Joyce Fetrow has hobbies to enjoy year-round. She’s a beekeeper, mushroom hunter, photographer, comedian, and much more.
But she says rock hunting holds a special place in her heart. Many years ago, Joyce battled alcoholism that drove her to some dark places. Now, she dedicates her life to helping others find recovery.
She said the rocks remind her of that journey and inspire her to keep on track with her sobriety.
“We walk all over [rocks] every single day and most people have no idea. They walk on dirt roads and that they never look down and see them in their true glory,” she said. “To be overlooked, to have something so beautiful and be overlooked by the common population, to me, resembles what that person who suffers from substance use is.”
JOYCE FETROW: Um, holy crap!
MICHAEL LIVINGSTON, BYLINE: It’s hot!
FETROW: No, not just that. I didn’t think I’d find one but that is a geode inside there.
DAN WANSCHURA, HOST: That’s Joyce Fetrow and Michael Livingston. They’re in a gravel field in northern Michigan.
The rock Joyce found has a pale, sandy surface. But she saw tiny, sparkling crystals inside.
FETROW: There’s a lot that has to happen in order for that to occur. Sometimes, you can test things like this and they will actually test for a low level diamond.
LIVINGSTON: So, this is a keeper.
FETROW: Yep, that’s a keeper.
LIVINGSTON: Okay, I won’t drop it!
WANSCHURA: Tons of people from all over the Great Lakes love hunting for rocks. And it’s one of Joyce’s favorite hobbies. She talks about rocks like a tenured professor.
FETROW: Inside my house, anything that will hold rocks, that’s my decoration. People get me a plant, and I wait for the plants to die and then I throw it out. And then I fill the vase or the container with rocks.
WANSCHURA: Joyce’s appreciation for the rocks goes way beyond geology. In many ways, rocks helped save her life. Nearly a decade ago, Joyce struggled with alcoholism – something that affects nearly 30 million people in the United States.
Rock hunting helps her stay sober, partly because she can see herself in the rocks.
FETROW: We walk all over them every single day and most people have no idea. They walk on dirt roads and that they never look down and see them in their true glory. And to be overlooked, to have something so beautiful and be overlooked by the common population, to me, is also what resembles what that person who suffers from substance use is.
WANSCHURA: This is Points North, a podcast about the land, water and inhabitants of the Great Lakes. I’m Dan Wanschura.
Today’s story is about a person who hit rock bottom and then found a way to heal in the rubble.
And while this story goes into some tough subjects around substance abuse, it’s also a story about hope and perseverance.
We’ll hand it over to Joyce and reporter Michael Livingston right after this.
LIVINGSTON: Joyce and I are walking and talking through the gravel field. Our eyes are peeled for more keepers.
And as we look for rocks, she tells me her struggles with alcohol began at an early age.
FETROW: The earliest picture I have of myself is a Thanksgiving dinner. And I have a big, huge smile on my face, wearing a light blue powder, blue sweatshirt with little teddy bears on it. And I’ve got a can of Bud Light that I’m holding. I don’t recall if I ever drank that, but it was nothing for me to ask my dad to have a drink of his beer… And then oddly enough, whenever I went to my grandmother’s house, I learned long ago in those earlier years that if I went to my grandma’s house all I had to do was cough, or start coughing or sneezing and she’d go and get me the peach schnapps and pour a shot and I’d drink it.
FETROW: I grew up with a very great father but he was also an alcoholic. So… oh, there’s also rocks that have lines in them. They’re called wish or Saturn rocks – and people collect those as well.
LIVINGSTON: That happens a lot during our conversation. Joyce will be in the middle of telling a story, then one of us will find a good-looking rock.
The wish stone we just found is dark blue with a thick, white band wrapped around it.
FETROW: These little designs, these are all tiny little fossils. These little dashes or circles and I saw another one down here.
LIVINGSTON: Joyce can spend hours picking through this field. If she can’t carry anymore she’ll make piles in the dirt for next time.
FETROW: I will literally, like, drag a foot like this back to the truck so that it turns up new stuff. But every single time I come here, I’ve just, I’m amazed at what I find.
LIVINGSTON: Joyce lost her job with a large retail company. She’d been working long days there for 16 years. That’s when her worst years of drinking started.
She had run-ins with police and went through probation and counseling that she says never seemed to work.
Joyce’s last drink was on a bitter-cold night: January 27, 2014.
FETROW: It was late in the evening. I found my husband’s car keys behind a canister that he had been trying to hide them from me. I left, I got to the liquor store, and on my way back I slid off into a ditch. And I couldn’t get the car to move forward or backwards. And I wasn’t wearing appropriate shoes, I didn’t leave wearing a coat. I ended up spending some hours in the backseat of that vehicle. I ended up opening the alcohol that I had purchased. And I remembered from previous times to take the keys out of the car. You know, all these things that maybe not get another DUI until a tow truck came.
LIVINGSTON: Joyce spent the night in that car. And when someone found her there the next morning, she remembers climbing out and immediately collapsing.
