Once a year - sometimes twice - a weekend came when Dad would carry us out to the van at five in the morning and we would head north. He loved leaving for trips before sunrise. We knew when the leaves started to turn, a weekend would be set aside for another trip to North Carolina. Neither Maggie Valley nor Franklin are far enough from metro Atlanta to warrant such an early rise but we didn't care! Gem panning and roller coasters waiting our arrival. The excitement far outweighed our early-rising grumps and we willingly allowed ourselves to be carried away in our pajamas knowing we'd have to dress on the way.
We'd change in the van, eat breakfast at Waffle House and count the miles until we pulled into a gem mine. No, we didn't climb down into caves with pick axes, humming dwarfish folk tunes or anything. The Appalachian Mountains are polka-dotted with family-friendly gem mines: no headlamps or hobbits required. It's called "panning" and we believed we were experts at it. A mine provided buckets of dirt, large framed screens for sifting through said dirt, troughs of running water and the promise you'd walk away with at least a sapphire, garnet or emerald. Salted mines were our choice. "Salted" means that the people who own the mine make sure there are rough gems in every bucket. Hey, call us soft but I've done the other kind, the kind that actually requires luck and trust me: paying for a bucket of dirt and walking away with nothing more than mud in your tennis shoes after three hours of sticking your hands in freezing cold water is NOT my idea of a challenge. It's more like Appalachian water torture. I may not have chiseled my finds from bare rock but the joy of discovery far out weighted any legitimate mining claims. Pioneering be damned!
Settled on the bench, we lifted the screen, propped it on the flume (the trough of running water) and Dad dumped in our dirt. It took a bit of time to get the cumbersome screen into the panning rhythm but soon the gems appeared and our shoes became soaked and covered in mud. We spent hours collecting stones, convinced this time one of us would take home a fortune. We never did. I still have many of those stones. They're in storage tucked into envelopes labeled "emeralds", "moonstones" and "rubies". Maybe one day I'll have them cut and put into a necklace. I think I'll call it "Franklin Mud Finds".