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The June 9 2008 Expedition into Debs Park got off to a rousing start, as my companion’s dog Baroo did purloin a Hot Dog from some fishermen. They were using the Hot Dog for bait, and it was working. They hauled a tiny ovular fish from the depths of Debs Pond. The fish’s future was uncertain as they were going to give it to some other guys fishing on the far side of the pond.

Afterward we looped around the hillsides, and began another ascent to the pond. It was here that we did see many snails in their coiled cylinder shells, expired and dried, ascent up crispy stalks of dead grass frozen in the sunshine.

It is of such equiangular spirals as we see in their shells that Roman poet Pliny saw “magna ludentis naturae varietas” (the vast variety of nature at play), a quote that I came across while browsing D’arcy Wentworth Thompson’s 1942 biology classic On Growth and Form. Thompson:

In the great majority of cases, when we consider an organism in part or whole, when we look (for instance) at our own hand or foot, or contemplate an insect or a worm, we have no reason (or very little) to consider one part of the existing structure as older than another; through and through, the newer particles have been merged and commingled among the old; the outline, such as it is, is due to forces which for the most part arte still at work to shape it, and which in shaping it have shaped it as a whole. But the horn, or the snail-shell, is curiously different; for in these the presently existing structure is, so to speak, partly old and partly new. It has been conformed by successive and continuous increments; and each successive stage of growth, starting from the origin, remains as an integral and unchanging portion of the growing structure.
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The first time I walked up Mt. Islip — an 8,000 foot peak in the San Gabriel Mountains, about 50 miles from my house in Northeast Los Angeles — I came down by moonlight sort of by accident. I tend to get a late start on a lot of my hikes, mostly because I enjoy weekend mornings zoning out on my porch listening to Francoise Hardy, drinking a cherry-walnut smoothie and watching my cat Spider run around in the yard.

The trail is an easy three or four miles one way, and I arrived at the top just as the sun was starting to set, barely making out the towers of downtown Los Angels through the orange haze. I hung around on the peak — bald rock with four chunks of cinder block, the foundation of a long-gone fire watchtower from the 1930s — until the light was mostly gone. It wasn’t until I was making my way down in the dusk when it occurred to me that the woods were still crawling with hunters. It was the heart of deer season, November 5, 2006, and the Islip Saddle parking lot had been full of pickup trucks and camo-sporting Latino dudes hanging out with their freshly-killed deer carcasses rather than the usual crowd of white granola-types and their Subaru Outbacks.
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The moon came up over the mountains about an hour after dark, illuminating every crooked branch of the trees on the fire-scarred ridgeline above me. It glowed and sparkled silver on the rock that sloped up from the fire road I was walking, and it shined in the arc of pee that I sent running down the closed, two-lane blacktop highway that I’d followed to the trailhead. (The Angeles Crest Highway has been closed with a heavy gate at mile 64.1 for months now, I think because of some rockslides further east.) I was singing a jolly country song about a guy who killed a woman in Tennessee and was now running for the Mexico border when I realized that two hunters, sitting by the side of the road, had been watching me from a distance as I ambled along, dancing and urinating gratuitously in the middle of the road. Yeesh. “Buenas noches, cazadores,” I said, remembering the word for “hunters” from a tequila bottle. “Uh-huh,” they replied, understandably unimpressed. They asked me if I’d seen their friend, who was long overdue at the parking lot. I told them I hadn’t seen anyone, and walked on.

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In the late ’90s I went to Death Valley a few times with my girlfriend at the time, a fellow aspiring desert rat. The first time we drove north from Los Angeles, taking the 5 to the 14 to the 395 and exiting before the town of Ridgecrest on a two-lane county thoroughfare that splits through the overlap of the Mojave and Great Basin deserts called Trona Road. On the way we drove through the eponymous hamlet of Trona, a tiny company town outpost of a few thousand people. We stopped and poked around the desolate, all-but-deserted community and stuck our heads inside a huge, three-story cathedral made entirely of whitewashed cinderblocks. We had to leave after wondering at the people who worshipped in the cool, shaded confines of this high desert vestibule, as we were concerned about securing a weekend campsite in Death Valley. I wanted very badly to find a reason to return to Trona.

