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Wood You Rather?

Figure 1: View from the canyon top of Rattlesnake Dance trail in Yakima River Canyon.

Wood can turn into opal. Guys. I'm not just blowin' smoke up your skirts, here, this is real life. Opalized wood is a thing and I found it in Washington [Figure 1]! Also, it's notably distinct from petrified wood -only,... its not that different. Distinct enough to merit research, sure, plus interviewing generously patient NW Rockhounds, Googling myself into a harmless fury, and then pronouncing a series of supremely enthusiastic reports to acquaintances that, "Yes- there is such a thing as opalized wood! And here it is! And did you know?! I didn't know, look at this other piece!"

Figure 2: Sign at the start of Rattlesnake Dance Trail, off Canyon Rd. south of Ellensburg, WA. This isn't that "official" name of the trail, but it is at least one colloquial name.

In an effort to swerve around infringements on Pocket Rocks (which, incidentally, I need to finish writing) I will glaze over the deets concerning the fun pocket rocks I left this adventure with. Instead, I will impart unto you the great and terrible burden of knowing that trees can become just about any dang mineral you can imagine, including opal. Common opal, in this case, which is the white, waxy underling of that glossy, hydratedly iridescent diva so many October babies familiarize themselves with around the time they order high school rings.

Why hydratedly iridescent? Because opal is "commonly precipitated from silica-rich solutions," which basically means it's both incredibly fragile and incredibly sexy [Simon & Schuster's Guide to Rocks and Minerals, 1978]. In fact, one source claims that precious opal is so sensitive, given it's moist origins, that when mining it, you have to be very careful to hydrate it immediately after you extract it, lest it dry too quickly and crumble to worthless bits [Scott's Rocks & Gems, blog,]. Lapidary also tends to be difficult when dealing with precious opal, as preservation of antique specimens and treating younger ones is a delicate balance between gemstone cutting and mineral chemistry [Random Person; personal communication]. But, let's face it, nothing is worthless when your rummaging deep in land & soul for an earth treasure.

My question to you is, "Would you opalize yourself if you could?" Like, if you have a plan for your body after death. Your lifeless corpse is hangin' around on Earth, whatever, but instead of following the typical decomposition debate of worm food vs. preservatives vs. carbon worm food (i.e. cremation), would you rather turn into opal? Not precious opal, mind you, that sounds horrendously expensive in terms of time invested in mineral-rich solution & let's face it- no one would let you stay together once you were made of gemstone material. I think you would. I think most life would.

Figure 3: Trail leading up Yakima Canyon, littered with intermediate specks of mineral deposit.

If not precious opal, then what would be worth that kind of effort? Common opal. A white and yellowy-brown state of your former self. Sounds like a slow way of going about immortalizing yourself against this mortal coil, but a prospect attractive for its rarity. Or is it a rarity? This is the story of my false-start in collecting petrified wood, and how it wasn't really a false-start, because I came away with a mason jar full of opalized wood. The trip to Umtanum Recreation Area, the topic of Big Sexy Rocks (Part 2), was preempted by a hike up Rattlesnake Dance Trail (RSDT). RSDT is also in the Yakima River Canyon [Figure 2]. There was a note about that in the record I found at the top of the canyon hike, but we will circle back to that later. The alarmingly steep trek of RSDT courses almost directly upwards along a ridge from a small pull-off on Canyon Rd [Figure 3]. Directly across from the Yakima River, which bisects the landscape between Ellensburg and Yakima, WA; RSDT hardly dawdles to remind a hiker of their lacking cardio game.

In Big Sexy Rocks (Part 2), I mentioned that it took me two tries to explore Umtanum, and this is true. Upon my first attempt, I didn't have any cash on hand to leave a day pass and opted to return another day to scourge for the fabled, flirtatious, and petrified goodies. Later, I did find silicafied petrified wood, but you know that already. Basically, that wood was buried in sand and the pretty coloration and subsequent perfection are a result of delicate quartz playing its games with your fragile heart by turning wood into something equally wonderful.

Figure 4: View of northwestern Yakima River Canyon from the top of Rattlesnake Dance Trail.

