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Creek Running North

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November 13, 2005


Pyrite In the Colorado Rockies veins of quartz hold glittering metal. Some of it has value. Some is left on tailings piles to weather. Streams of boiling iron and sulfur pushed their way through the rock, reacting. Yellow, roughly cubic crystals formed as the torrent cooled.

A chunk of glittering rock found its way to a gift shop. A couple in their fifties, visiting the woman's sister in Denver, bought a few keepsakes for their grandchildren. Back east, the man handed the rock to his grandson on his fourth birthday.


The man chuckled. "It's not gold. It's fool's gold. They call it that because it fooled prospectors who were looking for gold. Its scientific name is iron pyrite."

The next gift, also from Colorado, was a delicate plaster sculpture of a grizzly, lifelike and in a walking pose, with a thin layer of brown felt fiber sprayed onto the plaster. There was also the usual assortment of clothing, books, and toys, all welcomed and used and destroyed and, ultimately, forgotten. Even at four, the boy regarded the ore and the sculpture differently from the other gifts. They went onto a shelf in his room. He spent hours gazing at them, wondering over the existence of opaque and exotic places like Colorado.

Three years later the boy's grandfather was dead. His sister broke a leg off the bear a year or two after that. He held onto it for a few months, until a layer of plaster dust covered the headboard of his bed. Into the trash it went.

The hunk of iron pyrite stayed on his shelf, though the shelf itself moved from house to house.

At 22 he hitchhiked west. His twenty-dollar frame backpack held a few clothes, a book by Bradford Angier, a buck knife, a flannel sleeping bag, and the iron pyrite.

Heat a chunk of pyrite until the sulfur volatilizes, and the iron becomes magnetic. He felt an odd pull in him watching the Front Ranges coalesce above the Plains. He walked into the canyon of Boulder Creek one morning, climbed a hill a mile off the road and sat atop it on a fallen pine. The pyrite was heavy in his pocket. He pulled it out, watched it glint once more in the Colorado sun. A rattlesnake moved out from beneath the log, flicked tongue, fell amiably asleep in the sun.

It was a hard decision, but he put the rock back in his pack. On the way back into town he watched rounded stones rolling down the creek toward Boulder.

Posted by Chris Clarke at November 13, 2005 10:13 AM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Tracked: November 14, 2005 11:03 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs


chris, this is beautiful on so many levels.

reading your story, i had to go look again at some of our own long-held treasures, including a perfect conch shell that was my grandmother's pride for probably 50 years; a giant pine-cone, gift from a roommate of 30 years ago; rocks and shells of many types that my kids found, or people gave them.... i'm pretty sure there is some pyrite in my son's room, too -- a gift from about age 4.

Posted by: kathy a at November 13, 2005 12:45 PM
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Umm, nearing completion of a geology survey class, living in a region where all the rocks are buried under tens of feets of clay, I'm either thanking you, Chris, or I'm envious and agitated. Perhaps I should drive up to the Appalachians, but no, not with fresh petrol being $3 per gallon. Rocks are cool . . . count your blessings, western peeps!

Posted by: Jamie at November 13, 2005 01:54 PM
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I still wanna hunt for pyritized fossils in Alden some time.

Posted by: craig at November 13, 2005 04:09 PM
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I still have the first fossils I found in the creek where I grew up. I had heard neighbor kids talk of finding fossils in the rock that had been concentrated in the stream bed. The source was ultimately the Appalachians, so the fossils were all Paleozoic. One afternoon I spied a sandstone cobble in the creek bed with crescent-shaped slits and broke it open with a hammer and chisel along the plane of original horizontality as defined by the shell traces on the outer surface. Inside were the well-preserved internal molds of three brachipods, nicely colored with orange-brown from oxidized iron. I make the age as Devonian. I have the rock set in an equitorial mount on my desk. The fossils evoke a lost nearshore environment of the Iapetus Ocean during the prior opening of the Atlantic Ocean in the Wilson Cycle. The smallest of the molds is completely exposed and makes a nice cast with molding material.

Posted by: biosparite at November 13, 2005 07:06 PM
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My little boy likes to collect the rocks he the parking lot. He's not interested in the rocks you can buy (e.g., rose quartz, hematite, agate)—yet. I'm gonna keep working on him, though.

Posted by: Orange at November 14, 2005 08:23 AM
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that "fools gold" lured a lot of us to the west. i liked this very much, chris.

Posted by: Anne at November 14, 2005 09:41 AM
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As a child, I too was fascinated by rocks - as I remain. My earliest childhood memory is of rocks on the river bar of the Middle Fork Eel in the hinterlands of the Mendocino National Forest. I still retain numerous rocks accumulated during family cross-country trips in the 60's, including jade from Wyoming, fern fossils from the Appalachian stream behind my grandfather's house, and I'm sure, some iron pyrite. But it's those rounded Franciscan river cobbles, and the riparian environs where they were situated, that I think made the strongest impression, and perhaps, are why today professionally I find myself to be a geomorphologist/hydrologist for a land management agency, and personally, I still can find no more centering and invigorating place to be than near a stream flowing over a rocky bed, with lots of cool rocks to investigate on the banks, and also perhaps, why I was initially attracted to and became a regular reader of a blog called "Creek Running North". Thanks for the memories, both yours and mine.

Posted by: Fred Levitan at November 14, 2005 10:46 AM
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Makes me miss my grandpa.

Posted by: Jodie at November 14, 2005 12:34 PM
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