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I started reading up on the town and found a community calendar that listed a Trona Gemo-O-Rama festival that was celebrating it’s 63rd year. The story I wrote about my weekend there ran in the October 22-28, 2004 edition of the LA Weekly, but without any pictures. I complete the tale with a bunch of photos that I took …

Diamonds in the Rough
Words and photos by Daniel Chamberlin
Originally published in the LA Weekly on October 22, 2004

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When you walk out on the dry, brittle surface of Searles Lake, sunbaked salt crystals break off and blow across the ground, tinkling like ice on hard-pack snow. The salt flats cover 35 square miles of Great Basin desert that ranges from fields of crystalline dirt with the texture and temperature of a freshly baked pie crust to pristine reflecting pools of odorous effluence from the nearby mineral-extraction facilities. In order to keep ducks from landing here, electric hawk machines scream from power-line poles, and propane cannons fire off harmless explosives. Trona, the town of 2,000 residents that sits on the western edge of this landscape, is a rugged, lonely place that appears to be growing more desolate by the year.
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Trona was founded on this plain between the Argus and Slate mountain ranges because of the borax, soda ash and potash that has been mined here since 1908. At its peak, the town’s population exceeded 3,000. But now people move away and leave their homes empty. A year or two ago, a serial arsonist began burning down the abandoned houses, and charred hulks still stand between sandy yards decorated with rusty desert artifacts. In one yard, a commercial fishing trawler warps in the heat. My guide, Jim Fairchild, is a semiretired chemical engineer working for Searles Valley Minerals, Inc., the company that currently operates the three plants in the area and which is the only significant employer for miles. He’s also the publicity coordinator for the Searles Lake Gem and Mineral Society (SLGMS). He’s lived here since 1963 and insists that the triple-digit summer temperatures aren’t that bad. It’s a dry heat, he explains.
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The SLGMS’s annual Gem-O-Rama has been held the second weekend of every October since 1941. It’s Trona’s biggest event, the only time that the town serves as a destination for people not associated with the mining industry. Town matriarch Annie Pipkin, a woman known for organizing raucous dances and for the box of live rattlesnakes she kept on her porch, started it. This year, 21 vendors have turned the SLGMS building into a bustling marketplace of quartz crystals from Arkansas, trilobite fossils from Morocco and tourmaline from Brazil. There’s also jewelry, Native American–themed artwork and demonstrations of lapidary equipment. But the big draw for the nearly 800 pilgrims to this scorched stretch of desert are the field trips to the salt flats.

Vehicles start lining up in the SLGMS parking lot at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday. Since there are no restaurants to speak of, everyone heads over to the Trona Community Church for an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast. At 9 a.m., a caravan of 250 cars, trucks and RVs begins the slow, 5-mile haul to the Mud Piles.

A week or so before Gem-O-Rama, a fleet of backhoes digs up 50 tons of the briny mud from beneath the surface of the flats.

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The mud is then spread out into two knee-deep swaths. It’s into this mess that hundreds of mineral collectors plunge in search of greenish-brown hanksite crystals. Some wear thigh-high rubber waders and thick gloves; others wallow in cutoff sweatpants and ragged tank tops. They attack the mud with shovels and pickaxes, or sink their arms up to the elbow into the sticky sludge in order to haul out chunks of minerals. Steve, an environmental geologist from Arizona with a mighty gray ponytail, toils with his friend Tyler at scrubbing their 150-pound chunk of hanksite clean. One man wearing a silver jumpsuit crawls through the mess on all fours, his eyes scanning for the perfect mineral cluster.

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A larger group assembles that afternoon for the Blow Holes field trip, an expedition to a constellation of 50-foot-deep holes that were drilled earlier in the week and into which explosives were planted. Upon detonation, thousands of crystal shards

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were thrown into the air and scattered about the plain. The day of the field trip, a huge steel tube is inserted into the most recently drilled hole and compressed air is pumped into the sea of brine that rests below. The crowd gathers in a wide radius around the metal tube, which spews a frothy mixture of toxic fluid and crystal debris. This goes on for a good 15 minutes while folks gnash their teeth at the sight of large hanksite and sulfohalite crystals tumbling through the air. Once the flow stops, the diehard rock hounds surge forward in a mad scramble. “Geezus!” exclaims one dad when his son presents him with a heavy bucket brimming with the nearly worthless gems. “What are you gonna do with all this stuff?”

Nearby, a little girl crouches next to her father, a muscle-bound desert rat whose tattoos are obscured by his deep-red sunburn. “Diamonds!” she laughs, running her hands through the minerals piled thick around her knees. “Precious, precious diamonds!”

As the field is cleared and the plant engineers grapple with the pipe, preparing to blow the hole again, one Trona resident turns to her neighbor and sighs. “Right now all the little boys are thinking, ‘I want to work at the plant when I grow up,’” she says.

“If we’re still in Trona then,” the woman next to her replies, “they probably will.”

© 2007 Daniel Chamberlin

More Into The Green:

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve (Part 1 of 3)

Old Growth: Indiana Pioneer Mothers Memorial Forest – December 28, 2008

Glendale Narrows, Los Angeles River – October 14, 2008

Rancho Mesa, Mojave Desert – October 12, 2008

Tempe, AZ – November 15-17, 2008