Early on a beautiful chilly morning, Bruce Bahm, Heather Thompson, and their three grade-school age children set out east of Hardin for a rock picking adventure. Arriving at the destination bundled up against the elements, the family is armed with buckets, hammers, screwdrivers and an eagle eye focus on the hunt for agates.
Seven-year-old Delilah is concentrated on one thing, “You have to look for the shiny rocks.” Eleven-year-old Tristan shares that he looks out for something like “alligator skin” on the top of the rocks, which is actually the agates’ microscopic fibrous quartz crystals.
With their eyes to the ground, the family walks slowly through an old river bed. Bruce warns that the children are far better at rock hunting than any adult. He says, “They just develop a knack for it and know what to look for. They are sponges for absorbing the information needed to find the agates.” Sure enough, about 15 minutes into the hunt, one of the girls pounces on the first agate of the day. No bigger than a small egg, she holds it up to the sun to put the rock to the test. As the rays hit the slightly translucent stone, it glows beautifully, even in this raw unpolished form.
The next hour flies by as rocks are turned with the flick of a shoe or twist of a screwdriver. The children uncover a few more as a curious herd of horses noses its way closer, wondering what’s happening in their pasture (the family had permission to be there). It was a delightful experience full of wonder and discovery, worth every puff of cold air.
Bruce, Heather, Tristan, Delilah and Tegan, and their Saint Bernard puppy George recently moved northwest of Billings to the unincorporated area of Molt. Their house, which they lovingly call a “fixer-upper,” sits on ten beautiful, un-manicured acres. In an age where parents do everything possible to make sure their children have the latest technology, Bruce and Heather purchased this land specifically to be a kind of “non-technology playground” for their three active kids. The couple believes this lifestyle helps their kids excel at communicating and getting along with one another, in addition to fostering a love of nature. When asked how these three enjoy this massive playground, they all chime in, “We should have some use for it, like playing tag and finding rocks.” Little Tegan prompts laughter when he adds, “We can scream! But not near the front or back door.”
Bruce, a boiler turbine operator in Hardin, grew up in an “off the grid” fashion outside Lodge Grass, Montana. “I grew up out of town, with 30 miles of dirt roads between us and the highway, at 6,000 feet. It was tough, but it was just the way we lived.” His parents and many of his six brothers’ and sisters’ families still live a more “unconnected” lifestyle, unconnected to technology, rather than relationships.
As if fated, the couple’s extended families also have an interest in rocks. Heather, a professor of business at City College, chuckles when she says that sometimes they will send pictures of rocks they find to her rock hound father, “just to rub it in.” She says, “He had rock saws and polishing tools. He was into cutting them.” Bruce’s father will send him pictures of discoveries he has made so that Bruce can research it and tell him what it is. The last discovery just so happened to be a fossilized squid.
Agates are a semiprecious gemstone that vary in value depending on many things, like the striated color running through the stone, the size, the color, and the finish. None of that matters, however, to Delilah, a princess with a love of bling. “They are valuable if they are shiny,” she says. Bruce adds, “I remember standing in the courtyard to drop Tristan off for kindergarten and he had his chubby little fingers digging the sparkly rocks out of the asphalt. One of my most prized possessions is a bag of little rocks that he used to save and bring home to me from the school yard.” Their favorite rocks were found just after moving into their current home. The girls found two huge agates in their yard that Tegan says “are as big as my whole head.”
For the family, hunting agates has less to do with rocks and more to do with relationships. Bruce says that as they began to develop their interest, he asked his parents and their friends about this fading hobby. They would share stories and sometimes secrets on where to find agates. One couple they have befriended are in their 70s and 80s and are housebound, but they still share their secret agate hunting hot spots. To honor and include them, Bruce and the family will take pictures and video to later share. Bruce tears up as he says, “Part of their sanity is watching the footage back and being included.” He continues, “Listening to the generations before us is so important. They have knowledge you will never find on the Internet. We need to honor them and listen to them.”
There is a folk tale about poor travelers making soup in the town square using the most unlikely ingredient, rocks. As their soup cooks, they graciously invite villagers to share their meal, asking them to add their own ingredients from their homes to the “soup”. One by one, the villagers added meat, vegetables and seasonings. The result? A wonderful filling meal for all to share with some new friends. And, it all began with just rocks. (American adaption: Stone Soup by Marcia Brown 1947).
In so many delicious and wonderful ways, Bruce Bahm and Heather Thompson’s family hobby of hunting agates feels like a modern telling of that 16th century folk tale. This forgotten hobby, agate hunting, has created a hub, a campfire, for three generations of family and friends to gather around sharing memories, stories and experiences.
gatorgirlrocks.com is a site penned by a 15-year old Florida girl and rockhound.This website provides thousands of rockhounding resources for rock, mineral, gemstone and fossil collectors. To find her hotspots in Montana, just click on the state-by-state tab and then click on Montana. There, you’ll discover a long list of treasures that can be found in all corners of the state.