Conversely, the stuff I found at the top of RSDT was spontaneous, mysterious, oddly limited, and unidentifiable until I joined the NW Rockhounds. Theus and Nate were able to identify the opalized wood I brought back without even seeing it. They're damn good. Also, once I was told opalized wood was a thing, it became painfully obvious. So, this is how it went.

I started out on RSDT, without any prior knowledge of its length, or terrain, determined to enjoy myself after driving around for 2 hours looking for Umtanum Recreation Area [Figure 2]. On my way up, I was smiled upon by divine light, received a birthday call from a good friend back in Tennessee, and got to take a beat, munch some homemade trail mix (heavy on the M&Ms and dried fruit) and enjoy a fantastic view while gasping to catch my breath [Figure 4]. I mention this because at the time, there was only one other human on the trail, and my filthy pride had refused to let me stop for a rest unless the person in front of me also did. As you all know, the root of suffering is comparison, and this was one of many lessons in that, considering that I wouldn't stop climbing until she did and that I wouldn't relate my nature booty until I had confidently identified it.

Figure 5: Box and contents of Rattlesnake Dance Trial Log Book.

From that vantage, the whole city of Ellensburg stood overshadowed by the stark line of mountains aloft. If you made a 180 degree turn, the image of urbanization would dissolve entirely into the blissful winding canyon visage. A path of compacted dirt and narrow ledges, it took me roughly an hour to summit [Figure 3]. I stopped before the good part to try my hand at keying out some of the new-to-me flora of the steppe region with my Sagebrush Country Wildflower book. Or is it a guide? It certainly reads like a book. Anywho, I managed to identify one thing: my lack of experience IDing plants since grad school.

After making smallish talk with the hiker ahead of me (who was on her way down from the summit already), and wondering where she had gone as there seemed so place to hide on the vast flatness, I discovered a fantastic local quirk! This small militaristic box [Figure 5]. Sitting as the base of a piled bedrock, holding a droll post upright, it housed a notebook, pen, several trail treasures someone thought to toss in, and a delightful tale of community connectivity [Figure 5].

After reading the introductory page, I learned that there is a program in Ellensburg that places notebooks at the end of trails around the area for folks to fill with their thoughts, feelings, advice, and impressions of hiking trails around the region. When they are full of stories, they are taken, by whomever, to the local library and cataloged for people to go by and read at their leisure. I assume this is of particular interest and use to elementary kids, as they are indoctrinated into the methodologies of rudimentary research skills. Also, seems like something we would utilize as a Girl Scout troop. An invaluable resource, to say the least, and one that I did charge myself to contribute to. This is the first page of entries, and I scrolled through several other pages before writing down something dreadfully boring on one of the last pages [Figure 6].

What I wrote was something along the lines of:

"I came here by mistake but I found some cool stuff over there I guess this is pretty chill thanks for the community notebook project life is a funny thing like that. ~TK 2017."

Normally, brevity isn't my calling card, but my nerve wavered after I flipping away from the third entry about someone reported the trail's end & view as a "great place to have sex." This contributor had also added five little stars drawn and filled to underscore their apparent satisfaction.

However, the view wasn't quite enough to sate my lust for adventure, and so I meandered away from the sex-fantasy repository to taking a leisurely wander over the canyon top. As I pointedly emptied my mason jar of M&Ms, I noted a slight alteration in the gravel around my shuffling feet. Of my many foibles, gravel picking ever persists, and I soon followed my feet to a patch of white and translucent orange mineral material. Without any idea as to what I had -literally- stumbled upon, I began tracking the dispersal of mineral in a large oval shaped deposit, away from my snacking spot along the foot trail.

After about 15 minutes of squatting, inspecting, deciding I didn't know one piece from another, shuffling ten feet, rinsing, and repeating, I realized the area with white and orange chunks was acutely localized. In fact, I quite lost my mystery deposit, and had to go all the way back to the Log Book location and retrace my steps back to where I had found the first few pieces. While kicking pebbles hither and thither, I made a pact with the canyon that, if they would bring me back to that deposit, I would be sure to take samples this second time around.

