On a recent sunny morning, I'm driving forest roads looking for a "moonscape," because that's how one Forest Service staffer had described to me the pocked forest floor left behind by crystal diggers. The diggers scour these woods near Lolo Pass hunting for quartz crystals—geologic Easter eggs formed underground by slow, tectonic happenstance. On the slope along the road, I see dozens of holes dug beneath tree roots and under granite boulders. I walk to a stream bed and find mounds of sandy sediment next to flooded pits, surrounded on the banks by more tree roots hanging bare.
I keep driving, specks of quartz crystal in the road gleaming in the sun. As I round a corner, I see a man ahead, the first person all morning. A shovel and pickax bound together with a bungee cord rest on his shoulder; he's about to go digging. He's wearing rubber boots, a camouflage T-shirt over his stocky frame, a pistol on his hip and a weathered leather fedora over his shaved head. He has wide eyes and a gray goatee. He's Patrick Cunningham, from Stevensville, he says with a southern drawl.
At first Cunningham, who is 47, seems wary of me, but when he hears that this is my first crystal-hunting expedition, he invites me to follow him. Down we go into a gulch, navigating thick deadfall, across a burned snag spanning a rushing stream and then up to a wall of exposed earth. The steep surface has naturally sloughed off, leaving what Cunningham calls his "honey hole."
Cunningham hasn't stopped talking—about how he spent seven months camping and digging last year; about how diggers around here use crystals as currency, trading them for staples like coffee, eggs and gasoline; about unearthing two 10-pounders; about the resident grizzly bear (hence the pistol); about all the folks from Oregon, Washington, California and Nevada who come here to dig; about how he used to be a wild boar and black bear hunting guide in North Carolina; and about how he spent the last several months working for an oil company in eastern Montana, earning at least a couple of thousand dollars a week, all the while craving to be here, back in the mountains, at his camp, and spending his days in the dirt. He's never been married, has no kids, no dependents, he boasts. He hunts in the fall, digs in the summer and works in between.
At the foot of the slide, Cunningham unfurls dirty gray coveralls and dons them over his clothes. He pulls on gloves. He grabs his pickax and hands me and the photographer I'm with hand tools out of his backpack. "Start lookin'," he says. We scramble up the dirt.
Within 30 seconds, Chad, the photographer, finds a crystal. "Good for you," Cunningham hollers. "I did too!" He walks over to inspect Chad's small, opaque crystal.
"Let's see what you got there, buddy. Oh yeah, oh yeah. Good job. That's a pretty good one. Look at that. Just like that. And we ain't even started diggin'. Right on, dude. Right on." He and Chad high-five. "All right."
His face already shining with sweat, Cunningham crouches beneath the overhang at the top of the slide and gouges into the earth with his pickax. "Where there's little ones, there's big ones," he says. "You just gotta be persistent and keep digging."
He's full of such nuggets of crystal-digging wisdom:
"It's like gold—where there's some, there's usually some more."
"Some of them come easy, some come hard."
If you find a small crystal, "there's a daddy and a mommy close by."
"It's intuition, luck and being in the right place."
He says he's found crystals "staggering down the road drunk. I've found them in between my feet in the creek. I've found them driving down the road and found 'em diggin' eight-foot holes."
There's money in this. Cunningham says he could sell a 10-pounder for a couple of thousand dollars. But he says that's not his motivation; he's traded or given away more crystals than he's sold to collectors. He's here more because finding a big crystal, he says, "makes you laugh and all giddy and happy. ... I'm a grown kid playing in a giant sandbox, and if you make a little money at it, that's cool. ... And it's good exercise. I'll lose 30 or 40 pounds out here this summer."