Encounters with the Anti-merchant
Owyhee picture jasper is a gemstone found at a few locations near the Owyhee River in southeastern Oregon and southwestern Idaho. It is regarded by some as the most beautiful of the picture jaspers, the colors and patterns evoking the land where it is found. I was fond of these stones as a boy, and during an autumn 2007 visit to the Owyhee region, I resolved to find a rock shop that sold them. I am too old to go looking for them in their outcrops.
An objective gradually took shape: four palm-sized stones with one face cut and polished, leaving the rest as found, angular and dull. The hidden would intensify the revealed. They were to be in honor of a long week four of us had spent together on the Strait of Belle Isle in Newfoundland that summer.
The odds of this objective being met seemed remote, but I asked several people when I was in Jordan Valley, the community closest to the Owyhee and its stones. No one knew of a nearby seller—“try Boise”—but I may have had a close call at the Rock House Espresso Shop.
“You just missed a rock hound who was in here. Don’t know how you could find him or where he’s from. I think he lives in his truck.”
I figured I would have to wait until I got to Portland, and finding anything there that matched my objective no doubt would be expensive.
But a few days later, while visiting another remote eastern Oregon town, I found what appeared to be the remains of a former rock shop. It looked like it had been closed for years. The homemade signs were faded, and the ambiance reeked of dilapidation. There was darkness behind the windows, and the “open” sign on the door looked like a bald-faced lie. But a car was parked out front, so I walked up the paved incline between its weedy cracks.
The door was unlocked.
Inside, an older couple looked at rocks lit only by the meager window light. He was a retired American English professor, and she was a German ornithologist; they perfectly fit the surreal surroundings. The interior of the shop was a wonderful jumble of bins, cabinets, cases, and shelves filled with categorized rocks and minerals of all sorts: petrified wood, agates, jaspers, amethysts, hematites, and rough thundereggs (geodes) with their dirt-dull exteriors and banded agate and crystalline interiors. It evoked a time of alchemists and apothecaries.
The shop’s owner, presumed to exist, was unseen and unheard. The English professor wandered off and soon said, “I’ve found a heated room,” which gave us hope.
We eventually located the owner outside in the back, fussing with rocks in a large bin. I judged him to be in his 50s, of moderate height, stocky, maybe muscular in his loose clothing, or perhaps the muscles had melted. He was neither bald nor haired but exactly in between, like a forest thinned throughout but nowhere clear-cut.
Abandoning the retail area for an extended period seemed to indicate faith in the ability of his merchandise to literally sell itself. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a past sales event, he found money sitting on his counter with a note describing what had been taken.
Returning with us to the retail area, he served the couple first. They bought two necklaces costing $8 apiece, each strung with about 30 small turquoise stones. That seemed quite reasonable.
When my turn came, I laid out my plan for the Owyhee picture jaspers. He looked dismayed, which at first was discouraging. But I eventually learned that any suggestion or proposal seemed to dismay him. That may be why we had to go looking for him.
“Let’s go see what I have outside,” he said and led me to the back, where there were several large bins. One contained a few dozen raw chunks of Owyhee picture jasper ranging in size from half a palm to a quart. We tumbled rocks in the bin until the four stones were found, their exteriors giving no hint of the promised beauty within.
He agreed to my request and said he would have them ready when I came through town the following week. Total cost, $15—$5 for the rock itself at $2.50 a pound, plus $10 for cutting and polishing. He weighed the stones on a galvanized scale that might have been a hundred years old.
When I returned the following week to fetch the jaspers, there was a younger couple in the shop; the lights were still out, and so was the owner. Astonishingly, the four finished stones were sitting in the open on the counter next to the cash register. I think he would have been delighted if I had just left some money and taken them. But this time, he showed up on his own after his dog started barking at us incessantly and rather menacingly. After dealing with the mineral needs of the couple, he looked at me questioningly, and I reminded him that I was the one for whom he had prepared the stones.
“I thought I’d seen you before.” Apparently, anyone could have claimed them. He remembered they weighed two pounds at a value of $2.50 a pound but forgot he had quoted $10 for cutting and polishing.
“Maybe $5?” he offered.
“Total?” I asked incredulously. “Are you sure that’s enough? You said $10 Saturday.”
“$10 then?” he countered.
“If you think that’s fair.”
It was the first time I (or maybe anyone) had ever knowingly bargained the price of something upwards. I asked if he knew where the stones came from, and he said north of Jordan Valley. When I mentioned I had just come from there, he volunteered that he had lived there for 12 years while working at a nearby Idaho mine called the Widow-maker because of the number of men it had killed. In spite of the danger, working in a deep hole in the ground seemed suitable for a man who appeared to be more comfortable around rocks than people.
I returned to the rock shop a year later with a friend who lives in Newfoundland and is one of the holders of the four Owyhee stones. It was late, about seven in the evening, when we got there, just as the owner was getting in his car to leave. He was in a friendly mood and opened the shop for us, even sticking around. We spent about an hour browsing, buying, and inquiring, learning much from him about the minerals of eastern Oregon.
He showed us his proudest collection, many large stones he had cut, polished, and displayed in an upright glass cabinet with several shelves. He had found a fanciful image in each stone and delighted in having us try to figure out what it was. For the majority, he had to describe the image for us, but that didn’t seem to lessen his enjoyment. In some stones, he had found complicated images suggesting 19th-century fairytale illustrations. In others, he had found cartoon characters that had been dashed off with a few strokes by the baker of ancient rocks. Noticeably missing were images of Jesus and Elvis.
Day was dimming, and he turned on the lights for the first time in my three visits. While standing next to him as he described the images in the cabinet, I noticed a couple of large dents near the top of his sparsely-haired head. One was an impact crater the diameter of a quarter and surrounded by a rounded ridge nearly the size of a small powdered donut. I didn’t ask him how he got it, but I can‘t imagine it was anything other than his head stopping a falling rock, probably in the Widow-maker.
About the Author
Richard LeBlond is a retired biologist living in North Carolina. His essays and photographs have appeared in many U.S. and international journals, including Montreal Review, Weber – The Contemporary West, Concis, Lowestoft Chronicle, Trampset, and Still Point Arts Quarterly. His essay collection, Homesick for Nowhere, won a 2022 EastOver Press prize for nonfiction, including publication in book form. His work has been nominated for “Best American Travel Writing” and “Best of the Net.”