Once you’re in the cave, colors reach out of the darkness. Lush greens, violet pinpoints and swirling blues float toward you. With a swipe of changing light they seem to move: The greens recede, the purples throb, ruby reds and phosphorous oranges jump from the black like a psychedelic fever dream.
"It’s psychedelic, all right, but those aren’t drugs or special effects," says WR Russ, executive director of the Arizona Rockfest and Earth Science Fair. "Those are naturally mined minerals, glowing and changing, under ultraviolet light."
Those who think Earth science is dull as dirt have never been to Rockedelic Caverns.
The 40-foot, man-made mystery cave, an anchor attraction at this year’s Arizona Rockfest, shows the edgier side of rocks and minerals by putting geology in a different light.
What do you get when you cross a gem and mineral show with a high-energy scavenger hunt? The Arizona Rockfest and Earth Science Fair, which returns to Tempe Diablo Stadium today, is a cleverly packaged slate of science-based activities bringing kids and rocks together in the hope that sparks will fly.
"We have a 200-ton fossil dig," says Russ. "We’ve got gold panning, geode cracking, spin-the-wheel and stage shows." Rockfest offers more than 20 activities for boys and girls, young kids, tweens and teens. "We tell the teachers and parents, ‘Have the kids wear raggedy pants when they come,’ " says Russ. "They’ll be digging in the sand and making things with cement. We have literally bucket-loads of rocks and minerals to give to the kids."
Arizona Rockfest is an eclectic reinvention of the 32nd annual Mineralogical Society of Arizona’s Show. Like many of its more traditional counterparts, Rockfest will display exotic treasures from more than 70 national and international dealers. "We’re going to have lots of attractions for adults, too," says Russ. "Everything from 25-cent stones to cultured diamonds and pearls."
But the play of light off a rose quartz or the dramatic hue of turquoise doesn’t pack enough "oomph!" to make kids drop their Xboxes.
"You don’t want a museumtype atmosphere, where kids have to be quiet and just stand there staring at things," says Russ. "You want some handson activities that let kids be kids."
CRACKING GOOD TIME
Kids can play archaeologist on the Fry’s Rockin’ Fossil Dig, where planted discoveries lurk beneath an ocean of sand.
"We have seven different types of fossils: Brachiopods, crynoids, petrified wood, dinosaur fossils," says Russ. "They’ll range in size from 1 ounce to 20 pounds, and the Riparian Institute will be on hand to help kids identify what they find."
They’ll have no trouble identifying the gold flakes in the Panning for Gold attraction, but the Kids Caught Knapping exhibit teaches young ones an ancient stonecraft called flint knapping. It’s an American Indian method of chipping and shaping stones. "You chip away until you make an arrowhead or a knife blade, whatever you might need," says Russ.
And Geode Cracking personifies the value of looking deeper.
"A geode is a round, plainlooking rock," he says. "We put it on a machine, break it open and you find there are all these crystals inside."
By blending lots to do with something to think about, Rockfest aims to engage every family member. "Every year, the kids get off the buses and we don’t have to tell them where the fossil dig is," says Russ. "They go right to it." Young ones gravitate to the activities, adults can browse the gem displays, and teens float between the two.
The fun-and-fossils formula has struck a vein in the East Valley. "We’ll probably draw in the range of 3,000 kids this year," he says. "We’ll get about 1,700 from the schools (today), then the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts on Saturday and Sunday."
While Rockfest makes for an educational outing, a good field trip or a merit badge for Scouts, its creators are digging even deeper.
"This whole event was developed under these words: ‘Children are our future,’ " says Russ. "We strive to teach out here. We want to get these kids excited because they are our future geologists."