The DE gets down and dirty in Trona
October 11 - 13, 2013
By Debbie Miller Marschke
More than 3,000 people turned out for the 72nd annual Trona GemORama, including our group of 13 Desert Explorers: Myself and husband Steve, Bob & Sue Jaussaud, Ron Lipari, Mike Vollmert, Vicki Hill, Daniel Dick & Bobbie Sanchez, and Bruce Barnett with daughter Elizabeth. The Searles Valley Minerals Company opens up their Searles Lake property one weekend a year for rockhounds in October, and it was quite a spectacle. There is actually only one other place that one can collect these minerals in this form – in the Ukraine. People attend from all over the world, and we all heard many languages spoken during the course of our weekend. But the big secret is, it’s really not the minerals that attracts such a big crowd; it’s the larger-than-life, down-and-dirty fun of the hunt that brings the people back for more.
Steve and I arrived around 12:30 p.m. on Friday, October 11, at the Valley Wells facility 5 miles north of Trona. We staked out an awesome camp site underneath a grove of Athol trees, and within steps of the restroom, potable water, and outdoor public showerhead for rinsing. Friday afternoon was spent relaxing in the perfect desert weather, enjoying camaraderie and of course, happy hour. The Jaussauds were one of the last to arrive, and we had arranged a prank upon Bob when he tried to check into the campground. The amenable camp caretaker Karen worked for the Fire Department, so she had an air of Official Business as she searched Bob’s vehicle and asked him if his vehicle had been on fire. Meanwhile, back in camp, the DE watched, ogled, and giggled hysterically. The prank continued all weekend as Bob became Karen’s favorite camper to hassle! I managed to bake a German Chocolate cake in a Dutch oven in camp which was received with much appreciation.
Saturday morning we all left camp, ready to rumble, at 7:30 a.m. We arrived in the boomtown of Trona, which was already bustling with people. The DE lined up and parked our vehicles in succession; the event “stack parks” all the attendees in a massive parking lot; first come, first served. Everyone hustled over to get registered for all the events, and then we all walked over to the local Church which was serving a pancake & sausage breakfast for $5.00. I don’t know exactly how many people this church served, but they ran a tight ship and we were impressed. We had time to enjoy our meal and were able to return to our vehicles in ample time. At 9:00 a.m. sharp, the first field trip rolled out: the Mud event. The vehicles were escorted single file onto Searles Lake over a maze of dirt access roads. We arrived at a parking area where the Company had prepared a public collection site for all. Black gloppy piles of mud were heaped up. Everyone parked and made haste to the Mud piles. And then, the crowd of hundreds descended upon the mud and began wallowing in it. Well, uh, that’s how it looked. Hidden within this mud are clusters of large hanksite crystals. To win these prizes, you have to find them in the mud. As Vicki said, “Look at the sea of humanity!” It was literally a sea of butts and elbows in the mud. The scene was mind blowing. It did not take long for all the DEers to join in the madness. This proved to be delightfully fun and messy, which was part of the hilarity. I think the one thing that stood out, though, was that there were as many children here with families as there were serious adult rock hounds. What a refreshing sight to see all those children, collecting minerals! The mud was the great equalizer; everyone had a chance to score a beautiful mineral cluster. It was just as much fun to sit back and be a spectator as it was to actually hunt for the rocks. Absolutely a blast! Daniel’s favorite scene included observing several boys that were so heavy caked with mud, their pants were falling off their rears (they did not care)! Everyone was getting plastered with mud, and everyone was smiling. Once the clusters had been grabbed, a large trough was provided for cleaning. You can not clean any of these minerals with water – they dissolve. Salt/brine solution was provided, which cleaned the rocks and maintained their integrity. Another wonderful fact about attending GemORama; nobody goes home empty-handed. The DE caravanned back to town around 11:30 a.m., everyone with their extracted treasures. We immediately placed our vehicles in the line-up for event #2, The Blow Hole, which began at 2:30 p.m. Everyone left the parked cars, disbursed to have lunch and to enjoy the festivities.
