PUBLISHED WORKS, SCIENCE ARTICLES
AND METEORITE ADVENTURES
LINGUA FRANCONIA:
DECIPHERING ARIZONA'S METEORITE GRAVEYARD

Story and photographs by Geoffrey Notkin

There is a new kind of meteorite hunter scouring the wilds of Arizona and Nevada. He is fast, tough, well equipped, able to cover vast areas of open range, and is making significant finds. This mechanized hunter reconnoiters on an all-terrain vehicle, always on the lookout for dark, fusion-crusted stones — stark and out of place on the terrestrial landscape. When a possible meteorite is spotted, or a promising hunting site is encountered, a more thorough search is carried out on foot.

I suppose it would be fair to say that meteorite hunters fall into one of two categories. There are those like my friend Jim Kriegh — veteran hunter and discoverer of the Gold Basin strewn field — who rise happily at dawn, full of energy and enthusiasm for the hunt, concerned that anyone not in the field well before 8 am is “burning daylight.” Then there are those who, after a relaxed breakfast and a cup of good English tea, finally make it out to the field mid-morning. Since I am, unfortunately, firmly entrenched in the latter camp, a little schedule modification is in order whenever I’m on the road with Jim . . . and it’s well worth it.

Some years back Phoenix resident Ruben Garcia, eager to learn about meteorite hunting, visited Jim in his Tucson home, inspected some of Kriegh’s many Gold Basin finds and quizzed Jim enthusiastically on hunting techniques. Ruben would go on to find his first meteorite at Gold Basin, and when he and hunting partner Mike Miller found their own strewn field, Ruben returned the favor. Jim accepted Garcia and Miller’s invitation to join them in the Franconia region of northwest Arizona, and so did I.

Rolling out of Tucson at 7 am for the six-hour drive to Franconia was a bit of a shock for a night-owl like me, and I dozed in Jim’s Four Runner for part of the journey. After leaving the sprawl of greater Phoenix far behind, we followed lovely Route 95 north through ochre cliffs perched on the bank of the Colorado River. Passing Lake Havasu City we caught a glimpse of Robert McCulloch’s London Bridge — a structure which, like me, crossed the Atlantic to find a new home in Arizona, though London Bridge’s relocation was considerably more expensive than mine. It cost McCulloch nearly $2.5 million . . . plus shipping.

North of the Mohave Mountains, the land flattens out into a terrain the color of army camouflage. In this wilderness — crisscrossed by gullies and low hills, speckled with brush and lonely crimson and green barrel cactus, capped by desert pavement with boulders bronzed by the relentless sun and whipped into regmaglypt-like shapes by centuries of wind polishing — almost every rock looks like a desert-varnished chondrite, and most of them will set off your detector too. In other words, Franconia presents almost the worst imaginable hunting conditions. In no way does this deter Jim. “There are a lot of hot rocks out there,” he says. “But you’ll learn to tell the difference. Just listen for the really loud ones.”

There is no town of Franconia, Arizona, only an exit ramp from the highway which instantly regresses into a dirt road, and a railroad siding with a solitary black and white sign that reads, “East Franconia.” We leave the highway, follow the dirt road, cross the railroad and travel some distance along a narrow strip of dusty gravel paralleling the tracks. Jim knows where he’s going, and eases the truck down into a cramped steep-sided gulch next to, but hidden from, the railroad. Every so often an interminably long freight train thunders past, its multi-colored rolling stock rattling and banging just a few feet above us.

As always, Jim is a model of efficiency. I’m hooking up my Gold Bug metal detector, and checking my Camelback, gloves, hiking boots, gators, magnets, rock pick, baggies, fedora, sunscreen and sunglasses, and trying to make them all work together, somehow, in some kind of harmonious fashion. But the mouthpiece on my Camelback keeps getting tangled up with the detector cable. While dealing with that I’m vaguely aware of a subtle humming as Jim ground balances his Goldmaster. He’s all kitted up and ready to go, and although eager to begin the hunt he is also too gentlemanly to rush me. “Don’t wait for me, Jim. I still have to check the cameras. I’ll catch up with you.”

