Notes from the California Avalon

I’ve been one busy traveler lately, pilin’ up the miles hustling down to Fresno on the weekends to help my ailing father convalesce. Outside of the swollen feet, the tore-up esophagus, the mouth sores, the cardiac arrhythmia and the oozing surgical scar, things are going quite well, and he hopes to be back on his feet soon, strolling through the neighborhood and doing a little yardwork. I’m afraid, though, that the doctor’s gonna order him to cut back on the calf-roping.

To get to Fresno, you gotta travel on the very unglamorous Highway 99. Unglamorous, but productive as ever. The crops still pour out of the Great Central Valley, a place of hazy air and quasi-miraculous dirt. Here are some notes from this essential and overlooked region.

I now understand the whole In-N-Out Burger thing. It’s a nice little shop—strictly burgers, fries and shakes, extremely reasonable and visually cool in a retro kind of way. I stopped at the In-N-Out off I-80 in Auburn, got a hamburger for $1.45, and will state for the record that I was a satisfied customer. If they ever get that In-N-Out built in Sparks at Pyramid and C, the lines will be P.F. Chang-like, so I’m not gonna worry about it.

There are things in this world that are scarier than a young woman on a cell phone pulling up behind you in the left lane of 99, riding your ass at 78 miles an hour … but not many. In that situation, I pull back on the urge to jack it up to 90, opting instead to meekly pull over and let her roar past, still blabbing away. As I do so, I imagine an old Chinese guy with a long, wispy beard saying, “Wise move, grasshopper.”

In fact, one can’t help but notice there are an awful lot of people speeding real hard in the Golden State. If you ever want to feel like a tortoise, just get in the left lane of any California freeway and drive 75. As for resolving the state budget deficit mess, all Governor Flynt has to do is hire 22,000 state troopers, turn ’em loose on the highways, and order them to do nothing but write speeding tickets all day and all of the night. By my calculations, the budget crisis would be over in three to five days.

I was shocked to discover rush hour traffic jams on 99 in Stockton and Modesto. I mean, Stockton and Modesto! At that point, I realized once again that California is simply too gorgeous for its own good, and that people remain determined to love it to death. The Eagles said it well with the line, “Call some place paradise, kiss it goodbye.”

One exquisite thing I’ve been reminded of in the past month—summer nights in Fresno. The best. The days can be beastly, for sure, but the nights in the San Joaquin Valley are superb in their sultry warmth. Truly a place where one can sleep in a van down by the river and have it feel like a perfectly legitimate lifestyle choice.