THE SHOW MUST GO ON
A PERSONAL MEMOIR OF TUCSON 2006

By Geoffrey Notkin

I have a friend here in Tucson who loves the show as much as I do. In late January I wait to hear from her. It’s only a matter of time until I receive that much-anticipated phone call: “Geoff! The tents are going up. The tents are going up.” That means it’s beginning, it’s on the way: the biggest and best coming-together of rockhounds the world has ever seen.

It was back in 1998 that my great friend Steve Arnold and I made our first visit to Tucson. We are both meteorite hunters and enthusiasts—or, perhaps fanatics would be a more accurate word. We’d been told that the annual Gem and Mineral show held each February in the Baked Apple (as Tucson is affectionately known by some of its inhabitants) was the place to buy and sell meteorites. I could not have foreseen the great changes that would occur in my life as a result of that innocent journey.

At the time, Steve was living outside of Tulsa, and I was living outside of New York City. The Sonoran Desert seemed an awfully long way to go without doing any meteorite hunting, so we agreed to rendezvous in Odessa, Texas. We spent a couple of days buzzing our detectors around the crater there, found a few small irons, then drove through northwest Texas and on into southern Arizona. Once we arrived in Tucson, our first stop was the hotel room of prominent Colorado meteorite dealer Blaine Reed. We enjoyed a few beers and a cigar under the tall palm trees of the old Ramada Inn University, and inspected Blaine’s fabulous collection of meteorites — a ritual which we maintained through the years that followed. The customary first stop at Blaine’s room may not have changed, but pretty much everything else has.

I have never missed a Tucson show, since that first jaunt back in the late nineties. Leaving the cold and snow of New York for two weeks of Arizona sunshine each February was too enticing an opportunity to pass up. The annual show was always the highlight of the year for me. Eventually, I became so enamored by Tucson that I decided never to go home. In 2004, I left my old life behind and moved permanently to this charming southwestern city, with its lively Mexican influence, Wild West flavor, and thriving music and arts scene. I have often wondered if anyone else’s life has been impacted quite so dramatically by a rock and fossil show.

It all started pretty small, back in 1955, with a free exhibition put together at a local school by the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society. In later years the event moved to a spot in Tucson’s Rodeo Grounds, and slowly grew into the largest and most amazing display of rocks, fossils, gems, minerals and meteorites of all time. Conservative estimates put the annual number of visitors at 50,000, and that’s a big influx for a city whose urban population is around 550,000. You either love it or you hate it. The most frequently heard comment among locals during February would be: “Well, it is the Gem Show.” Such an observation might be used to explain the relentless traffic, the lack of parking, the overcrowded post offices, the fact that every rental car and hotel room is booked (at a highly inflated rate), and that all popular restaurants are packed to capacity. And then there’s the cavalcade of gigantic white tents, full of trilobites and amethyst cathedrals, which have taken over parking lots, hotel forecourts, and even some of the smaller streets.

It’s rather difficult to explain clearly, but there are many different shows that co-exist, simultaneously, and with a fair degree of civility, during a three-week period from late January to mid-February. The original Tucson Gem and Mineral Show now convenes in the city’s monolithic convention center, and it is vast. Hundreds of dealers occupy the high-ceilinged, modernist space, selling everything from diamonds to dinosaur bones. But it’s a retail show. We call it “The Big Show,” and it’s mostly for school kids, and tourists, and regular, sensible people who aren’t obsessive collectors, or wily dealers. Don’t get me wrong: the Convention Center show is a wonderful event, big on education and every year featuring a different theme (this year it was Gems and Minerals of Canada). The organizers see it as their responsibility to help fire up the next generation of paleontologists and prospectors with wide-eyed enthusiasm. But for the serious collector it is in hundreds of hotel rooms, scattered across the city, that the show really shines.

