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Desert Dispatch Vol. 4

PHOTO OF THE WEEK: Man with Crystal by Carlos Morales. Each week, we'll feature a different image from a listener. It can be taken on a camera, a phone – whatever floats your boat. Send your snapshot to photos@marfapublicradio.org.
Carlos Morales
PHOTO OF THE WEEK: Man with Crystal by Carlos Morales. Each week, we'll feature a different image from a listener. It can be taken on a camera, a phone  whatever floats your boat. Send your snapshot to photos@marfapublicradio.org.

I meet Paul Graybeal at 10am on Friday at the Alpine Civic Center for the 33rd Annual Gem and Mineral Show. The doors officially opened at 9am, but Paul said that it wouldn’t be wise to meet so early, as he’d likely be “putting out various fires”: vendors coming in late, figuring out where to put everybody, and going to get lightbulbs and practical stuff. Sure enough, when I find him outside of the Civic Center, he's chasing a rogue Gem Show sign down the street.  

Paul is a member of the Chihuahuan Desert Gem & Mineral Club, which has hosted the Alpine Gem and Mineral Show since its conception in 1990. People come from all over Texas, even out of state, to set up shop.

Paul has been volunteering at the show for decades. He says the whole thing gives him anxiety attacks, but the club camaraderie makes it worth it. 

Carlos Morales

We walk into the civic center to see thousands of gems and rocks shining under the hot lights. Every surface is covered in shiny objects laid out on velvet trays, on shelves, in glass display cases, and hanging from gold and silver chains. Some less polished specimens sit in bins and Tupperwares: collections of petrified wood and desert rocks, agates and geodes in jagged formations and slices, submerged in water like tadpoles, which helps to show off their patterns and colors. 

As we walk through the center, it's clear Paul knows everybody. I quickly learn that this is the vibe— gem and mineral shows, especially local ones, become kind of like a family reunion: people catching up, offering tips, and admiring one another's collections. 

Paul walks me over to a folding table to show me his display: a menagerie of glassy jasper and agate cross-sections, splattered and striped with brilliant colors, most of them gathered in West Texas.  

Any geologist can tell you that the Big Bend is a particularly exciting place for those interested in gems and minerals: the whole region sits over an igneous aquifer, a complex of volcanic rocks formed over hundreds of millions of years. The rainless desert climate preserves the land, giving curious rock hunters a clear window into the past, and access to ancient specimens. Put simply, “it's not cluttered up with a lot of trees,” says mineral club member Judith Breuske, “so you can actually see the rocks.”

Paul runs Moonlight Gemstones, a rock shop on Marfa’s main drag. He started the business in the late 80s when he came out to West Texas to work for the McDonald Observatory as an electrician. After days of fixing radios and wiring at the observatory, he’d drive around collecting rocks and minerals under the setting sun. “At that point in time, it wasn't gigs. If you had a second job, you were moonlighting,” says Paul. “And that was a kind of a good name for somebody working at the Observatory.” So, Moonlight Gemstones was born.

Paul tells me his love of rock collecting began with fossils. When he first got a car, he’d drive out to the grasslands of South Dakota and spend hours hunting for artifacts, just like his parents did when he was younger. “It’s been in me all my life,” he says.

Rock Hound Diaries

Paul says there’s something hypnotic about rocks, at least for those who are predisposed to like them; he thinks it’s a genetic thing: you’re either into it or you’re not. That seems true— most of the enthusiasts I talked to inherited their love of rocks from their parents, like Jim Vest and his sister Janith Vest Stephenson. Their father was the Alpine postmaster (Janith said most people in town still call her the postmaster’s daughter). He’d take Janith and Jim to hunt rocks on local ranches, where they’d search all day and sleep under the stars.

“The ranchers would say to my dad, ‘you want to hunt rocks? That’s crazy!’" recounts Janith. "He’d tell them, 'not any crazier than chasing a golf ball.'"

Susan Woodward Spriggs remembers the first rock hunt that got her hooked: she found a gigantic geode with her dad, and as they were carrying it to his truck, it broke open. “It was filled with fingers of crystals. And then he said, 'This is where the fairies live,' and I've loved crystals ever since," she tells me.

Jim Vest and Janith Vest Stephenson
Zoe Kurland
Zoe Kurland
Jim Vest and Janith Vest Stephenson

Susan insists I talk to a couple she refers to as “the agate whisperers:” Katrina and Aaron Thomas, who moved to Alpine specifically to mine the unique volcanic rocks in the Big Bend. 

“Each rock tells its own story,” Katrina tells me. “The inclusions, the waterlines, the satellite bursts…every mineral comes from a certain point in the earth. It has to have the right environment to form itself." 

