I have only ever camped with total strangers once, so I boast only cursory observations in this instructional piece on exactly how to go about camping with strangers.
First, you will need some strangers. For this, I recommend leaving the apartment, house, or even looking up from this screen. I had to do all three (and many other things), on several separate occasions (my entire life up to this point), until such an event as will be depicted here could be achieved (I had no idea what I was doing regarding any element of this adventure).
Next, you will need to interact with the stranger(s). Walking up to someone with the opener, “What are your dreams and deepest passions in life?” may be tempting, but I advise against its frivolous use. My surveying says the response is almost always a very laborious and pregnant silence.
Starting from a place of common interest is a good way to go. Everyone has always told me this, in some cases in different languages, so this must just be a human thing, apparently. If you go about it right, you might end up driving away from your camping excursion in a state of divine bliss with something new on your list of ‘Have-Dones.’ Plus, there might be ice cream.
Camping with strangers was precisely what I did this past weekend, and it was downright phenomenal.
When a total stranger asks, “Are you pretty agile?” while leaning casually on a ginormous pickax, you may feel compelled to assume the worst. Had this happened to me six months ago, my gut reaction would likely have been, “Dear god, I am about to be murdered and buried with that pickax, and I haven’t even paid off my car.”
The man, already grizzled from a morning of digging elsewhere, asked me this while we waited, alone, for his friend to return from their car. I believe in providing people with the space to define themselves, and so that is how I will describe my weekend mountain rock heroes: Timotheus was an adventurer and Nathan a farmer. Both were staggering in their expertise as to the geology of the region, and nothing other than gentlemen. Theus’ dog loafed happily in his wake around the trail while we waited. There was no trail, actually, we happened to be following coordinates from his GPS along a ridge of Red Top Mountain.
Thankfully, this was not six months ago, and my gut surprised even the other self-aware body parts that compose me. I tried to smile without being smug, and said, “Yeah, I’m pretty agile; think I’ll be fine.” I beat down my [insert fake last name] impulse to wink, because who winks at a stranger holding a dirt-caked weapon in the middle of the forest?
Theus nodded, somewhat to himself, and said, “Good, because this is gonna require some agility.” Half turning back to me, he added, “and a lot of digging.”
“Thank god,” I thought. I knew I had come to the right place.
Truth be told, I hadn’t come to any place in particular. That afternoon, after finding myself lost yet again because I punched the wrong coordinates into my phone, I had turned impulsively to the internet and made a decision about the rest of my weekend. Like so many of my morally destitute generation, the web was Plan B.
My very pregnant sister had been unable to go camping near my field station that weekend, and thus the blueprints for my free time had torn asunder. Instead of binging on goodies around the campfire in my lovely desert, I was lost, alone, and trespassing somewhere northwest of BFE. I rashly clicked “Going” on the Facebook group invitation to “23-25 June Campout Red Top Mountain” of a Facebook group I had recently joined. After messaging the coordinator, who would later show me the proper way to drag tailings from a dig site, I set myself along a new trajectory. From my idling place behind a stop sign overlooking a gorge adjacent, I swiveled right instead of left, onto a rural highway, and sped toward the Cascades.
They say you shouldn’t meet people from the internet in remote places. Always tell someone where you are going, have an escape plan, and generally be prepared for a cut-and-run death pursuit if things go belly-up.
Well, omnipresent ‘they’, I didn’t do any of that. After being on the road for an hour, I sent my sister the link to our potential location and told her the general plan while gassing up. Her response, “So you’re going to camp and hang out with other rock geeks?” galvanized my endeavor to do just that.
Although, knowing that a single mountain can hide many bodies, I harbored no illusions about the irrelevance of my gesture. Of my many gifts, self-preservation will never be counted among them.
It was a *uniholystring thing that I even encountered these two magnificent nomads on their journey around the mountain.
After stopping at the turn sign for Red Top Mt., I stood outside my Jeep and looked about aimlessly. For those who have ever taken a jaunt into the wilderness with me or ventured to a new location I stumble upon via recommendation, you know this is not a new physical expression of my lostness. Turning several times to examine the same line of trees twice, I thought, okay, I followed the coordinates…and found nothing. Why didn’t I wait for a response before hurtling into this dead zone? I’ve even been here before. I knew it was a dead zone and I came to meet people from the bloody internet, anyway! Did I expect a neon sign?!
I did, actually. The warring 13-year-old girl and 48-year-old woman that make up my soul somehow managed to assume people still post directional party signs when a group converges at a new social event. But this was a camping/hiking/rockhounding trip, planned by assumed professionals, so it’s natural to have fallen back into these ideas, I told myself.
Climbing back into the bucket seat, I cranked up that same playlist I haven’t been able to update since my Mac exploded and kept driving up the trail. Simultaneously, I wildly gesticulated and explained, to no one in particular, that I had no real delusions that any part of this madness would work out as planned. After all, that would require there to have been a plan. Which, there was not.
With my car full of field guides, camping supplies, a half-eaten bag of stale marshmallows, some protein powder, carrots, and an unreasonable amount of M&Ms, I secretly always knew I’d end up hoisting my tent alone in the forest and bumbling about the mountain streams entirely stag. I just didn’t consider myself the “type” to facilitate productive adventures drawn from the internet. Foolish, human, I was!
I decided after the fourth road sign promising salvation, in the form of a parking lot at the trail head, to throw AJ (my Awesome Jeep) into park and ask for some damn direction. I re-applied my shirt, which had made its way to the passenger seat in the summer heat, and before I changed my mind, jumped out to greet two fellas hovering around a white Dodge truck outside the primitive bathroom.