Her legs were frozen. She woke up later in the hospital.
FETROW: I open my eyes, and I just see two, big black balloons on the end of the bed. And I’m like, ‘what is going on?’ And so there was a big, black blister on those feet, each one. And after that blister popped, that skin completely shuts off. So, now you just have raw flesh.
LIVINGSTON: She had severe frostbite and it took months to heal. But in that moment, in the hospital, she understood her dependence on alcohol was the bigger issue.
It was time to change her life, forever.
FETROW: I just really needed to, like, stand up and do something different because it wasn’t working.
LIVINGSTON: Joyce spent some time in jail then stayed in a long-term rehab facility. And as she tells me stories from her time in recovery, she keeps finding beautiful rocks in places I thought I’d already picked over.
FETROW: This one here – this one is packed full of fossils. It’s got a bunch of different varieties, a little bit of pink stuff in here.
LIVINGSTON: In rehab, Joyce learned she’d need to stay busy in order to distract herself from drinking.
Now, she wears her hobbies like badges of honor. She’s a beekeeper, a mushroom hunter, a photographer, an angler, a bicyclist and, of course – a rock hunter.
FETROW: This is– looks like banded-chert. So, it’s got all the layers in it and then this blue color is sometimes what is agatized or crystallized inside.
LIVINGSTON: Rock hunting gave Joyce a new identity she could be proud of. And she does have a favorite rock, the one that originally got her into collecting, the Petoskey Stone.
Long ago, the Great Lakes basin was under a great saltwater ocean. What’s left behind are countless fossilized sea creatures – like the Petoskey stone. It’s unique to northern Michigan for its hexagon pattern made from millions of years of glaciation and fossilized coral.
Joyce learned to look for them from her mother.
FETROW: My mom always wanted to find one, we never could. And I never realized how to hunt them, that you can find them in places just like this in the middle of nowhere on a dirt two-track road or a railroad track… And it wasn’t until after my mom passed that I really got into Petoskey hunting. So whenever I find one, it’s almost like her sending me a message.
LIVINGSTON: Now, Joyce says the feeling she gets when she finds a Petoskey stone is better than drinking ever was.
And out in the field, I was lucky enough to experience that feeling for myself. My first time finding a Petoskey.
LIVINGSTON: Oh my gosh!
FETROW: Did you find one?
LIVINGSTON: Look at that!
FETROW: Yes! See how beautiful it is?
LIVINGSTON: Oh my gosh.
FETROW: That’s an amazing piece!
LIVINGSTON: That one’s really clear, too!
FETROW: It is! It is!
FETROW: You probably got a shot of dopamine, which is another reason why we like doing things like that, because it encourages us… And encourages you to find another one and another one.
FETROW: We can be out here for hours. And I will tell you we have probably been out here for 30 minutes.
LIVINGSTON: Doesn’t feel like 30 minutes, though.
FETROW: No, it never does. And it never feels like hours either.
LIVINGSTON: Rock hunting is not a cure-all for addiction. Last year, over 46 million Americans met the criteria for a substance use disorder, according to federal data.
But rock hunting does help some people, like Joyce.
That Petoskey stone I found is only a bit bigger than my fingernail, but Joyce already has some great plans for it.
We bring it to Joyce’s garage, which she’s named “Rock Rehab.” She gets it wet, then uses a belt sander to grind away the surface layer.
FETROW: I just, I continue to watch it. And you can just see these different designs just, start to resurface.
LIVINGSTON: Next is a quick soak in mineral oil.
FETROW: Which is just a very fine polish.
LIVINGSTON: Then she glues on a pendant and chain.
FETROW: So you just slip this guy through there and this in here and you have a necklace.
LIVINGSTON: Now with the hexagon pattern on full display, the necklace looks like it’s underwater with rays of sunlight bending the surface.
Joyce has been sober now for nearly a decade. She’s married, has kids and works for an organization dedicated to helping others find recovery.
She says people with substance use disorder are often marginalized and looked down upon.
FETROW: Every single person has the opportunity to be whole and beautiful and be well. And so [do] the rocks, you know. It’s like how do you take something that’s 350 million years old and not appreciate it. How do you take it and just think it’s just a rock? It’s not just a rock.
LIVINGSTON: Joyce says the last step is to give the rocks to others so they too can appreciate their beauty.
So, she lets me take this necklace home.
FETROW: Don’t hang it, just let lay it flat when you get to it and it will dry that way
LIVINGSTON: Ok, thanks Joyce.
Please note: If you or someone you know is struggling with drugs or alcohol, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a free, national helpline: 1-800-662-4357. You can also find additional resources through the Northern Michigan Opioid Response Consortium.
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Featured image: Joyce Fetrow looks for rocks in a gravel field east of Gaylord, Michigan on July 7, 2023. Sometimes, she uses a tool, which she calls a “pick-a-roon,” to turn up new rocks after a rainstorm. (Photo credit: Michael Livingston)