My Roots are in the Rocks

Monday Jan. 31st, 2011

The September sun burned hot on my back. Muscles in my shoulders ached, as I rocked the gravel sifter back and forth. I felt primitive and exhausted, as I hunched over the trough of water, but for some reason I couldn’t help but smile. I belonged here, covered in the brown pasty water running down my legs, up my arms, and splashing onto my no-longer-shiny sunglasses. It felt good, like one of those unplanned romps in the rain that leave everyone soaked in laughter.

Four other girls and I decided to take full advantage of a long weekend and go treasure hunting. This wasn’t exactly National Treasure style; the only document one may find is an old mine claim and Nicolas Cage was nowhere in sight, but we did discover a few of the state’s best hidden treasures. Many people have heard of Montana sapphires and possibly have seen them glimmering through the window of a jewelry store, but do not know that unlike many gems, these are open to the public.

Now, many rock hounds will keep their lips sealed if you ask them where they’ve found their precious stones, but personally I feel that there are plenty of big ones left to discover and that watching others find them can be just as entertaining as finding your own. There are two mines open to the public in Montana. My mine of choice is Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine located 15 miles Southwest of Phillipsburg. While the outdoor mine is open only during the summer months, the store in Phillipsburg allows you to play in your own wet batch of freshly sifted gravel from the mine for $15 a bucket. The store, located at 201 West Broadway, is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is a fine stand-in for those summer activities you have been craving. The second sapphire mine in Montana is the Spokane Bar Sapphire Mine located northeast of Helena. It is open from April to October or during the winter by appointment.

If you ever become a rock hound, you may understand the squirrel-and nut-like greediness of confessing to others where you find your gems. And don’t worry becoming a rock hound does not have the same stereotypes as a birdwatcher. Although, by looking at my oversized khaki shorts equipped with tweezers and film canister, along with my eye for spotting anything shiny, you may think I am a close cousin of the birdwatcher; don’t let this fool you, with rocks, you can actually use your tweezers.

It was one of those things that happen because of my family. Some families really get into baseball. I have been around these families before and have gotten laughed at because I didn’t know the name of the Seattle Seahawk’s goalie. Other families get up at insane hours and crouch in the bitter cold dressed as plants, waiting for any sign of life to shoot at. This, I learned, includes the ever-elusive gopher. Although I have an idea of how I would feel shooting at a gopher, watching my friend Danielle’s eyes light up as she clasps her hands together gleefully as she describes this strange sport to me. I decide not to judge until I try.

When my older siblings brought home their serious significant others for the first time, there wasn’t the common fear of the naked baby pictures getting analyzed over cups of coffee or of serious arm wrestling matches happening between the father and new son-in-law resulting in bloodshed. No, it is the bringing forth of the sapphire collection.

Through the loupe, (a monocle for rock hounds) the new family member gets to see an enlarged view filled with blues, greens, pinks and yellows exactly what they have gotten themselves into. If they are still interested in becoming part of the family past this point, they move onto the true test; going to the actual sapphire mine. Now many people find that shopping together is a true test of a relationship, but as I have observed, if you can make it sapphire hunting together without wanting to throw fistfuls of mud at each other by the end of the day, you can make it through anything.

I watched a middle age couple this past weekend that appeared very loving at first, as the husband proudly demonstrated for his wife the artful technique of getting the sapphires to settle to the middle of the sifter with a few simple flicks of the wrist. Then he let her take over as he watched from over her shoulder. Soon everyone in the mine area was looking over as the husband was barked out commands to, “Go back and forth, BACK AND FORTH!” “No not like that!”

You could see it in his eyes, he just wanted to take over and do it the right way. As expected, she finally broke down and yelled back, “Leave me alone!” Silence engulfed the mine area like a cloud of dust.

Warning to those to those who choose to enter the sapphire zone: many have gone in and haven’t come out. A sort of fever, similar to what drew many to the West in search of gold, sets in as soon as you eye that first sparkling gemstone. I have known many a parent who forced their children to sleep outside the tent after a long day of sapphire hunting because their kid just wanted to help mommy pick up that “pretty piece of glass” and then accidentally let it slip away into the abyss of rocks below.

My orthodontist was admiring the sapphire ring I was wearing one day while he was installing, yet, again, tighter bands. I told him, through a mouthful of fingers, I had found it. He thought I found the whole ring on the ground somewhere – like someone had dropped it! So I had to explain to him how I had mined it, heat treated it to improve the coloration and then had it cut and set in a ring; my own creation.

Every sensation of sapphire mining connects me back to my roots –from the dirt up my nostrils to the Grape Nut texture of the gravel. It is part of my history and I have learned to be proud of it. So show off your super cool collection of baseball cards or that stuffed gopher that adorns your mantel at home; it is part of you and for that, you have every reason to be proud.

Maria D. Schuster is an avid traveler currently “staying put” in Bozeman while working on her Masters in English at MSU. Contact her at