Phil Hugo: Of rocks, cairns and memories far and near

By Phil Hugo - Guest Columnist

“You have to be dumber than a box of rocks to mail rocks to yourself!” I looked up from the task at hand in the post office in Logan, Utah, surveying other customers. There were smiles and a chuckle or two. To my relief, no one echoed my self-deprecating humor. At least not audibly.

I secured the boxes, paid the tab and hoped the 70-plus pounds of Utah geological specimens would arrive in one piece at our home in Lima.

When I walk around our yard, pieces of red sandstone and other rocks from those boxes take me back to the trip my wife, Karen, and I took to Arches and Canyonlands national parks near Moab, Utah. Memories.

I should add that the rocks were not collected in those parks where all things, living or not, are protected. Yes, I have since mailed other rocks from Utah.

During a trip to Washington state a few years ago, I eschewed paying the U.S. Postal Service to transport rocks, opting to check the box at the airport in Seattle with my baggage at no cost. When we arrived at Detroit Metro, I had to claim the box at a holding room. A note on the box indicated security opened the box to examine the contents, as they could not tell what was in the box based on images from the screening device.

My interest in rocks came from my late father, Al. He found his first arrowhead, an artifact crafted from stone, when he was 7 years old. That discovery would grow into a lifelong interest in all things geological.

Dad started taking me and my siblings to gravel pits around my hometown of West Point, Neb., at about the same age. As we grew older, our prospecting for gold, jade, agates and volcanic limb casts took us to Colorado and Wyoming. While I am not the inveterate collector of rocks, gems and minerals in a more educated sense as was Dad, I think it is safe to say the rock did not fall far from the cliff.

A good share of the rocks I’ve brought to our yard were deposited by ancient glaciers as they crawled across parts of Ohio’s landscape. Many of those specimens, originating in Canada, were deposited on or well below the surface of the soil, to be moved later by human activity.

One such specimen, a 700-pound boulder, give or take a few pounds, and other large rocks surfaced when my late father-in-law, Elmer Jantzi, excavated the land for a pond on their farm. That glacier-worn boulder occupies a special place in our front yard and is appropriately called “Elmer’s Rock.”

I stop along the highways and byways of my travels to collect parts of the landscape, rocks that will add to the character of our property.

When I accompanied my wife, Karen, on a business trip to New England, I made it a point to be a rockhound. Elements of the Maine coast, mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire and other states’ landscapes were rounded up.

We spent a day traversing Massachusetts, but Karen’s schedule didn’t allow time for rock picking. I was feeling desperate. It was half past dusk on the Mass. Turnpike when I pulled onto a scenic overlook. I grabbed a flashlight and walked to a small rock outcrop adjacent to the parking lot. It was a case of beggars couldn’t be choosers; I plucked a couple of nondescript specimens, added them to the growing mass of New England geology in the car, and we headed down the pike. At last!

In addition to the aforementioned rocks from Utah, the landscape of the American West is represented by lava from near Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho and granite from Wyoming. Small pieces of Idaho limestone are adorned with bright orange lichen. If you’ve spent time hiking in the mountains as I have, be it in the U.S. or in the Lake District of the U.K., you are no doubt familiar with cairns — those piles of stones that serve as sentinels for wandering souls. I’ve not hiked in the wilderness in a while, but I do build cairns in my imaginary wilderness on High Street. They serve not so much to keep me going in the right direction; rather they are a balm for the soul. Connections.

Those cairns, as do many of the perched rocks in the yard, also serve as vantage points for the birds and squirrels that inhabit the place.

I’d rather not buy rocks, but sometimes I open the wallet when I select from the offerings at Layman Feed and Lawn in Elida. Many of those rocks are not native to Ohio. A large black glass-like block of obsidian formed by volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest sits on a pedestal among lillies. Sponge rock, full of voids and crystals from the American Southwest, along with Sedona cobbles and Royal Gorge boulders sparkling with flashes of mica, are here. Diversity.

I purchased a slab of Wind River flagstone which looks like the Wyoming landscape I fly over on my way to Utah, including the Wind River Range where I spent time with Dad studying the geology. Ancient rock — a key that opens the deep vault of memories.

It’s a familial thing I guess. My daughters have interest in the subject. I get to share with my grandson in Utah; sometimes I mail Tallis small rocks I’ve collected.

I suspect I’ll continue to add to our rockscape. And if I’m perceived to be dumber than a box of rocks for mailing them from afar, so be it. It’s my money.

By Phil Hugo

Guest Columnist

Phil Hugo lives in Lima.

Phil Hugo lives in Lima.

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