A few minutes pass, and I’m thinking to myself, “While I’m getting all this gear together, I just know Jim is going to go out, find a meteorite right away, then come back here and say ‘I’ve already found one,’ and I’ll still be organizing my gear.”

“I’ve already found one!” I hear Jim shout out from west of the gulch. At most it’s been two or three minutes. His first catch of the day is a small, moderately weathered black chondrite. It had been slightly buried in the sandy flats north of Interstate 40 and jumps happily onto the magnet attached to Jim’s rock pick. I am reminded once again how skillful my friend is with a detector.

     
Mike and Ruben and some of
their Franconia meteorite finds
Mike Miller ready
for action on his ATV
Meteorite hunter Jim Kriegh and
the author at Franconia
 

One of those things you can usually count on — at least in the United States — is that wherever there are meteorites, there are also bullets. The area in which we are hunting was used as a firing range for World War II-era aircraft, and we quickly amass a most impressive array of hefty .50 caliber bullets, brass cartridges, and machine gun belt links. Jim casually mentions that on a previous visit he came across an unexploded missile, baking on a flat sunblasted rock and haphazardly cordoned off by some faded yellow police tape. Such details encourage the meteorite hunter to dig with a little extra caution when the detector returns a strong signal.

Over the next hour, Jim collects a number of small chondrites from the dusty plain that stretches perhaps half a mile west from the railroad tracks. I’m carefully digging out my fifth or sixth brass bullet when Jim waves and motions me over. He’s found a few stones in a small area and so I start swinging my detector again as I walk toward him. Thirty feet away, I’m surprised by a very sharp signal from my Gold Bug, and bend down to start digging. But before I move any earth I’m delighted by a small, perfect, and beautifully oriented 26-gram iron meteorite, sitting in the desert pavement. Shiny, tapered and streamlined like a diminutive Brancusi sculpture it looks uncannily like a Sikhote-Alin individual, and bears absolutely no resemblance to the angular black chondrites that Jim has been pulling from the ground. And so we begin to see with our own eyes what Ruben and Mike have been reporting: an apparent abundance of different meteorites within the same strewn field.

By late afternoon we’ve decided to try another location, so we sling our detectors in the back of the truck, and Jim carefully drives us up a winding, steep-sided dry riverbed, its floor almost liquid with soft sand. As the desert sun begins to throw shadows across shallow parallel hills, Jim and I hike up over the canyon rim, and wander off in opposite directions, pulled by some belief, hunch, or perhaps just a hope that a meteorite is “just over there.” As fellow Franconia hunter Sonny Clary was to tell me the following day, “You gotta have that feeling, that mindset, to know that they’re there.”

Something in the hump-backed, stone-capped hills, and the deep shadows between them reminds me of the beautiful but forlorn Atacama Desert in Chile, which I hunted in 1997 during an expedition to the Imilac strewn field. I am also reminded of the solitary nature of meteorite hunting: the feeling of almost floating over the landscape, lulled by the hum of the detector and the soft rhythmic crunch of boot soles on desert pavement; one’s trance-like state jolted each time the detector’s tone rises, wondering, hoping, that this is one . . . and not just another bullet.

I keep hunting until the sun is barely a pinch above the horizon. The wind is strong and it howls eerily through machined holes on my Gold Bug, making the detector sound like an otherworldly wind chime. I startle a king-size jack rabbit resting among a circle of stones, and he remains plastered against the ground — watery brown eyes terrified — as I walk quickly by. Skeletons of long-dead ocotillos lie against the canyon walls — dry, thorny and wound together like monstrous bundles of brushwood collected for a giant’s campfire.

I realize that I’ve walked some miles over the undulating, pockmarked hills. Shadows sidle up out of the gullies and the desert’s inhabitants begin to awake, rustling and preparing for the coming dark. I hurry back to the truck, anxious to find cover, acutely aware of how vulnerable a hunter would be out here, alone in the night.

