Report From Modesto
November 13th, 2009

Crossing over the Sierras into California has always seemed like venturing into a foreign country—foreign to this wayfarer, at any rate. At the border I was stopped at a check point, where an agriculture agent took a close look at the apple I was eating and asked where it and I had come from.

“It’s a Jonathan,” I answered. “From my own tree in Salt Lake City.”

She let me pass, no matter that my apple appeared somewhat blighted, and so did I. A week earlier I had undergone cryosurgery and my scabrous face resembled a bowl of bran flakes. Compared to the comely border guard, I looked like death warmed over.

Healthy-looking people abound in California, and it’s not hard—even for a scabrous stranger—to make new friends there. Californians are an outgoing and gregarious lot, I suspect because they live cheek-by-jowl in crowded communities and endure bumper-to-bumper commutes to and from work and play. So they have learned to get along, unlike those of us from the hinterlands whose idea of highway congestion is having to brake for the occasional jackrabbit.Elko_Car_2

I had been invited to Modesto to speak at a photography symposium, but since the 50-minute talk involved a drive of over 1,500 miles, I’m going to skip over the symposium and instead write about the long, long drive and some of the things I saw along the way. At a self-service gas station in Elko, I spotted a young woman refueling her Mercury Grand Marquis—a gift, she explained, from her mother. Evidently this person has a talent for exterior decorating, for not only was she riddled with piercings and covered with tattoos, but so was her car. I was particularly struck by the lettering on the rear deck lid that read: CAR MAY DIE: STAY BACK. Anyone who has owned a Mercury lately will understand that this is no idle threat. I’m one of them, and I think the paint job should come as standard equipment!House_on_Hill_2

Out west of Winnemucca I spotted this solitary house on a hilltop, bracketed by the obligatory camper and pickup truck. Who among us hasn’t dreamt of having an entire hilltop all to himself? And yet it was for sale. What happened? Could it be the owner had lost his job—or come to the belated realization that there are no jobs to be had in the area? Had his wife and kids packed up and fled to California in search of a social life?

I grew up in the boondocks, but like most of my contemporaries I moved away soon after I got a driver’s license—not because I hated small town life but because my arm had gotten sore from waving at every face I recognized. My two brothers ventured even farther, one to Seattle and the other to Los Angeles. Jim likes trees and rain; Chuck tolerates crowds and smog filtered sunshine. Me, I’m satisfied with the occasional storm front and the occasional tree, such as this magnificent cottonwood near Battle Mountain.


My boyhood pal and onetime fellow desert rat Clark has found his niche in Oakdale, surrounded by twenty-five acres of cherry trees and grapes. He seems content to live in the verdant Central Valley, and in fact has acquired something of a healthy glow that is totally unlike that of his hard rock mining forebears. Indeed, comparing my weatherbeaten complexion to his, I’m reminded of H.G. Wells’ vision of the future, wherein the human race has devolved into separate species: the gentle Eloi vs the subterranean Morlocks.

Still, I was happy to get back to my side of the Sierras. First thing you notice is that you can FINALLY see where you’re going! You can see for miles and miles. You can watch individual storm cells as they sweep across distant mountain ranges. You can see an entire freight train inching its way like a caterpillar across a broad, unpeopled valley. Settlements are few and far between, and chances are very good that by the time you finally get to one the only restaurant in town will be closed—because still another desert denizen has discovered it’s not so easy to earn a living in the Outback and one’s arm gets mighty tired from waving at the same familiar faces day after day.

(To be continued…)

-Richard Menzies