“Hey, how are you guys, today?” I poured every ounce of sanity into my inflection. It must have worked, because neither of the hikers ran screaming at my approach. “Good. Hey, do you need something?” one offered with a smile.
“Shit, they’re on to me,” I thought and hastily changed tactics. “Yes, please,” I implored, “Have you guys seen any rockhounds around here? Like with hammers or –”
“Oh yeah!” the other one interjected. Looking up from fiddling with his backpack, he turned to his friend, who said, “Yeah, you just missed them! Those guys up there said stuff about rocks!” Both pivoted to indicate the silver, 4-wheel drive something-or-other currently making a K-turn up the trail.
Somehow, I had managed to catch the coordinator of the campout and his buddy, just on their way back from a dig at another location. Damn near walking into the path of their car, I smiled and waved.
“Hey, are you guys with the rockhounding group?” I almost begged.
“Yeah, NW Rockhounds. We just came back from digging earlier. Nobody else seems to be around, and we’ve been looking for NW Rockhound bumper stickers. I’m Timotheus.” Theus shook my hand through the rolled-down window and Nathan greeted me from shotgun.
“Wow, that’s great, I’m so glad I caught you guys,” I replied. As it turned out, there was a message with their vehicle description waiting for me in my Facebook inbox, and I was in even greater luck because they were “really good at this” and invited me to follow them to the next site.
All too eagerly, I hopped into AJ and we drove for a spell until pulling aside near a break in the tree line. The space encircled a fancy fire pit, that someone (probably other rockhounds) had built up three inches tall with blocks of crumbling basalt.
“Do you have bug spray?” Theus asked while we three stood, prepping for the dig. I did not, and he presented me with DEET and some 70-SPF sunscreen, then we were off!
There are almost no photos from the Red Top site, other than the tailings Nathan and I picked through. This is because I was so immediately enraptured of the experience that photos hardly seemed to compare with the sights and discussion my senses imbibed for the duration of my weekend. The sun stretched shadows into drawn stripes along the ridge as we attempted to pilfer goodies from the earth.
I absolutely basked.
Initially, so is the custom in mining, we had to carve out a place to stand in front of the exposed rock. Next, clear the tailings left from the last digger and erosion from the months since. Then, it was time to grope, squint and pile-drive the cleared rock face with our hammers, chisels, picks, and masonry tools in order to follow veins of blue, red, and yellow agate. These veins should have lead us to bubbles in the basalt, AKA geodes. They did not. But I had a marvelous time anyway.
Nathan and Theus spent a lot of time explaining to me what they were doing and looking for, along with answering an endless stream of questions about everything I could detect regarding the process. They should’ve called me ThousandQuestion. Both were selflessly patient and enthusiastic at my ravings about what was probably a normal past time for the two of them. I go rockhounding most weekends since coming to Washington. Finding the weather immaculate in every direction, the people kind and welcoming, and the ground ripe for the pickings. It just all makes sense. For the next 30-ish hours, we shared food, water, knowledge, and stories while hiking in and out of the Red Top and First Creek dig sites.
Here are some things I logged away without taking notes, and why you should all go camping with strangers (I mention notetaking, because I definitely forgot more than half of what I learned):
1) The difference between pillow basalt and geode deposits.
2) How to track erosion in the field.
3) How to swing the crap out of pickax.
4) How to set up a shade without the poles.
5) Difference between geode shapes (and why it’s pretty irrelevant).
6) Where you should and should not look for stuff when you get to a site.
7) That the world may not be doomed.
8) I was tracing deposit veins before I knew what they were.
9) You need to be buff to break off large bodies of rock.
10) Why the Ellensburg blue is a sham.
11) That the world is full of people like me, in this specific sense.
12) Where to start extracting when you find a geode, so as not to break it.
13) It’s okay if they break, the goods are still there.
14) Most things have some kind of value if you can cut & polish them.
15) The difference between basalt cavities and concretions.
16) That I haven’t even cracked the surface of a hobby I’ve had since I could walk.
17) Follow a vein long enough, you’re bound to strike geode.
18) It’s acceptable to be outrageously engrossed in this process.
19) They are called “fracture lines.”
20) You can wield two hammers at once and become frickin’ Thor, if you want to.
NW Rockhounds is more than a rock shop, it’s also an organization, school, museum, and utopia for rockhounds. The tribalism of this experience has only whetted my thirst for the next adventure. Hopefully, the sweet finds keep piling up and the strangers keep on becoming former strangers.
Side note: One of those geodes had crazy, fat crystals inside, and the other was a voluptuous sucker with a ridiculous fill line. That one also ended up being sexy as hell once it was cut.
I wish you could have seen it! The lot of us, sharing in the experience of outdoor foraging, freshening, sleeping, firing, hacking, sweating, dehydrating, rummaging, digging, tossing, sorting, and ruminating over rocks (even when it’s balls-hot outside). Perseverance, strength of mind, character, and determination. Find your hobby-tribe, guys; I hope it is filled with strangers. Happy Hounding!
*uniholystring: a word I have constructed to suit my present needs; intended to denote the conglomerate influence of the divine universe and its positive energies running along an infinite web to shuffle my own at any given moment.
Tori Kaufman is the Rock Rat: a common species of gym rat often seen romping betwixt rubble and wildlife in search of minerals, birds, or answers. Or, as she likes to call it, nature booty. As Rock Rat, she runs a blog that is her expression of lessons learned and experiences forged in the pursuit of life truths and, naturally, rocks.