Out stealing rocks from special places

  • Brendan Leonard

 

A few months ago, I was making my way up Notchtop, a spire of rock in Rocky Mountain National Park. Just below the summit, I squatted over a thumb-sized piece of black and white rock and picked it up. I took a quick glance around to see if anyone was watching -- besides my climbing partner, I'd only seen three other people all day -- and slipped the rock in my jacket pocket, zipping it closed.

Sometimes when I do this, I feel like a kid pilfering a pack of baseball cards from the drugstore.

I became a hiker and a climber long after "Leave No Trace" became a household phrase. I pick up any trash I see on the trail, rarely light campfires, bury solid waste, pee on rocks when I'm at high altitudes, walk through puddles instead of around them, and I don't touch wildflowers. But I have one habit that I readily admit is pure outdoor sacrilege.

I steal rocks.

I take them from everywhere. I've picked up pocket-sized stones from every backcountry area I've visited: Black rocks from a waterfall on Crow Pass in Alaska, multicolored stones from slot canyons in Utah's San Rafael Swell, broken sandstone in polka-dot red-and-white colors from the Red Rock Canyon outside Las Vegas, Nev., the lightest rock I could find at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and more rocks than I care to admit from the Rocky Mountains in my home state of Colorado.

I grew up in Iowa, where rocks aren't something you appreciate that much. I had a couple of summer jobs picking them out of cornfields so they wouldn't destroy a combine come harvest time.

I moved West in my early 20s to reinvent myself, like a lot of other folks did, and my adventures in the peaks and desert canyons out here made me want to save it all. I've come to appreciate and value our gift of public lands, and I understand why access to them should be preserved. But I can't help myself when it comes to rocks: Whenever I'm on a trail or a mountaintop, when no one's looking, I slyly slip small samples into my pack -- a backcountry abomination, a direct violation of the "take only photographs, leave only footprints" ethos that keeps our great places great.

I have an excuse, though: The rocks aren't really for me. They're for my niece, my brother's kid, who's growing up in Wisconsin, a place a little more scenic than my native Iowa. I'm hoping she'll grow up realizing that all of this glorious public landscape is out here in the West. And that's what the rock collection is for.

The idea is that she'll come out here someday and return the rocks to their places of origin -- maybe with me, maybe without. She's got her work cut out for her: She's not yet 2 years old and already there are dozens of rocks spanning seven states, each in its own Ziploc bag, labeled "Garnet Canyon, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming," or something like that. After enough stones pile up in my living room, I mail them to Wisconsin, care of her mom and dad. I hope she gets a chance to see a few of the places I've been, and have the opportunity to feel small on the surface of the planet, something I do as often as I can.

A lot can happen in 15 years, though. My last visit to Canyonlands, driving down Highway 191, I thought I noticed a new gas well on the eastern horizon. Sales of oil and gas leases threaten the now-pristine views from Arches National Park. On late-night drives from Denver to Moab, I take note of all the lights from natural gas wells dotting the hills on either side of Interstate 70, from Rifle to Parachute.

In the past couple years, I've become a sensible environmentalist; I bike to work and everywhere within three miles of my home. I don't eat meat, I recycle everything, I drink out of a reusable coffee mug. But I also understand that I can't have hot showers and lights that turn on with the flip of a switch, and still save every parcel of non-urban land in the West for my recreational enjoyment. Some of my favorite landscapes contain the very elements and minerals that make my home life comfortable.

But I wonder if there will be a mine tailings pond at the base of Washer Woman Arch when I come back with my niece. Will the dark skies over Goblin Valley be dotted with the lights from gas wells? If so, will a couple of missing rocks matter?

Brendan Leonard is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a climber, cyclist and writer living in Denver, Colorado.

Andy Wiessner
Andy Wiessner Subscriber
Oct 10, 2011 10:07 AM
I am the same and I'm sure we are not alone. In particular, I collect HEART rocks. To me, they symbolize love and nature - the two finest things in life!
Andy Wiessner
Andy Wiessner Subscriber
Oct 10, 2011 10:11 AM
Just for the record, it is Andy's wife Patsy that is the klepto and the heart rock collector!
Duane Poslusny
Duane Poslusny Subscriber
Oct 11, 2011 06:45 PM
Watch out, taking a rock or any natural feature (plant, pine cone, flower, animal, fungus, etc) from a National Park is a misdemeanor. The general reason behind the law is if everyone took a rock, flower, pine cone, etc there would be none left for the rest of us.

Some parks enforce the rule more than others. For example, Petrified Forest NP severally fines anyone who steals petrified wood. Collecting pot shards and other archaeological and historical items are illegal to take under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act with severe penalties. Forest Service and BLM are more lenient, but you can't sell products collected on these public lands without a permit. Best thing to do is ask the local management agency before collecting anything from public lands.