Fossil dealers from England, moldavite miners from the Czech Republic, meteorite hunters from Russia, France, and South America, and experts on Australian opals rent out rooms in many of Tucson’s big hotels. And they take all the rooms. The InnSuites—a stylish, classy place with fruit-heavy orange trees decorating its grassy courtyard—becomes a temporary home for many of the world’s high profile meteorite dealers. Hotel furniture is removed and replaced with glass display cabinets and stock that’s literally out of this world. It’s a friendly, carnival-like atmosphere, especially around sunset when vendors open a bottle of wine, and relax after a long day of answering tedious questions along the lines of, “How do you know they’re really from outer space?”

Year by year, the flavor of the show evolves. There are more meteorite dealers now than ever before. Some hotels have closed, and some entirely new venues have opened up. Once-common meteorites like the Gibeon iron from Namibia now sell for ten times what they did ten years ago. Sikhote-Alin, the beautiful witnessed-fall Russian iron, once readily available by the flat, has now all but disappeared from the marketplace. The hot desert meteorite rush—a literal flood of unclassified stones coming out of Northwest Africa has peaked, and is beginning to ebb. I’m not sure the Moroccans have noticed, though, as every third room seems to display orthoceras (fossil squid) plates, and ammonites and trilobites of dubious authenticity, but clearly of North African origin. And then there’s always a box of dirty stone meteorites sitting on a shelf. If you pick one up for a closer look, it’s already too late: “Is nice stone, my friend, yes? Xow much you want to pay? Xow much ... you tell me! Look my friend, is eukrit. See . . . is eukrit. Xow much you pay? Fifty cents gramma?”

Once a determined Moroccan salesman has his sites on you, it’s time to either run or produce your wallet.

Most of these African stone meteorites are uninteresting chunks, heavily weathered by centuries of exposure to Saharan winds, but every now and then someone with a good eye will spot an unrecognized treasure. I passed Canadian collector David Gregory at the Executive Inn. He was walking between rows of Moroccan tents, in the bright sunshine, carrying a big flat, and wearing a big smile. I asked what he’d found, and he showed me a few pounds of a hitherto unknown ureilite—a rare and valuable stone meteorite which often contains micro diamonds—discovered in a tub of miscellaneous junk. No wonder he was smiling.

Years ago, there wasn’t much in the way of a social calendar during the show. Vendors would work all day, have a few drinks in the evening, gossip, do a couple of under-the-table deals, and try to get some sleep in their overcrowded rooms before the next day’s onslaught of buyers. If you wanted to stay up late and have some fun, Blaine and Blake Reed’s room was the prime destination. At almost any hour you could (and still can) expect to find cold beer and a gang of laughing meteorite enthusiasts ready to entertain you.

At some point during our long friendship, Steve and I discovered that we had the same birthday—February 1. Since that date falls during the show, it seemed only natural that we should throw a party. Like the show itself, the party started small—perhaps forty people having dinner at the El Charro Mexican restaurant downtown. I think it’s fair to say that our party has accidentally grown into the biggest social event, anywhere, for meteorite collectors, and it has changed venue several times. The party’s current home is the Copper Club on North Oracle, a private, almost secret location hidden within a closed-down hotel. The manager opens up the club just for me, once a year, and it’s a heck of a party. This year was special: Steve was turning 40 and I was turning 45, but something bigger than that was going on too.

Steve had made the greatest discovery of his life just a couple of months earlier. Hunting in the old strewnfield known to Nininger and H.O. Stockwell, he had uncovered a new main mass of the Brenham pallasite—an oriented stony-iron meteorite weighing 1,430 pounds. Later, I joined Steve in the hunt, and together we pulled several more Brenhams out of the ground. The “World Record Meteorite,” as it was dubbed, captured the attention of the media and was featured in hundreds of news outlets around the world. It was a moment of great triumph for Steve, and being the friendly guy he is, he wanted to share his success with friends. So, we brought the big Brenham to Tucson. There was plenty to celebrate.