After sunset, Jim and I cross the state line and the Colorado River to spend the night in a quiet motel in Needles, California — a town, Jim tells me, which often reports the highest daily temperature in the United States.

The following morning, we are set to meet with Mike Miller and Ruben Garcia. I quickly discover that they are also believers in the “early start.” Jim and I are on the road, and well on the way to the strewn field, when a cell phone rings. It’s Ruben calling from the field to see where we are, and it’s not yet 7:30!

Jim and I park in the same location as the day before. As we’re strapping on our gear the quiet morning air is punctuated by the far-off zzzipp and buzz of two detectors. Mike and Ruben are at work, re-checking an area they’ve already searched several times. They make their way slowly over to us, detectors swinging and beeping as they go. Mike is rugged and broad-shouldered with a tight beard, sandy hair and dressed in blue jeans and an olive green t-shirt, with a Gold Bug 2 in his hand and a no-nonsense look in his eye. The determination in him is as clear as anything. Ruben is handsome and suntanned, with short black hair and a pair of serious-looking knee-high gators covering his shins. “I hate snakes,” he tells me, sounding much like Indiana Jones. “Hate them! And I see so many rattlesnakes out here I bought these gators. They’re guaranteed to protect you against any North American snake.” I ask, jokingly, about South American snakes but the warranty doesn’t carry any weight south of the Panama Canal, and Mike points out that Ruben’s body armor wouldn’t be much good against a South American boa constrictor. “And those snake bite kits are mostly a gimmick too,” Ruben laughs. “They’re just to make you feel better while you’re on the way to the hospital.”

Mike and Ruben have been hunting Franconia almost every weekend since October, 2003, plus a seven-day vacation in February when they spent the entire week camping in the strewn field. They have put in long hard days that have paid off, and they’ve brought some of the results to show us. From the back of an ATV, they produce plastic containers full of meteorites. First it’s a couple of boxes of small chondrite fragments, much like the specimens Jim found the previous day. Then come some golf-ball sized stones with an attractive red patina, then a few hand-sized meteorites, and finally three spectacular complete stones: crusted, deeply grooved with regmaglypts, and mottled sienna and black. The largest, at 3.25 kilos, is almost the size of loaf of bread.

To my surprise, Mike and Ruben are as impressed by my petite iron as I am by their massive finds. It is, they say, the largest iron individual recovered from the site, but to me it’s a modest discovery compared to their hefty chondrites.

The two friends have an unusual arrangement: before Franconia they had hunted together at Glorieta Mountain, Holbrook and “a bunch of other places,” and all finds are split fifty-fifty. It was Miller who first came upon this strewn field. “One day, each weekend, I’d go looking for a ‘clean area’ that seemed like a place we could get out and hunt. I was driving down I-40 with my son looking for a decent spot, and we saw a light-colored area north of the highway. We took an ATV up there and we’d see all these black hot rocks and I was thinking ‘Oh man, this is a bad area.’ Then I saw a little spot of white way up there on the flat tops, and that’s where we found the first small meteorite. I thought it was a hot rock, but it stuck to my magnet.”

After running into the first piece, Mike called his hunting partner, Ruben, right away. At the time, they had never heard of the H5 Franconia meteorite which had been discovered — just across the interstate — on Halloween of 2002 by John Wolfe (see Meteorite, Volume 10, No. 2). “We found a few more,” Mike continued, “and I told Jim Walker about it. He’s the one who told me there was already a meteorite named Franconia. So, we assumed our finds would be paired with the original Franconia.”

But as the finds continued some looked very different from the others. That’s when it started to get complicated.

