After school, before work and even in the middle of the night there are Salem-area people scurrying around parking lots, restaurant drive-up windows, and library book nooks to drop rocks or hunt for them.
What all the excitement is about is Salem VA Rocks. The local movement started as a fun activity for kids to hunt painted rocks. Unexpectedly, it has also formed a network of friends and a sense of community.
Members of the group post their creations and findings on a group Facebook page – Salem VA Rocks. Friends Michelle Bloom and Laci Smith started it in May 2017 and continue to administer the page. Dozens and dozens of people of all ages are dropping and finding rocks now. According to the Facebook page, almost 4,000 people are members.
“We started it for a couple of reasons,” explained Bloom, “to make people smile, get people out of the house. We kinda started it for kids, but found adults had just as much fun.”
She added that Laci Smith had the idea because of a similar group in where she lived before Salem.
Originally Bloom said she started hiding her rocks at the Salem Ice Cream Parlor, Lake Spring Park and other areas where children go in warm weather. She posted clues as to where the rocks were, but has quit doing that, she said, because so many hunters get the rocks before children do, and don’t leave rocks of their own. She prefers for people to stumble across her rocks and be surprised.
At least one of the Salem group’s rocks has made it to England. One of member Connie Bowles’ rocks was photographed at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Some of the painters hide rocks for specific other people, such as Teresa Howell of Salem, who hid some of her popular Ruby cat rocks for Donna Beard Francisco’s 13-month-old granddaughter to find Tuesday this week at the Duck Pond.
Ruby, which Howell created with a black paint pen, has become so beloved and sought after that a woman in South Carolina sent her postage for as many as Howell could stuff into a box. Howell sent her 18. “I don’t know what she did with them. I didn’t ask,” she said. She knows for sure, though, that Ruby has made it to Virginia Beach, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.
Other rock hunters post pictures of rocks and where they find them. Salem-area hunters are encouraged to write Salem VA Rocks on the back so they can be traced.
The first rock Howell’s daughter, Elliston resident Connie Bowles, found, was from Texas and she found it at Dixie Caverns.
“It was a rock with a compass on it that said, ‘Not All Who Wanders are Lost,’ and it was from Arlington Rocks, Texas,” she explained.
She stumbled upon the Salem VA Rocks group, “and then the madness began,” Bowles said, laughing. “It’s inexpensive to do,” she said.
She got a few bottles of acrylic paint and brushes at Walmart, set up a table at home and began painting after she got off from work.
Known to other rockers as Connie Lyn who has painted and hidden probably hundreds of rocks in the Salem area, posted pictures of her sparkle rocks she is completing this week and will hide soon.
She usually paints 15-20 rocks a week, she said, but is running out of the medium-size, flat rocks with the smooth surface she prefers to paint so is slowing down a little. She started off with simple designs, “like flowers and Minions,” she said, “and the more I painted, the better I got.” Her rocks also got bigger.
Recently she painted a silhouette of a soldier standing at attention, a memorial rock for fallen police officers, koi fish swimming in a pond, a rainbow bridge (for deceased pets who pass over the Rainbow Bridge in a poem) and a mermaid tail.
“I like to make people smile when the rocks are funny and humorous,” she said.
Bowles was asked by Salem Museum Director Fran Ferguson to paint a rock for the museum’s history rock promotion in August. Bowles painted a small piece of Lakeside Amusement Park.
Her grandson, seven-year-old Brayden McNew, is trying to collect a painted rock from every state. “He’s received rocks from 23 states so far. The furthest rock we’ve gotten is all the way from the Isle of Man in Great Britain. One is from Alaska. We put pins on a map, and he’s learning the map.”
He had been anxiously waiting to get a rock from his favorite state, Texas. To get rocks from far away, Brayden went to the Rocks USA Facebook site.
Although the original idea was to promote fun and get outside, there has been an unexpected benefit, a kind of community of caring.
Bowles sponsored a “Trunk and Treat” Halloween event in October. “We must have had 25 cars,” she said. Some of the rock group swapped names and gifts at Christmas, and again at Valentine’s.
Michelle Bloom said a drawing is planned when the Salem VA Rocks group’s rocks make it to all 50 states.
Although the Salem VA Rocks are not directly related to the Kindness Rocks, small acts of kindness have resulted from the rocks. One of the first rocks was found by a boy from Andrew Lewis Middle School who was encouraged because it was an anti-bullying design, and he had been bullied, Bloom added.
One of Howell’s latest rocks is of Ruby behind bars, with the inked words, “Salem Jail.” Salem Police are getting accustomed to seeing rock hunters at the “bucket” on a former light pole base in the K-mart parking lot where many people drop and find rocks.
Tuesday police were responded to the Duck Pond because of reports someone was putting down cups and taking pictures of them; they told Howell. It was rocks instead, and all was well.
The Kindness Rocks project was started in Massachusetts in 2015 by Megan Murphy. She began writing positive messages on rocks with Sharpie pens and dropping them on her daily walks along the beach on Cape Cod. Murphy wrote on her webpage that because of all the negativity she saw and heard on early morning television news, she started turning off the TV and painting inspirational rock messages in the mornings.
Murphy encourages recipients to perform random acts of kindness. .