Steve’s business partner, Phil Mani, designed and built a steel display stand for the monster iron, and Steve drove it, along with his family, and his other finds, all the way to Tucson. We arranged with show promoter Marty Zinn to display the giant in the courtyard at the InnSuites, and Arizona Fish and Game officers were hired to give it 24-hour security.

Steve’s arrival was suitably grand: he pulled into the InnSuites car park in a canary yellow Hummer with a colorful Brenham Meteorite Company logo on the side. It was quite an entrance. Hardy volunteers helped us manoeuvre the three quarter-ton space rock onto a fork lift truck and then into its temporary resting place in the courtyard. Steve occupied a selling room nearby, and set up the rest of the Brenham pallasites and siderites he’d pulled out of a flat field in Kansas, along with a fascinating array of hardware: hammers, plow blades, chains, harness fittings. All of them forgotten relics which our detectors stumbled across while looking deep into the earth for meteorites.

Across the courtyard, Mike Farmer, together with his pals Jim Strope and Eric Olsen were putting together a magnificent spread of top quality meteorites, including a personal solar system of lunar and martian material recovered by Mike himself. The ever-cheerful Hans Koser beamed away in his room full of Campo del Cielos, and I amused myself for hours looking through tub after tub of sweet little sculpted irons—Campitos as he calls them. Anne Black set up her display of Impactika’s rare meteorites on the second floor, and veteran hunter Marvin Kilgore was there too, representing the Southwest Meteorite Center. Alan Carion from France; Eduardo Jawerbaum from Argentina; Edwin Thompson from Oregon state; Pieter and Debra Heydelaar with their mind-bending array of gold nuggets and Australian meteorites; Bruno Fectay and Carine Bidaut recently married, and still a meteorite-hunting team; all together in one place with an assortment of stones, irons, and pallasites to rival any museum. And that was just one hotel.

Sooner or later everyone goes to Blaine’s room, and this year visitors were treated to a batch of recently-found Seymchan pieces from Russia. With an etch pattern to rival Carbo, and a dollar-per-gram cost only a fraction of comparable pallasites, these beautiful specimens were one of the hits of the show. A mile down the road, in Bud Eisler’s room at the Day’s Inn, we found examples of the mysterious Fukang pallasite from China. This stellar new find rivals Esquel, with its oversize, angular, emerald green crystals. Its price rivaled Esquel too. A few doors down we enjoyed a chat with South Africa’s Karl Sprich who showed off intriguingly-shaped slices of Gibeon and Taza. In the middle of the Day’s Inn courtyard, the gentlemanly José Guggiari of Rockgems covered a row of folding tables with enough big Campo del Cielo irons to sink a battleship, while his partner Vince Pellerin tried out the brand new JOGS show down near the airport.

If you want to see everything you need a car, a map, a show guide, and a lot of time and energy. You can tour all day, every day, for two straight weeks, and still not see it all, but we do try.

At the opposite end of town, up in the northwest corner, and under the imposing shadow of the Catalina Mountains, a most sophisticated gathering was underway at the elite Westward Look Resort. Bob Haag, the original Meteorite Man, once again hosted a fabulous display of pallasites, while his lovely wife, Heidi, charmed a non-stop line of visitors. Next door, veteran collector Allan Lang presented an almost overwhelming collection of iron meteorites, including vintage Nininger Canyon Diablos, exemplary sculpted Gibeons and Sikhote-Alins. Al said these represented “the best of the best” from his many years of collecting. Visitors were suitably impressed.

The middle weekend of the show is when things really start to heat up. On the Thursday afternoon, the InnSuites threw a “Meet the Meteorite Hunter” reception for Steve Arnold, his friends and family, and—of course—the big Brenham. One of the best pieces of news going around this year was that Meteorite magazine, would continue under the leadership of Larry and Nancy Lebofsky, and Derek and Hazel Sears. Larry was on hand during the reception, busy working on a documentary film, and orchestrated an interview with Steve, who is a natural in front of the camera.