“Our whole thing from the beginning was to get our finds classified,” Ruben explains. “To give them a pedigree of sorts. Twice we sat down with Dr. Gary Huss (Senior Research Scientist with the Department of Geological Sciences at Arizona State University in Tempe) and selected those that looked different out of the kilos and kilos that we had. From the first batch, Gary selected eight individuals. One was obviously an iron, and there was another one — a tiny individual — very similar to Portales Valley; it had veins of iron. We felt at least three of them were different meteorites, but when you get out here, you realize how incredibly difficult it is, with all the hot rocks, and all the lava rocks. And every one of them looks like a meteorite.”

Back in the field, the sun is getting higher and we’re ready to do some more hunting. “We’re good,” Ruben laughs. “We found everything. There’s nothing left here,” so we agree to explore a new area. Mike’s young son is with us, and each of the three fires up his own ATV, and these ATVs are ready for action: decked out in camouflage, with coolers strapped to the back, metal detectors and digging tools tied down tight with bungee straps. Ruben wraps a bandanna around his face, dons some reflective glasses, and suddenly looks like a very dangerous individual. Hurtling down a rocky trail with a convoy of three ATVs and a 4WD, we look like some modern version of Britain’s Long Range Desert Group that operated behind enemy lines during World War II’s North Africa campaign.

We take the vehicles as far as we can, parking them when we run up against a designated wilderness area. Even though this harsh terrain isn’t likely to be damaged by ATVs, Mike and Ruben are respectful of the natural refuge. We hunt for most of the afternoon. The sun gets stronger, and the ground rougher. Sometime past noon, Ruben delights us all by producing cold Gatorade, bottled water and sandwiches from a cooler pack, and we gather together for an impromptu lunch in the wilderness.

“Our finds will pair with some of the big finds,” says Mike. “I don’t think it’s all one strewn field.” If Mike is correct, naming the meteorites will be a challenge as there are no towns nearby, but the geographical features — Sphinx Mountain, Sacramento Wash, and Warm Springs Wilderness — have the potential for colorful and memorable names. Still, there’s a joke going around about how new unidentified stone meteorites on the collector’s market will still be referred to as N.W.A.s, but will now be from Northwest Arizona, not Northwest Africa.

Across the highway, another meteorite hunter has been quietly working away on his own. Sonny Clary, a Las Vegas fireman, caught the meteorite-hunting bug in 2002, and has already made some remarkable finds, including the largest Franconia-area meteorite so far. Tall, jovial, friendly; with a trim moustache, dressed in a chino shirt, camouflage pants and a white hooded cap Sonny would be a natural in any French Foreign Legion action movie. We meet up with Sonny in the late afternoon, follow him along barely marked trails to the middle of what seems to be the southern side of the strewn field, and take a break under an elderly palo verde tree. “This is where [famed gold hunters] Pieter and Debra Heydelaar camped,” Sonny tells us. “It’s the only shade around.”

Sitting casually on a cooler Sonny pulls out some of his finds to show us, and his excitement over these meteorites is clear. “Everywhere I went at the 2004 Tucson show, I heard scuttlebutt about big meteorites being found up here,” he tells us. “So, on the way back from the show I stopped over. I found a place for my trailer and started finding meteorites. They were sitting on the surface, you couldn’t miss them.”

Sonny began coming back on his own for two or three days at a time, gridding the hilly, tree-speckled south side on his own ATV. He was making finds, and news was getting out. “I went into a metal detector shop in Kingman,” Sonny recalls. “I was trying to find out what kind of metal detector to buy. I told the lady in the shop I was hunting near Franconia and she said, ‘Oh are you hunting the north side or the south side of the highway?’ She knew all about it.”

After several trips to the strewn field, Sonny ventured further out, sometimes traveling many miles alone on his quad — up into the foothills of the mountains to the south. “I didn’t want to step on Ruben and Mike’s toes, so I kept to the south side of the highway, and they were on the north.” One day, he spotted a large, promising-looking rock from his ATV, and went back on foot for a closer look.

“ ‘Is this for real?’ I asked myself. ‘Is this really a meteorite?’ I got out my magnet and it barely stuck. I put the big rock in my backpack and walked two feet, stopped and took it out to look at it. I must have done that three times before I got to my quad.” But it was a meteorite. At sixteen pounds, it’s the biggest meteorite to come out of the Franconia field to date. A sample was sent to Arizona State University where classification is under way. “They said it looked different,” Sonny said. “But they can’t be sure yet.”

