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Digging for Tourmaline in SoCal’s Oceanview Mine

Legend says that an evil spirit, enraged at his own ugliness, vowed to destroy all which was beautiful. One day while sitting in the mouth of a cave, the spirit gazed up to the sky and saw a rainbow. Filled with spite, he grasped the rainbow, shattered it, and buried the colorful shards deep within the cave. And in doing so, gave the gem tourmaline to mankind.

With legends and folklore as colorful as the gem itself, it comes as no surprise that tourmaline remains one of the top five most desirable gems of the modern world. Coveted by the Rajas of India, the Czars of Russia, and the Emperors of China, few jewels rival the brilliance and chromatic array of tourmaline. And few places on earth produce such jaw-dropping specimens as Southern California’s Pala Gem Mining District.

At the turn of the 20th century, Tz’u Hsi, China’s last Dowager Empress, loved San Diego’s pink tourmaline so much that she directly funded the mining operations there, leading to the rise of the Pala Gem Mining District and The San Diego Tourmaline Mining Company. 

Today, of those 72 mines pocking the mountains of San Diego’s Pala Gem Mining District, the Oceanview Mine remains one of the last operating underground mines. Thanks to the dedicated men and women of the Oceanview Mines, mineralogists and gem enthusiasts, such as myself, can dig alongside the miners in search of the next big payload.

Located an hour north of downtown San Diego, Jeff Swanger, CEO and owner of Oceanview Mines, LLC, opens his gates to welcome the public three days a week. “We produce about 50 tons a week to be sifted. Many think we go through it first but this is false. There’s no way we could go through it and continue mining! When we open a pocket with a blast, we recover what’s stuck to the mine wall but most gets blasted into muck or rubble to be found by our guests. You would be amazed what’s been found by our guests over the years!” Best of all, guests keep every single gem they find, no matter the size or value.

But before diving bucket-first into a gravel pile, what exactly do we as guests need to look for? I headed to Oceanview Mine to find out. After a dusty, bumpy drive an undulating mountain road and through a massive citrus orchard, I arrived in a gravel lot overlooking the yucca covered valley below. As the sun steadily crept towards its zenith, Janie Amsler, one of Oceanview’s knowledgable rockhounds, gathered us all there to dig that day around to demonstrate how to identify the gems and minerals regularly unearthed at Oceanview.

Holding up a large sparkling crystal, she explained how the mine continually turns out pockets of verdant green and violet tourmaline, but peachy morganite, brilliant aquamarine, lavender-hued lepidolite, and lilac kunzite also make appearances within the gravel pile. Within Chief Mountain, the Oceanview Mine produces colors and matrixes found nowhere else in the world.

Now that we knew what to look for, Janie then established the proper etiquette of gathering gravel and working efficiently and respectfully with fellow diggers. With the buckets and shovels provided, guests needed to quickly fill their buckets from the gravel pile without lingering or “pile digging” and return to their station in order to make room for others. At our screening stations, we dumped the buckets into the wooden 1/2” mesh tray stacked directly on top of another 1/4” mesh tray in order to dry sift the contents.

To preserve the equipment, the gravel gets sifted by hand instead of sliding, banging, or shaking the trays. This dry sifting technique reveals large chunks of granite and clay, making them easy to remove. The now-sifted tray undergoes a rinse in the water bath, revealing any crystals hidden amongst the large rocks. The same process is repeated for the 1/4” tray before returning to the gravel pile for another bucket of gem-rich debris.

Between sifting, sluicing, and searching, Jeff and his team take each guest on a personal jeep tour of Chief Mountain. Diggers see first-hand the mining operations and historic tunnels crisscrossing Chief Mountain as well as the Pala Chief Mine and Tourmaline Queen Mine.

In the darkness of one of the tunnels, illuminated only by headlamps, I asked why anyone would want to be a miner. While prying a chunk from the tunnel wall with a small pick, miner Jason Evans eloquently stated, “Personally, I find it absolutely fascinating to be able to unearth something that has been hidden away for millions of years. It is truly breathtaking to be able to physically pull a crystal from within the earth and bring that crystal into the light for the first time in its history.”

Running his fingers inside the decades-old scars left behind by ancient pickaxes, my guide and drilling-blasting expert, Steve Carter, expounded on the advancements made in modern mining and blasting. As we bounced our way back towards the dig site, he said, “The great thing about my job is I get paid to make one heck of a mess,” with the slightest ghost of a smile. 

While speaking with Jeff about the rise and fall of Pala Gem Mining District, he credits his team for allowing Oceanview to stay active when so many others failed. “We have been open so long on sheer will. And tourism allows us just to be able to do what we love. We have found so many historic finds and I feel blessed to have such a hard-working crew who works well together and makes it happen!” 

After hours of chipping away at the gravel pile the dig finally winds down. Guests and miners pour over the days find and congratulate each other on the day’s find. Covered in a fine layer of monochromatic dust with bags of brightly colored stones, the day ends as most days do, I imagine. With sore backs and scraped knuckles but genuine enthusiasm and eagerness all the same. For more information or to schedule a dig, please visit their website at www.DigForGems.com.

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Travel

Awesomely Authentic Adventures with Airbnb Experiences: San Diego

So imagine this. You’ve never even touched a surfboard until an hour ago. And yet you, drenched in the cold salt waters of the Pacific, just managed to ride a crashing wave all the way to the shallows. Just yesterday, you were down in Mexico eating octopus street tacos while sipping unpronounceable craft microbrews from a balcony overlooking Avenida Revolución. And tomorrow’s itinerary includes a sunset stand-up paddleboarding trip around Mission Bay, complete with a bonfire on the beach to round out the last of my Airbnb E.

