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July 4, Central Valley CA

I spent the Fourth in as American a fashion as possible. I drove a pickup truck at 85 miles per hour in a straight line for four hours. At that, I was slower than some of the traffic I encountered: an obstacle to Angelenos’ speedy transit of California’s Central Valley. Unless your eye is attuned to the pale blonde slopes of the Inner Coast Ranges, unless you find entertainment in counting the red tailed hawks sitting on fence posts or sputtering outrage watching the inexorable spread of suburb from the Bay Area southward, Interstate Five can be a trifle monotonous, and so people hurry through it.

Not to me. I always find something to write home about. Today there were long stripes of discarded tomatoes left by the harvesters, pale green windrows on fields so flat they could have been brown corduroy ironed on a kitchen table, and on one such windrow two ravens jumped in glee at finding so much food. One discarded tomato in a hundred had ripened in the heat, enough to feed a thousand ravens to bursting.

But I have odd tastes, relishing the swoop of barnswallows on the semis’ pressure waves. I’ve traveled this road since my early twenties, a quarter century next year, and I’ve watched the terra cotta carcinoma spreading. If the price of oil does not spike, and soon, the valley will be one suburb from the Grapevine to Sacramento. In 1987 my friend Matthew and I chased the Perseids out to Grant Line Road near Tracy, lay on our backs on the dark shoulder of the road and watched the shooting stars until three in the morning. That stretch of road butts up against an outlet mall these days. I fear the day when Los Angeles drivers find more to interest them along I-5.

Oddly, none of them seem to take advantage of the alternative. Head east on any of a hundred high-speed two-lanes, each of them seemingly termed “Blood Alley” by their respective locals, and you will reach the older, more settled north-south route through the Valley: Highway 99. 99 traverses the Valley of literature. This is the land of oil rigs and orange stands, packing sheds and dusty oleander hedges. William Saroyan, Joan Didion, Maxine Hong Kingston, Gary Soto, Gerry Haslam, Cherie Moraga, Merle Haggard: does any other piece of real estate in the country boast so many fine writers? The Colorado Plateau, perhaps. And Manhattan I suppose, although that little island’s parochialism wouldn’t last long in a Fresno summer. Wasn’t it a Manhattan-based newspaper that referred to the Californian author of Angle Of Repose as “William Stegner”?

A bank of thunderheads sat atop the Sierra Nevada today, ready to wash more soil down into the Valley. The Valley’s soil, in places, is more than a mile deep. Twentieth-century farmers took so much Pleistocene water from the depths that the land began to settle out from under them. One cannot pump too much from this landscape too quickly. I drove today across the bed of the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. Or it was. Tulare Lake fell victim to the cotton growers a lifetime ago, its feeder river dammed to irrigate fields, and the lake disappeared: an American Aral.

Turn on the radio most places in the Central Valley and all you will hear is country music. That said, you do have a choice of several different countries.  Norteño and Banda dominate the AM spectrum, a bridge to the homeland for those who braved the crossing to El Norte so that Victor Davis Hanson could exploit their labor on his hobby farm outside Fresno, and a link to the old ways for their American kids. Flip through the FM band and Hmoob, Hindustani and Basque join the broadcast Babel. Sometimes, as I did today, you will get lucky and tune to a station just as they start a torrid Vietnamese torch song by Duy Khanh or Than Tuyen, or a staccato Spanish commercial for auto insurance will fade into Shakira asking where the thieves are.

Brand spanking new pickup trucks and 25-year-old sedans with dragging mufflers. Viscid water sidling along irrigation ditches. In Wasco, a dozen roadside businesses advertise pastrami. I turn east onto state route 46: James Dean went the other way in the last hour of his life. Dorothea Lange might have shot some of the houses I passed today, squeezed up against the stuccoed walls of newly metastasized “communities.” This was once a chain of flower-filled ponds four hundred miles north to south. From there it was supposed to become a haven for the farm family, giant federal projects designed to irrigate plots no larger than a couple hundred acres. The families that use that water nowadays are named Tenneco, Cargill, and J.G. Boswell, and the swelling cities enjoy the dirtiest air and water in the country.

America in capsule form, if you ask me. Happy Fourth.

Posted by on 07/04 at 11:31 PM
  1. Awesome.  Every time I drive into the Central Valley, I get angry.  You put it perfectly.

