Like A Scene From An Old Western

Tom Poland

Posted 10/16/23

By Tom Poland
A Southern Writer

Graves Mountain gives modern-day prospectors a setting right out of the Old West. (Photo by Tom Poland)

It was 1985 when I spent three days in Reno. I didn’t shoot a man just to watch him die, Johnny, but I conjured up images of Old West gunslingers. And when I drove from Reno to Lake Tahoe I saw landscapes that brought more Old West images to me—rocky terrain, Carson City road signs, and the setting where Bonanza was filmed.

Lodge pole pines and boulders? I saw those aplenty but the image that stuck with me rose from my mind—prospectors in the Old West. Memories of Westerns came to me and I envisioned bearded fellows wearing worn hats, suspenders, holding something in their hands always, a bag, a pick, or a pan for capturing gold from a stream. Seems they led a donkey around, not a horse, and these crotchety old codgers didn’t hesitate to speak their mind. Seems, too, they were generally in need of some hard liquor. They looked as poor as church mice.

What happened to prospectors? Did they die off?

No, a new breed of prospector is with us, and a ritual of mine is to go to a place much like the Old West and watch them work. Back where I come from, a “gold rush” of sorts takes place twice a year. Gemstone collectors from all across the world know about Graves Mountain. Ask any rock hound where Georgia’s most famous collecting site is. Your answer will be Lincoln County. And so, each April and October, Lincoln County, Georgia’s Graves Mountain becomes a boomtown. It doesn’t have a memorable name like Deadwood, Dodge City, or Tombstone, so I’ll give it one—Rutile City.

A deep red crystal, rutile seems to be what many of these modern day prospectors seek. They come from all over the country to find it. They carry picks. They tow small wagons. They catch rides in golf carts to their preferred place of prospecting. Some amble up the slopes beneath burdensome backpacks. They find a spot to prospect and add their noise to what you might consider another kind of rock music.

They come dressed to work and they work hard. Up on the mountain the peal of metal against stone sounds in all directions. Wherever I go, I see chips of rocks and fractured stones. Here and there you see stones someone placed on a large rock and forgot. And you’d be shocked at how many gorgeous colors you see in the rocks. People pick them up and put them in bags, destination home.

Meanwhile the ringing of picks goes on and on for three days twice a year. Driven by the desire to find a gem and to make a little money, prospectors rush to Graves Mountain. And well they should. I saw a Lincoln County specimen of rutile online listed at $960.

My home county mountain first came to fame as a place with a Lover’s Leap, later as a source of kyanite useful for its heat-resistant capabilities in ceramics and the space program. Tiffany once owned the mountain. Today Graves Mountain quietly overlooks the region embracing her original rocks deposited some 300 million years ago that continental collisions changed into new minerals.

Now, all these years later people cart them off for six days out of 365 and a mining town of sorts booms atop Graves Mountains. People sell fossils, gemstones, arrowheads, geodes, and all manner of beauty Mother Earth hides in her recesses. You can buy things, swap things, and prospect away for new discoveries. You won’t see any donkeys; you’ll see golf carts instead. It’s not the Old West but Rutile City comes pretty close to it as modern times go, and you don’t have to travel out West to see it.

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