Notes from the forgotten South
America’s only active diamond mine is in Crater of Diamonds State Park, a mile south of Murfreesboro, Arkansas. Anyone can pay $7 at the visitor center, spend a day digging through the mud, and keep whatever diamonds they find. And the mine has yielded some spectacular gemstones, including the 40-carat “Uncle Sam” diamond found in 1924, the largest diamond ever discovered in the United States; the “Amarillo Starlight,” a 16-carat white diamond found by a Texas man in 1975; and the “Kahn Canary,” a stunning 4.25-carat yellow diamond worn by Hillary Clinton to both inaugural balls.
Driving through thick green woods near the park’s entrance, you would never guess that hidden belowground were diamonds. Most of earth’s diamonds were formed under considerable heat and pressure ninety miles deep and more than a billion years ago, and brought to the surface in violent volcanic eruptions that ripped out chunks of the inner earth. About 100 million years ago, one such eruption occurred on the southern front of the Ouachita Mountains, forming a 600-foot-wide crater speckled with diamonds.
In 1905, a pig farmer named John Wesley Huddleston bought a 243-acre piece of land just outside Murfreesboro. “I was crawling on my hands and knees,” explained Huddleston, “when my eyes fell on another glittering pebble . . . I knew it was different from any I had ever seen before. It had a fiery eye that blazed up at me every way I turned it.” A group of Little Rock businessmen formed the Arkansas Diamond Company and bought Huddleston’s farm for $36,000. George Kunz, vice president of Tiffany & Company, traveled to Arkansas from New York City to inspect the find, which some people in the diamond industry suspected was fraudulent. “Our careful examination,” Kunz wrote, “leaves no doubt that the diamond is actually in place in the rock and was not inserted in the specimen.”
In just clearing the ground to erect a small washing plant, 200 diamonds were found. Prospectors flocked to Murfreesboro. The Arkansas Diamond Company ringed their claim with armed guards, but part of the crater lay under the land of a neighbor named Millard Mauney, who set up his own operation. For fifty cents a day prospectors could mine Mauney’s land and keep what they found. At the time, Murfreesboro’s only hotel was a ten-room structure made of logs with no electricity or indoor plumbing. But a ten-thousand-person tent city sprouted between town and the mine. One prospector discovered a 13-carat diamond. Mauney himself recovered hundreds of diamonds. His son Walter had a local dentist embed a diamond in one of his teeth.
I arrive in Murfreesboro late at night during a summer storm and stay in a small orange room at the Shamrock Motel. As thunder crackles outside my window, I read up on recent events at the mine, which despite early interest from DeBeers and Henry Ford was never commercially successful. In 1972, it became a state park. Though the days of ten-thousand-person tent cities are long gone, committed prospectors still come to Arkansas from across the country to hunt for diamonds. “I was working construction in Kansas,” one prospector told a reporter in 2012. “I quit my job, lived in a tent for seven weeks and found ten diamonds.”
In the morning I ask the proprietor of the Shamrock where prospectors are staying these days. “A few hundred yards past the entrance to the state park, you’ll find a campground on your right.” After a quick breakfast at Campbell’s Family Restaurant, I pull off the road and park under a stand of pine trees. The campground consists of a gem shop, some tiny cabins, a few tent sites, and a number of weathered RVs, parked snug between the pines. An RV in back has windows covered with tinfoil. Inside is a man named Thomas, from Shreveport, Louisiana.
“I first found a 27-point white diamond and eventually sold it for $400. I kept coming for two or three years, just on vacations. I was working in IT and got laid off so I moved here to hunt diamonds. Me and one other guy went just about every day, digging holes with a big shovel. The guy at the gem shop in town will pay you four dollars a point, and a carat is 100 points, so that’s $400 for a carat. But that’s a bad deal; you don’t take it unless you need the money. I’d like to go look for gold one day, probably in Arizona, just because I’d like to see the country. Claud would know more about that; he goes every year to Arizona to look for gold.”
