Lee King shows off a Wonderstone outside hisTierra Del Mar Rock Shop.
A rock shop in a hard place
Rock hounding on the Oregon Coast is a physically demanding and dirty hobby, requiring countless hours on bumpy back roads and a thorough disregard of the elements. These trials are forgotten, however, in the moment of discovery, the thrilling second when the pick sounds a ting, instead of a thunk, and the hunter finds he has uncovered something rare, beautiful or valuable.
“It’s the thrill of finding something good, an agate or something that you can make into jewelry — it’s a pretty good thrill,” said lifelong rockhound Lee King. “What can I say? It’s about the same as someone with gold fever, when they find their first nugget.”
In his case, rock fever is something of a genetic condition. His grandfather owned the first jewelry shop in Camas, Wash., and his father, Mailand King Sr., did assessment work in the mines of Oregon and Washington in the late 1920s and 30s.
After World War II, the family went adventuring all over the Pacific Northwest, collecting rocks. Lee, whose official name is Mailand King Jr., now owns the Pier Avenue Rock Shop in Tierra del Mar. Lee said he can’t remember a time when he didn’t have his eyes on the ground.
“From the time I was able to walk, my dad always told me, ‘keep looking. You’re closer to the ground,’” he said. “When you find a really good stone, you get excited. And that drives you on to the next shovelful, or the next pick down the hill, or whatever.”
Evidence is piled in every corner of his home and business, on Pier Avenue in Tierra del Mar, a few miles north of Pacific City on the Three Capes Scenic Route. Wooden bins of rough stones line the walk to the shop: 400 square feet of equipment, supplies, books, slabs, cabochons, faceted gems and jewelry. Lee deals in jasper, agate, turquoise, opal and many other stones, but he specializes in sunstone, extracted from his family’s claims near Plush, in south-central Oregon.
The home’s garage houses three rock-cutting saws and other equipment, in various stages of assembly and repair. A walled-off room holds the silversmithing and jewelry making equipment and workbench. Near the entrance: Tillamook ice cream buckets filled with rocks. Behind his truck: 20 tons of unfinished stones, some of which he collected as a boy or inherited from his father. More stones are layered under plastic sheeting, scattered around the outbuildings. It’s a heavy hobby, but one that keeps the tarps down.
“Whenever I get back from a trip, it’s always the same. ‘What did you bring home? More rocks?” Lee said. “It’s a good thing that my wife likes rocks, too. That helps.” The Kings — Lee and his wife, Cathy — moved to Tierra del Mar from Vancouver, Wash., in 1980. They opened the shop in 1998 with two small cases and some sunstones that had come from their mine. Lee, 66, worked as a general contractor until three years ago, when his insurance premiums became too much of a burden, he said. He “retired” to tending the rock shop, now open daily. The work keeps him busy, which helps this diabetic keep his blood sugar in check, and provides an outlet for his mining and collecting habits.
But “foot traffic,” as they say, is minimal. Tierra del Mar lies in an unincorporated area of Tillamook County, on an exceptionally beautiful dip in the scenic route. Still, during the busy summer months, tourists who happen to see his wooden sign hit the brakes out of curiosity.
“I surprise a lot of people with this collection. Being in the middle of nowhere, they expect to find just a few tumbled rocks. I have many repeat customers, because they know I carry rare stuff, like Morrisonite and Blue Biggs” he said. “People come in just out of curiosity, and end up buying jewelry.”
If you’re a rock person, however, Pier Avenue is like a magnet. It’s a destination for hounds from around the country who find the Kings’ shop by using maps and information on their Web site, www.pieraverockshop.com (between the shop’s site and eBay, Lee generates more than 20 percent of his annual sales from the Internet).
Newbies are welcome to examine the stones, thumb through the books and hear the latest news on coastal finds. He recommends books like “Gem Trails of Oregon” and “The Rockhound’s Handbook,” which offer maps, tips and photos for the field. In his shop, he’s seen samples of thunderstorm jasper, amethyst crystals and lace eggs, along with large, stunning carnelian agates, that have been found recently in Tillamook County.
Beach agate hunting has been so-so so far, Lee said, because the storms have yet to scour the local beaches of sand. Still, the shoreline on either side of Cape Meares has been somewhat productive, he said.
“You need about six or seven really good storms to peel these beaches back. This beach here is all rock and it’s still sanded in — we’ve still got 8 to 10 feet of sand on top of the gravel beds out here. Cape Meares is about the best one, and when you come out of Cape Lookout, where there’s a landslide. Wherever there’s a landslide, you’re getting fresh rock out.”
Occasionally, however, the Kings hang a “Gone Mining” sign on the door. Lee still loves to work sites with friends and family, including his three sons, who inherited the family fever.
“When they talk about gold prospecting or rock hounding, it’s always about the hunt. They’re right. It is about the hunt, but you have to do something to be able to afford to go hunting. And this is it.”