    Posted by  on  07/05  at  04:01 PM
  2. Chris: Just a few comments: This fifth generation native Californian knows exactly what you are talking about.I am just a couple of years younger than Joan Didion,had a very similar upbringing, and like her believed the myth of California’s “Sonderweg” for years: aristocratic Spaniards, noble pioneers, bold innovators, all that nonsense.
    The more recent hokum brought in from ex-peasants of all nationalities that is 99% of what goes on in California today does not interest me, but it is hard to ignore, even now that I don’t live there any more.
    The year I was born, the population of California was 3,000,000. (Partly so low because Mexicans and Chinese were expelled, but nonetheless...). Imagine the Santa Clara Valley with all its orchards. Now it’s Silicon Valley with all its housing, malls, and “industrial parks.”
    Like you, I watch the birds and notice all the other stuff that seems to live on the margins.
    The metaphor of marginal creatures (ravens)living on what California throws away (tomatoes) is inspired.
    The best movie ever on California is “Chinatown.”

    Posted by Hattie  on  07/05  at  06:11 PM
  3. A bank of thunderheads sat atop the Sierra Nevada today, ready to wash more soil down into the Valley.

    And out to the Bay.  I can tell when it’s a really hot day inland because the increased snowmelt volume pushes the Sacramento all the way out into the main body of the Bay; it’s visible as a mass of silty river water with a sharp demarcation where it meets the water of the Bay. 

    The families that use that water nowadays are named Tenneco, Cargill, and J.G. Boswell, and the swelling cities enjoy the dirtiest air and water in the country.

    I assume you’ve read The King of California?

    Posted by Tom Hilton  on  07/05  at  06:31 PM
  4. One of my favorite spots in the valley is Buttonwillow, purely for nostalgic reasons.  Stopped for gas there with my folks in ‘73 on the way from Sacramento to L.A. to buy a dog.  A flock of RVs had descended upon the little town—hundreds of them, it seemed, but probably only dozens.  For some reason the name of the town combined with the endless lines of travel-trailers reduced us to hilarity.

    Posted by Violet Socks  on  07/05  at  07:59 PM
  5. Prose worthy of Stegner, not something I say lightly. I read, I’m there, mind and heart fully engaged.

    I take it you are on your way to the border; take care, Chris. Having said that, I look forward to hearing as much from you as circumstances allow.

    Posted by Leah A  on  07/06  at  05:26 AM
  6. Just plain beautiful writing.

    Posted by Asad  on  07/06  at  12:21 PM
  7. A few years ago I worked all summer on a project in Oakdale out in the Central Valley. My second favorite pasttime (my first was going to San Francisco) was driving north to Sacramento or south to Modesto or Fresno as I sang along to pirated Vicente Fernandez cassettes I bought at some flea market. Sometimes I’d drive so aimlessly I’d end up in Yosemite or Tahoe without even knowing how I got there.

    Your essay captures the essence of the Central Valley beautifully.

    Posted by Alex von Waldenberg III  on  07/07  at  11:37 AM
  8. (very late to the party)
    Thank you for the evocative, bittersweet portrait. As a one-time resident and regular visitor to Ca., I find it impossible to have an emotionally neutral reaction to almost anything about the state. It always brings out conflicting “It was the best of places, it was the worst of places” feelings in me. However, I find that I have reached an age where I cannot drive anywhere anymore without a subliminal pit in my stomach as I observe the ongoing transformation of the landscape.

    For example, I currently live just outside of Pittsburgh PA, where a combination of no population growth, topography, incompetently corrupt balkanized local governments, small-minded developers, a brain-dead department of transportation and a malicious, criminally inept turnpike commission have conspired to generally thwart the typical patterns of American mega-growth. Yet by my estimates, even here with a slight decline in overall population in the whole metropolitan area, over the past half-century there has been a net movement on the order of 500,000 people from the central city and densely populated mill towns to outlying areas. At, say, a density of 500 people/sq mi., this translates to an added 1000 sq. mi. of sprawl in that time (20 sq mi./yr.). There is no mystery as to what drives this. I live next to a compact river/mill town where 2,500 live in the space where 8,000 once did, the 5,500 “extra” now living “better lives” in various suburban/exurban locations - and expanding their footprint ten-fold in the process.

    And as much as I decry the result, I am part of the problem - I came here and chose suburban in the face of a very livable city (and if not for spousal override would be ensconced on a 19-acre “farm”.) Two million of me new to an area and you get freaking Atlanta ....

    Back to California, although not associated with the Central Valley per se, I would add George R. Stewart to the roll of notable “original California” writers. (although he hailed from Sewickley PA - just outside of Pittsburgh...)

    Posted by  on  07/08  at  12:42 AM
  9. Tom, I’m working on reading The King Of California.

    captcha: tried.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  07/08  at  02:42 PM

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