The Searles Valley Minerals plant had free tours, there was a rock & mineral show going on, and lots of exhibits to see. We ran into Ruth & Emmett Harder, and Barbara & Bill Gossett. There really was not enough time to see & do everything during the break. But you have to hand it to the town of Trona, they handle the massive influx of people like champs! Very, very impressive indeed. The afternoon Blow Hole event has a different approach. Essentially, the lake bed is fracked ahead of time using explosives, and the minerals are pumped to the surface suspended in water through a large pipe and sprayed upon the lakebed. The Company did demonstrate how the minerals are brought up in a geyser of water. The Hanksite crystals are sprayed all over the hard-pan lake bed for the attendees to pounce upon – akin to breaking a piñata. Another frenzy of activity! We hunted for hexagonal hanksite crystals with dual terminated ends. Also the more rare and elusive dual pyramidical sulfohalite. These minerals are smaller than the ones we hunted in the Mud Event. Included in the other minerals brought to the surface were other evaporates like halite, which have interesting forms and composition. Actually, you really did not need to recognize the hanksite crystals during this event to have a good time --- just pick up what appeals to you. The Company only charged a nominal fee per car per event, so there was no limit as to how much you collected the entire weekend. Daniel and I were extremely lucky, we both were able to score marvelous huge specimens by and through our assertive nature (we were friendly with the right people). And, again, this event was more fun than I can accurately describe. By the end of the day, we were all tired out. But we had one more bonus coming: The Gossetts arrived in camp, pie in hand, and joined us for a pleasant evening with friends.
The only event on Sunday was the hunt for Pink Halite. This is the most challenging mineral hunt of the three. The pink halite forms along the perimeter of brine pools, under the crust. You have to walk out on the Searles Lake bed, which is rough , jagged and crunchy. To find the best crystals, one must wade out into the brine, reach underneath the submerged ledges, and feel around for formations. Once a potential specimen is located, it must be harvested by hacking it off the submerged ledge. These crystals are most beautiful, in various shades of pink or white, and have a geometric “picture frame” structure. However, this year the hunt was going to be more problematic, as we were informed ahead of time. Monsoonal rains in late August had corrupted and melted all the crystals. The best information we had was that some crystals may have grown back, but the pickins would be poor this year. Undaunted, (or maybe just looking for any excuse to nose around the Searles property for which we normally don’t have access) our group rolled out at 9:00 a.m. with the armada of hunters. We did not get a choice as to where we hunted – it was the luck of the draw in accordance to where our cars stopped. We did not get a very productive pool of brine. We attacked it anyway, hacking away at our prospects. We had to weave our way around the edges - some of us had on substantial boots, but the brine was deep. Daniel found out that some places were like thin ice - he broke through and found himself almost stuck up to his thighs! No problem, it is all part of this weird adventure at Trona. We did not get any quality pieces of Pink Halite. But I can speak for our group that nobody was disappointed with the entire experience.
Whenever I drive through Searles Valley, I will see the lake bed with a new perspective. Outwardly, it is barren and unfriendly. But hidden beneath, I will see the buried treasure of beautifully formed salt crystals in my mind’s eye. And I will smile. It is a memory that will last a lifetime.
July 21-22, 2012
By: Jay Lawrence
On Saturday morning, our first surprise was Ted Kalil appearing at our campsite in Big Pine and announcing that everybody but Allan Wicker was already here, having coffee and ready to head for the hills! Sylvia and I had pulled in late the evening before and (ever observant) I hadn't recognized any of their vehicles. Joining Ted was Homer Meek, Mignon Slentz and Nelson Miller. Our daughter Ariel, her husband Nick and eight month old granddaughter Alice had rolled in and set up camp next to us in the wee hours of Friday night. So everybody said hello, Allan showed up and we all signed in, anxious to move out.
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Mapping Old Roads Again
by Neal Johns
This time it was an impromptu three day mapping of the Cooke Mormon Battalion Route (1846-47) near Lordsburg, NM. I kept looking at the weather forecast to see if it was raining so I could cancel out, but blue skies were forecast and seen. The hook was the temperature – colddddd. We were in the area of two famous mountains; Soldier's Farewell and Bessie Rhodes. Bessie was named from an inscription placed on it by one of the troops manning a Heliograph Station on the summit. The Heliograph (a mirror to reflect the sun) was introduced into the area in 1886 to help communications during the Geronimo Campaign. Soldier's Farewell was named after the Butterfield Station of the same name where soldier's turned south on the Janos, Mexico road.
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Local History Website
By Craig Baker
I found a useful website that lists historical markers around the Southwest, and around the world. It’s the Historical Marker Data Base, at
Each marker listing has a map, directions, marker text, photos, and nearby markers. Some have website links, additional information, or comments. You can search for markers by city, zip code, county, name, etc. Find historic sites you didn’t know about, or read the text of markers that are missing.
If you want to add to the database, you can sign up and add additional markers by filling out the easy online form. Read the guidelines. Each listing must have a historical marker, existing or missing, and it must be outdoors.
Some posts have incorrect dates or names, and some look like a bad social media website, but most are useful and interesting. I was surprised to find some important historical markers in the Los Angeles area that were not yet posted. My favorite marker that I’ve added: Lummis Home. ~ Craig
What to do with a bunch of tomatillos
Traditional recipe adapted and fiddled with by Jay Lawrence
Anybody who knows me knows I love all things Mexican. My wife, my family, the culture, the country and the food. About this time of the year, I haunt the produce aisle of my favorite ethnic market to search out the ingredients for a year-end family favorite recipe – roasted tomatillo salsa.
