I think I have been over every square inch of California: the big, faceless I-5; the pokey little 43; the 46 that goes past the Jack Ranch; all over San Diego and Los Angeles; the Lindsey-Porterville Highway and the Orange Belt Freeway; the old 65.
But there is no road more thoroughly imprinted on my memories—a reminder of colorful, unpretentious family trips to buy new breeding stock or harvesters—than Highway 99 as it bisects the Central Valley from Bakersfield to the Oregon border.
The old 99 was marked out in the early 1900’s with a narrow strip of concrete. As the farming blossomed, the little road linked the big cities with the isolated ag towns of Pixley,. Tipton, Tulare, Fresno, Madera,(where Marji lives) Le Grand (where the antique auction is),Merced, Hughson (where Jana lives), Chowchilla, Modesto, Ceres, (where Chrissy boy lives) clear up to Sacramento, on to Redding (where Chris and Brenda lived)
In John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the fictional Joads traveled on the 99, as did so many real-life Dust Bowl migrants looking for work in the fields. Today, truckloads of grapes, bins of tomatoes, garlic, oranges, cotton bales, peaches, kiwis, almonds, pistachios. walnuts, lettuce, hay or rice exits the Central Valley without being ferried up or down 99 nearly every day of the year.
But the 99 will never rank high on a tourist’s agenda. Most people who drive 99 these days do it because they have to—truck drivers delivering goods, people visiting relatives. The 99 will never get you to the California you see in the movies but it will get you to the real heart of the state. Nothing makes me happier than driving through the spring blossoms and being able to name off the crops as we pass—those are peaches, those are table grapes, that’s alfalfa….who knew I was listening on all those long drives when I was a child.
The 99 was always the road of choice for long trips…and anyone who has every taken a long trip (before car radios/air conditioning/seatbelts) can sympathize with my Dad, who after listening to us bicker over some toy in the backseat for 50 miles, reached back, grabbed the offending toy and tossed it out the window. We immediately were glued to the back window, as we watched out toy bounce out of view.
Driving along 99 today, you’ll find an unfussy, real California in a lovely landscape of almond orchards and vineyards, tidy farmyards and rusty train tracks, peach trees, and Depression-era hamburger stands. The 99 highway passes towns with their handsome old Main Streets and new McMansions. Thriving downtown or not, the elegant old buildings seem to whisper the names of the people who once walked those streets: Serpa, Briano, Valline, Koontz. O’Leary…all immigrants who knew how to husband the fields they found, not streets of gold, but close enough.
Each name on the map reminds me of the hundreds of trips I’ve taken; to Anderson to bury Uncle James and see the salmon jump; to Madera to meet up with Marji and the lovely Miss B for a trip to the city, to Mount Lassen, where the deer tried to eat us, to the Paige exit, where there were only memorized landmarks, taking me through the fields and groves to home.