My Parents Are Obsessed With Rocks. Now, I Finally Understand Why

The author in 1995, on a quest for petroglyphs in eastern Oregon. Courtesy Benjamin Percy


Most boys, when you ask them what they want to be when they grow up, say a professional baseball, basketball, or football player. I, too, had trouble deciding — whether I should become an archaeologist, paleontologist, or geologist.

 This is what happens when you grow up with parents who call themselves rock hounds. I wore a fedora and safari pants with bulging pockets and a belt with a utility knife strapped to it. I subscribed to Archaeology and attended lectures on the geomorphic drivers of arroyo dynamics. I received an Audubon guide on rocks and minerals for one birthday and a .357 for another.

It was not uncommon to find my parents kneeling on the living room floor, peering through a magnifying glass at the geologic surveys spread out before them. They made notes on legal pads and flipped through guidebooks, using terms like mother lode and greenstone belts and tetrahedron and low-grade, large-tonnage deposit.

At least once a month, my sister and I would join them for what was less a vacation and more an expedition. Here was our checklist: pickax, trowel, whisk, shovel, compass, gem guide, topographic maps, rifle, pistol, fishing rod, peanut butter sandwiches. We would pack the pickup and growl off into eastern Oregon or northern California to scramble across scree slopes and wade hip-deep through rivers — caught up in our quest for rocks, minerals, and fossils. We clawed geodes from hard-packed sage flats, hauled petrified logs from dry canyons, carved fossils from limestone shelves, and — occasionally — blasted the head off any rattlesnake that got in our way. This was my childhood.

Every winter, visitors from all over the world attend the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, in Arizona. They come for the jewelry and beads, the sculpture and furniture, the bins of fossilized shark’s teeth, the purple-gutted amethysts as big as coffins. They come to ogle the allosaurus skulls and the knives with petrified-wood handles, the 3,000-pound boulders of rose quartz and the 12-foot cave-bear skeleton arranged upright so that it sits on its haunches, its claws out-stretched and shredding the air.

I am here to join my parents in what is known as the world’s biggest treasure hunt. Tucson is their Burning Man, their Lollapalooza or Coachella. When we shoulder our way through the crowds, they spot old friends, banter with strangers, and shake hands with dealers who remember them from previous years.

My father wants a dinosaur bone. My mother wants a spider nested in amber. But they plan to see everything, to slowly navigate the miles of vendor displays and take in all the agaty wonder. “Isn’t this great?” my mom keeps saying, while my dad asks me more than once, “You aren’t bored, are you?”

I would complain, especially as a teenager. We sometimes saw no one else for days, outside of the lonely convenience stores we frequented for diesel and Corn Nuts and Diet Coke. “I’m bored,” I would say. “This is ridiculously boring.”

While my friends were wandering through malls, I was scraping through rabbit-brush thickets, exploring lava tubes that stretched on for miles. While my friends were holding out change for an Orange Julius, I was holding out a shard of chert and asking my father, “Do you think this is a broken Clovis point?”

Sometimes I would go on strike. “Find your own damn rocks,” I would say and lie in the skirt of shade beneath the truck and read a mass-market paperback, usually with a dragon on the cover.

But then someone would call out, “Snake!” or “I found something!” and I would join them again. 

Our standard routine was this: My father
would study geologic surveys until he determined
an area that might be rich with gems
and minerals. Then we’d drive to the middle
of nowhere, his eyes bouncing between his
map and the rutted road ahead, until he
killed the ignition and snatched the revolver
off the dashboard and said, “Roll out.” 

We would then spread out and march
together at a slow pace, hunting for veins
of quartz, humps of petrified wood. Hours
would go by as we patrolled a predetermined
grid, and my neck would cramp and my eyes
burn from looking so hard. 

In much the same way, we now work our
way through Tucson — through the tents and
hotels and warehouses — treasure hunters
searching for the right prize at the right price. 

My father was a lawyer, my mother a botanist.
But they have probably spent more
time in the field than many career geologists.
Their house exists as living space but
more so as a repository for their collection.
Visitors often refer to it as a museum, but
that word doesn’t fully capture the atmosphere
of worship. My mother touches a
geode in passing as if rubbing a quick prayer
with rosary beads. My father stands before a
trilobite and sips his wine as if taking Communion
before the cross. 

Every shelf, every nook, every windowsill
and mantel, every bureau and end table and
credenza, is a display. My parents will move
a lamp or adjust a shade for complementary
lighting, so that the house seems to sparkle
from every corner. 

They have an encyclopedic understanding
of every single stone and bone. Not only
its historical, biological, and geological significance,
but their personal connection to it. 

