will have to be our guests for dinner tonight. We can celebrate you selling your book and you finding us here in Quartzite.”
It turned out that she had got my letter but had lost it before she got around to answering it and had felt bad about that ever since.
That night they put tarps over the tables of quartz and we swapped hunting, fishing, and rock hounding tall tales late into the Arizona night as we feasted on salad, fruit, crackers, cheese, and Louisiana style spicy shrimp.
Around midnight Johnny and I walked back to our own motor home. “Those are some pretty neat friends you have,” he told me. “They really treated us good.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Those sweet old ladies never let me down.”
*Thomas Leo Ogren is the author of Allergy-Free Gardening, from Ten Speed Press.