Quartz is a many-splendored thing. The mineral places second only to feldspar in its occurrence in the earth’s crust. It becomes highly collectable though, when found in its six-sided (hexagonal) crystalline form coming to pyramid-like points. When the pure mineral (SiO2) is colored by trace impurities others varieties result. Clockwise from the bottom left are smokey quartz, amethyst, lace agate (banded chalcedony), and chrysoprase.
Plate tectonics are responsible for building the wonderful mountain belts we all enjoy looking at and some of us enjoy walking through. I’ve got an interesting story to tell later in this post regarding a certain walk in the Ouachita Mountains. Quartz is a primary constituent of the many igneous and metamorphic rocks (such as granite and gneiss) resulting from tectonic activity and is very resistant to erosion. The relative amount of quartz compared to less resistant minerals, such as mica and feldspar, can indicate how far a sediment has travelled from the original source. During eons of exposure to weathering, original source rocks (parent rocks) are broken down into smaller and smaller fragments and carried farther and farther from the original source. Quartz sand comprises many beaches because the softer, more easily eroded minerals have been obliterated by the weathering process before reaching these final resting places. When sands are turned to rock, due to the burial pressure of the overlying sediments and increased temperature, they are said to be lithified and are called sandstones. Many of the world’s great oil deposits are found in sandstones, the oil being held in void spaces between the individual grains of sand.
During my early rockhounding years, from about 5th grade through 9th grade, my parents and I made one or two collecting trips per year to Hot Springs, Arkansas, the world’s premier quartz crystal collecting area. Digging through the hard, red clay with pick-axes and pry bars, we uncovered many beautiful clusters of perfectly formed quartz crystals.
The best crystals are clear, but many have a milky appearance and are not as prized by collectors. We found literally thousands of “single” points by following closely behind the bulldozer, a practice not currently allowed by the mine operators because of insurance and injury concerns. When I speak of a quartz mine, what I really mean is an open pit, scoured out by heavy equipment to reveal veins of quartz. Many times where the veins intersect, open pockets filled with quartz crystals are unearthed.
We always found copious amounts of very nice quartz crystals on our trips to the quartz mines around Hot Springs, Arkansas. We enjoyed the camping, meeting other rockhounds, and my parents even took a couple of the famous hot mineral baths featured in downtown Hot Springs. However, a certain misadventure comes to mind when I think about quartz collecting. On one certain trip, when I was about 12, we staked out our spot at the little campground in nearby Jessieville and folded out our little pop-up camper. This wasn’t our first time staying at the picturesque location, nestled next to a vertical cliff of about 200 feet and featuring a crystal-clear spring-fed stream. I remembered from past stays that the spring was located only about half a mile up a mountain path. I begged my parents to allow me to take the path to visit the little spring, as they unpacked the food boxes and got everything ready for the first night’s stay. They eventually consented, knowing the path was easily discernable and that I should be back well before dusk, and of course knowing my history as a fine, responsible, young lad. I had the best intentions and made it to the spring in about 20 minutes. After a couple of sips of the iron-laden water, I was set to go back to camp, but then my eye caught a sparkle in the ground, just a little up the hill from the spring. I knew it had to be the glimmer of quartz, so I headed that way to investigate with trusty rock hammer in hand. Sure enough, I found a nice little single point just barely exposed under the surface of the ground. I figured the mother lode must be somewhere just a little higher up and proceeded to make my way upward through the forest. For about 30 minutes, I investigated several areas that looked promising but never found another crystal. It was time to head back to camp, so I turned around and started back. After about 20 minutes of walking downhill, the topography reversed, and I started back uphill. Funny, but I didn’t remember another hill. After another 20 minutes of traversing increasingly rough terrain, I started to worry a little. Somehow, I was lost in the middle of the mountain and it was almost dark. A full moon illuminated just enough of the woods to allow me to maneuver about. At times, I panicked and ran wildly tripping over the undergrowth and falling hard to the rocky ground. I yelled out for help often but heard only the screech of the owl and the howl of the coyote. I remember thrashing through briar thickets and tromping across wet areas. I stopped several times and prayed, just as much concerned about my parents as my own current predicament. Just before the dawn, I found what appeared to be an old logging road, overgrown but obviously my way out, if I chose the right direction. I turned toward the east and began walking down the path. Within a few minutes, I heard the distant sound of car horns. I began to run. The sound got louder, and finally I heard shouting voices. Emerging from the woods, I saw an armada of pickup trucks. The locals had been searching for me all night, and their efforts had finally paid off. I was driven to the campground, cut and bruised from head to toe and emotionally exhausted. You can imagine the relief my parents felt when I came back to camp. The rescuers told us that it was a small miracle they found me alive. I had travelled some 20 miles across the most hazardous area of the Ouachita Mountains. Somehow, I had avoided the sheer cliff drop- offs and amazingly had not been snake-bitten when tromping through the water moccasin- infested wetland areas. You can imagine the reprimanding that came later!