Sorry for being a downer, but you just admitted to committing multiple misdemeanors in a public forum. The Park Ranger in me just couldn't let it go.
Joan Bartz
Joan Bartz Subscriber
Oct 12, 2011 10:39 AM
I understand that you have the best of intentions - to inspire your niece. However, i will pass along a comment that was made by my geology professor when I was attending field camp YEARS ago. We were at Sunset Crater. He cautioned us that, if everyone picked up just a small piece of the reddish rock, soon there would be no "sunset" color on Sunset Crater. I know you think what you are doing has a negligible effect, but if everyone did the same, eventually the very geological features that we enjoy will be destroyed.
Karl Banks
Karl Banks
Oct 12, 2011 05:28 PM
From a spiritual point of view: I once wanted to take a rock from a volcano in Hawaii. My native girlfriend would not let me. She told me that Pele, the goddess of the volcano, would not be happy if I were to take one of her lava rocks. She told me that if I took it, I would be cursed with all flavors of bad luck and that it would not cease until I were to return the rock to the very spot I took it from. I left the rock alone.
Magda Sokolowski
Magda Sokolowski
Oct 21, 2011 05:54 PM
I can really appreciate your honesty here and the intentions behind that honesty. I, too, hold the same environmental ideals/values that you do, and I, too, am guilty of the occasional rock-in-the-pocket thievery that you speak of. Two things have made me reconsider my tendency (and all-together stop it): a) I observed an innocent tourist family get ticketed (and fined) coming off of the Speciman Ridge trail in Yellowstone one summer for filling a small backpack with "specimens" (hence, Specimen Ridge) so that their son could present them as part of his "show and tell" project upon return to school following his family vacation--an example of the misdemeanor Duane speaks of above; b) the second thing forcing me to reconsider my seemingly innocuous/innocent rock-taking tendency is this: would the rock be happier on a mantel or trinket shelf somewhere in Wisconsin (or worse, in a closet, basement or garage) OR in the midst of the geological grandeur in which it was formed (somewhere out West)? And if you don't think rocks have feelings, think again. :)
Yar Sheets
Yar Sheets
Dec 10, 2011 12:15 PM
My first stolen rock was a two-inch long piece of slate which I slipped from it's niche in a castle wall in Ireland. I was nervous going through customs several days later, but I got away with it and presented it to my wife on my return home. She was thrilled. Ever since then we have embarked together on expanding our collection. Vishnu shist from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Lava rocks fresh from an eruption in Hawaii. Lava rocks worn into near perfect spheres from Hanakapiai valley on Kauai. Slate from Glacier National Park. I joke that I would have liked to bring home one of the stones from Stonehenge. We respect nature as you do. And this short list of pilfered stones has taken fifteen years to collect. We never plan it. The opportunity presents itself and we acquire our booty with a sense of reverence. I know that sounds like rationalization, and perhaps it is. But our rocks are special to us and neither of us has any regrets. We are visiting Scotland next year. Hmmm?
gin Miller
gin Miller Subscriber
Dec 13, 2011 01:55 PM
In 1971 we visited the obsidian cliffs in NW Yellowstone park, beautiful 3 or 4 story tall huge cliff of Obsidian reflecting in the afternoon sunlight. In 1994 I wanted to share this beautiful cliff with a friend who had never been to Yellowstone park. I could not believe it was GONE - carried away piece by piece by tourist - the beautiful gleaming Obsidian chipped & chiseled away. Only a photograph remained of what was once there. To those of use who love to take our little rock memories home - this is my true story.
Ray Reser
Ray Reser
Dec 14, 2011 10:01 AM
Dear all; I
take some small offense at Brendan Leonard's misinformed comments: " I have an excuse, though: The rocks aren't really for me. They're for my niece, my brother's kid, who's growing up in Wisconsin, a place a little more scenic than my native Iowa. I'm hoping she'll grow up realizing that all of this glorious public landscape is out here in the West. And that's what the rock collection is for”
I have worked and traveled across the west as well as numerous remote areas within the remainder of North America and Australia. Wisconsin is not a place either lacking in scenic beauty nor is it a place bereft of significant and interesting geology. It is one of the premier post-glacial landscapes on the planet… and this includes massive numbers of glacially transported rock specimens. I have shown my own kids and plenty of interested students thousands of rocks, in amazing settings… in Wisconsin. If you want to steal rocks, do it, just don’t defend your actions based on a misunderstanding of Midwest geomorphology and geology. The west is more than a playground for those recently and sadly for many, shallowly acquainted with its amazing landscapes. I understand the need and desire to share experiences in that region with others. Please do it for the right reasons and with equal respect for all the amazing places across the continent.
Dr. Ray Reser
Director, UWSP Museum of Natural History