Unearthing history and hidden treasures

A quest to crack open crystals and find fossilized fish in the desert

October 26, 2023

Joseph emerges from a cave during a rockhounding expedition in New Hampshire.

Joseph Stoner, a mechanical engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory, is serious about rocks. Serious enough to have a storage shed filled with them; serious enough to stash them in every nook and cranny of his Santa Fe apartment; and serious enough to let them pile up at his family home in Vermont.

Subjected to playful prodding from his co-workers over his admiration for rocks and minerals, Joseph understands how unique his living environment is. "I joke with them that since it's just me in my apartment, sometimes I talk to and sleep with the rocks," he says.

Joseph is also aware of the humorous link between his last name and his hobby. "When I go to gem and mineral shows, people get a kick out of it. They find it really funny."

A passion for the outdoors built around family

Joseph is what is known as a rockhound, someone whose commitment is a level above your typical rock collector. Joseph explains the distinction between rockhounding and rock collecting: "With collecting, you might be at the beach, and you happen to see something you think is cool and pick it up. With rockhounding, you are researching and figuring out where to find one specific rock or mineral — everything is premeditated and intentional." 

The son of a biologist and former park ranger at Yosemite National Park, Joseph grew up surrounded by nature. His first summer was spent in a canvas tent cabin in Yosemite Valley. Once Joseph got older, his dad would take him backpacking and camping in the mountains every summer. "While I didn't necessarily rockhound as a child, I was brought up on Earth sciences so I would collect some rocks," he says. "I grew up with a love for getting away out into the mountains."

Then, Joseph explains, life took over. As he began working, the time he had to engage in the activities he enjoyed started to dwindle. Things came to a head during COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021. At the time, he was living in Washington, D.C., while working at DOE headquarters, and he was one of only a few people required to go into the office every day. His wife and three youngest kids were at their home in Vermont, but due to the pandemic, the trains from D.C. weren't running so he was unable to see them. "It was miserable. I needed a breath of fresh air," Joseph says.

Return to nature

Looking to escape that environment, Joseph decided to move to New Mexico, and in 2021, he took a job at the Lab. It meant moving further away from his family, but by that point, distance had become familiar. "COVID forced us into not seeing each other, and eventually my kids got used to it," Joseph says. "Plus, there are only three things you can make a living off of in Vermont: cheese, maple syrup and teddy bears."

Now, rather than taking a train every two months to see his family like he had before the pandemic, Joseph flies out to see them. And he's able to bring back treasures for his kids from his rockhounding adventures. "Every time I come home, I bring them things and they just love that sort of stuff," Joseph says. "Even better, I can tell them stories of the adventures I went on."

Joseph has even gotten to share the process with his kids, which he says stands out as his favorite rockhounding experience. For the Fourth of July 2023, he went back to Vermont and took his kids camping at Herkimer Diamond Mines in New York. After buying his kids rockhounding gear, they spent a day collecting rocks near the mine. Then, using a 10-pound sledgehammer, Joseph split the rocks to reveal Herkimer diamonds — quartz crystals that aren't real diamonds but were given the name because of their clarity and faceting. His kids were fascinated by what they found, much to Joseph's pride.

"With this generation, it's really easy to get lost in digital things, so I'm pushing them toward more tactile things," Joseph says. "I want them to explore."

Joseph with his son Vincent.

Seafloor treasure in the desert

At Los Alamos, Joseph has found a level of freedom he wasn't afforded in D.C. "It takes five minutes to leave Los Alamos and really get out there in the world," Joseph says. "These mountains here are beautiful, and they aren't crowded. You can go up there and just get lost."

When he first arrived in the state, Joseph relied on a Nissan Altima to get around for his rockhounding, but he quickly realized the two-wheel drive, low clearance vehicle wasn't going to get the job done. Often, the best locations for rockhounding are remote mountains and basins, accessible only by dirt roads or off-roading, so Joseph went out and got a Toyota 4Runner, greatly expanding his range. He has since traveled all over the state, taken a trip up to a rockhounding hotspot in Utah and is planning to travel through Arizona.

To choose where to explore, Joseph relies on a couple of methods. A book called "Rockhounding in New Mexico" identifies potential caches around the state, but Joseph also likes to do his own research. Through understanding the geological history of the state, he makes educated guesses about what minerals might be hidden where. As an area that was once part of an inland sea millions of years ago, there are plenty of fossils and unique geological formations that one wouldn't expect to find in a desert.

Joseph’s 4Runner parked near Galisteo, New Mexico, as he sets off on a rockhounding expedition.

Another favored strategy Joseph employs is exploring old mines to pick through the tailings — piles of discarded and unused rocks.

"The cool thing about some of these minerals is that when you find them, on the outside they look pretty tragic and plain," Joseph says, "but when you cut them open you can unveil a whole new treasure."

After thoroughly exploring a site, Joseph loads up his car and heads home to Santa Fe. Once there, he loads the rocks into bins where they will await the next step. Many rocks require just a quick scrub to reveal their unique beauty, but others need to be cut open to reveal their cross section. At the moment, Joseph doesn't have the necessary equipment at his apartment to cut open rocks, so he is left with polishing. After filling a tub with soapy water or sometimes heavier duty cleaning solutions, he scrubs the dust and dirt from rocks, hoping to unearth something.

A large piece of petrified wood that Joseph found near Cuba, New Mexico.

If something piques his interest, Joseph has a digital microscope he uses to examine specimens much closer, and he also has display shelves set up. Showcased on the shelves are some of his favorite finds like the Herkimer diamonds from his expedition with his kids, Dugway geodes from his trip to Salt Lake City and purple fluorite — a shiny colorful crystalized mineral.

Ultimately, though, Joseph is less interested in showcasing his wares and more invested in the process.

"I don't get discouraged if I don't find anything because I've spent the day walking around beautiful mountains," Joseph says. "Where these minerals are, the reward is often just being there. It's another reward to find something there that is dirty, and it's yet another reward to clean it up."