The Obsidian on the Side of the Road
A Travel Story by Jay Newman
Our bumbling tale of barely finding obsidian began in a town called Burns, Oregon, on a chilly Sunday morning in October 2007, the year Sue and I got married. It was the sixth and final day of our long drive home from Boston, Massachusetts, to Ashland, Oregon. We’d flown back east a week earlier to retrieve Sue’s Toyota Tercel—otherwise known as Bean—and then took the northern route across, averaging nearly 600 miles per day, the previous three through an early winter storm. So at that point, we were both tired and grumpy. Our grand plans to photograph the American West had been thwarted by high winds and sideways snow. With no four-wheel drive, and no real time to explore, we had no choice but to drive past three places we’d both always dreamed of visiting: Devil’s Tower, the Badlands, and Yellowstone. Not fun. We’d hoped to get at least one portfolio-worthy image out of the drive. Oh well.
But we could still salvage the trip with obsidian!
It just so happened that our route home was going to take us west on U.S. Highway 20 through central Oregon, one of the best destinations in the world for rockhounds. If you know where to look, then without too much effort you can find impressive pieces of obsidian, as well as agate thunder eggs, picture jasper, and petrified wood. We, however, did not know where to look. All we had were some vague directions to a collecting site in the Glass Buttes, an eroding clump of old volcanoes that are the source of some incredible varieties of obsidian—including rainbow, snowflake, lace and mahogany. Even the “boring” obsidian that we were after is impressive. Imagine grasping a fist-sized chunk of black glass born out of the belly of a volcano five million years ago.
But before we could get our hands on some obsidian, we had to find it first. Our collecting site was supposed to be about 75 miles west of Burns, not far from the highway. The plan: Drive up to the site, jump out, snag some rocks, jump back in, and then hightail it the final 225 miles home. If we didn’t stop to photograph or otherwise dilly-dally, we could be out of the car and on to the couch by sunset.
Of course, we got off to a late start. By the time we finally checked out of the hotel and got all our stuff in the car, it was well after ten o’clock. I was particularly antsy. I needed to get on the road. And that is why—on our way out of town—I made the fateful decision to drive right past the gas station.
“Are you sure about this?” asked Sue. “Yes,” I answered. I was pretty sure. The tank was still two-thirds full; I figured there would be gas somewhere along Highway 20. I mean, there wasn’t one of those “No Services For 50 Miles” signs. “There will be gas,” I said. If not, it was 130 miles until Bend, the next sizable city. That little Tercel got pretty good mileage, but not that good. “We’ll be fine.”
I swear, the very second I got up to speed on the highway, that gas needle dropped a quarter of an inch. Sue saw it and looked at me. “We still have half a tank,” I said. I was not turning back. Back was the opposite of home. “We’ll be fine.”
We were entering an area geologists call the High Lava Plains, but most refer to it as the high desert. Another name you’ll hear: the Oregon Outback. It’s that desolate—a plateau nearly a mile above sea level populated with odd rock formations, power lines, rabbit brush, sage and the occasional juniper tree. We did pass a few “gas stations” (old pumps outside of old buildings), but they were either closed on Sundays, or closed forever. That half of a tank quickly fell to one-third, and then to one-quarter, and were we actually going to run out of gas?
Sue was not a happy camper. We’d had nary a squabble the entire trip, but I really screwed up this time, and we both knew it. I broke the cardinal rule of middle-of-nowhere road-tripping: Fill up when you have the chance! All of a sudden, our plan to find obsidian was in serious jeopardy. Not that it was a great plan to begin with.
Did I mention that we were new at this rockhounding thing? We liked to pick up neat rocks during photo outings, but we didn’t even have a gems-and-minerals guide yet (highly recommended if you plan on finding gems and minerals). All we had were some vague directions from a random rockhound whom we’d met on a trail a few weeks earlier. The best specimens, he told us, were to be found at the base of the Glass Buttes. However, those sites were located 10 to 20 miles from Highway 20, and our tiny Toyota would be no match small for the rutty, rocky roads. No worries, he said, there was an easily accessible spot really close to the highway where, each summer, a backhoe digs up a small quarry area and piles the soil into mounds—which rockhounds are then free to search through for pieces of obsidian. (We assumed this service was provided by the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the land.) Problem was, it had been a “few years” and the random rockhound couldn’t remember exactly which of the roads to take, how far the site was from from the highway, or even which side of the highway it was on. But we were confident. There wasn’t a whole lot else out there, so a backhoe and a bunch of dirt mounds shouldn’t be too hard to find. “You can’t miss it!” He actually said that … apparently unaware that it usually means the opposite.
