If I could have had my druthers I’d have popped back into Porterville to get a patio chair at Home Depot, returned to the orange trees and spent the day just hanging out with them. They are the cheeriest of company. I could feel my state of mind improve just in the few minutes I spent enjoying the sight of their foliage, bud and fruit. They operate on the spirit in the same way the fragrance of orange zest operates on the olfactory nerves: they give a lift. How wonderful. So at the end of the day I felt myself amply compensated for missing the big trees in Sequoia National Park. I had the experience of much smaller but no less wonderful trees for which to be grateful, and grateful I shall remain now whenever I pick up oranges in the supermarket because the memory of the trees in Exeter will come to mind.
Some General Thoughts on California
Since this was my first trip through California I’ve been looking at things in the Big Picture to see if I can arrive at any impressions that capture the reality of the place effectively apart from the hype and the stereotypes. Using my direct experience as the baseline I realize that a couple awarenesses remained persistent as I moved through the areas I visited.
The strongest of these awarenesses concerns poverty. We outsiders who know CA only from the news and from TV think of it as a posh place for the most part. On the screen we see Beverly Hills and its housewives or the Kardashians holding forth magnificently (?) in Calabasas. But the parts of California I saw are not posh — far from it. There’s nothing in places like Arcata or Porterville to urge comparison with Beverly Hills or Calabasas. Arcata is more an extension of down-and-out southern Oregon than it is a northerly relative of San Francisco’s wealthier purlieus. When I drove from Redding to Arcata I stopped in Weaverville along Hwy 299 to get some fruit at the local supermarket. I got panhandled twice in the parking lot, once on the way in and once when I came out. It’s the last thing I expected in a small town in the middle of nowhere in the mountains of northern California — it never happens in my neck of the woods, in the middle of nowhere in the mountains of a different state. Going around the coast near Arcata took me twice through Eureka, where I didn’t stop because of what I had read about the place. It counts as one of the 10 most dangerous cities in California (info here). With a population of less than 30,000 one wonders how it manages to achieve that status being up against places like Oakland or San Bernardino. I didn’t get out of the car to explore the contributing sociological factors. One look at the place makes it clear that it’s as dodgy as the day is long. Arcata also looks decidedly hard-scrabble and I got panhandled a few times when I went out of the hotel for a short walk. Red Bluff, where I stayed one day on my way to the southern Sierras, figures on the same red flag list as Eureka, occupying Slot Number 4. The cities of the San Joaquin Valley are in CA’s agricultural heartland so I thought in my innocence they’d be like Iowa — full of contented cows and happy laddies and lasses with rosy cheeks and big smiles. Not a bit of it. It’s Meth Central, so go the reports. Fresno has a huge problem with meth trafficking and meth addiction among its (large) homeless population. Even the cows are nervous, apparently. Yikes.
Down in Porterville, an hour north of Bakersfield, things are less tense but still hard-scrabble. As I drove around the town (population just under 60,000) I saw pockets of modern commercialism dotted around an older town distinctly frayed at the edges. The streets made me think that there’s no budget for resurfacing. But it’s quiet and doesn’t feel dangerous due to dodgy characters floating about the streets. The only place I’ve seen that gives the impression of being fairly upmarket and upbeat is Visalia, some 30 miles north of Porterville, with a population of just over 150,000. But the day I drove up to have a look-see it smelled like manure even in the downtown shopping area near the main mall. I don’t know if that’s due to the way the wind was blowing or because there are dairy farms just behind Macy’s, but there it is. I didn’t need to see Holsteins cropping grass contentedly to know that they were about somewhere nearby.
My purpose as I passed through California was to see the physical territory of the State. It’s a part of the Planet I didn’t know at all and I wanted to get acquainted. In that regard my time there was a great success. It’s a beautiful place. As I drove through it the reason people settled it so densely became quite clear: it offers fantastic natural environments. Mountains, forests, lakes, fertile soil, good climate — all the things that make settlers jump on the pioneer bandwagon. Since my focus was on those elements rather than on, say, the dodgy neighborhoods of Oakland, I came away with a general impression of California skewed toward the scenic and away from the sociological. It’s clear that things are not well in Gotham as far as current sociology goes. But the redwoods are still OK and the mountains of northern California continue undiminished in their beauty. The Sierra Nevadas are glorious no matter how much meth changes hands in Fresno or Stockton. Climate change has now made major inroads into the State as we saw during last year’s fire season and I drove through several areas where burns had taken place. It’s a grim reminder that people are at the root of more systemic problems than just virus pandemics.
But I tick the box “mission accomplished” for my travel through California. I saw lovely stuff and relished the sight of it. California has fantastic landscapes and remains the only place in the world where you can see redwoods and sequoias. Despite the sociological disorder and the coronavirus pandemic I found it relatively easy and massively rewarding to visit and enjoy those natural features of the State (that unfortunately also gave us the Kardashians, but I’m not bitter 🙂 ). It matters little to me if my impressions of the place are skewed because they’re skewed in the right direction: toward the natural world. Now when I think of California what comes to mind is redbud blazing its glorious color along Hwy 36, the redwoods of Prairie Creek State Park jutting up into the sky and leaving me gobsmacked and a host of other visual impressions that I’ll be more than happy to carry to my grave. “Take the best and leave the rest” so goes the saying. It’s a piece of advice I’m quite happy to follow.