This is a simple recipe, the ingredients are inexpensive and common, and doesn’t take very long to make. Judging by the ‘sad puppy’ eyes on family faces when I don’t make it for Christmas, lots of people like it. Some demand it. There are way too many Desert Explorers to make it for everybody, so here goes:
First you need tomatillos, a weird little fruit that looks like a green tomato with papery leafy wrapper. They’re not even related to tomatoes and taste nothing like them. They’re acidic and tart when eaten raw, but when roasted they take on a whole new life. You’ll need about 1-1/4 pound of them for each quart of salsa you plan to make. In a chain grocery like Ralphs or Vons expect to pay about $1.49 to $2.00 a pound for them. If you head to your local ethnic market, they’re about 50 cents a pound (and usually much better looking and more fresh). Look for the smaller darker ones, about 2” or so in diameter. The big ones are pulpier and don’t have as much flavor. They grow year round but they’re especially nice around year-end.
Next, you’ll need some serrano chiles. Bigger ones, like as long or longer than your middle finger, one or two per quart of salsa. More if you like it spicier. If there are only little ones available just use more.
Also you’ll need some garlic, about eight large cloves per quart, plus some salt. That’s it. Your shopping is done.
Now the fun! Throw the tomatillos into a (clean) sink full of really hot water and let them sit for a while. After they’re not so hot, peel the now-loosened paperish coverings off them and toss them in a bowl. Tomatillos grow on the ground so there will be some dirt involved. How much of that gets into your recipe is up to you.
Next, the roasting. This is where the magic happens... Put the tomatillos into a roasting pan. I like to put them stem side down so they don’t roll around. Put them in the broiler 4-5” inches away from the overhead flame. Leave them 5-8 minutes until they are browned on top with some burnt spots, then pull them out, turn the tomatillos over and do the other side. Take out and leave them to rest and cool. You will notice they have softened and leaked some juice. Do not panic, the charred skin, softened fruit and the gooey juice is the good stuff!
Put the chiles in a pie pan and do the same thing with them. Char and soften. Pay attention here, since roasting a large batch of chilis can give off aromatics that may drive you out of the kitchen with teary eyes in a coughing fit if you overdo it or the kitchen is not well ventilated. Turn on the fan!
Now the garlic. Smack the (BIG) head(s) of garlic on a countertop with the heel of your hand and throw the cloves into a dry cast iron pan on your stovetop, paper and all. Don’t peel them. Toast them over a medium heat, stirring them around now and then. What you are looking for is well-charred paper shells and softened garlic cloves.
Let everything cool enough so it’s easy to handle and get ready for the blender. Throw 8-9 big garlic cloves, 1-3 charred serranos (pull off the stems), one tablespoon of salt, about 2/3 cup of tomatillo juice and half a dozen tomatillos into your blender. The skins will peel off the garlic easily if you have charred them enough. Just squeeze ‘em.
Remembering good kitchen practices, cover the blender top with a folded towel. Pulse the blender 4-5 times to get these ‘starter’ items blended and ground up, then add enough tomatillos to make a quart. Pulse some more to break things up, blend it a bit to the consistency you think you want and Presto! You have salsa. My preference is a little on the chunky side, but some folks like it smoother. Either way, pour it into a jar (use a funnel, it’s thick) and throw it into the fridge. It can be eaten immediately, and I recommend tasting as you go.
Really, it is better after a day or two in the fridge. It will thicken up due to the syrupy nature of the tomatillo juice. The flavors get a chance to bloom and blend a bit. Be forewarned that the heat of the chiles will increase after it has sat for a day or two so you might want to start off with 1-2 chiles per quart before you get carried away thinking “gee, this isn’t very spicy” and really surprise yourself. (Interesting side note: in Mexico, when you have eaten too many chiles and really hurt yourself, you are said to be “enchilado.” Literally, “chilied.”)
After you’ve used up all the tomatillos, you will probably have some leftover garlic and chiles. The soft roasted garlic is pretty good spread on toasted french bread with some avocado and salt or some soft brie... just sayin’.
The roasted tomatillo salsa is good for dipping chips, on nachos, on chilaquiles, tacos, scrambled eggs... you get the idea. You can tart it up with diced onions, ciliantro and/or avocado.It will keep in the fridge for a month or more, but if you have a bunch and want to use it up, I recommend pouring it over a browned pork shoulder and letting it cook slowly, covered, for 3-4 hours in a 275° oven or a crock pot. You won’t be disappointed. ~ Jay