Once the reception was over, it was off to the Arizona Plaza hotel, where my friends with the Association of Applied Paleontological Sciences were preparing for their annual dinner and charity auction—a fun and exciting event which generates scholarship funds for aspiring paleontologists. A number of meteorites were among the many items donated for the auction.

Friday meant it was time for the Seventh Annual Meteor Mayhem Birthday Bash and Harvey Awards. The Harveys—named in honor of our hero Harvey H. Nininger—are presented each year to members of the meteorite community who have made an outstanding contribution to the field.

The first award was long overdue, and richly deserved. I once told former Meteorite magazine editor and publisher, Dr. Joel Schiff, that we weren’t going to give him an award until he came to the show to claim it (a rather feeble ploy to encourage my friend to visit Tucson), but we relented. Joel won the Lifetime Achievement Award for his more than ten years’ work helming Meteorite. The new co-editor, Larry Lebofsky, accepted the award on Joel’s behalf.

Prolific author Martin Horejsi was honored for his many articles in Meteorite and Meteorite Times. Genius inventor William H. “Rusty Bill” Mason received the Lawrencite Award for his work in meteorite preservation. Bruno Fectay and Carine Bidaut were recognized for their many important planetary meteorite finds. Blake Reed, Blaine’s twin brother, received the Ambassador Award, and author and adventurer Dr. Alain Carion also received a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Following those presentations, International Meteorite Collectors’ Association President, Anne Black, introduced a new category: The People’s Choice Awards. The meteorite community voted to recognize Steve Arnold and Phil Mani for their Brenham discovery, along with myself for charity work within the community. I felt honored and somewhat embarrassed to receive an award which I helped invent, but any such questionable feelings were quickly washed away by roars of applause as Bob Haag appeared on stage to present Steve with his award, and declared him to be the new “King of the Pallasites.”

Saturday morning found me back at the Westward Look Resort, preparing for the annual R.A. Langheinrich auction. Some of the highlights included specimens of Nakhla, Winona, a Nininger Canyon Diablo with natural hole, and many other fabulous items from one of the world’s foremost private collections. Lisa Marie Morrison, a noted local jewelry designer and owner of Sirocco Design, made for a most elegant hostess, serving champagne to the room full of bidders.

With barely time for a sandwich and a change of clothes, it was off to Michael Blood’s evening auction, in the company of my friend and Arizona meteorite specialist Bob Holmes.

As usual, Michael’s auction was extremely well attended, and the VFW hall in which it takes place is a large and comfortable venue with full bar and snack menu. Native Tusconans Twink and Larry Monrad and Professor Jim Kriegh, discoverer of Arizona's famed Gold Basin meteorite, treated the entire cast by delivering a glorious Gold Basin birthday cake, with an icing-covered depiction of the famous Arizona strewnfield.

Seen inspecting the 130-plus auction lots were Dr. Art Ehlmann and Teresa Moss, Curator and Director, respectively, of the Oscar Monnig Meteorite Gallery in Fort Worth. Popular collector Gregory Wilson flew in from Hawaii, and Meteorite Times impresarios Paul Harris and Jim Tobin kept a sharp eye out for bargains. The auction is always a long, long night, and by the time we’d paid up, said our good nights, and made it back to the car, it was well past 12:30 am.

This year’s show was particularly entertaining for me because of my excellent houseguests: Mike Jensen, of Denver’s Jensen Meteorites, and his brother Bill. We sat up late every night, swapping meteorite hunting stories and laughing like madmen. The brothers turned out to be skilled carpenters and fixed the folding doors to my utility room in their spare time. During the day they served as admirable meteorite scouts. One afternoon, a little before sunset, I sat down with Bill for a well-deserved beer. He said he wanted to show me something, and produced a small, exquisitely regmaglypted Henbury. We’ve all seen Henburys for sale during the show, but they are usually shrapnel-like fragments. This marvelous piece was covered in thumbprints. Bill had barely finished telling me where he’d acquired it, and I was out the door, yelling over my shoulder: “I’ll be right back. I need to get one of those.”