Here is the four-foot, 334-pound Brazilian
amethyst geode — with one white crystal
toothing its center — that stands next to
their fireplace. Together my parents mummied
it in towels and wrestled it off the back
of a truck and into the house, a process that
took several hours and nearly crushed my
mother. “He’s always doing things like this
to me!” my mother says. “Making me move
rocks as heavy as pianos!” 

And here is the 100-pound hunk of pure
obsidian that my father hefted out of the Paulina
flow in Oregon prior to its being declared
a national monument. And the clutch of three
hadrosaurus eggs from the Gobi Desert. And
the 88,000-year-old cave-bear skull from
Romania. And the 24-inch, 350-million-year old,
Carboniferous-era ammonite that looks
like the granddaddy of all nautilus shells. 

Every time I visit, there is something
new — and by that I mean something old. 

My mother has always been the most energetic
among us. The first one up in the morning,
standing by the window at 5 AM, waiting
for the sun to rise, her hands wrapped around
a mug of coffee. The first one down the hiking
trail, waving us all on, yelling, “You guys! Hurry! Up ahead there’s a blooming field of penstemon that’s to die for!”

An exclamation mark lurks in most everything she says. The skin to either side of her mouth is creased like parentheses from all her smiling. She is deeply tanned from the time she spends outside. She wears bright-colored clothes and jewelry studded with turquoise. She talks to f lowers. She pinches off sprigs of sagebrush and sniffs them. She spent years, after moving to Arizona, planting shade trees, cacti, and succulents, creating a desert garden that she fusses over daily. She keeps binoculars in the house, in the car, and in her backpack, and she is constantly reaching for them, saying things like, “In that juniper over there — I think I see a yellow tanager!” or “It’s just so difficult to tell if it’s a Cooper’s or a sharp-shinned hawk.”

But something has changed since I last saw her. She’s quieter. Paler. Thinner, so that I can feel her bones when I pat her on the back and ask if she’s doing all right.

In the fall, she learned what was wrong, but she didn’t tell us until after Thanksgiving. Cancer. She’s suffered through weeks of a chemo-radiation combo that blistered her skin and melted the fat off her and weighed her down with exhaustion so that she was sleeping sometimes 20 hours a day. 

My father drives a Dodge Ram pickup with a grill like a clenched fist. It’s a muscular tank of a vehicle, but in the rear cab, he’s built my mother a nest of blankets and pillows. She has trouble climbing in and out when he drops her off and picks her up at the entrance of every site we visit. She carries a backpack full of pills with her. If she spots a bench — or a crate — she sits down on it. “Sorry,” she says, as if she’s bumped into a stranger in herself. “I’m feeling suddenly really old.”

My father looks a little like his truck. Like someone you don’t want to fuck with. Tall with muscled shoulders and a thick neck and big hands. My grandfather regularly told the story of the catcher — way back in his Little League days — who quit the team because my father kept bruising his palm with his sizzling pitches. People are intimidated by him.

But he is gentle with my mother, offering her a fleece, helping her in and out of the truck, as if she were some precious gem he worries might break.

I never became a geologist, paleontologist, or archaeologist. I spent a summer researching rock art with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and another summer excavating a Paiute village with the University of Oregon — and then I canceled my subscription to Archaeology. I hung up my fedora.

I had inherited my parents’ stony dreams and dusty appetites. But once I moved away — away from their maps and magnifying glasses and gem guides — I couldn’t maintain my enthusiasm.

But I feel it again now — that old treasure-seeking rush — when my father and I enter the 22nd Street Mineral & Fossil Show, a pop-up pavilion that accommodates several acres of high-end vendors. We are here for an ulna. My father already owns the vertebrae of a diplodocus, and he wants another piece of it, hoping to eventually puzzle together the long-necked dinosaur in its entirety.

He missed out last year. He was readying a bid when another buyer swooped in and bought the bone he wanted. My father narrows his eyes and lowers his voice murderously when he recalls the moment. “Not this time,” he says and marches straight for the booth of Jason Cooper, the president of Trilobites of America.

Jason is about my age and about my build, and I can’t help but imagine him as some alternate version of me. He wears the belt knife and safari pants that were once my uniform and looks a little like a game warden from Jurassic Park. He studies geologic surveys, leases or buys land, hires out a crew, and excavates dinosaur bones to sell at shows like this one. “My company has the whole story,” he says. “We find it, dig it, finish it, sell it.”

He has dozens of fossils on display, along with photo narratives that show the excavation process, much of which takes place outside the town of Dinosaur, Colorado.

My father wastes no time with small talk. The show opened minutes ago, and people are streaming thickly through the aisles. “That diplodocus ulna,” he says and pulls out a thick wad of cash. “It’s mine.”

Anywhere else, we would be an unusual sight — two men hoisting an enormous black bone through a hotel lobby — but everyone in Tucson is here for the rock show, so they swarm us and admiringly call out, “Wow!” and “There’s a beaut!” and “I’ve got a stegosaurus plate on display at my dental office!”

