Making Memories of a Rockhounding Lifetime

Lepidolite example. (L. Carion,, Wikimedia Commons)

Editor’s Note: As part of our year-long 50th anniversary, we invite readers to share one of your most special memories related to rockhounding and lapidary for a chance to have your story appear in the pages of Rock & Gem. Kicking things off is this story by Gary Handel.

Some of my favorite places to visit are the pegmatite mines in Maine and California. Thinking back about one of my earliest rockhounding adventures, it was a warm summer day that found me wanting to search for the elusive tourmaline. At the tender age of 17, I begged my mom to let me go to Maine to collect rocks. She said, “Gabby, that’s such a long trip! Why don’t you just collect near home?”

All words any mother might say to her teenage child.

“But ma,” I replied, “They have some really neat rocks there. Won’t you let me go? Please, please, please?”

Again, she said, “But Gabby, it’s such a long drive. You’ve never driven that far before!”

To which I responded, “I know, ma, but I promise to drive safely.”

“You’ve only been driving for a year,” she replied.

Again, I responded with promises to check in. “I’ll call you every time I stop for gas, I promise,” I said.

Green Light to Rockhounding

Reluctantly, she agreed to let me go. The next morning, I packed up my things and spun away in our family’s orange Firebird.

A single mantra circled round and round in my head: “Collecting I will go, collecting I will go, hi-ho the dairy O, collecting I will go. “

After an eight-hour drive, I reached my destination of Poland, Maine. I looked around for a promising hill to climb. Spotting some RVs at the base of a hill, I decided this was the place for me, so I loaded up my rock collecting gear and headed up the trail.

I trudged up the “mountain,” which was a steep climb, but I reassured myself it would be well worth it. When I reached the top, I came across a man who was walking around and kicking stones with his shoes.

“Hi there,” I said. “Do you know where there are tourmalines?”

“Just scratch around; maybe you’ll be lucky and find some!” he chortled.

So scratch around I did. For two hours I followed the man’s “advice” but with no luck. I reassured myself that there must be tourmalines in the area, and since heading home without the prized “booty” was not an option for me, I decided to take a gander around the back of the hill. As I did, I saw six collectors feverously banging away at the rock wall with their hammers. Maybe this is the place, I thought to myself.

“How’s it going,” I shouted. “Find anything yet?

The group didn’t look up; instead, they kept on hammering away, “bam, bam, bam.” An older gentleman was swinging a large sledgehammer at the wall as sweat poured down his forehead. I went about digging, minding my own business, but when the sun started to go down, I thought I should pack it in. I did discover a few pink sparkly rocks, which one of the collectors told me was lepidolite.

“That’s a good sign that gem tourmaline could be close by,” he told me.

Digging and Discoveries

Alas, my day ended without striking it rich, but the lepidolite was a pretty good find, so I filled my bucket and headed down the mountain. I showed my ma what I found, and she consoled me by saying that even though I didn’t come home with tourmaline, the shiny pink rocks would look great in my flower garden.

The following summer, I read an article that a man had struck it rich on the very same hill I was “prospecting” in Maine. The article said he found more than $100,000 worth of gem tourmalines and donated the largest, a 12-inch specimen, to the Smithsonian museum. Within the article was a photo of the man, and lo and behold, it was the same man I saw swinging that sledgehammer. According to the article, the only reason the man was out there digging was because his doctor had told him to get outside and exercise.

With that, the notable chapter about my first big rockhounding adventure came to a close in my rockhounding journal of life.

Gary “Gabby” Handel became hooked on rockhounding at the age of eight. In high school, he worked as a lapidary on Philadelphia’s famed jeweler’s row. He studied geology at Franklin and Marshal College in scenic Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

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