Kage Baker was of the opinion that no one who paid attention could ever get bored on a road trip.
It helped that she was a born sight-seer, a natural tourist. It also helped that she was obsessive about details, and paid hawk-like attention to everything she saw out the car window. I learned to do so also – as far as was consistent with the safe operation of a motor vehicle, of course (she said primly). One of the great hazards on a road trip is highway hypnosis, just zoning out as the endless white line runs off into the void behind you. That’s much harder to do when you are watching for weird road kill, UFOs, and unbelievable roadside signs.
This is what makes I-5 so very much fun to travel. It’s also what makes it such a terror, but hey – you gotta play what you’re dealt, right? The entertainment of strange visions passing by at 70 miles per hour can, luckily, be depended on to enliven any trip, on any road.
This weekend, it was obvious that nuts are proliferating in the San Joaquin Valley. Some of these are literal – enormous new orchards are going in all over, endless lines of tiny trees in bright white paper wrappers: they look they’ve been planted in their diapers, or their nursery nightgowns. Most of them seem to be pistachios, which are good new crop. They are tasty, nutritious and drought-resistant and don’t require as much water as soft fruits like apricots and grapes. Of course, so are cashews – but raw cashews also contain the same active chemical as poison ivy.
And along with the water-sensitive new orchards there are lots of signs from water-sensitive nuts amid the human population. These blame the drought on most California Senators and Representatives, including some who are no longer in office – or maybe even alive. They tend to be in fallow fields, which at least looks appropriate; but there are also lots in fields of lush cotton, or sorghum, or tomatoes, or cotton, or baby pistachios: all pleading for the passing motorist to help end the CONGRESS-CAUSED WATER SHORTAGE. In the meantime, herons stalk along the edges of the damp fields and the Aquaduct, catching ground squirrels and fish.
Cognitive dissonance rules on I-5.
There were a lot animals on show this weekend, too. Coyotes, ravens, crows, egrets, herons, cattle, goats and sheep – most alive, alive oh, some in interesting grotesque positions – usually with their feet in the air – on the verge. The birds and coyotes are clearly caught by cars. The cattle seem to walk up to the fence beside the road and just keel over dead …
Cattle herds are full of tiny calves; sheep flocks with even tinier lambs. Seen in a moment’s speedy passage, they appear to be on anti-gravity, perpetually in midair as they bounce around their grazing mothers.
In one field, there were also two magnificent rams – hot-eyed and sulky, with great curved horns that they alternately shook at the passing cars and at the bulls in the next pasture. The bulls were the pale cattle I only ever see on I-5 at mid-winter: huge, white as marble, dewlapped and lyre-horned and as formal as a temple frieze.
I don’t know what they are, or why I never see them except this time of year. I like to think they are maybe the Cattle of the Sun, out for some fresh salad as the California winter grass gets thick. Or maybe they’re kept by some hidden sect of Mithraites, and will dedicate their heart’s blood to Sol Invictus come the Solstice, ransoming us all from darkness. They are probably British Whites, or Charolais, or White Parks – but I like to think they are sacred bulls, and I always pray when I pass them on the winter road.
We saw cars with colored headlights, lots of colors. Headlights are white, right? White white, or yellow white or blue white; like a stream of diamonds when you see a road from a distance at night, a sluice filled with all grades from D to Z, 1 to 10 – and all glowing in the dark. But we’ve been seeing headlights that are pink, lavender, actual outright blue, and one instance of lime green. That was on the 12 Highway through the vineyards of Napa, causing my nephew to remark, “I didn’t know the Hulk drove.” Are these things even legal? I have no idea, but they’re out there, throwing multicolored shadows over the midnight highways.
A month ago, field after field was brown and barren. Some were thinly dressed in Russian thistle, others were covered in harvested rags of cotton bushes and various forms of brassica. By last weekend, most of them were newly furrowed and some even plowed, with long tidy rows of neat tilled earth, all shaped like enormous Toblerone bars. New plants are growing thickly up through the aging tumbleweeds now, and every Toberlone segment is crowned with green velvet. And the new crops haven’t even sprouted yet! It’s all volunteer grass and wild flowers and weeds, California’s superluminal green season bursting up in search of the winter rains.
There was even grass sprouting on some of the remaining huge cotton icebergs parked on the sides of the empty fields. On the wild hills, the new oats are high enough now to move in waves under the wind. And mist clings to slopes and plateaus everywhere, like the memory of the ancient warm sea that used to fill California’s Central valley. Plesiosaurs could be sporting out towards Modesto …
How could anyone ever get bored? Like the insurance commercial says: We know a thing or two, because we’ve seen a thing or two.
Oh, have I ever.