Figure 6: Introductory page of Rattlesnake Dance Trail Log Book.

Upon rediscovery, I nearly choked on my remaining trail mix in an effort to free up the jar as a sample container, and began greedily filling the glass with hunks of my new, confusingly opaque enigma. Outside a scant, 20 meter radius, the white stone disappeared entirely from the surrounding substrate and this I found most odd. As per usual, I posited that it could be identified later, and spent the greater part of an hour drumming over differently colored, shaped, and sized samples for collection [Figure 7]. Clearly, something had happened in this small space to create such a rich and spatially limited deposit. Furthermore, this patch of odd shapes and fracture lines appeared as though someone had intentionally taken a bucket filled with the stuff and spilled it onto this spot, leaving a lonely hiker to fuss over. It did cross my mind that some voodoo person would return at a later time to find that another soul had bothered to confiscate their dumpsite, and laugh at the painful nadir of a wayward rockhound.

The problem, one of many considering the apparent senility I had achieved in my physically and emotionally exhausted state, was that the only material listed on my guide for the area had been petrified wood, and this mineral was obviously something else. If only I had taken my rock guide with me instead of my wildflower guide! This, I attribute to a childish frustration at not hiking the trail I originally planned to hound along.I could find no evidence of linear grains or fracturing, the two dead give-aways for my paramour of rocks! Little did I know, wood would opalize when it could. (Wouldn't you?)

Figure 7: Rough (left) and tumbled (right) opalized wood from Yakima River Canyon.

One full mason jar, and several head rushes later -please, folks, remember to breathe and stretch your legs while you hound out there- I trekked back down RSDT. Before finalizing my ordeal with a pugnacious drive home, I did stop to inspect the gravels at the base of RSDT. Nothing of note was found there, and this only added to the fabulous ado I would make about discovery the material and deposit pattern at the top of my back-up canyon hike.

Here is what I know about opal after the fact: it is a cavity filling mineral, water is a key ingredient, and precious opal is damn near something else entirely. Another silicate (as most luscious and beautiful minerals are), opal's system "consists of microspheroids of hydrous silica which may be cristobalite* in some varieties....never found in crystals...occurs in small veins, globules, and crusts... is colorless, milky white, often hazy blue or black with splendid iridescence" in precious specimens [Simon & Schuster's Guide to Rocks and Minerals, 1978]. Far as opalized wood is concerned, any mineral can create a fossil, as mineralization is just the replacement of carbon with mineral molecules (forgive the patronistic explanation- I'm confident you already know how fossils are made, but it tingles my fingers to type it out). Opal is just one of any imaginable minerals that could have potentially replaced the flesh of the log that eroded into my hiking trail that day.

Theus and Nate later explained, over our campfire atop Red Top Mountain, that the small radius of my mystery deposit was also a dead give-away for petrified wood. Basically, when a log is fossilized, it becomes a different hardness than the sediment, bedrock, etc., around it. This allows for erosion to do the extracting for us. When the area around the log erodes faster than the opalized or silicafied wood, the log will stay in one place while it begins to fracture from the intrusion of water particles expanding and contracting over time. This results in a single, large, piece of petrified wood eventually becoming exposed on the surface as many small pieces, dispersed over an area specific to the erosion effects acted upon it.

No wonder I found my opalized wood deposit as I did! Go figure. What a treat it is to know such wise people in such an amazing region! The happy moral of this story is that, when rockhounding, I may not always find what I am looking for, but I rarely go home empty handed. I have since adopted this mantra for every subsequent adventure I embark upon. Plus, it holds convenient wiggle room when taking friends out to a new location. So good luck! And remember, expectations are the best way to land yourself a heaping scoop of disappointment. Keep an open mind, be flexible with your trails & dig sites, always ask follow-up questions, and stay hungry enough to down all your trail mix in the event of an emergency mineral deposit!

Happy Hounding!

*Cristobalite: form of silica that is the main component of opal and also occurs as small **octahedral crystals.

**Octahedral: See Figure 8.

Figure 8: Octahedral crystalline shape. Source: Google Images.

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