Denio, Nevada

Digging in an Opal Mine

in Virgin Valley

October 3rd, 1998

   Map name   While staying in Winnemucca, Laura was perusing a copy of the Nevada Bonus Book she had picked up at the last visitor’s center. She found an article on digging for opals along the Nevada Oregon border in a small town called Denio. We decided to check it out. The next morning we traveled north out of Winnemucca, Nevada, for an hour until we reached the Oregon border, at the little town of Denio. We were looking for an opal mine, but found nothing. Denio is a point on the border. Three trailers and a bar. We went into the bar. It’s is an interesting feeling going into a local bar where there are no outsiders. The squeaky door opened and Laura stepped in. Every head in the bar, all 6 of them, simultaneously turned in rhythm toward her. All conversation stopped and suddenly the noise for the two slot machines seemed to be the only sound. After several seconds of expressionless staring , all heads turned back with the same simultaneous motion and as if on cue, low conversations started from both sides of the room.    opal-03   We walked to the far end of the bar and inquired about the Royal Peacock Opal Mine. Silence, then the bar maid said “Back about 3 miles take the road to the right. Hey Hank how far are the mines?” This evoked a multitude of comments and a discussion on distance commenced. The consensus was 30 miles. We bought an ice tea in appreciation and headed back to the cut-off. Some 30 minutes later, having avoided the loose cattle and a wild burro which crossed in front of us, we arrived at a small sign, next to a gravel road declaring the that the Royal Peacock Opal Mine was ten miles down that dusty trail.    opal-04   After about 8 miles of wash board driving we stopped to consult the map. As we suspected our mapping program indicated that we were in the middle of a desert where there were no official roads. On we traveled, finally arriving at a single house with outbuildings painted a soft yellow. The lady was quite nice, took our $20, and handing Laura a rake she had us follow her even deeper into the hills until we came to a strip mining operation. Laura went right at it and for the next 4 hour hours raked, kicked, picked,    opal-02   and examined clumps of clay and pieces of petrified wood until with a gleeful shout she held up the first of three pieces she would find, each containing the elusive opal. While she was digging, I read the small information sheet that came with the fee.  It seems that nearly 14 million years ago the area which is now known as the Virgin   opal-01   Valley, in the northwest corner of the Humboldt mountain country, was covered by lakes and forest. Today what we see are simply bare hills. The entire area was several thousand feet lower and more like the coastal mountains ranges of today. However the earth was not quiet. Volcanoes periodically erupted, blasting the forests apart and burying them under hundreds of feet of ash. This cycle was repeated many times over the next million years. Magma later pushed to the surface and repeatedly flowed over the region. When the Earth quit shaking, the layers of ash and blasted trees were buried more then 1500 feet deep. Under millions of tons of rock and ash, one of the miracles of nature was taking place, transforming common silica into Fire Opal. The pieces of the burned forest were disintegrating and the ash surrounding them was compressed into clay. From deep underground, super-heated water flowed upward through the cracks and faults in the silica rich ash layers.    opal-05   Current thought on how opals are created is that as the super-heated water moved through the ash layers, it dissolved some of the silica from the ash. When the water encountered a cavity left by the disintegrated wood, the water slowed, allowing some of the dissolved silica to be deposited. Over the centuries, this process was repeated again and again, forming opals in the cavities left by the decaying wood. It was in these pockets along with petrified wood that Laura found her price. It was quite an interesting adventure. Just one day in the lives of a couple of adventurers.

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