Not Your Average Fish Story
(images above and at top via: Rachel Moore)
At the nexus of Folk Art and flagrant graffiti where so-called natural rock formations are as enhanced as a Hollywood starlet’s figure, you’ll find the Fish Rocks. Less esoterically, you’ll find this long-time local landmark just off State Route 178 exactly 13.7 miles north of the town of Ridgecrest, California.
“Originally they were called Whale Heads,” explains Margaret Brush, Curator of the Old Guest House Museum in Trona, CA and a member of the Searles Valley Historical Society (SVHS). “They date back to 1928. They did not always have teeth, like they do today.” To put things in perspective, the rocks themselves are millions of years old though extensive water erosion during the last few glacial periods likely rounded off the evocative shapes we see today.
Trona was established in 1913 as a self-contained company town with a rail connection to the Southern Pacific (now the Union Pacific) line at Searles. Profits from borax, potash, and soda ash mining and refining supported a high quality of life level in Trona for decades, though more recently the town has fallen on tough times and the population has dropped to under 3,000.
(image via: Rachel Moore)
If it weren’t for film location shoots including Star Trek V, Planet of the Apes, and Land of the Lost filmed at and around the nearby Trona Pinnacles, the town’s economy would have sunk lower than nearby Death Valley. Though Trona boasted a surprising variety of recreational opportunities including tennis courts and the all-sand, 18-hole Trona Golf Course (darker soil was used to differentiate the “greens” from the desert fairways) built in 1926, hiking and amateur prospecting would have brought adventurous Tronians to the area of the Fish Rocks on numerous occasions over the years.
Joe Fox of Trona must have passed by the Fish Rocks many times, and thanks to the psychological phenomenon of Pareidolia he must have noticed how much the rocks – especially the topmost one – resembled a school of giant marine creatures leaping out of the valley floor. A closer inspection revealed indications that someone had “roughed up the rock to make an eye.” Joe Fox got an idea… and then he got some white paint and a couple of family members to help put his plan into action.
It’s not certain exactly when Fox and/or members of his family first embellished the rock formation. Some sources point to the late 1930s, others state it was the early 1940s. Regardless, it was before the end of 1946 because that’s when Curtis W. Walker of Trona sent a photo he had taken of the decorated rocks to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. The January 8th, 1947, issue of the popular magazine included Walker’s photo captioned “The Whale Head Rocks, Natural Formation, Trona, Calif.”
(image via: Jimmy Emerson, DVM)
The painted rocks didn’t display much in the way of personality or detail at first. Joe Fox wasn’t an artist by profession and paint wasn’t cheap, at least not in the quantities needed to “flesh out” each and every one of the van-sized rocks. That would change over the succeeding decades, however, as the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not article had both brought the formation to national attention while bringing tourists to Trona expressly to visit the site. Doubtless some were less than impressed after driving all that way and took it upon themselves to assist the formation in reaching its fully fishy potential.
Unfortunately, with more people visiting an isolated site whose main claim to fame was its spontaneous human artistry, an explosion of graffiti soon began to encroach upon the respectful enhancements to the rocks’ fish-like features. The vandalism wasn’t just tourist-perpetrated: one outstanding example of graffiti read Trona High ’72. Troubled by the “nasty” import of some of the graffiti, in early March 1972 an area Boy Scout troop supplied with paint by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) painted over ALL non-natural markings on the Fish Rocks.
Call it a case of swatting a fly with a sledgehammer or throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but long-time Trona residents who had grown up with the Fish Rocks missed their frightening yet familiar painted glares and snarls. Two local girls, Nancy Reed and Claudia Grandjean, took it upon themselves to repaint the post-Joe Fox white eyes and teeth one day. The Trona Chamber of Commerce was not amused though eventually a compromise was reached: Reed and Grandjean would escape discipline if they painted out any extraneous graffiti on the site. Win Win! Don’t get any ideas about doing the same, by the way: current law states “Anyone found painting on the rocks without permission will be cited for malicious mischief, a misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $500 and 6 months in County Jail.”
(image via: Jimmy Emerson, DVM)
Forty years on, the Fish Rocks still sport regularly renewed toothy expressions while other painted vandalism remains invisible, at least from afar. Check ’em out if you’re in the area and don’t be afraid: as fearsome as they look, the Fish Rocks in Trona aren’t biting today.