We woke early. Today would be a big driving day, all about the destinations and not the wandering pace of a tourist. Our driving would have a purpose with the first stop in Visalia and then onto tonight’s home of Salinas near the coast. The wild turkeys that were rummaging behind our campsite caught Mabel’s attention and she practiced great restraint to leave them alone. She was off the leash and responded to my repeating command of “Mabel stay!” They moved on and we continued packing up.
The KOA was at the North side of Mariposa and for some reason the GPS had us going through the mountains instead of Mariposa. As we snaked our way past ridge line homes, smoke could be seen up ahead and we continued until the police routed us back the way we came. The smoke wasn’t strong and more white than black but enough to attract professional attention. We soon found ourselves travelling through Mariposa’s main street which provided an opportunity for gas and ice.
The radio reminded me that it was the sixteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I think back on the reports of firefighters heading up the stairs as office workers were heading down. They were like the guys I went to school with and disregarded their safety because of duty. It made me very sad to think of those events and what happened afterwards. We were all changed by them in some manner and I wonder if there is an end in sight. Our family was affected in a small way; I left twice for the GWOT, and the boys have grown up knowing a perpetual war.
How do I reconcile what I thought I would see with what I have actually seen? America is more beautiful than I expected and it's splendor is evident in the simplest of forms. A tree silhouetted against the brown grassy fields, the rocky coast at sunset, and the pines of the forest. They all provide an opportunity to feel whole. The trip has been different than expected and I realize more and more that I didn’t know what was “out there”.
A winding HWY 140 brings us down from Mariposa and into Merced where HWY 99 will eventually lead to Visalia. The road takes us through valleys with the familiar Mabel colored grass we have seen in other areas of California. The same feeling of desolation is here as the view stretches, broken by a few trees, just enough to add a layer of texture. A cow with acres to graze instead chooses to push on the wire fence and eat. Does the boundary provide comfort? Is it a way to know its location in what can be considered its world? Can we say the same about cube walls and their safety? Is it easier to sit within them then explore the world outside? It was for me; will it still be?
The trip has provided me with many questions and I hope answers will appear before it is over.
We come into flatness. You can’t entirely disclaim the statement that the “earth is flat” and it would make for a half-way decent argument at a cocktail party. Raise the ire of someone with the statement because it rings true in the correct context. The flatness provides the necessities for growth and the greenness is apparent the lower we go. A variety of crops are seen between Merced and Madera; the corn we have seen in so many other states is present as are fruit trees and cotton fields breaking the monotony. I was surprised to see cotton, but plants don’t prescribe to state boundaries, they are ruled by conditions and conditions here must be good for cotton. Or were at one time as the cotton gins and associated building look ill-used. Conditions contain many factors and man plays a small part in them. Natural conditions may allow for growth, but economic conditions might be what dictates the final decision. I think of East of Eden and the plan to ship produce to the East Coast; economic factors came into play.
The GPS allows me to skirt around Fresno and continue my straight-line progression to Visalia. The traffic picks up as does my awareness of how little I like it. The back-mountain roads might twist and turn and require an acute level of alertness, but I like them better than the ones where I peek into cars and see so many faces. It feels so harried as I approach cities like this, a required increase in my speed just to keep pace. Everyone seems to be rushing to somewhere leaving me no chance to just wander.
HWY 5 to Kingsburg and then HWY 201 to HWY 63 and I find myself in Visalia. Last week’s scouting trip provided a familiarity and the red brick post office was easily found. This was the first time I have used general delivery and it worked like a charm. The camera arrived with no damage and I found a close place to change my oil that allowed me to leave the trailer hitched. Hard to believe I am at 10,000 miles with the last oil change in North Carolina. Beth Connor, a friend from high school, told me she lived here back in the 90’s and I realize how our small class of 46 spread itself out.
HWY 198 would bring us West until eventually running into HWY 101 for our ride to Salinas. When you consult the map, the area West of HWY 5 looks sparse. It is a definitive line of progress with roads on the right and open space on the left. We see the same hills covered with brown grass but the trees are missing and the valleys are dotted with craggy rocks. More winding roads requiring my inner Mario Andretti to navigate the roads, lined by fences delineating ranch boundaries. Boy, there is a lot of land out here! Boy, there aren’t a lot of houses out here!