But what exactly is an Airbnb Experience, you ask? Quoted directly from Airbnb’s site, “Airbnb Experiences are activities designed and led by inspiring locals. They go beyond typical tours or classes by immersing guests in each host’s unique world. It’s an opportunity for anyone to share their hobbies, skills, or expertise without needing an extra room.”

From a day spent on the beach with rescue dogs to a farm-to-fork cooking class with a chef, there are dozens of eager hosts willing to share their very best version of San Diego with visitors. But of all the amazingly awesome endeavors, three caught my fancy:

Day Trip Across the Border

But border towns are dangerous, you say.  Although not the most glamorous destinations to come to mind, especially with the latest news coverage, don’t let fear be your first emotion. With a little effort and the right guide, safely unearthing stellar artistry and culture among these political hotbeds makes them undoubtedly worth a visit. Especially Tijuana. Home to over 2 million people and the largest border crossing in the world, Tijuana exudes a vibe both complimentary to San Diego and yet altogether unique. 

Ricardo, our local guide,  greeted our small, intimate group at the Chula Vista Trolley Station. Following introductions, we piled into his shuttle van for a short trip to the International border crossing of San Ysidro. After parking and escorting us through the pedestrian border crossing, Ricardo hailed 2 Ubers which whisked us all off to Avenida Revolución. Here we marveled at the ornately arched facade of the El Foro Antiguo Palacio Jai Alai. Once a grande sporting arena for the high-octane sport of jai alai, this palace now serves Tijuana as an ornate concert hall. Continuing along, we strolled past Caesar’s Hotel, of the now famous Caesar Salad. 

From there we descended upon the vibrant open-air market of Mercado Hildago. An absolute feast for the senses, the air carried a myriad of aromas emanating from the clay vessels mounded high with exotic spices, stacks of salt dried fish, and buckets of handmade caramel. Vendors passed out freshly sliced cactus, bright pink hairy fruit called rambutan, and decadent chunks of a dessert containing coconut and tequila.

All that walking builds up a mighty thirst so we stepped into a favorite local brewery for a beer and small plate of nachos before catching another Uber to the famed Tijuana Cultural Center. Visited by more than 1.5 million people a year, a third of which are children, the Tijuana Cultural Center boasts a theater, IMAX dome, the Museo de las Californias, a botanical garden, an aquarium, and more.

Before heading back stateside, we made our way to Tijuana’s famous Telefonica Gastropark to try Baja-Med fusion cuisine. Composed entirely of world-class food trucks collected around a craft brewery, this gastropark features everything from sweet vegan tacos to smokey handmade sausages and meats. Beneath the rainbow of umbrellas and strings of lights, the savory scents of grilled meats and fiery sauces rolling out of each truck made making a culinary decision almost impossible.

Certified Surf Lessons

Although the act of wiggling into a clingy wetsuit may be undignified and mildly exhausting, the thrill of conquering your first wave more than makes up for any embarrassing wetsuit-induced noises one might produce. But before plunging headfirst into the churning Pacific, novices, such as yours truly, must undergo some basic training. From of the shores of Mission Beach, the instructors of Surfari Surf School cover everything from understanding surf jargon to the proper way to plant feet when standing on the board.

After going through the paces numerous times, we take to the water. The frigid waters of the Pacific Ocean quickly fade from the strenuous effort of wading out to the breakers with a 10-foot surfboard in tow. Holding the nose of the board, the instructor then signals to paddle! Two big paddles and suddenly the board is hurdling towards the shore. Through the sheer childlike giddiness of skimming across the surface of the water, one might forget they should attempt to stand up (guilty).

With the practiced motions learned only moments before, I move from laying-to kneeling-to standing-to surfing! Even if just for a few seconds. Wave after wave, I paddle, kneel, then stand. Sometimes making it all the way to the shore, other times, not quite. But who cares?!? I was really, genuinely surfing! After an hour of instructor-led surfing, students have the option to continue surfing for another hour. That is…if you can still feel your extremities.

Paddle Board Sunset Glow Tour

After a week of gorging on fish tacos, exploring every inch of Balboa Park, and delving into the mines of the Pala Gem Mining District for an upcoming article for Lost Treasure Magazine (yes, that’s a shameless plug), a relaxing evening on the water sounded divine. As the endlessly sunny skies of San Diego shifted from bright azure to a rosy peach, Jason, of Glow Tour host and owner of WanderSurf Board Company, quickly walked us through the ins and outs of standup paddle boarding. Once the LED lights were attached to the boards, we pushed off across the still waters of Bonita Cove. 

Illuminated by the soft blue lights, stingrays glided beneath us as small silvery fish darted back and forth. We slowly and steady maneuvered toward the Mission Bay Channel leading to the ocean. Lobster divers showed off their catches as we paddled by, while the guttural grunts of sea lions carried across the water from a nearby fishing dock. For two hours we leisurely circumnavigated the bay before heading back to the shore. With the San Diego skyline glimmering behind us and the Pacific waves crashing next to us, we crowded around Jason’s beach bonfire for a nightcap before saying goodbye.

After experiencing such amazingly authentic adventures curated by passionate locals and supported by Airbnb, I hope you will give Airbnb Experiences a try. I’d love to hear all about it! Already tried one? Share it in the comment section below!