Christian Liden was in eighth grade when he hatched a grandiose plan to create a personalized engagement ring for his future fiancee.

Never mind that he didn’t have a girlfriend at the time, he said. If a natural diamond could take 1 billion to 3 billion years to form, then he figured he could be patient for a decade or more.

Liden decided that when the time came, he would not pop into the mall to pick out a diamond ring in a jeweler’s glass case like most other people.

Instead, he would go into the wild to find his own materials: the diamond, the gold, the accompanying gemstones. Everything.

“I’ve always been a rock hound, so to me, this is the perfect way to get an engagement ring,” said Liden, who lives in Poulsbo, Wash., near Seattle. “Actually, it’s the only way. I couldn’t imagine not making it myself.”

Liden, now 26, decided last month that it was finally time to put his plan into action.

He and his girlfriend, Desirae Klokkevold, also 26, have been together for more than five years, he said, and had talked about marriage.

“I knew that I wanted to marry her, and I also wanted to surprise her,” said Liden, who works for his family’s excavating business.

On May 1, he told Klokkevold that he and Josh Tucker, his best friend since sixth grade, were heading out on a camping trip to Yellowstone.

He and Tucker then made their way instead to Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro, Ark., more than 2,200 miles away. The park is touted as one of the few places in the world where the public is welcome to search for real diamonds on an eroded surface of a volcanic crater — and keep what they find.

About 33,000 diamonds have been found at Crater of Diamonds since it opened in 1972, according to Waymon Cox, a park interpreter who helps visitors understand the historical and cultural significance of the park.

“Thousands of people visit each year in search of diamonds, and an average of one or two diamonds are found each day,” Cox said.

Most are fairly small, weighing about one-quarter of a carat, he said. But in 1924, when the property was home to the Prairie Creek mine, somebody found the largest diamond ever discovered in the United States — a 40.2-carat whopper known as the Uncle Sam.

Liden knew the odds of finding anything that spectacular on his own diamond-hunting expedition were minuscule, he said. Still, he was up for the challenge.

He had already panned enough gold elsewhere to make Klokkevold’s ring band, and he and Tucker had done research and watched videos on how to sift for diamonds in the park.

On the way to Crater of Diamonds, the pair stopped in Helena, Mont., to mine for sapphires and found a couple of small beauties to add to Klokkevold’s ring, Liden said.

Then in Arkansas, they paid $10 to enter the park, set up their campsite and got to work. He and Tucker brought their own buckets, shovels and mesh screens and spent almost three days sifting through the volcanic dirt in search of a diamond.

On the third morning of mining, Liden said, he suddenly spotted something reflecting light in the gravel on his sifting screen: a shiny pebble that was a bit larger than a pea.

“I knew right away what it was,” he said. “I was so excited that I started shaking and called Josh over to take a look.”

Tucker, 26, let out a whoop when he saw the stone.

“It was oily and shiny and we both just knew it was a diamond,” Tucker said. “We freaked out a little bit — we couldn’t believe it.”

The two quickly put the gem in a sandwich bag and took it to the park office, where it was confirmed that Liden had found a 2.2-carat, triangular yellow diamond.

It was the largest diamond found at the park since October, when a visitor found a 4.49-carat yellow diamond, Cox said.

Only 1 in 10,000 park visitors are lucky enough to find diamonds that weigh one carat or more, he said.

Liden hasn’t yet taken the diamond to a jeweler to get it appraised, but similarly sized diamonds have been valued from $2,500 to $20,000 per carat, depending on color, cut and clarity.

Although staffers don’t appraise or grade rocks and minerals found at the park, the value wasn’t what was important to Liden.

“To me, it was priceless,” he said. “I’d found Desirae’s diamond.”

When he returned to Poulsbo, Liden said he went mushroom hunting with Klokkevold on May 18 and confessed that he hadn’t been truthful.

“I said I hadn’t been in Yellowstone all that time, but I’d driven to Arkansas,” he said. “And then I pulled the diamond out of my pocket and got on my knees. I told Desirae that I’d like to design a ring for her if she’d marry me.”

Klokkevold, who is a server at a restaurant in Poulsbo, said she was stunned and teary-eyed. She and Liden have been together ever since they met when he visited a restaurant where she once worked as a hostess, she said.

“I knew that he was going to propose someday, but I certainly didn’t expect this,” said Klokkevold.

“Of course I said yes,” she said, adding, “I’m so happy — I keep telling myself that I can’t believe this is my life.”

She and Liden haven’t yet set a wedding date. There’s something else they’re going to take care of before anything else.

“We need to have the ring designed first,” he said.

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