Yesterday we drove through a downpour to get to Arkansas and camp at Lake Catherine State Park, in Hot Springs. Tomorrow and the next day are set aside to visit family. The rain slacked off and stopped in mid-morning, so today we took the afternoon and drove down to Crater of Diamonds State Park, in Murfreesboro, AR. This park is touted (in the old fashioned sense of the word) as “THE ONLY DIAMOND MINE IN THE USA!” Everyone we talked to about it had a story: “Oh, someone just last week found a two carat diamond.” Everyone said the same thing: “Oh, you’re going at a good time! It’s best to go after a heavy rain; that’s when people find diamonds!” We could tell we were getting close when every business we passed had ‘diamond’ in the name: “El Diamante Mexican Restaurant.”
Now, even though the average number of diamonds found here in a given year is 600, I was pretty sure that there wouldn’t be one in my particular patch of dirt. That didn’t stop me from fantasizing: ooh, what if I find a diamond large enough to cut! Maybe I could get a pair of diamond earrings! Wouldn’t that be cool! I had visions of strolling along searching the ground for the diamond that had been washed out by yesterday’s rain just for me. My dreams were about to meet the gritty reality, and the first clue was the gear available for sale in the rental shop. Waders. Gloves. Beach towels. Hmm.
We paid our small admission fee and rented screens for sifting through the dirt. We’d brought a bucket (for once those cat litter buckets that seem to pile up around here came in handy) and the shovel we carry in the fiver. I looked over the series of signs showing approved methods of diamond mining at the park. There was dry sifting: put the dirt through a series of screens and search the gravel. “Best in dry conditions,” said the sign. I bet. There was surface searching: walk along and scan the ground, looking for the telltale glint. Some of the larger diamonds have been found that way, according to the optimistic tales posted in the gift shop. And there was wet sifting: “a way to process large amounts of dirt” according to the helpful signs. Fill the coarse screen with dirt and wash it in the sluices provided, holding the fine screen below; transfer the gravel in the fine screen into a round screened pan, then agitate that in the sluice water to let the heavier minerals (and diamonds!) settle to the bottom. Overturn the pan to tip the resulting mass onto a table, and peer at the gravel ‘cake’, again looking for that telltale glint, slightly oily looking, translucent, rounded stones. That’s the jackpot.
I initially thought we’d try surface scanning. That was before I met the mud. We stood at the entrance to the field and gazed out over the expanse of gray mud; 37 acres of plowed and rutted field broken by a couple of sluice sheds. We started out onto the field. My shoes immediately gained five pounds each, then ten. I broke free of the mud with effort and a sucking sound. The mud was wrestling for my shoes and winning. This was the sort of mud that sucks down jeeps; eats small children and spits them out gray all over; that stars in detergent commercials. I immediately abandoned the “stroll along and scan for diamonds” plan in favor of the “make it to the nearest sluice shed in one piece” plan. Eventually, J took the stuff I was carrying over to the shed and came back for me. I put my hands on his shoulders and held on tight to make it across the field. Didn’t fall. Didn’t lose a shoe. Thank you Lord.
We decided to do the wet mining process, and J kindly (perhaps with visions of me staggering across the field with a bucket full of dirt) offered to collect the dirt for me to wash. I loaded up my screen, stepped up to the giant tub of muddy water, and plunged it in. EEE! Boy was that water cold. And the mud wasn’t giving up the ghost even then, forming stubborn lumps that rolled in the screen, resisting even being gooshed into ribbons between our fingers. We ‘processed’ three buckets of dirt before we were done, swishing and mashing and sorting and dumping and peering at the gravelly remains, as if reading some rock golem’s entrails for meaning. J found a nice little geode which he gave to the teenager next to us, who was having the same luck we were with rather less fun.
And it was fun. The heavy lifting, digging and sluicing the dirt, not so much. But chatting with the folks nearby, hearing their stories, that was fun. Someone had found a stone that might’ve been a diamond, but she dropped it (oh no!) Some guy was out there with a spare set of clothes; he was going to stay at the park until he had to leave for the airport for his flight. It was fun taking off my glasses to scrutinize the results of all that sluicing work, poring over the mass and sifting it with my fingers, carefully looking at the bits of rock stuck to my hands to make sure I wasn’t rinsing away something precious. We had fun joking with the folks near us. J was telling tall tales: “Yep, we bin minin’ here fer seventeen years. I tol her, we cain’t get married till she comes up with a dya-mond fer tha ring. Y’know, it ain’t easy diggin gauraunteed dya-mond free mud fer seventeen years!” Whereupon he got splashed.
We headed out when the work got to be work. Despite the ground drying out a bit, the mud claimed one of my shoes when we were almost out. I yelped, J stopped and fished it out of the muck for me, and I jammed my muddy sock back into the shoe and fast marched the rest of the way out, holding onto his shoulders for dear life and hoping not to fall. The high pressure hoses on the grated platform near the exit were a godsend. I soaked my shoes getting the mud off them, but was happy to walk off squelching but mostly clean.
I’d happily go again. Maybe on a drier day, lucky rain days notwithstanding. There’s a small campground in the park with water and electric hookups, it looked nice enough for a couple of days stay. I’d take a change of clothes and boots just to wear in the park, and a hat, and maybe a towel. And definitely a little bag to put my diamond in, so I don’t lose it..