The speakers in the elevator play Elvis Presley as we head to the third floor, and I note that the song is the perfect soundtrack for our quest for early rock. My father doesn’t laugh, maybe because it’s not funny, but maybe he’s just worried about my mother.

We knock and hear her moving about in the room, and she answers the door with sleep-mussed hair, and he says, “Have we got a surprise for you.”

“You got it!”

“We got it.”

We negotiate our way into the room and lay the bone down on the bed that’s still tangled and warm from her nap. “Well,” my father says. “What do you think?” He sweeps his arms outward, like a magician performing a trick.

“I think you’ve been dreaming about this all year, and now it’s finally come true.” 

“Yes. We finally got our dinosaur ulna.”

“Oh, this is so exciting.” She smiles and knits her fingers together in what looks like a prayer, and my father puts his arm around her and kisses the top of her head, and they stare at the bone lying on the bed while the window air conditioning wheezes and blasts the room with its crypt-cold breath.

My father owns thousands of rocks and fossils, and for every single one of them, he can rattle off the date and place they were harvested, all the way back to his childhood. And I know that years from now, when he stands before this diplodocus ulna, he will remember it as the fossil he bought when my mother’s veins were streaming with a chemical cocktail that made her feel half-alive.

Last year, my family vacationed at the Grand Canyon. When we hiked the switch-back trail — into the shade of the gaping chasm — my parents pointed out the layers of stone. Sandstone, limestone, shale. Red,

purple, tan, gray. My father lustily eyed the cliffs, and his hand closed around an imaginary pick. “I can practically smell the stromatolites,” he said.

My mother paused at a viewpoint and scanned the canyon with her binoculars. “Just think,” she said. “We’re touring our way into the past with every step we take, and by the time we get to the bottom, we’ll be in a world that’s billions of years old. Time travel is possible.”

That’s a little like how it feels every time I visit my parents. Like I’m swirling into the past, reliving my childhood.

In my day-to-day life, I’m so caught up in the rush of deadlines, parenting, housekeeping that I’m always focused on the future. Worried about whether the kids will need braces, about securing the next book deal, saving enough for college.

But I grew up focused on ancient history. And the traces of my past — the fossils of who I used to be — still exist at my parents’ house. In photo albums, in bins packed with my old report cards and sports trophies and school projects, in the stories my mother tells about me.

“Do you remember that time we went to the John Day fossil beds?”

“Which time?” I say. “We went to John Day a thousand times.”

She clarifies. The time we found that slab of siltstone — fanned with the needles of an ancient metasequoia — that we chipped out of the thinly bedded rock of what was once a shallow lake nearby.

“Oh, right,” I say. 

She goes on to describe how, on that trip, I was walking through a dry riverbed, hunting for agates, and nearly stepped on a diamondback rattler six feet long. It was sunning itself on a f lat stone, and if I hadn’t yelled for my sister to stop where she stood, only a few paces behind me, she would have leaped down onto it.

Or she tells the story of how, at the age of two, I walked out the door and hiked all the way up our long driveway — to the highway — and got “the spanking of a lifetime” to make certain I never wandered off again. Or the time my sister was riding a sheep and broke her arm. Or the time I was left alone in the truck and pulled the gearshift and started to roll backward down a hill and how I surely would have died if my father hadn’t chased after me and jumped through the open door and slammed the brake.

I do remember. With their help, I remember the wild strangeness of it all. When in their company, I am still the child, but now they are strangely the vulnerable ones.

My mother never finds her amber-trapped spider, so she buys some cyanobacteria instead — a knuckly mass of stromatolite. This one is 250 million years old and among the earlier forms of life on Earth.

It’s another two months yet until the surgery. The doctors will probe around in her body and slice the tumor from her — and I can’t help but imagine it will look a little like this discolored mound of rock.

“So…Mom?”

“Yes?” I can tell she’s worried about me, just as she worries about my father. How we’re processing her condition. “It’s OK. Ask me anything.”

So I do. “Why do you guys love rocks so damn much?”

At this my mother laughs. Her shoulders rise and fall in a shrug. “Why does anyone love anything?”

Because she does, damn it. That’s what she seems to be saying. Why do I like the color blue or pecan pie or autumn or horror movies? It’s just the way I’m hardwired.

Twenty minutes after I ask the question, she finally has an answer, “Why do I love this place? And all these stupid old bones and rocks?” She picks up a jagged piece of jade, a sick green color. “Because they took millions of years of grinding and braising and cooking to become a thing of beauty and end up in my hand right now. And because for a little while, for just a speck of their existence, I get to be their custodian.”

Permanence. The rocks will outlast our wonder for them, will outlast these words you’re reading now, will outlast our fragile bodies and this country and humankind altogether. They’re as close as we can get to forever.