A rocky pursuit for the elusive SUV boulder 

The elusive SUV boulder, so named because … well, it looks like an SUV. And it’s a boulder.

The rock hunter stalks his quarry with a cool, levelheaded calm. He looks completely at peace. His steps are quick and effortless. In a single, fluid motion, he scampers down a hillside and hunkers alongside a scraggly brush, his eyes squinted against the sun. Beads of sweat dot his forehead. His arms appear chiseled from granite, his leathery skin bronzed. He peels back his dry, cracked lips, sucking in a quick breath and savoring the fresh, outside air.

Then, he lights a cigarette.

At this moment, the rock hunter looks intent and menacing. The stones scattered around him lie petrified by his presence.

But this hunter’s not interested in mere pebbles. Too easy. His prey is larger, and bulkier. He’s in this game for the sport, and there’s no sport in plucking marble-sized rocks from the ground. No, he’s seeking out a far bigger prize – one that will bring him fame, awards and money. This hunter is stalking the elusive SUV boulder.

Once thought to be extinct, the SUV boulder inhabits the far reaches of the desolate Great Basin desert. Its numbers are small, and few people have reported seeing them. Many of the purported sightings have later proved to be hoaxes.

But our hunter seeks the real thing. Armed with his trusty rock hammer, which is holstered in his belt, he rises from his spot and strides across the terrain. The heat is brutal and unforgiving. A lone buzzard swoops in circles overhead. The hunter raises an eyebrow, his face steely, and scary. A lizard scurries under a rock, as if frightened by the hunter’s sinister gaze.

The flats soon give way to clumps of dense sagebrush. A single, lonely flower sprouts from the dry, ragged earth. It’s a bright-red Indian paintbrush, which offers a speckle of color against the swaths of gray brush.

The hunter kicks at the flower, uprooting it. Its roots wave like tendrils in the breeze, grasping for a hold that’s no longer there.

The hunter crushes the flower’s petals with the heel of his boot, a wicked snigger escaping his parched lips. He should definitely consider chapstick, but he’s much too tough for that. Especially as he mercilessly grinds the flower’s petals into the sand.

A herd of rocks lies ahead. The hunter can see it. They’re way off in the distance – at least a dozen. They’re not SUV rocks – SUV rocks don’t travel in herds – but they’re beautiful specimens of cherry-red jasper. The hunter moves forward, stealthily.

But the rocks are alert. They raise their heads, sensing a predatory presence. The larger ones instinctively encircle the herd. They’re all fine, beautiful specimens. And because they spend so much of their time rolling, these stones have gathered no moss.

The hunter pauses. He knows the rocks can sense his presence, and he doesn’t want them to scatter. He stands and stares, his palm shielding his eyes. Ever so slowly, he runs his fingers along the handle of his rock hammer.

A moment passes. And another. Then, one of the jasper rocks turns, signaling to the others to start rolling.

And away they go, spreading like startled deer. The hunter unholsters his rock hammer and starts running. He sets his sights on the largest rock – a buck. Though not as valued as the SUV boulder, a chunk of jasper can be broken up and put into a tumbler to create smooth, glittering gems. The rock hunter can then sell them for 25 cents apiece in a Virginia City souvenir shop.

The rocks are rolling faster, barreling toward the edge of a steep canyon. If they can make the canyon, they can escape the hunter. So they roll even faster, tumbling over stones and brush.

The hunter grabs his hammer and throws it like a tomahawk. It grazes the rock’s shoulder and stabs into the ground, protruding like a wayward projectile. The jasper rocks sail into the canyon Thelma-and-Louise-style, bouncing down the cliffs and colliding with one another in the narrow valley below. A few are chipped and bruised, but otherwise, they’re unhurt – and they’ve all gotten away.

The hunter has been eluded, and he knows it. He’s explored this terrain for years, but he forgot about the valley. And that was his undoing. He should have known that provided with such a convenient escape route, the rocks would get away.

The rock hunter has lost some of his cool, but not his swagger. He pauses to catch his breath, then saunters forward to collect his rock hammer. Its cold, hard steel glimmers in the afternoon sun.

The hunter continues his search for the elusive SUV boulder. The sun hangs high in the sky, scalding the forbidding landscape. The hunter passes the bleached remains of a fellow desert wanderer. Perhaps he was a hapless rock hunter who ended up losing his marbles.

The SUV boulder is out there. The hunter is sure of it. He’s spent his whole life pursuing the creature, but he’s never laid his eyes on one. It’s the only specimen he doesn’t have in his yard. The hunter doesn’t want to die without first attaining the ultimate trophy.

The winds whisper across the desert, stirring up the dust. The sun sinks lower in the late-afternoon sky. Another day is passing. Another day with no SUV boulder. Another day of wretched, agonizing failure.

The hunter sits upon a rock outcropping to rest. He gulps from his canteen. His boots, trousers, shirt – and even the roof of his mouth – are all coated with a fine, powdery dust. He leans back his head, pulling his hat low to shade his eyes. The heat can drive a man insane; make him do things he might later regret … like forgetting to put rinse aid in the dishwasher so that his glasses come out all spotty.

As twilight approaches, the hunter gets up to leave. His camp is not too far. He’ll spend the evening cooking beans and dreaming about that prized SUV boulder.

Then later, in his tent, the flap half-open to let out the farts, the hunter will drift off to a deep and restful sleep. He’ll dream about the SUV boulder, that sacred trophy that has eluded him for so long.

And in his dream he’ll be wandering, crossing the rugged miles in boots worn thin from time, as he searches for that holy grail of boulders, leaving no stone unturned.

Allen Coyle is Dennis Cassinelli’s grandson and the author of two books, which are available on Amazon. He’s also the webmaster for denniscassinelli.com.

