SWEETWATER STATION, Wyo. (AP) - Opal fever blazed across the Wyoming hills Saturday.
Dozens of would-be gemstone millionaires staked claims on federal land after the Wyoming State Geological Survey on Friday named the site of a potentially rich opal deposit in Fremont County.
A few had the tools of surveyors and professional treasure hunters. Most were decidedly less sophisticated.
"My wife thinks I'm nuts," said Willie Rios, a lawyer for the Jefferson County Public Defenders Office, holding an iron mallet and metal stakes as he gazed across the brushy Rattlesnake Hills on Saturday morning.
He chose the side of a dusty mesa framed by a creek bed that fills in the summer, attracting rattlesnakes by the score.
Just before the site was identified 250 miles away in Laramie on Friday morning, Charles Albrecht, a Wyoming surveyor for half a century, waited in line at the Geological Survey office, holding a Post-It Note with the number 1, showing he was first in line and would get the first map made public.
"This kind of discovery, of opal, might be unique," said Albrecht, a Colorado School of Mines alumnus. "This size of the find might be unique.
"The thrill of it is definitely unique."
If state geologists are right - that valuable gemstones are there for the taking - then this weekend's motley crew of modern prospectors could include future millionaires.
If it's pretty and reflects a prism of colors, a common opal can sell for $5 to $10 a stone. High-quality black opal can sell for $1,000 a carat, according to the American Gem Society.
The veins of opal could be 50 feet thick beneath portions of a 1,680-acre site.
The miners' path to easy street will be paved with determination and hard digging in the hills north of Sweetwater Station in Fremont County, where the land undulates with rattlesnakes, horned toads and buzzards, locals warn.
Friday afternoon, the wind blew hard and bitterly cold, as if it were mad about something, as Kathy Wallom, a part-time librarian from Littleton, and Denver graphic artist Mickie Goggin sank their 4-foot-long cedar post in the heart of their claim.
Monday they will file paperwork on the 600- by 1,500-foot swath. If no one else has an older claim - and no endangered species inhabit the site - any riches will be theirs.
"We're going to call it the Giddy Up and Go Mine," Goggin said, cutting a glance at Wallom, "because she got me up at 4 a.m. and made me go."
Except for a yellow-handled pick from Home Depot, their tools were more suited to gardening than prospecting. With all their friends and family who enjoy searching for rocks, they will nibble away at the steep hillside of their claim in no time at all, Wallom said.
"We're looking for opal, we're looking for jade, and we're looking for a place to go camping with our friends," she said, explaining a more humble reason why she got up early and drove - sometimes at 100 mph - 420 miles from Denver in a 15-year-old Toyota Corolla.
Casey Atkinson's luck had already been good.
Living in a tent in an artist's storage space, she read of the find in the newspaper last week in Telluride.
Darrell Everding of Leadville pulled over to offer her a ride and just happened to go north to look for opal as well.
"It's just the adventure of it all," he said, a map in hand.
"We're going to be rich," Atkinson chimed.
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