April 4, 2007

An Inland California Travelogue

I woke up very early this morning to make an appearance on the morning calendar in Kern County Superior Court. To get there, I drove through several permutations of California’s amazingly varied topography. Sadly, I did not have my camera with me so I have no pictures. Loyal Readers will have to use their imaginations based on my descriptions.

Of course, I begin my day in the Antelope Valley, which is not really a valley at all but a triangle-shaped plateau representing the western edge of the Mojave Desert. These days, it is adorned with more housing developments than anything else, but driving west along highway 138, I se more of its normal state since the rainy season is now past. It is not lifeless, although at first glance it can appear nearly so. Manzanita and juniper bushes abound, and in areas that have not been cleared for housing or farming, so do Joshua trees. Some Joshua trees are in bloom; like their genetic relatives the yuccas, their blooms are long stalks of white flowers. Big-eared jackrabbits run across the road many times. To my great pleasure, I see a whole family of roadrunners darting from one side of the road to another. This after only complaining on Sunday to The Wife that there didn’t seem to be any roadrunners in the area anymore – I’m very pleased to be proven wrong.

Upon reaching the Frazier Park/Gorman area, I enter the Tejon Pass, where the Santa Susanna Mountains meet the Tehachapi Range. This is definitely the one week out of the year to be there – there has been enough rainfall that the mountains are green with fresh grass and lots of trees are in bloom. (Loyal Readers from, say, Tennessee may take the greenness of mountains and the presence of vegetation on them for granted. But eleven months out of the year, the grasses are dormant and are a dull, dirty gold color.) The steepness and rugged beauty of these mountains is difficult to overstate – many of them have sheer cliffs and many more have steep rises with tops rounded by the fierce winds. There are natural streams and lakes in the mountains, augmented by the hand of Man to provide water for the thirsty city to our south. Along the way, I pass by Quail Lake (which is very low at the moment) and Lebec Lake (which Google Earth calls “Castac Lake” but which I think is too confusing a name with nearby Castaic Lake). The trip through the scenic Tejon Pass is far too brief for my preference, and ends at the Grapevine Grade, a steep downhill descent out of the mountains.

From there, the scenery changes dramatically and suddenly. I am now in California’s Central Valley, a mostly agricultural area. At over 42,750 square miles in size, the Central Valley is the same size as the entire state of Virginia. It is the salad bar of the world. All manner of fruits, vegetables, and nuts are grown here and there is a good chance that no matter where you are in the United States, you are eating food from this part of the world on a regular basis. The southern end of the valley is also an oil-producing region, and it is quite common to see a field of beans or an orange grove studded with the rocking hammers of oil wells. There is always dust and haze in the air, and often in this area there can be found the remnants of the tense Tule fog that further north obstructs visibility so badly that driving becomes impossible. Within a few miles of the Grapevine, I have lost sight of the 7,000 foot high mountains that surround the valley floor. I drive past trucks of all sizes through fields of cotton, oranges, grapes, almonds, dates, rice, cherries, celery, broccoli, cabbage, and lemons. The noxious smells of diesel exhaust, raw petroleum, and steer manure permeates everything, even with my car’s air conditioner system set to recycle.

Bakersfield is the regional urban center of the southern valley. I am forcefully reminded of Knoxville – the same kinds of stores and restaurants are here (including places like Sonic and Mimi’s CafĂ©, which I’ve not seen anywhere else in the “Southland”) and the same sort of randomness to its urban layout once the central core of the “downtown” area is left behind. (However, there are about half again as many people in Bakersfield as there are in Knoxville.) Bakersfield calls itself California’s Capital of Country Music. There is heavy traffic during the morning rush hour, and woefully inadequate infrastructure to handle it. A major rail route runs directly through the middle of the city and not all the streets have overpasses or underpasses to permit traffic to flow freely. I drive by Bakersfield High School, jammed between the busiest street in the city and the rail tracks, with a large image of its mascot (the “Drillers”) on the side of its auditorium. The petroleum-manure smell persists even here in the middle of the city. I find the center of the city, park and walk a block to court to make my appearance. In court, the judge moves lazily through his calendar and speaks with what sounds like a well-muted Appalachian lilt. The judge rules against me, in favor of a local, despite the absence of any apparent merit to the position he has taken in response to my motion, although he is very courteous to me. It really does feel like Knoxville, 2,000 miles away.

