I had such a nice morning on Friday. You saw the pictures on the last post — the sunrise that looked celestial, the granola and blueberries on the bench in the early morning sun. It felt so peaceful and pleasant, but I knew I needed to keep going.

Driving long distances is not my idea of fun. I don’t think I would make a good trucker. But there’s a point where you get into the zone and it gets easier and easier to just keep going. Suddenly two hours starts passing without notice and driving into the night is almost easier than stopping. Unfortunately, my break in Billings definitely broke me out of the zone. When I got back on the road on Thursday, I lasted barely an hour before I was thinking about stopping. And I wasn’t exactly eager to start again on Friday.

But I had a plan. Ever since Crater of Diamonds in Arkansas, I’d intended to go sapphire mining in Montana. When I googled, one of the mines was reasonably close to Highway 90. It would add maybe an hour of extra driving along a scenic highway, plus an hour at the mine, but it would be a nice break in the middle of the day and something to look forward to, helping to keep me motivated on the road. I thought I’d get there about 2, be back on the road by 3 or maybe 3:30, and then maybe make it to the Montana border before stopping for the night.

It was so nice at Spring Creek, though, that I started late. And then I took a break at a rest stop to try to get online, as well as write about the campground and answer some texts. And then there was a tiny little wrong turn that put me on the highway headed in the wrong direction… Suddenly it was 3:30 and I was pulling into Phillipsburg and realizing that I’d screwed up. My Google directions hadn’t taken me to a mine, they’d taken me to a store. A nice store, where people could rinse of jugs of gravel and hunt for sapphires, but it wasn’t what I’d been looking for. The store, however, had a sign that said, “Free camping.”

I like signs like that.

It turned out that the mine was about half an hour away, in the direction from which I’d come. Bummer. But behind the mine were campsites, first come, first served, and if there was still room, I could spend the night there. And if I got started quickly, I’d still have an hour to play at the mine.


The mine was, in fact, not much like Crater of Diamonds. Instead of sitting in the dirt and digging, you buy a bucket of gravel for $25. They give you a mesh grate, some big tweezers, and a thing like a test tube with a plastic top with a hole in it. You put some dirt in the grate, rinse it in a wooden trough of water, then dump it out on a table. Carefully, because if you’ve rinsed it right, the sapphires are sitting on top of the pile. They’re the heaviest of the rocks, so as you bounce and rock the grate in the water, they should be sinking to the bottom. One of the guys working there gave me a demo to get started and when he dumped the grate, there was a blue stone sitting right on top of the pile, exactly as advertised. It was both delightful and also sort of like winning the slot machine on your very first quarter. I did wonder whether I was going to spend the next hour feeling like a failure when I didn’t find any more.


By the time I finished, I’d found 41 tiny sapphires. I did not once dump the dirt without finding a sapphire in it. One time I picked one out of the dirt without even rinsing it and another time I picked one out of the dirt as I was rinsing it. I’m not even sure I found all of them, because I was one of the last people there, so I was trying to hurry by the end of my bucket. Results aren’t guaranteed, of course, but they do say every bucket has some sapphires in it. Most of them aren’t worth processing (heat-treating and faceting), but people do sometimes find larger sapphires, 3 carats or more, that after processing can be worth hundreds of dollars. So there is still that element of playing the lottery, but one where you’re guaranteed to win something.

Plus, free camping!

Gem Mountain camping

Gem Mountain camping

Unfortunately, my anxiety level on Friday evening was limiting-ly high. I wanted to take a long walk with Zelda — we haven’t been getting nearly enough exercise — and I just couldn’t. Bears, rattlesnakes, strangers… I was totally scolding myself, but I was also not leaving the van. Just not.

The best I could do was about five minutes where I took the above picture. It was a beautiful moonrise, an incredible setting, and I took a minute to enjoy the crystal clear and cold air — and then the smoke from my neighbor’s campfire started me worrying about forest fires. Despite being seriously annoyed with myself, I couldn’t sleep until I had the van entirely packed up and ready to go, in case we needed to run away from fire in the middle of the night.

Sometimes I hate my brain.

On Saturday morning, though, I forced myself to walk Zelda down the road toward the mine. I wasn’t going to try to do anything challenging — no wandering into the forest or off on any trails — but I thought I’d walk along the road out to the main road and maybe along it for a while. I’d started to relax and enjoy the beautifully chilly morning when we rounded a curve in the road and a big brown thing lifted its head and looked at us.

Total jump.

A moose

Not a bear.

And then a relieved laugh.

I’ve always wondered what Zelda would do if faced with a bear and I think the moose gave me my answer: she would take her cue from me and back cautiously away. She definitely saw it and she was definitely interested, head tilted, ears up, but when she saw that I wasn’t going any closer, she followed me away from it without any protest.

I also saw a green hummingbird, a chipmunk, and a pretty little dark brown squirrel. No bears and no rattlesnakes, much to my relief.

I didn’t linger, though. By about 8:30, I was on the road, not exactly making up for lost time, but definitely making progress toward my goal. It was a long day of driving, through smoky hills in Montana, into and beyond Idaho. I stopped at a scenic overlook in Washington, admired the Columbia River, and enjoyed one of my favorite parts of #vanlife — I cooked and ate sockeye salmon with basil and garlic over brown rice, with a side salad of mixed greens, radishes and avocado, with balsamic vinegar. Road food is really different when your kitchen travels with you.

I then spent the night at a Flying J, and now I’m sitting in a Safeway parking lot, drinking my morning coffee, and getting ready to get on the road. A few more hours of driving and I’ll be saying hi to R!