Guest Post: An exclusive interview with my great-grandmother

This is my favorite picture of my great-grandmother, “Gram.” I never knew her at this age, of course, but to me this photo depicts everything I loved most about her. She was happy, vibrant, full of life and adventure, and always cherishing the moment. She carried that youthful zeal with her throughout her entire life, even as she was approaching 100. She was always happy, always savoring life, and that sprightly demeanor she’s showing in the photo will forever be my memory of her. On the back of this photo, Gram wrote: “I took this out of Frank’s album. That’s why it’s cracked. Don’t die laughing. The highest one up is me. Yee-haw! Mary 16 years, taken at McNutt’s ranch.”

In September 2010, I got the idea to film my great-grandmother telling stories. 

The timing was perfect. I had just gotten a wireless microphone for my high-definition camcorder, and I needed a subject to test it on. 

And what better subject than my family’s near-centenarian matriarch? 

That’s right: Gram was 99 at the time, just five months shy of her 100th birthday. And although her grasp of the present was slipping (she often repeated herself and sometimes would forget where she was), her memories of the past were not only intact — they were razor-sharp.

She never lived in a nursing home. Each of her surviving children took turns staying at her house, so that she could be in a familiar environment. 

My grandpa, Dennis Cassinelli, and my grandma, Mary, often would invite us for dinner when it was their turn to stay with Gram. (Gram was Mary’s mother.) On such a weekend, I went over for an impromptu recording session — as well as a delicious meal. (After all, a well-fed interviewer is a happy interviewer.)

My parents came, too. And after dinner, we settled in the living room, with Gram taking her usual seat near the front window. 

I set the camcorder on a tripod, then attached the wireless microphone to Gram’s collar. I explained that we wanted to interview her, but I wasn’t sure if she knew what I was doing. And if she wondered why there was a blinking camcorder pointed at her, she didn’t say anything. 

When everything was set up and the camera was rolling, we started talking. 

I lobbed a few questions at her about her childhood, and her eyes lit up. Immediately, she launched into a familiar story about how her older brother, Bud, would tease her about being born in “the land of the lemon, the prune, and the nut” — which was his way of describing California. 

He, on the other hand, had been born in the “gold and silver state of Nevada.” (Apparently, he liked to remind her of that a lot.)

After that first story, there was a pause. We had to prod a little more to get her going, but once she did, the stories unspooled like yarn. 

She talked about a Christmas morning when all the children had opened their presents. Her youngest sister started crying, because there were no more gifts to open. 

So Gram’s father took a rug into the kitchen and rolled himself into it. His wife and the other children helped lug him back into the living room, put him under the tree, and told the young girl that there was one more Christmas present — and it was just for her. 

She eagerly unfurled the rug, and her father rolled out. The girl squealed with joy, and for the rest of that Christmas day, he belonged to her and no one else. “That was her daddy,” Gram said. 

Another story took place when Gram was a schoolgirl. She got so mad at the teacher that she marched into the coatroom and tore all the children’s coats off the racks to stomp on them. 

In another, her mother admonished her for being a tomboy. “Why can’t you stay in the house and be a little lady like Virginia?” she asked, referring to the neighbor girl, who was prim and elegant. But Gram much preferred to be outside playing baseball with the boys. 

We recorded for well over an hour. Each of us took turns asking questions. My grandparents could prod deeper, as they knew more of the family history. My grandpa, Dennis, well-known for being the Nevada-history buff of the family, asked her a series of questions about growing up in Tonopah, Nevada. 

Gram talked about her first job, her children, and the first time she met her future husband, Cornileus. 

The session wasn’t without hiccups. At one point, Gram started toying with the wireless mic, as if it were a brooch. I had to pause the camcorder to move the mic. It’s a funny moment — the sound at that part gets real staticky — and it gives the interview character. I love it. 

She also repeated herself at times — the story about “the land of the lemon, the prune, and the nut” came up often — but each time we’d gently broach another subject, and away she’d go. 

The video starts out in bright, late-afternoon sunlight, and as it proceeds the room gradually gets darker, and darker, until someone finally turns on a light. 

However, Gram’s voice is clear — as it was fed directly from the mic to the camcorder. Her words are crisp and audible, her memories preserved in time for her family to enjoy. My hope is that the video will allow descendants who never met her to see what a cheerful, buoyant person she was. 

Gram passed away in December that year. In two more months, she would have been 100. The family had been planning a large celebration. I’d even scheduled my photographer friend to be there, to capture the occasion. 

But we captured our own special moment that day, and I’m so grateful we did. None of us knew that evening would be one of the last times we’d ever see Gram. 

I watch the video sometimes, and when I do, memories of that day come tumbling back. And I realize that although life is short, it can include so much. Gram had grown up in an era with horse-drawn plows and Model-T Fords. Yet she lived to see things like computers and cell phones and YouTube and Facebook. (Personally, I prefer the era with Model-T Fords.)

If you have an aging relative, I encourage you to record their stories. Capture them on video, like I did, or jot them down in a journal. Everyone has stories worth hearing, and everyone deserves to have a piece of their lives preserved. You don’t want all that knowledge lost. 

You and your family will be so grateful you did. I know I am.

Watching Gram’s interview, the video does more than replay an old woman’s memories. Rather, it paints a picture of a family sitting down after dinner to talk and enjoy each other’s company. It was something we had done so many times before that on that day it seemed so commonplace, so ordinary. 

But looking back, I can see now how extraordinary it really was.

I can see, too, how blessed I am to have those moments, being with the people I love. 

I’m grateful for them, and for the people in my life. 

Allen Coyle is Dennis Cassinelli’s grandson and the author of two books, which are available on Amazon. He’s also the webmaster for denniscassinelli.com.