Heizer's LACMA Rock and Mom's Crazy Rock: Insane Tiny Clocks and Genetic Cousins from Jurupa

Susan's Dumb Rock, south face, Jurupa Hills | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

They could actually be siblings, or if we were to humanize rocks as we do our pets, cousins or in-laws. The point is that they were born not far from each other, and I was born not far from them, and this spring when I watched with fascination the 105-mile journey taken by the 340-ton boulder that left the Stone Valley Quarry in the Jurupa Hills, I realized my own rock was watching.

It is probably even larger that Heizer's rock, and stands like a sentry, a Jonah's Whale-shaped monument overlooking the 60 Freeway off the Pyrite Street exit. Known in our family variously as Mom's Crazy Rock, Mom's Dumb Rock, The Rock Mom Always Points at When We Get to This Spot on the Freeway, and The Rock Mom Says Her Dad "Gave" Her, depending on the mood of the car's occupants and how tired we were when we left Riverside for L.A., or were coming back home, my rock was left behind in its birthplace.

Story continues below

Susan touching her Dumb Rock, north face, Jurupa Hills | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

I went to visit my rock last week. I hadn't actually touched it since I was about five, though I salute it every time on that freeway, and the other rock's celebrity journey had me staring at the hundreds of other huge obelisks of stone where we grew up, every hill and mountain in parts of Riverside County topped with what looks at a distance like sugar lumps sprinkled by massive gods. Up close, those whitish stones are the size of buildings. As children, we saw holes made by water and by Native American women grinding acorns, animal dens and rattlesnake nests in the clefts between boulders, and crystals sparkling in the hot sunlight.

Of course, when Doug and I visit a place, he knows the geology, because his father is a geologist. My father is a man who drove thousands of miles as a travelling salesman, and he "gave" me this rock after he didn't live with me anymore. So first this was a tale of two rocks, then a tale of two dads, and then it was the wonder of how stone records time.

Doug's father, Thane McCulloh, and his former student and geologist Doug Morton, gave us this: The Jurupa Hills, where both rocks surfaced, are fascinating testaments to violence and patience. In Morton's words, "The emplacement of the granitic rocks from the Santa Ana Mountains eastward to the San Jacinto Mountains area occurred over a 34 million year period of subduction." You know that this means, in an earthquake state like ours. This place used to be a coastline much like present-day Peru, a rugged and trembling line ("the sinuous backbone of the Andes, replete with earthquakes and volcanoes" as Doug the photographer said while we stood near my old rock). The ocean and the continent met here, and fought each other, and the continental crust was pushed deep into the earth, melted, and the granite rose again 108 million years ago.

Yes. We know the ages of my rock and Heizer's that precisely. Embedded in the boulders of granodiorite, not just granite but this kind of granite, are zircon crystals. Think of that -- not cubic zirconia which measure a certain kind of love, but zircon crystals that formed at exactly the moment when this rock formed, and then sealed themselves off from any other contamination, so that when geologists like Doug Morton analyze the isotopes in these crystals, which they did 18 times for these particular rocks, the ages can be determined this accurately. Insane tiny clocks that can never be altered.

Stone Valley Quarry, Jurupa Hills, source for Michael Heizer's rock | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Cousins. Our rocks are cousins, in my imaginative view, which takes into account the wonder of having lived among these rocks my entire life. The Stone Valley combines hilarity and grandeur -- perfectly embodying the place I love. So 108 millions years ago, the two rocks made their way up to the surface of the world. 51 years ago, I was born and brought home to a one-bedroom stucco house less than a mile directly south, in Glen Avon. My parents took me among those rocks to play. After rains, water washed down the flood control ditches, laced with runoff from the Stringfellow Acid Pits, which later became famous as a toxic waste site. Do I remember the vivid colors of the pooled water, playing after a storm? Is that my imagination?

Last week, the sun was hot, and the quarry where Heizer's rock was dislodged six years ago was blue-gray in the light. Heizer heard about the rock, knew it was perfect for his "Levitated Mass" sculpture, and the museum paid $70,000 for the granodiorite. I looked at the rocks all around the parking lot, on the hills. These rocks are so hard and impermeable that when the Long Beach-San Pedro harbors were being built decades ago, workers came all the way here to Jurupa for the breakwater material, which is still submerged there (not too far from where Heizer's rock stopped in Long Beach and a party was held).

Truck, Pick-A-Part, Stone Valley, Jurupa Hills | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

At the quarry's entrance, you can take a road to another local landmark which spreads over the rest of the valley -- Pick-a-Part, where my friends and relatives have gone forever when they're fixing cars and trucks. You can search yourself for the particular item you need -- doors and dashboards and engine parts and fenders from specific makes and years of the miles of cars junked and parked and scavenged. Heizer's rock passed a beautiful old truck on the way down -- the kind my friends love to restore.

What makes one rock world-famous, a "rock star" as people all over the world watched the transporter creep along past other world-famous monuments, including the La Brea Tar Pits, where no granite could ever be found? I can't wait to stand under Heizer's rock when the installation is finished, and give it an IE chin-raised greeting. Then that rock will have millions of visitors and maybe be less lonely.

My rock stands watch over the millions of cars passing below. It is sometimes covered with graffiti, which always wears off -- laughing impermanence on this surface. Maybe the crystals inside might also be art -- visible to no one unless they know the magic. Right now two couches disintegrate nearby, and their stuffing makes a strangely white snow on the brittlebush waving in the wind coming through the pass. On the quieter side, where the rock could be a smaller Half Dome not in Yosemite, someone has hammered in two pitons for an attempt to climb.

A little further east, on the next group of hills, a massive metal sculpture looks over the road, too. My youngest always called this "The Holy Mammoth," just after I pointed out my rock, and that should make some things clear about how often my three girls travelled the freeway with me on the way to their basketball tournaments or family reunions in L.A., how young they were and how many stories I told to keep them entertained. Which is exactly how I came to "own" that rock. When my parents divorced, I was three, and my mother remarried my stepdad, who was the best man ever and introduced himself to me by bringing a Tonka truck so I could haul small rocks and gravel in the backyard. My biological father came to pick me up for a visit every three weeks, and we drove this route, which seemed long when I was so small. He told me that was my rock, probably to keep me distracted when I was leaving, and to give me a familiar landmark on the journey home, a talisman that we both figured would never move.

Susan Straight's novel "Take One Candle Light a Room" will be released in paperback in March. Her novel "Highwire Moon" is about a California-born daughter searching for her Mexican-born mother. Doug McCulloh's photographs have been exhibited across the U.S. and in Mexico, Europe, and China. His fourth book "Dream Street" chronicles the builders, workers, and homebuyers of a subdivision in Southern California. Read more of their stories here.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading