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The Sun City Rockhounds have a saying: 'Stay around, it’s worth the wait'

Driving through the quiet, sun-drenched streets of Sun City, Arizona, feels a bit like being on a movie set. The lawns are bright green, and the shades are drawn on the pale-toned, single-story houses. Flags ripple in the desert breeze, and everything is quiet.

Once upon a time, the orchard town of Marinette, known for its navel oranges and grapefruits, stood here. In 1920, the Southwest Cotton Company bought the land, and then, a few years later, abandoned it. In 1959, real estate developer Del Webb, who’d made millions during World War II from military contracts — including the construction of a Japanese-American internment camp — paid $20 million for the ghost town. He had a vision, and that vision became Sun City.

Sun City is a retirement community, which is somewhat ironic for a place that exists because many lives were paved over and left behind. Nestled in the midst of the suburban sprawl, there’s a vast recreation center, with a giant swimming pool, yacht rock humming from speakers in the ceiling, and a series of long, carpeted hallways. Every few feet, there’s a doorway to an activity room. One of them leads to the Sun City Mineral Museum, which is maintained by the Sun City Rockhounds. I visited a few weeks ago with producer Sativa Peterson, and when we arrived, we were greeted by the vice-president, Carol Bankert-George, and the president, Cheryl Alvord.

This year is the Rockhounds 60th anniversary, according to Alvord and Bankert-George, and they’re one of the oldest clubs in Sun City. Rockhounds are people who love rocks.

"As a child, I was always looking down and picking up rocks. And my mom would always find rocks in my pockets when she’d do my laundry. And for a lot of us, it’s just a passion that develops when we’re young. And it stays with us," said Bankert-George.

And over the years, the rocks have spread far beyond her pockets. These days, she’s married to a fellow rockhound.

"There’s rocks in the yard, there’s rocks in every room of our house. Rocks in the bathroom, rocks in the kitchen … just … we love rocks! And we can’t stop collecting," said Bankert-George.

Alvord agrees. Her husband is a rockhound, too.

"I read that the average rock collector collects over 10,000 rocks in their lifetime — I think it might be more — and they have no idea where they’re gonna put them. We have rocks piled on surface rocks, so we have all, like, piled up around. It’s all over our coffee table, and then we have a curio cabinet that’s starting to get really full," said Alvord.

The Mineral Museum exists in part because of rockhounds who’ve donated more than 1,000 of their most prized discoveries. Alvord and Bankert-George led us past wooden display cases stuffed with beautiful precious stones — deep blue sapphires, radiant purple amethysts, milky pastel chalcedony.

Longtime rockhounds have trained their eyes to scan the ground, looking for the telltale streaks of color lurking in the cracks of what others might mistake for mere pebbles.

"It seems like a big part of being a rockhound is being able to see the potential in something that," I said,

"That’s very true," said Bankert-George. "I mean the ability to look at that opal, for example — you have to look so closely to see the little iridescence and stuff in it, and to realize that if you were to slice it open, there’s this incredibly precious stone inside.

"Absolutely — that’s true. The first time we went out to look for amethysts, I thought we were going to be finding little amethysts gems. And actually, you find a rough rock that has some purple in it," Alvord said.

And before you know it, that’s enough.

"What you’ll find is like a brown rock that has some crystals — some small crystals on it. But you will be happy to find that, as you’re a rockhound!" Alvord said.

Once you train yourself to look a little closer, you start to see things other people can’t.

"So, we do have a fluorescent room, and it’s pretty spectacular. So, wanna go ahead in there now? Now you guys are gonna go in there first, I go in last, because I turn the lights out," Bankert-George said.

A sign on the door of the room says, “Stay around, it’s worth the wait!”

In a dimly lit hallway, behind glass, sat rows and rows of the most rock-like rocks you can possibly imagine.

"They’re very plain," Bankert-George said.

In normal light, a lot of these rocks look sort of like pastries — maybe like bear claws at a donut shop.

"These kinda look like granite or something. But yeah, they’re very nondescript at this point. So I’m going to close the door, the lights will go off, our UV lights will come on," Bankert-George said. "What a difference!"

The nondescript rocks transformed into bright orange, an alien green, a deep gold, a radiant blue, a deep purple— not colors that you would see in nature.

"That’s correct. I always say that these over here look like somebody splattered fluorescent paint on them, right?" said Bankert-George. "And a lot of our club members, you know — we’re older, we’re Sun City residents. We’ll remember those fluorescent posters, like of the Grateful Dead, or bands like that, where they use fluorescent paint."

"During the psy-che-del-ic era!" Alvord said.

Could the rockhounds recognize a rock or a mineral with fluorescent potential out in the wild?

"I look for ones that look like this, with the little granules in there," said Bankert-George.

And there are some very unusual rocks that really aren’t that pretty. I love those, too, because they’re so funky!" Alvord said.

In another room of the museum, next to a map showing regions of the state where rockhounds have made exciting discoveries, a plaque on the wall has sign that said “Honor Roll.”

"The Honor Roll is members of the club, most of whom have passed, that we want to remember. So many people have worked in this club, and this museum, and I didn’t think they were really recognized," said Bankert-George.

After a few quiet moments reading the names on the plaque, back in the main room of the museum, there's a tray that says "free rocks" with a large number of rocks inside of it. Out of the selection, which ones would Bankert-George and Alvord pick?

"I know they’re not very pretty, but these black ones — that’s what I would pick up. These little balls," Bankert-George said.

"I kinda like this one, because it has some red in it," Alvord said.

"I have to look at it now," Bankert-George said.

"Isn’t that pretty? I don’t know — it has a kind of a coral look to it," Alvord said.

"I would wonder, is it fluorescent?" Bankert-George asked.

Neither of them picked a polished stones.

As we drove out of Sun City, past the quiet houses with TV screens flickering in the windows, I pictured Carol and Cheryl, wandering the grounds of this man-made city, built on land where fresh fruit and cotton once bloomed. Just a couple of rockhounds scanning the earth, knowing there are gems lurking in the dust.

When new members join the club, they offer a word of advice: If you don’t see anything at first, stay around. It’s worth the wait.

"Both of us enjoy going out in the desert. And there is something, um … well, it’s all natural! This all happens naturally, right? So the beauty is that there’s so many different kinds of rocks in nature," Alvord said. "And they’re just there — if you go looking for them."

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Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Dingman was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.