One Friday I set off for the mountains to our family’s cabin in the southern Sierra Nevada. The homesickness that always comes on in advance seems to be even worse these days. I did not want to leave what feels like my soul’s safe place, and it took me all the next morning to drag myself away. The sun was high in the sky before I got on the road, but from then on I was the Happy Wanderer. And I didn’t get lost, at least not very soon.
It’s dry out there, folks! Even so, crops are growing, and canals are full of water. This view of Highway 5, the interstate that runs right down the middle of the state, shows the most barren looking stretch. I took the picture looking south, and you can see the California Aqueduct running along in the same general direction and to the west of the highway here.
I was listening to the radio and thinking about the anthropology of radio stations. Close to home I had tuned into my favorite jazz or classical stations, but after a while there were more Christian, Spanish, and talk radio options. I landed on a gospel station as a rich woman’s voice began to sing meaningfully, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, oh-oh-oh my soul….” and I wept with joy. I think it was joy. I weep so much lately, I probably don’t know all the reasons.
Soon I turned east toward the mountains and drove through miles and miles of farmland as I crossed the Central Valley. Huge plantings of tomatoes and cotton and alfalfa, and what I think were safflower plants maturing all coppery gold. Around here farmers are rightly worried about the future, and they put up billboards asking, “IS GROWING FOOD A WASTE OF WATER?” and “DAMS or TRAINS – BUILD WATER STORAGE NOW.” Over a farm machinery dealership yard, surrounded by fields of corn, the largest American flag I’ve ever seen billowed in the wind.
I kept stopping to take pictures, assuring myself that I had time, because the summer sun wouldn’t set too early. I didn’t really want to arrive by myself in the dark at the cabin. My sister would not join me until the next day.
After years of knowing alfalfa only by its summery sweetness in the air, I parked near a freshly mown field and bent down to see its lavender flowers and clovery leaves.
The temperature outside had reached 102° by this time, so when I stopped for gas it seemed the right thing to do, to buy myself a Snapple Kiwi Strawberry drink, hearkening a long ways back to a time when that was the “special” drink that many in our family favored. That disappeared fast.
And then I came upon the pistachio trees, which I didn’t recognize until I walked through the pale plowed dirt and got close to them, too. I noticed that the orchards were not flooded as nut trees sometimes are, but were irrigated by means of very localized misters.
A sign read: “50% of THE FRUITS, VEGETABLES and NUTS of THE NATION ARE GROWN in CALIFORNIA.” But often, directly across the highway from the orchards, would be land like this:
…..and these gray-green weeds and tumbleweeds were common wild plants, showing what the natural state of affairs is in these parts.
But I think the most common roadside plants are probably not considered weeds at all, because they are wild sunflowers that brighten up long stretches of highway and wave at the traffic whizzing past.
The singer on the country station was asking, “Mama, should I run for President? Mama, should I trust the government?”
When I lost that station I came upon more Christian radio with the blessing, “God be with you till we meet again….,” and you can imagine who was on my mind right then.
I was just starting to climb into the foothills, where there were oak trees, but no crops. The temperature had dropped to 99°, and I kept the AC on. This area slightly above the hottest parts of the valley like Fresno or Bakersfield is where a lot of people have liked to retreat at 2,000 feet or so above the valley floor. Over the years I many times heard my father wonder at the foolishness (and he used stronger descriptors) of building houses where there is no groundwater in all but the wettest years. I saw houses on hilltops and wondered myself if the occupants were still living there, or if they have to bring all their water in by truck nowadays.
Maybe cattle are grazed here in greener seasons, but all I saw were a few beehives. As the road climbed up toward my destination, pines began to appear. And in this transition zone of the foothills I will break my story in two. The next installment will be: Mountains!