Friday, June 24, 2011

Road Report: Diamond Daze

I now realize there's a good reason why diamonds are so expensive.

It's not just because the little jewels shine so brightly. It's not just because a diamond is so hard that nothing can cut it except another diamond.

It's also because diamonds are darn hard to find.

This might seem already obvious or a commonplace to you. In my case, I had to drive to a locale outside the little burg of Murfreesboro, Arkansas. At Crater of Diamonds State Park I found out firsthand about the rarity of diamonds as we were welcomed into the only place in the world where the public is invited to mine for diamonds.

More, you are told you can keep as many diamonds as you wish. That's right, folks, free diamonds! Just pay the $7 entry fee, rent or bring your own tools, and get to work.

Riches await you.


Since 1979, over 28,000 diamonds have been found in the crater by people just like you and me. Some were found as recently as a few days before our arrival. In a few cases, the diamonds were large, large enough to earn them their own name and a marker out in the crater noting the location of the find. Like the Star of Arkansas and the Uncle Sam diamonds.

Does that sound enticing or not? We set to work.

What I Learned About Diamond Mining
At the visitor center a park ranger gave us a live demonstration of the basics of what we were getting ourselves into. Exhibits and videos provided further information.

Legendary diamond finder James Archer
in his ever present yellow waterproof pants.
I soon realized that with our mild foray into diamond digging we were unlikely to become very adept at identifying the best digging spots and gravel with the highest potential to yield diamonds, In other words, there was no comparison between us and the Crater of Diamond's own legend, Mr. James Archer.

James rated his own display at the visitor's center. He spent decades at the crater, even into his retirement years, and he found over 7,000 diamonds.

James was famous not just for his finds, but for his friendliness and willingness to help others dig. James died out in the crater doing his favorite thing. Digging for diamonds. He was 78 years old.

As we stood in line to rent equipment I was armed with further information: most diamonds are extremely small and not that impressive looking. Some are yellow or brown. All of them look like little pieces of polished glass. The samples we saw in the display case in the visitors' center had been about the size of fingernail clippings.

What we were searching for...
Even though we were told diamonds had been found by children looking down at the dirt and seeing something sparkling in it, the usual method of prospecting involves digging up dirt and then sifting through it. There are two methods of sifting: dry and wet. In either case we had to take our two sifter screens (one coarse, one fine) and shake the dirt through it and then inspect what was left behind.

Right away I knew I favored the wet method. The wet method would lead us to the washing troughs at the edge of the crater. The troughs were covered by metal roofs. We could find our treasure in the shade.

Hotter Than
We began by filling a bucket with dirt from the crater. "Crater" is perhaps too dramatic of a word. The mining area was a plowed field consisting of rough dirt clods and gravel. The sun was burning down. A park ranger broadcast heat stroke warnings over a loudspeaker. Apparently if we felt dizzy or nauseated and it wasn't from the sight of a diamond the size of a hen's egg, we should seek immediate medical attention.

The diamond crater.


After filling it up with shovelfuls of pre-sifted dirt, I lugged our heavy bucket to the washing area and began working at the trough.

At the washing station...

A half hour later I had...a few flecks of quartz, hardly any bigger than a pepper flake.

A Dazzling Finale?
It soon became pretty obvious to me. For a person to find a diamond he or she had to be either very, very lucky or sift a lot of dirt. It really was akin to finding a needle in the proverbial haystack. Sure, you might find the needle the first time you thrust your hand into the hay. More likely you would have to search the entire haystack over and over, ad infinitum. In the meantime, someone else who is either luckier or tries harder than you, may find the needle first.

Hmm. I'm not seeing any diamonds here...just dirt!

By the end of the afternoon it had occurred to me that mining for gems and precious metals is perhaps a bit like seeking love. Yes,it can be frustrating on the bleakest days when we're surrounded by a hot, blasted barren field, seemingly bereft of possibilities. Still, it's the hope of having success that leads most of us to become what Mr. Neil Young once described in song as being a "miner for a heart of gold." We keep on digging.

If we can just find that rare, lasting, durable love to end all loves, all of the sweat and dirt clinging to us will wash away and our labors will be justified.

You can walk onto the field and hope to get lucky in an hour or you can be like James Archer and keep on digging six days a week, year after year. Pure tenacity in service of that hidden, valuable thing.

I think it's the James Archers of this world who have it figured out. - V.W.

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