All the eye can see is grazing grasses and a horizon that keeps moving. There is smoke in the distance and I am thinking the scene has become common place for the residents. I pass a fire crew in reserve but never get close to see where the fire is burning. Mabel sleeps in the back, the view not considered interesting, and I think how the road would be peaceful if straight. Those pesky property rights prevent it but add character.
Things change when we pass through King City on historic HWY 101. The Salinas Valley is filled with leafy plants of the type which I mostly don’t eat. Once again, I need Sheri’s plant identification skills to tell me what I am looking at. Lettuce is easy enough to identify but I see other creations emerging from the ground and think they are brussel sprouts. Berries and beans round out the offerings and it is more green than I have seen in a while. The Midwest is called the Nation’s Breadbasket, is this the Nation’s Salad Bowl? It looks to have all the makings of a salad, not one that I would make (lettuce & croutons), but a salad is defined differently now-a-days. I see the industry behind the product, the crops don’t pick themselves, and wonder the effect of the immigration debate. We are lulled into a confidence that our food will always be available but rarely think of the “how”. I am seeing the “how”.
Salinas is getting close and it has been a long day of driving, not much excitement for Mabel, but we will have/had these types of days. The city limits come into view and I see a sign for the John Steinbeck Highway and then the turnoff for the National Steinbeck Center. My trip has been mostly wandering while using Travels with Charley as a reference, but the Steinbeck Center was a planned destination. To me the center is a requirement as one of the trip’s underlying reasons, much like the starting point of Sag Harbor. It is a chance to learn something of the man’s life outside of Sag Harbor, the official story of a Pulitzer Prize winning author, a man that used to talk with my grandfather and so many others in old-time Sag Harbor. I am excited for a little bit of civilization and continue on HWY 101 until the GPS says to turn off for the KOA.
This KOA turned into a surprise as it was much different from the other’s I have stayed at. The usual campground feeling was replaced with a dullness from the acres of asphalt. Where in the other less attractive KOAs there were a few trees, this one had none, and I was basically in a parking lot that had amenities. The staff was very nice upon arrival and the welcome center one of the best I have seen, but my spot had no character and little delineation from my neighbor. There was the exclusivity of a locked bathroom and the facilities were clean but Mabel’s dog run was rough around the edges. She didn’t seem to complain but I could tell she liked the freedom other campgrounds had provided.
My neighbor was in a pop-up and his surfboard was resting on our picnic table but it wasn’t a big deal. He turned out to be nice once we met and was around my age, in great shape from the surfing or so I gathered. A contractor who lives near Mariposa, my last home away from home, he makes his money in Monterey, and it gives him a place to surf. It turns out we are close to the ocean and he provides directions that I end up forgetting.
We do our camp stuff and have dinner and then set off to see the beach. It turns out to be a roundabout way but my Long Island nose sniffs out the salt water and we end up at the Salinas River State Beach, Moss Landing. It was a beach similar to Long Island’s, a soft sand pushing from the dunes to the water’s edge. Wide enough in between for enjoyable uses and I half expected to see a Bonac beach rig complete with surf rods to amble down the beach. Part of the dunes were roped off to protect the birds, sound familiar? We parked ourselves to catch the sunset, which was awesome, and then walked farther down the beach and I let her off the leash. I have more confidence in her knowing when/how to return when I call.
She had an absolute blast running up and down the beach, executing barrel racing turns around me and a point of reference down the beach. I could again see the glimmer in her eyes as she explored and raced to the water’s edge, only to retreat when the waves came to close. Her erratic behavior reminded me of former Saturday Night Live cast member Cheri Oteri’s character Rita Delvecchio at Halloween. Quick and unpredictable movements while she tries to escape from getting wet, Mabel that is, not Rita Delveccio.
Tonight, is the Viking’s season opener and my friend from Life Time, Nancy Cisewski is providing me texts on the score.
The beach was well worth the drive; 342 miles today. This might not seem like a lot to travelers intent on making time, but it is for a wanderer.
Thankful tonight to have been on the beach.