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The vistas and the wildlife made the gem hunting trip memorable, but the human gem made it worthwhile

Living the Wild Life

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Photos: Bill Schiess |

CRATERS OF THE MOON – After a day of hiking and hunting rocks in the central Idaho mountains, Jonathan and I decided to hike about a quarter of a mile up a ridge between Howe and Arco to gather a few fossils. We didn’t make it. About a third of the way up the two-track road, I walked over to a large limestone rock to check for fossils when a chorus of rattlesnakes greeted me.

Stepping back, I located two snakes curled up under the lip of the rock behind a dead sagebrush sticking their tongues out at me, daring me to come closer.

“Those are the first rattlesnakes I have ever seen,” said the wide-eyed young man as we watched closely. “Will they come after us?”

“Nope, we just interrupted their afternoon nap,” I explained as the larger snake, about four feet long with a three-inch girth and trailing eleven rattling buttons started slithering across the rocks. It finally found a small hole under the rock and disappeared while the smaller snake with six buttons continued to flatten in the shade.

I heard another rattler higher up the trail, so we decided to wait another day to collect the fossils and headed home. It had already been a memorable day in the high mountains north and northwest of Craters of the Moon National Monument. We had been attacked by a common nighthawk when we got too close to its nest, that caused one of us to lose a hat. But no damage, just a scare.

The day was just the last of 17 days I have spent in the mountains of central Idaho hiking, chasing rocks, enjoying the beautiful vistas and flowers with a variety of people and wildlife. Places like Appendicitis Ridge, Lime Creek, Spar Canyon, Little Wood Valley, Red Hills, Massacre Mountain, Pass Creek, Methodist Creek, Road Creek, and Herd Creek are places with forgotten stories. Rumors and legends have entertained me.

Most days included hunting rocks like moss agate, jasper, agate nodules, drusy and doubly terminated crystals, wonderstone and petrified wood. Hiking with 20 to 30 pounds of rocks in a backpack is not really fun, but enjoyable and makes an old body ache while making the last day trip on rubbery legs. Nothing that downing a Gatorade while rest-napping for about 30 minutes in some shade will not cure.

I and my fellow travelers/hikers/hounders would usually leave Rexburg between 4:30 and 5 a.m. to be out in the desert-mountains by daylight to beat the heat. Springtime was a little chilly and we had to almost bathe in insect repellant to keep the wood ticks from making our bodies look like we had the chicken pox. By July, the ticks were mostly gone, but out came the biting flies. More repellant was necessary. Oh, what fun it was to be the prey and not the predator. But what the heck, we are the top of the food chain.

One of the highlights of the summer was meeting an old cowboy high in the mountains. He was pushing cattle away from the gates and into grass-filled draws on the back of a bay colored paint.

“Whatcha doing clear up here?” he asked.

“Hunting rocks.”

“You guys do it all wrong.”

“How so?”

“You drive to the ridges and hunt where people have been hunting for a hundred years. You need to go down the swales about a quarter of a mile from the top. There is where the good stuff are, and any time you find water you will find obsidian and arrow points,” he stated as he rattled about a dozen pieces in his shirt pocket as he sat on his horse. “At my age I ride paint horses so they can find me if I keel over dead up here. The horse would never leave me.”

“That’s why I wear bright colored shirts and not camo up here,” I injected into the conversation.

We visited a while and he told me where to find some of the best stuff, including logs of petrified wood and large agate nodules. As I got ready to leave, we exchanged contact information. We are both in our 70s nearing the end of being trusted to be alone and both of us only use antique flip phones. No smart phones to confuse us with those who know everything.

“Call me some evening later when it gets a little cooler, and I will show you sights and things that will make your eyes bug out,” he said as he rode away to move another bunch of ornery cattle.

Enjoying the central Idaho sagebrush and snake infested mountains is enjoyable for the vistas and the wildlife, but also for meeting plain folks like ourselves. I can hardly wait for the next encounter I will have in the wilds of Idaho. Maybe I will meet another human gem in the Gem State.