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Burners & Black Opals

This ordinarily would be the time I’d be submitting a story to the AVA about being a senior citizen out on the playa in the midst of the Burning Man festival, but that didn’t happen this year. My camp likes the structure and planning that the Burning Man organization provides through ticket sales. The event that happened this year was a renegade burn…trying to capture the spirit of Burning Man…and not worth attending.

But that does not mean our camp of Burners didn’t want to try and get together for the first time in two years and just have some quality time together, and many of us are rockhounds, so we decided to meet up and go search for black opals in Nevada.

Royal Peacock Opal Mine in northwest Nevada is in the middle of no-place…well, actually, it is in the middle of some-place. The Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge spreads through northwest Nevada and surrounds private ranches and mining claims in that area. It’s in an area called Virgin Valley, between two tiny spots on the map called Vya and Denio.

A short geology lesson here. Why are there opals in the clay banks of this area? Around 14 million years ago the land there was a forest of Ginkgo and Redwood trees. Volcanic action to the west buried the forests under hundreds of feet of ash. Cavities left by decaying wood filled in with mineral deposits including opal and gypsum. Dead animals were also covered in the ash and the same replacement of organic substances with mineral happened? Did you know camel teeth, three-toed pygmy horse teeth, pine cones, fish skeleton and saber-tooth tiger teeth can all opalize? They’ve been found here.

One thing that fascinates me about this area is the availability of water. There’s even an area named Thousand Creeks. Ranchers have developed ponds that have since been taken over by the Nevada Dept. of Wildlife that are stair stepped down valleys, each about 12’ deep and now stocked with White Crappie, Yellow Perch, Wide Mouth Bass and Blue Gill. People actually come to the desert to fish! Trees grow around ponds and there are marsh and birds and bugs and wildlife.

On the road into Virgin Valley is a free BLM campground with a warm spring swimming pool built by the same Civilian Conservation Corps men who were building dams and stabilizing the pools during the Great Depression. There nothing like star gazing at night when you’re 30 miles from the nearest street light, in a pool of warm water.

Everybody likes a pretty rock? Right? BIG, pretty exotic rocks attract attention. How about a 130 pound opalized log, or a 169 carat black fire opal. Opalized objects from Virgin Valley end up in the Smithsonian and major museums around the world. The family of John A. Roebling, associated with the engineers  that built the Brooklyn Bridge, in 1917 started an opal collection with a pound and a half gigantic black opal from here and added 14 more. Millions of dollars of opals have been taken from commercial and private claims in Virgin Valley.

So how does the average rockhound expose themselves to such wonders? Go to the Royal Peacock Opal Mine. Understand this is NOT a cheap undertaking. The word is “fee digging”…you pay the fee and you are directed to locations where you may, or may not, find an opal.You might find petrified wood. In the early 1940’s the Wilson family bought this mine next to their homestead on one of those pretty ponds I described in Virgin Valley. Mable Wilson had a passion for the colorful opals and generations of the family have helped rockhounds fulfill their dreams.

I happen to love camping at the Royal Peacock. There’s trees, green grass, free showers, power, wi-fi (sometimes), ice, cold soda pop, and a gift store that makes you wish you had a $1,000 to spend. At 8 a.m. enthusiastic opal hunters show up at the office with tools, water, hats, sunscreen, and energy for a short drive to the mining area. What is amazing is a rock face that seems a quarter mile long where people have been digging for decades and are still finding wonders.

In the fall of 2021 folks paid $190 a day, per person, to dig for eight hours at a freshly graded off clay rock bank 6’ tall, or for $75 you could dig in the tailings piles to see what other people might have missed. Helpful staff direct you to the best places to dig, show you what you are looking for, direct you to the porta-potty, and keep an eye out for your safety. So, do you work in one spot? Or wander up and down the bank whacking away here and there? Luckily you can work the clay bank with a hand pick.

The best piece of opal I found in the shape of a limb about the size of my little finger self destructed because I didn’t get it into water fast enough. Coming out of the ground this opal is 13% water and can craze, cloud or shatter if not immediately placed in water and later properly preserved. The staff tells you how to preserve opal. My opal turned cloudy through my own inattention within five minutes. But I got to listen to my fellow Burners yelling “Look what I found!” We had a glorious day.

The Wilson’s say some years they get 10,000 visitors in their May to Oct. digging season. Some folks come to dig, others are tourists who just want to observe, and everyone is welcome. They Royal Peacock has been featured in TV shows and people turn up from all over the world. They’re nice folks.

My Burner buddies and I had a great reunion in the middle of no-where. Some of us scored really nice opals and others of us just founds bits and pieces of mineral treasures. My grandson was very impressed with some very common gypsum crystals I brought home.

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