Mining for Poppies at Rockhound State Park, New Mexico
Some people come to Rockhound State Park to spend a few cheap, quiet weeks or nights in the desert. Most come for the rockhounding, aka amateur geologying, searching in various levels of seriousness for semi-precious stones like opals, minerals like quartz and jasper, and geodes. Some are hobbyists, some are undoubtedly rock shop owners, and some are looking for their rocky lottery ticket. The ground is visibly scratched and scuffed, and large rocks have been chipped away at and left in rubble. Visitors can take home up to 15 pounds of rocks, per visit, but no one is weighing you on the way out. The scuffing and scratching doesn’t hurt the beauty of the place; it’s just a big pile of rocks. I’m not much for the rockhounding; I don’t have the patience for it. I’d love to find an opal or a gold nugget, but if I don’t find it within ten minutes, then it’s not being found by me!
For me, it was all about the poppies. The California poppies (aka Mexican Gold poppies) are in full bloom. They carpet the desert floor. When the wind ruffles a patch they shimmer like sequins, like golden aspen leaves in the fall. They all turn to face the sun. They’re so bright it almost hurts to look at them, like you’re looking into the sun itself. At night, they close up — they roll into tight little spirals. They don’t open during the day if the sun is absent. They’re as sun-dependent as my mood.
It blazed a soft yellow, a lambent light under a film of velvet, it filled the caverns behind the eyes with light. All that inner darkness became a hall, leaf smelling, earth smelling, of yellow light. Virginia Woolf: Between the Acts.
At first sight, all of the poppies look the same: a pure, bright yellow. But as you start looking closer, you see they are infinitely varied. Some are pure yellow, but some are pure orange, and in between a varying amount of orange radiates out from the center of the bloom. You may even find other variations, like an albino blossom.
It’s at times like this that I feel truly lucky. Desert flowers are so finicky, needing just the right amount of rain at the right time to bloom. Death Valley got so little rain at the right time that the keepers of the Desert Wildflower Report have sadly conceded that there will be no flowers this year. Poppies are a little hardier in their range, but this is the first and last large scale bloom I am likely to see this trip. I was finally in the right place at the right time to witness the fleeting results of a few well-timed rain showers.
Another unusual thing about Rockhound (in addition to its invitation to cart pieces of it away) is that it is home to a controversial herd of Persian ibexes that were gifted to the US from Iran in the 70s. These ibexes were placed in Spring Canyon at Rockhound because the climate and terrain were considered as similar to their Iranian origin as possible. We didn’t spot any while we were there — maybe because the local archery club had just spent two days using them for target practice…seriously. Gotta neutralize that Iranian threat.