With the classification of Mike, Ruben, and Sonny’s finds being carried out in Tempe by Gary Huss and Lora Varley, I was keen to visit ASU and ask Dr. Huss’ opinion on the “meteorite graveyard,” as Jim had started calling it. Gary is a third generation meteoriticist, son of the late Glenn Huss of Colorado’s American Meteorite Laboratory, and grandson of seminal American meteoriticist Harvey Harlow Nininger. He is also president of the Meteoritical Society. We received a warm welcome from this distinguished scientist, who — slender, soft-spoken, and with a gentle sense of humor — bears a striking resemblance to early photos of his much-admired grandfather. Gary showed us a number of Mike and Ruben’s stones, all carefully bagged and labeled.

Gary received 21 specimens from Mike and Ruben for study, and at the time of our visit preliminary work had been done on eight of them. Gary chose samples that looked different from each other, and then sorted those prior to analysis. “We tried to divide them into groups based on color, the number of chondrules, etc., but then when the thin sections came back, they didn’t seem to be from different groups.”

I asked Gary if was possible that the hunters had discovered an overlapping strewn field.
“There’s probably more than one meteorite here. By the time you’ve hunted as much as these guys have, you’re going to find the other meteorite out there, even if there is only one. You can put these stones out on the table and they all look different — different degrees of shock and weathering. The insides look different too: some light, some dark, some with different metal distributions, but all the stones analyzed so far are H5s. As you know, we don’t take weathering too seriously because one of them could have landed in a puddle.”

H5s and L6s are statistically the most commonly-found chondrites, so it is possible that some of the Franconia finds are different but still all H5s. It’s worth noting that two samples are brecciated and at the time of this writing the iron has yet to be examined.

“Ruben told me that they were finding irons mixed in with stones in the Franconia field, and wanted to know how that could happen,” Gary told us. “Well, we haven’t solved that yet. We don’t yet understand how the stones and irons are related.”

Perhaps the small irons are the remains of Portales Valley-like veins that have come out of the stones, but as Gary put it, he hadn’t yet “found the smoking gun.”

Is it possible that all the meteorites found around Franconia — vastly different though they may appear on the surface — are from the same fall? Mike Miller is certain that he’s found at least three different meteorites. Jim believes he found three different meteorites in just one day in an area the size of a football field! The small iron I found seems completely unrelated to any of the stones, and Sonny Clary believes his sixteen pound prizewinner may be a different stone entirely. Is the Franconia strewn field really a graveyard of meteorites — like the old myth about elephants — or have complex weathering and deposition processes jumbled up pieces of the same fall, confusing us all?

“As we work them up,” Gary states, “they do start to look more and more alike.” But Mike and Ruben are still out hunting, and Sonny has a personal goal: “That sixteen pounder was the biggest find of my life, and that’s going to be hard to beat, but I’m willing to put in ten hours a day to do it.”

On the long run back to Tucson, from Franconia, I examined the irons and stones we’d found, along with a lovely 199 gram crusted stone — a gift from the ever-generous Sonny. After an hour or so on the road, Jim and I stopped at Lake Havasu City. We walked across the same London Bridge that I had known well as a child, situated as it was, so close to my father’s office. Jim commented that I must be one of the few people who had walked across the same bridge in two different countries.

Old London Bridge looked happy out there in the desert, far from home, but a little strange and slightly out of place — much like a solitary iron in a strewn field of chondrites.

As the work at Franconia continues, both in the field and in the lab, perhaps a common language — a lingua franca — of understanding will emerge, one that will help to decipher and identify each and every denizen of Arizona’s mysterious meteorite graveyard.


This article originally appeared in the August 2004 issue of Meteorite magazine. © 2004 by Meteorite magazine. Reprinted by kind permission of the publisher.