To vary my trip, I leave on the eastbound Highway 58. I drive through east Bakersfield’s industrial zone and through the foothills of the mountains before ascending into the Tehachapi Mountains. These, too, are steep mountains with forbidding rock outcrops, but blessed at this time of year by fresh rains and a coat of inviting, lush green. The cattle grazing in the ranches are obviously enjoying fresh greens, when they are not laying down to rest in the shade of the thousands of oak trees that stud the mountainside. As my route ascends into the mountains, I notice that the trees all grow on only the west slopes of the mountains; the east slopes are nearly bare of trees. This is a natural phenomenon, not an artificial one; I wonder what process makes that happen. The forest thickens and varies, with pines and firs mixing in with the oaks and sycamores. There is still snow in the very upper reaches of the Tehachapis, although only in the valleys near the peaks of the mountains on their northern faces where it is never exposed to the direct rays of the sun. I am reminded of the cinematography of the Shire and the Misty Mountains from the Lord of the Rings movies.

The terrain changes as I near the city of Tehachapi, which sits on a plateau within the mountain range. There, I pass an impressive mining operation to my left and drive past an immense farm of windmills. The mine is part of the Monolith Cement Works, which provided the concrete that today is Hoover Dam. It certainly looks as though Monolith Mining has removed about half of an entire mountain. There are at least four sizes of the three-armed pinwheels, and most are operating today, keeping the skyline in constant hypnotic motion. The landscape begins to yellow as I drive downslope towards Mojave. Gradually but steadily, the quantity and quality of the vegetation declines as I move into the Mojave Desert.

Now, again, there are sagebrush, tumbleweeds, and Joshua trees along with the poverty grasses capable of surviving the long dormant period between rains and relentless winds of the desert. This area of the desert is even more barren than the Antelope Valley region; there are wider spaces with fewer trees and bushes, and such that survive here are shorter and stouter. The land is sandy and brown. The sky is immense, and the view goes until the earth curves away from my view, revealing the remainder of the mountain range to my left, curving to the north to become the mighty Sierra Nevadas. Ahead is a flat, empty plain of the sort Dante wrote about centuries ago; it may not be particularly warm outside just yet (it is only early April, after all) but it looks miserably hot anyway. Here, mankind has come to dwell and build the future at the same place it leaves the derelict remains of its industrial past – the "Mojave Spaceport" is the fancy name for the new use given to the old airplane graveyard, within a few miles of the other half of the wind farm, and also within a few miles of some dilapidated old dwellings and roadfront businesses that have been left unrefurbished since the 1950’s, all plopped here in the nearly-lunar landscape of southern Kern County.

Turning south, I drive home, again watching a gradual change in the landscape back to its familiar blend vegetation in the Antelope Valley proper, divided as it is by a regular graph-paper grid design of unimaginatively named roads and streets. Over the last five miles of my drive, the desert swiftly evolves into the suburban sprawl of Lancaster. It is 11:30 and I meet my colleagues for lunch and then back to the office. My route has taken me roughly in a square, covering circuit of a bit more than one-half a degree of latitude and almost a full degree of longitude. My travel time along Highways 138 and 99 into Bakersfield has taken me effectively the same amount of time as my travel along Highways 58 and 14 back to a point within a few miles of where I started.

1 comment:

Sheila Tone said...

There's a Mimi's Cafe in Valencia. When we lived nearby, I always spoke of wanting to try it just for the sake of trying it. But whenever the opportunity arose, there were always so many better options.

I did not know Bakersfield had assumed that identity for itself.