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Tuesday, September 4, 2007

A Trona travelogue ...Guest Commentary

Published: Tuesday, September 4, 2007 11:41 AM CDT
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TRONA: 15 Miles

This was the joke on the post card we found at Trona’s Old Guest House Museum, located at 13193 Main Street. It’s an old joke for natives, but it tickled us Houston visitors. We were visiting my wife’s brother Herman and his wife Terry who live in Trona. We would not otherwise have taken the time to visit this mining community of some 1885 people. And yet, like many accidental journeys, this visit resulted in pleasant discoveries.

We learned, for example, that Trona is named after a mineral we had never heard of before - hydrated sodium bicarbonate carbonate (Na3HCO3CO

·  2H2O), to be precise. Apparently it was named Trona, rather than Boron, because “Boron” had already been taken by another town.

We were shown the locally famous Fish Head rocks, bearing graffiti which some say was inspired by, if not painted by, Debbie Reynolds. Other sources make it a somewhat older work dating back to the 1940s ( Regardless, it is so ingrained in the local consciousness that when the graffiti was removed, it had to be restored to smooth the feathers that were ruffled by the defacement of the Fish Head artist’s work.

Another funny thing about Trona … it has bats. The bats, some of them, at least, live in the dead fronds of unkempt palm trees in the area. We discovered this one night as we sat out in Herman and Terry’s front yard to look for shooting stars. As we talked, we became aware of black shapes flitting about. When we focused on their movement, we noticed that they were emerging from the palm trees in the neighboring yard. This amazed Terry, who had grown up in Trona. It also made her a little nervous. “Don’t worry,” we said, “Bats only attack people when they are rabid.” Just then, a bat darted to within a foot of her head. With a shriek, she adjourned to the house.

It turns out there is a whole ecosystem of bats, birds and insects that make their homes in the dead frond habitat. As I sat in the yard the next morning sketching the desert willow, I noticed a humming bird flitting among its flowers. After a while, it darted away and flew into the dead fronds that house the bats we had seen the night before. A few minutes later it reemerged to resume feeding on the desert willow’s nectar.

When you visit Trona, of course, it is good to know someone who lives there to help you notice subtleties you might otherwise miss.

“You see that outcrop there?” asked Herman, pointing to a big hunk of rock.

“Yes,” I replied.

“That hides Trona from view,” he said, “so you don’t have to look at Trona all day.”

“I thought you lived in Trona,” I said.

“No,” he said, “we don’t live in Trona. We live in Pioneer Point. Not Trona.”

“My apologies,” I said.

“Apology accepted,” he replied.

Jean Steinhardt ( is a Houston-based artist specializing in house portraits. View his work at


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Quick sketch of the palm ecosystem, by Jean Steinhardt

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