By the time we arrived at Glass Buttes (which weren’t nearly as pretty as their name suggests), the needle had fallen to one-eighth and the time was approaching noon. And there was no sign of our quarry. We did pass a few gravel roads, but most were gated, and we had neither the fuel nor the clearance to take the roads that weren’t. We decided that unless we could see the collecting site from the highway, we weren’t stopping. Our one and only priority at this point was to not run out of gas. And the next dot on the map was a town called Brothers, 25 long miles away. So, in what had become the official theme of our west coast non-adventures, we once again drove past something important. Yay.
All that Sue had wanted for that day was to find some obsidian. She didn’t even need to say it. The sentence was echoing through my brain. And then the low-gas light came on to shine even more guilt upon me. I didn’t even care about stupid rocks anymore. Nor did I care that the thin layer of photogenic clouds was diffusing ethereal light over the picturesque desert landscape that was just begging us to photograph it. The cameras stayed put. Home was still forever away, we were in serious danger of getting stranded, and we hadn’t even had breakfast yet.
As we put the buttes in our rear-view mirror, that damn gas light only got brighter and brighter. So I laid off the gas pedal as much as I could and hoped against hope we’d make it to Brothers, but it just didn’t seem possible. I asked Sue how far her car could travel when the low gas light is on. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never tested it before.”
Twenty silent minutes later, running on fumes and dumb luck, Sue and I somehow made it to Brothers, or what there was of it. Population: 35. None of whom appeared to be there that day. There were a few abandoned buildings, a café and a shack with an ancient gas pump out front. I optimistically parked next to the pump and we got out of the car. Still no sign of people. The whole scene was quite eerie. I walked up to the door of the shack and knocked. No answer. “Let’s go see if that café’s open,” I said. So we drove Bean over, half-expecting the restaurant’s door to be locked, but it actually opened. Yay.
There was no one inside. I was a tad bit worried that we’d stepped into a David Lynch movie. The place was all wood-paneling and Western kitsch—saw-blade murals and a barbed-wire wreath adorned with cobwebs and shotgun shells. And on the floor was a crate with some rough pieces of dusty obsidian for sale. “Look, honey,” I said, only half-joking, “let’s just buy a few of these guys and say we found them.” Sue didn’t answer. That box of rocks just reminded her how close we’d gotten. Changing the subject, I asked kind of loud, “Is anyone even in here?” Just then a nice lady walked out of the back and said hello. She wasn’t scary at all. We asked her about the gas station and she told us someone should be by to open it soon. So we sat down for breakfast.
Neither of us had much to say while we waited for our food, which was taking forever. I think I even put my head down on the table for five minutes. And there was still no sign of life at the gas station. Finally, sometime after one o’clock, the nice lady emerged from the kitchen with two plates of eggs, bacon, potatoes, and toast. And as we started digging in, we immediately noticed something odd about our food. All of it was…perfect.
There’s no better word to describe this breakfast: perfect. I mean, it looked like your typical café fare—but it tasted like each individual ingredient had been killed, milled, or picked fresh after we ordered it (probably because it was). And then prepared to perfection. Here we were in a middle-of-nowhere town with a population that wouldn’t fill a city bus, and we’re eating the best-tasting breakfast we’d had together. Maybe ever.
Only it wasn’t the best breakfast ever. It would have been had I not royally screwed up and driven right past that gas station and then right past our obsidian. So we just sat there and grumpily ate our delicious meal. Then a nice fellow walked into the café and told us the gas pump was on. Yay. So we cleared our plates of every last morsel, thanked the nice lady, and then finally gassed up our thirsty Bean. It was a hollow victory, though. At that point, I just wanted to cut our losses and keep driving west toward home.
But I am a good husband, so I didn’t even put it up for discussion. I started the car, steered left, and drove east—back the way we came. Sue immediately lit up. “Really?!” “What’s an extra 50 miles? So we won’t get home until late.” “Yay!”
Finally, a lighter mood (although I’ll admit now that I wasn’t too thrilled to be going THE WRONG WAY). But I kept quiet. There were other concerns, namely: Now where was this obsidian? Neither of the two nice folks we’d met in Brothers knew anything about a “quarry just for rockhounds.” They told us we had to drive up to the buttes to get the good rocks. That, we knew.
As we arrived back in the area, we were hoping that traveling in the opposite direction would reveal our mounds. No such luck. At one point, I tried turning up one of the rocky roads, but Bean complained, so I slowly backed down and returned to the highway. Not quite ready to give up, we headed farther east. Still nothing. “Let’s just get out somewhere and look,” I finally said. Sue agreed, so I arbitrarily stopped at the next road, which was gated, and parked on the shoulder. We got out and started looking around. There weren’t many rocks to speak of. However, the light was starting to get really good. I was tempted to pull out all the camera gear, but today was just not about shooting. It was about finding obsidian, or not finding obsidian, and then going home.
Then I saw a sparkle on the ground. It was a pebble-sized piece of obsidian! “Ooh, look!” Then Sue found one, too. Then another. We were actually pretty excited, as this was our very first time rockhounding—so even a few pebbles of volcanic glass were special. We scoured the desert floor for another few minutes and picked up a handful of little pieces each. “Now can we go home?” I asked. Sue, who is more tenacious than I, wasn’t ready. “Let’s just walk up the road a bit and see if there are any bigger pieces up the hill.” Sigh. “Okay.” So we walked around the gate (which wasn’t even locked), and trudged up the hill. The obsidian pieces weren’t getting any bigger. Sue kept looking. I kicked dirt and watched the little dust clouds blow away in the wind. Finally, I just said it: “Sue, it’s already afternoon, and we’re not even a hundred miles from where we started out this morning. We have to go.” Sigh. “Okay.”
Then we both turned around…and there it was. Our quarry. Down the hill, on the opposite side of the highway, about 100 feet beyond the shoulder. There was the backhoe parked next to several mounds of soil. Even from that far away we could see the little sparkles in the desert sun. “Thar be obsidian!”
The two of us hoofed it down that hill with a renewed spirit. Did we actually accidentally park right across the road from the very place we were looking for? There was a ridge that had made the mounds impossible to see from the highway. So if Sue and I hadn’t walked up that road as far as we did, we’d have gotten back in the car and driven away without even knowing we’d hit pay dirt. Thank you, Sue’s tenacity! A short drive across the road and over a bit of rough terrain and we pulled up to the quarry.
Now, if you’re a serious obsidian collector looking for the fancy snowflake or rainbow varieties, these piles wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But for Sue and I, who both grew up back east where the rocks are just rocks, this was monumental. Chunk after chunk of real volcanic glass! For free! (There was a weight limit which we couldn’t even come close to meeting.) We were especially stoked to find some nice pieces of mahogany obsidian (my favorite).
At this point in the story, I would normally add a photo here of the two of us on top of a pile of dirt triumphantly holding our black-rock bounty above our heads, but the cameras remained dormant in the back seat. So here’s a photo of our haul in a bucket at home.
Sue and I scoured those mounds for at least a half hour, no longer caring about how far away from home we were. We were giddy and filthy and the proud owners of way more awesome rocks than we could stuff into our already stuffed car. We managed to pack in a few dozen pieces, placing them one by one into every nook and cranny. An inch or so lower to the ground, Bean triumphantly headed west again.
I don’t even know what time we got home that night. It doesn’t matter. That’s why you make those decisions—to walk up the hill a bit farther, or turn back around to find what you may have missed. Those are the kinds of experiences you remember forever, not what time you got home so you’d be well rested for work and blah blah blah. Boring! Yes, the Newmans not only became true rockhounds that chilly Sunday afternoon in central Oregon, but I personally learned some very important lessons—all of which boil down to “listen to Sue.”
And the icing on the cake: After we found our obsidian and started driving home, I got my portfolio shot! This prize-winning image of the Three Sisters and Highway 20 was taken at about three in the afternoon, just down the road from the very best breakfast that Sue and I ever had together.
Resources: Do you want to find some great rocks in Oregon? Don’t go in blind like we did. Pick yourself up a copy of Gem Trails Of Oregon. (But make sure you get the most recent printing for the most up-to-date maps.)