Nearly five decades worth of paint cover this Whatcom County landmark
For decades, a boulder perched above Interstate 5 about four miles south of the city has served as the community's billboard — a public spot on the side of the road to paint messages of celebration, love and loss.
Over the years, people have wondered who was the first to paint what's been called "graffiti rock," "the rock," "Bellingham rock" and "Samish rock."
That stretch of I-5 through Bellingham was completed in 1966, after workers had drilled and blasted rock to make way for the freeway. It seemed the rock was painted not too long after.
Dan McNamara and his family said he was the first person to paint the rock when he did so in August 1969 as a 17-year-old high school student.
He wrote "Sealth '70" to commemorate his class at Chief Sealth High School in Seattle.
"The freeway was brand-new when I was a teenager," McNamara said.
McNamara lives in Seattle but the family has had a cabin at Lake Samish since the 1960s.
He noticed the rock and decided to leave his mark during one of their summer trips to the cabin.
"It was the only graffiti I ever did," McNamara said, adding he was amazed that his father not only pulled over so he could paint the rock but also took a photo.
The rock has been painted, then repainted, so many times over the years — sometimes in quick succession — that the layers of paint are many inches thick.
If you decide to leave your own mark, keep in mind that the State Patrol doesn't like people pulling over the side of the highway to paint the rock or to admire it. It's better to have someone drop you off, then pick you up.
The messages on its face are visible from the northbound lanes, on the right, so keep it clean.
Here are a few of the words that have been painted on the rock over the years, and the stories behind what has been a decades-long tradition, as told to The Bellingham Herald.
Remembering two sons
Two young men went out kayaking on Bellingham Bay on March 11, 2001.
Jim Robinson and Braden Talbott Lindholdt, both 20, hadn't kayaked before. They knew how to swim, but they weren't wearing life jackets. It was, after all, going to be a quick paddle close to shore.
The friends started at Wildcat Cove at Larrabee State Park. It was a Sunday afternoon, a beautiful and sunny one. Around 5 p.m., the wind kicked up and the rain started.
Their kayaks were later found at the mouth of the Nooksack River. They never were. It's believed they drowned.
Every year, their mothers — Bellingham resident Mary Jo Gran and Mount Vernon resident Vicki Talbott — head out to the rock, which they paint the night before March 11 for their sons.
Gran is Jim's mother. Talbott is Braden's.
In emails, Gran explained why they return to the rock every year.
"We do it in memory of our two sons, who disappeared while kayaking on Bellingham Bay 3-11-2001. Seventeen years ago, they went out kayaking and we have never seen them again. We started painting the rock on the first anniversary of their disappearance.
"We make it a celebration. We don't make it a sad thing. We have fun painting it each year and think our sons would think it was hilarious seeing us doing it. We have had some mishaps some years — dead battery, sprayed myself in the face, been stopped twice by State Patrol — but we come back year after year. We just honor them.
"They wouldn’t want us to be mourning every year at the anniversary. Instead, we make the anniversary fun. We remember them and laugh. It's a nice time. Vicki and I both, we don't want anybody to forget the boys."
They have both committed to painting the rock in memory of their sons for at least 20 years.
Nothing says "welcome to your 50th high school reunion" like seeing your graduating class painted on the side of the road.
Some Bellingham High School graduates made that happen on Aug. 29, 2015, when they painted "BHS 65" on the rock to welcome their former classmates to the reunion, which was that evening.
Among them was Beverly Belka.
Layers of tradition...
"One of the gals had painted it before in the '80s, and thought it would be a good idea. The freeway was built when we were in junior high and the rock being painted was part of our 'Hamster Heritage," she said.
Who had the idea to paint it for your reunion?
Belka: "Not sure! But so glad we did. A fellow '65er was driving north on I5 to attend the reunion when he thought about the rock and hoped and hoped, and thought, 'no way' and then, there it was!"
Did you paint it during the day or at night?
Belka: "We were up early! Mimi was our driver. After dropping us at the rock, she returned later with coffee. When we were finished, we drove into Fairhaven for breakfast. Such fun! We felt like kids again."
About that reunion...
Nancy McCloskey: "It was a misty morning. The actual day of the reunion was really stormy. The power went out, the venue had to use generators to prepare the food for about 300, and the music was an issue."
Remembering a mother, a brother
Bellingham resident Rebecca Hawk said painting the rock was about remembering family.
She explained: "My siblings and I have painted that rock twice now in honor of our mother, who passed away a little over 14 years ago. And the most recent time, we also painted it for my brother Calvin, who committed suicide mid-October of 2015."
"It was such a fun experience," Hawk said, "and it felt good to do something for those we’ve lost and loved."
Her mom's name was Roberta Love Hawk.
She died in Chatsworth, Calif., after contracting a flesh-eating virus, according to Hawk.
Her brother's name was Calvin Chase Ledet. He lived in Lynden and died in Maple Falls.
So long, Henry
Lindsey Lindskoog, Olivia DeVries, Dani Baughman and Rachel Phillips spray-painted the rock on June 14 in honor of their friend, Jen Moore, a Ferndale resident.
Lindskoog lives in Lynden, Baughman and DeVries in Bellingham, and Phillips in Ferndale.
So, who's Henry?
The better question is what is Henry?
Lindskoog explained: "A couple of months ago, Jen was diagnosed with stage 1 uterine cancer and underwent surgery for a full hysterectomy. The tumor the surgeons removed had been named 'Henry' by Jen when the tumor was found on an ultrasound. Jen chose to name her tumor 'Henry' because she said, 'I figured if I grew it, I might as well name it.'
A public show of love ...
Lindskoog: "The four of us had always wanted to paint the rock and this seemed like the best reason for us to finally do it. We wanted Jen to have a little piece of love and support on her drive home from the hospital.
"Through the entire process Jen has been extremely positive and had a great outlook on it all. She was told ... that all of the cancer was removed and she will not need any further treatment.
"Jen has walked through this ordeal with grace and extreme bravery. She is truly inspiring."
Rock and roll
Sports is a favorite topic for the rock.
People have publicly declared their love for their school's team, or their team's championships, by spray-painting it on the rock's face for passing motorists to see.
They've done it for the Seattle Seahawks, too.
That includes this sports memory from the 1980s, when a team turned the rock into a soccer ball.
Bellingham resident Christy Wales explained: "The Bellingham Drillers Women’s Soccer Team painting the rock after winning a tournament down south. We painted it a few times, this was (in 1986). I’m on top with the sunglasses."