“It's adult Easter egg hunting,” says Aaron. “It's a lot of fun when you cut open one that completely knocks your socks off, and it’s different than what you thought. Something so ugly could be so beautiful.” 

And for some, rocks are romantic: Sue Franklin, the owner of the Balmorhea Rock Shop, fell in love with her husband Jim after he apprenticed with her. She taught Jim how to make jewelry, which he sells alongside Sue’s custom rock plaques. 

Looking at Jim’s display, it’s an array of jaunty cabochons, rocks and petrified wood. Jim says the rock tells him what it wants to be. Sue calls it “a freestyle approach.”

“A lot of his stuff is not my cup of tea,” she says, “a little off-kilter.” But still, she loves that he expresses himself. 

Agate in a Trough
Carlos Morales
Carlos Morales
Agate in a Trough


Raquetero: It means a dishonest raconteur, somebody who tells fantastical stories with the aim of deceiving their listeners. To raquetear is a talent, and in the past when there were no movies or other avenues for entertainment, raqueteros were in demand. They would spin seemingly endless yarns, sometimes funny and sometimes merely exhilarating, but only believable enough to keep everybody’s attention. But after they went out of fashion, the raqueteros turned their talent to intrigue, gossip and conspiratorialism, just telling stories to disrupt the order of things. The mediocre ones merely annoyed everybody. The best ones cause major chaos without anybody knowing they’re doing it. Who hates a raquetero the most? Another raquetero.Caló is a borderland dialect. You can find more episodes here.

Other programming:

For years, descendants of the people buried in El Cementerio del Barrio de los Lipanes had one modest goal: to keep the remains of their ancestors safe. This month marked the completion of the community restoration project at the site — which includes the return of the land to the Lipan Apache Tribe, the construction of a welcoming memorial, and the planned repatriation of Native remains. Our border reporter Annie Rosenthal takes listeners on an audio tour of the cemetery, speaking with the descendants, architects, and educators behind the effort. Listen here.

Lake Boehmer is a roughly sixty acre body of water that sprouted from a former oil well that's been allowed to leak for decades.
Mitch Borden
Marfa Public Radio
Lake Boehmer is a roughly sixty acre body of water that sprouted from a former oil well that's been allowed to leak for decades.

For the last century, the land in the Permian Basin has been picked over and punctured in the search for oil, leaving behind thousands of defunct wells. Just north of Fort Stockton, old wells have been bursting open, threatening the environment and groundwater. This week, we’re airing a three-part investigative series from Mitch Borden looking into one notorious, toxic leak and the fight to get it plugged. Listen to that series here.

Tonight, tune into a special Marfa Mystery Hour at 8 p.m., featuring deep cuts from Brown-eyed soul musicians hosted by MPR’s own DJ Tear Drop and DJ El Barto. Ahead of this show, check out this mini playlist.

  1. No One Else But You - The Eptones
  2. Baby, Something's Wrong - Danny & the Dreamers
  3. Nunca, Nunca, Nunca - Los Sonor's
  4. Cartagena - Reyna Tropical
  5. Smile now, Cry Later - Sunny and Sunliners

You can catch The Marfa Mystery Hour every week at 8 p.m., and find all of our music shows on our Mixcloud.


The Chinati Foundation presents their annual Community Day on Sunday, April 28th. The day will feature open hours at the Judd Foundation Art Studio, open viewing of select Chinati Foundation spaces, an exhibition of artwork by Marfa ISD students, and in the evening, a community dinner with live music. For more information, visit Chinati.org.

If you have PSAs you want on the air or in this newsletter, head to www.marfapublicradio.org/psa.

Photo by Sarah Vasquez

Join us for our Block Party on Friday May 3!

We’ll be in the Marfa Public Radio driveway to celebrate the end of our Spring Drive, with music from local DJs David Branch of Honky Tonk Happy Hour, Michael Camacho of The Rock Pillow, and Jacquline Delolmo, aka Sweetheart of the Radio.  We’re so excited to open up the radio station and celebrate with y’all.

Come by from 6-9 p.m. for drinks and dancing in the driveway.And check out our beautiful premiums for this Spring Drive, like this Marfa Public Radio camping mug:

The Marfa Public Radio Enamel Camping Mug
Carlos Morales
The Marfa Public Radio Enamel Camping Mug

Merch in the Wild

Here's Kathy in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, rocking her Marfa Radio Filth Mart tee.

Do you drink coffee out of your Marfa Public Radio diner mug? Do you wear your Marfa Public Radio hat on hikes? Do you carry groceries in a Marfa Public Radio tote?

If you wear, use or spot Marfa Public Radio merch out and about, send a photo to photos@marfapublicradio.org with the subject line "Merch in the Wild.”

And you can get your own MPR merch here!