Once we’d made it through the big weekend and I had discharged all my obligations with parties, clients, and auctions, there was some time left over to enjoy the company of friends, and tour around town a little more. I insist on making time for a visit to the Tucson Electric Park, where the tool dealers set up. Polishing equipment, rock cutting gear, and jeweler’s implements fill a couple of circus-sized tents, and there is always some useful or bizarre piece of rock preparation equipment that needs to go home with me.

As the third and final weekend rolls around, the party atmosphere begins to fade. Buyers say their farewells, and head back to New York, Toronto, California. A few dealers who have had either a very successful show and sold out, or a very disappointing one, and sold little, have already packed up. The Ryder trucks and U-Haul vans appear and the big old tents start coming down.

Walking around the InnSuites courtyard on one of the last evenings, I felt genuine sadness. The show was closing down for another year. A lot of the rooms were dark, though a few determined sellers still sat behind brightly illuminated cases of jewels and fossils. Standing alone, under a dark palm tree, I tried to work out how to describe the magic and wonder of this event to people who weren’t fortunate enough to attend.

The Tucson Show is a miniature United Nations that works. It brings together enthusiasts and businessmen from Siberia, Scotland, Austria, and Australia. Everyone shares a vital and common interest in the natural treasures of the earth. It all serves to remind us that we rockheads are really not that different from one another, no matter our country of origin or political orientation.

One of the many benefits of living in Tucson is the chance to go scavenging. As the show draws to a close, there is always stock left over. Dealers are faced with a dilemma: do they unload material cheaply, or go to the expense of sending it back home? I always partake in a little bargaining at the end, along the lines of: “Come on you don’t want to ship that all the way back to Argentina.” If my tactics are successful, I get to park a new acquisition or two into the trunk and drive it home. No last-minute rushes to the UPS store for me.

On the final day of the show, I happened to meet an enterprising young man, half African-American, and half Chinese at the Holidome—the linchpin of Tucson’s jewelry market. He’d imported a troop of graceful hand carved limestone statues from Hubei Province. The finest of the lot, a lithe and sensuous sculpture of the goddess Qwan Yen was not happy. She’d fared poorly on the long sea journey from China; her head had snapped off cleanly at the neck and she now had little chance of finding a new home. After a round of negotiating, the seller let me take her home for one third her original price. Slender though she is, Qwan Yen still weighs in at 300 pounds.

As my friends headed back to their respective cities and countries, I spent a little time with Qwan Yen, and some glue and portland cement. Now, like me, she’s almost as good as new, and enjoying a happier life in Tucson. She stands in the front garden under a palo verde tree, aglow each night in the soft illumination of three solar powered accent lights, waiting for next year’s visitors to arrive.

See you in February.


 

GEOFFREY NOTKIN
is a co-host of the award-winning TV series Meteorite Men, a science writer, photographer, art director, and meteorite specialist. He writes a column for Geology.com and his work has appeared in Astronomy, Sky & Telescope, Meteorite, Wired, Sky & Telescope, Reader's Digest, Rock & Gem, Seed, Geotimes, Lapidary Journal, The Village Voice and many other publications. He writes a daily science blog for TucsonCitizen.com. He works regularly in television and has appeared in documentaries for PBS, the BBC, Discovery Channel, The History Channel, The Travel Channel, and A&E. Geoffrey was born in New York City, raised in London, England, fell in love with Tucson many years ago and is delighted to now call it home. To learn more, please visit his website: Aerolite Meteorites


This article orginally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the May, 2006 issue of Meteorite magazine, and is presented here by kind permission of the editors and publisher. © 2006 by Meteorite magazine. All rights reserved.