Connie has pink sandals and a shirt that says california. She is seated at a gazebo in the middle of the campground, typing on a netbook. Recently, Connie started blogging. For now she just writes about the idea of blogging, but she eventually wants to write about women’s advocacy issues. She has lived at the campground for two years with her husband; a Pomeranian; and an old beagle named Henry.
“In the two years I’ve been here, it has gone from the guys finding diamonds almost every other day, to them going weeks and months without finding anything,” she says. “A reality TV crew came here not long ago to make a show about the miners. They tried to pit the two sides of the campground against each other. You know Beth? Well, they said that one of the men from here sexually assaulted her, but that just didn’t happen. People think we’re a bunch of stupid hillbillies, but that’s not the case. I choose to live here, because it’s cheaper; I can get up and go anytime. I want to be living this way—you actually get to see the country. Most people don’t ever see it. I respect what you’re doing, just going up to people you’ve never met before and talking. I wish you the best of luck, Justin. Hey, can I friend you on Facebook?”
Michael is lean and has callouses and scabs all up and down his arms. During the 1990s, he mined for gold in the Sierra Nevada. Now he’s on a road trip across the United States, hitting all the gem spots. He was supposed to go with his fiancée, Rainey, but she dropped out at the last moment. Michael bought an RV for the trip, but it broke down and the repairs are expensive. So for the past two days he has been sleeping in his car, which he got at the pawnshop where he left the RV. We talk at a picnic table in the campground.
“After the Sierras I moved back to Wisconsin and went to school to be a heavy equipment operator. I did that for ten years, then my mother got cancer and dementia, and my younger brother Bobby started doing crack. We couldn’t find him one weekend. I ended up finding him in his car, dead. The doors were locked and the crack pipe was beside him. His body had hardened into a circle shape; I had to push him flat to get him out. My second brother had an excellent job, and a girlfriend. He was twenty-five years old. He took a shotgun and blew the side of his head off. After that, I couldn’t leave my mother alone for more than a couple hours at a time. Our lives became a little bubble. I lost my girlfriend, all my friends, blah blah blah. And then she passed last October 23rd, and the bubble burst. And so I reconnected with my first love, Rainey.”
A poodle runs over to us and immediately goes under the picnic table and begins licking Michael’s feet.
“Hi Rocky,” Michael says and reaches down to pet the dog. After a few moments it runs back to its owner.
“We were talking about taking Route 66,” continues Michael. “We Googled all the different mines. I bought the RV. Rainey’s ex was supposed to take her son for the summer but when he found out what we were planning he refused and she couldn’t go. So I went alone. First to Florida. I did the looking for shells and gold coins with a metal detector thing. That didn’t pan out at all, that’s a whole different pot of people. Then I went to Franklin, North Carolina, Gem City USA, and got sapphires and rubies and emeralds. After this I’m going to Idaho, for the opal. Then I’m going to Nevada, then I’m going to Arizona, and then I’m going back to California, and then I’m going up to Alaska, and then I’m going to Canada. And that’s where I’m going to stay the rest of my life, if I last that long. What they say—and I don’t know if it’s true or not—all of the gold that has been taken is only ten percent of what’s left out there. You just got to know where to look.”
Michael lights a Newport and motions to his arms. “I have psoriasis, because the water has so much ore in it. If you have sensitive skin like I do, you pay a price. And the back problems. And the hands—I think I’m beginning to get arthritis. And my left pinky is dead; I got attacked by a terrier. But you know, the thing is, I just had a complete physical and everything is fine. I just keep going. If it wasn’t for the Percosets I don’t know what I’d do. Each morning, I have a cup of coffee and then two Percosets. Actually, first two Percosets, then the cup of coffee. Then two cigarettes.”
He suggests we smoke some weed at a pond behind the campground, where he scattered the ashes of his mother and one of his brothers. We walk through the woods on a path lined by giant white mushrooms, the edges nibbled by some animal. The rectangular pond is crowned by pine trees, and the water is orange and rippleless—it looks sickly, but dragonflies bomb about the surface and frogs buzz loudly. There’s a dock and adjacent to it a small hut with a broken camp chair that Michael motions for me to take. He sits on a step and puts down his items: a half-eaten gas station Danish, and a pill case containing the weed and a small pipe painted in earthy Indian colors.
“Watch this,” Michael says, and begins crumbling the Danish into tiny pieces for the fish. “There are two societies, one on either side of the pier.” He chucks bits to each side. The fish—little goldfish—come quickly.
“I bless dead animals on the side of the road. I used to say this whole thing, but now I just say, Bless your body, I’m St. Michael the animal lover. May your soul be reborn into a new and happy place.”
The sun is sinking, and I can see the shadow of trees lengthening across the pond. Michael takes one last hit on his pipe then lights a cigarette.
“Life is amazing,” he says, “but then it hurts a lot. Yin and yang.”
At last I find Claud, who’s sitting with Thomas in camp chairs under the pines, a pair of dogs and a gray cat curled at their feet. He scoffs when I ask him about mining. “There’re diamonds out there, but it’s not worth it for me. Too many rules, too many regulations, too many people I can’t stand.” Claud would rather talk about hang gliding.
“I always wanted to fly. I used to stand around airports and bum rides on anything I could. I joined the Navy and thought I’d be a test pilot. That didn’t work out. Then I found hang gliding, and that was the perfect thing for me. I been in stuff going up better than 2,000 feet a minute, and I been in stuff going down at 2,000 feet a minute. There are days when you get out there and hang right through it, smooth as silk, and other days when each time you turn the wind tries to rip the bar out of your hand. What we call rodeo air, like riding a bronco. But now I’m seventy-three and I can’t do what I used to do.”
“Where do you go to hang glide?” I ask.
“You got Magazine Mountain, that’s the highest point in Arkansas, and Mount Nebo, that’s also in Arkansas. Then there’s Buffalo Mountain, in Talihina, Oklahoma. Bruce Mahoney flew from there to Berryville, Arkansas, back in 1985: 141 miles. No one has beat it yet.”
“What do you do?” asks Thomas. “Have someone come get you?”
“Or hitchhike,” says Claud. “That’s why I don’t do those long flights. I don’t like hitchhiking.”
I pay my $7 entrance fee at the Crater of Diamonds State Park visitor center. Beyond is a swimming pool, a restaurant, and the Diamond Discovery Center, where you can buy or rent mining tools such as buckets, shovels, spades, and screens. It all reminds me of a ski resort. “Have you seen any regulars today?” I ask a ranger demonstrating how to use a mining screen to a father and his daughter, who wears rubber boots and a white sun hat. “Not today,” he replies.
After buying a spade for $2, I enter the mine, a huge sloping field of plowed mud. Several dozen tourists are pecking about with shovels and buckets. The mud is soft and goopy and sticks to everything. I walk along a ditch, looking for shiny stones. Soon I’m at the bottom of the mine, staring into the woods. The sound of bird chirping is immense. I begin noticing insects: beetles, a wispy brown spider, a dragonfly, small black ants. Imagining the ants will lead me to diamonds, I crawl with them across the mud. Indeed, six gather around a shimmery stone. But it is nothing more than a worthless fleck of jasper.
Back at the camp, standing with Michael beside his car, we say heartfelt goodbyes and wish each other good luck.
“This is miner’s code,” he says. “I am going to give this to you, and then the power of the universe is going to take it and bring it back to me.”
He lays a shiny gemstone in my hand, and I realize that the thrill of prospecting is not so much in finding the gemstones themselves, but in the illusion that you know the earth better than other people—that you have the ability to capture something ancient, something infernal and eternal that has been forged in the obscure molten muscle of the planet, “a fiery eye” that has plumed through mantle and crust to find its way to your own searching self.