It’s peaceful and quiet here in Big Valley in NE CA. It’s more peaceful and quiet than Anderson Valley. The nearest vineyard is far away and there are many mountains in between. Even so we feel occasional need to flee to the chaos of what we refer to as “the outside world” where “flatlanders” live. It doesn’t take long to get there. The Shasta County seat of Redding bifurcated by a nasty corridor of the I-5 is only ninety miles west and has recently earned the distinction of being named one of the ten most crime-ridden cities in the U.S. But let’s not get wholly negative. Redding was tenth on the list, way below Washington D.C. And, at the west end of Cypress Avenue, which is a largely depressing venue called the auto mall, there is Lulu’s, a historic diner/dive named after a famous whore, where one can get honest food including what we called shit on a shingle in the old days at Fort Ord, creamed beef on toast, or better at Lulu’s, creamed beef atop the western world’s finest hash browns edge-crisped expertly. Guy Fieri needs to be told overdoing it isn’t good cooking, as my German friend Hartmut Heiner used to say, it’s like putting bacon on your sausage. If there’s a tweaker seated near you in Lulu’s twitching, pay her/him no mind, there’s nothing you can do. Just east on Cypress from Lulu’s is Redding’s appallingly tasteless $20 million dollar postmodern city hall with a ghastly fountain out front on an acre of lawn like water is no problem. Within its walls labor Redding’s city leaders who many Redding citizens (Republicans, Democrats, Don’t-Give-A-Shits) would call Redding’s venal golf buds, like the only water problem we have here is on the brain. And it must be added that Redding is gifted with a natural wonder, the Sacramento River -- the Sac as it is referred to lovingly by everyone including the homeless families who live below her bridges, the great river that flows beneath the Cypress Avenue bridge, just a glimpse of her glinting beauty from the auto mall restores in you a kind of hope, false hope it may be, but any port in a storm.
Down we go south on the I-5 upon which the speed limit is 70. Sane drivers know you can do 75 and get away with it, insane drivers are doing 80-plus and then wonder why Officer Krupke of the California Highway Patrol pulls them over to shove a nice little piece of the system up their rear ends, a nice little piece of paper specifying a hefty fine onerously called bail that’s going to be cyber spaced to their insurance company, to the court, and to the bloated bureaucracy of the California Department of Motor Vehicles where workplace shootings aren’t unimaginable. So we hold it to 75 all the way down the Sacramento Valley to exit on the J Street off ramp and proceed east to Tony’s Italian Deli on the corner of 12th and J to partake of a grilled eggplant sandwich. It’s still not the noon hour, elevenish is more like it, but we have learned two meals are quite enough in one day, so a late pre-noon breakfast does the trick. Eating healthy seems like a good idea in the fourth quarter of this football game we term laughably as (ha ha) life, so get this, the cardiac team at the Mayo Clinic will happily sign off on Tony’s grilled eggplant sandwich, your HDL/LDL ratio will soar. Parking anywhere in downtown Sac is an ordeal but get over it. Tell Tony you and the wife went to Italy not long ago, how captivated you were in Florence. If Tony’s eyes glaze over as you’re extolling upon the reddish evening light on the bell towers of the Duomo, cut him some slack, he’s heard it before. Remember, this is the CA state capitol. Serial groper Arnold sat here as governor for a while. Now we have Governor Moonbeam back, he who spurned Linda Ronstadt some time ago when she was a shocking beauty, a fetching ethnic mix of the stuff of Richard Wagner and Carlos Fuentes, why Jerry didn’t make her queen of the Sac we’ll never know.
Ah, but back southward on the I-5 between Sacramento and Stockton. Glance westward for a moment if you can take your attention away from negotiating the traffic version of a free fire zone, two lanes, slow trucks on the right, crazed housewives on the left late for a nail appointment and intent on passing, pedal to the metal, get out of my way, my name is Mame and 75 mph tailgating is my game. But your westward glance, just a glance, and you know that’s the Delta where the Sac becomes a circuitous water world of immense green fecundity and you’re reminded of a late summer afternoon on a slough shaded by ancient river oaks when you cast an imitation frog into a small clearing in a tangle of hyacinth and a black bass as big as a suckling pig inhaled it in a terrific explosion of spray and then broke off, was out of there, leaving you with another memory of painful loss. Guess that sums up the joy of bass fishing. But that was then. This is now. We’re approaching the bankrupt city of Stockton. The 49’ers and their training camp bailed out of here years ago. We’re glad to be leaving too. Why? Because it’s in the air here, an elegy, an epitaph, here lies the great historic inland port city of California connected to San Francisco, to the commerce of the world in the year 2014, bankrupt. We need to flee. Sixty miles later we’re still I-5’ing down the San Joaquin Valley with the California Aqueduct visible to the east (oh the stories of the submersed human wreckage in that channel, and of hundred pound catfish that have freaked DWP divers) and to the west a mysterious looking facility with no signs defining it but reputedly a giant garbage incinerator surrounded by thirty foot security fencing through which the incinerator isn’t seen, only an imposing black windowless cube one supposes is a high tech hermetically sealed administration bunker, at a place called Crow’s Landing where it is said burns 800 tons per day of solid waste, emitting into the air dangerous toxins including Dioxin that are clearly enabling the U.S. cancer industry. Medical waste was scheduled to be dealt with here until democracy kicked in and the local citizenry voted it down. At this point we’re still a hundred miles away from our next stop, Harris Ranch, just south of the impressive stink of one of the largest feedlots in the world, where we pause to secure what are known as Harris Ranch baseball filets, these absurdly expensive steaks that add an untoward dimension to the adjective tender. Can you rationalize healthy? Yes, I think you can, the baseball is a very low fat baseball. Other good news is we’re exiting the I-5 here to proceed west on Highway 198 to Coalinga, or Coaling Station A as it was called by the railroad in the old days. In 1983 a 6.5 earthquake injured 94 people and leveled eight blocks of downtown Coalinga, not surprising given the proximity of the San Andreas Fault, an active rent in the crust of the earth that’s clearly visible around here. Additional historic information that may be of interest, Joaquin Murrieta was killed here in 1853, and Sirhan Sirhan, RFK’s killer, is incarcerated nearby in Pleasant Valley State Prison. If all that doesn’t stir your custard, consider Coalinga State Hospital, the latest such establishment, is maximum security designed to insure sexually violent predators stay out of the community. You don’t want to know how many folks are currently housed there, but the number is 950. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
Highway 198 winds west for sixty miles from Coalinga to King City up and over dry, broken, lonely country aptly called the Diablo Range given its seismic history. After surviving three hundred miles on the frenetic I-5 the paucity of traffic on this ribbon of old California is profound relief. No Steinbeck reader can think of King City in the Salinas Valley without recalling great writing from the roof of American literature that is a combination of love and indignation in equal parts. Can one not wonder how the author of “East of Eden” and “The Grapes of Wrath” would have reacted to a recent front page news story in the Monterey Herald? “King City police officers arrested in corruption scandal. The highest ranking officers in the King City police department for years targeted the city’s most vulnerable residents, essentially stealing their cars for profit”, District Attorney Dean Flippo said. In what is likely the most widespread case of official corruption in Monterey County history, six King City police officers, including the former and acting chiefs of police were arrested on felony charges, four of them accused of conspiracy, embezzlement and bribery. The owner of a local tow truck company, the brother of the acting chief, was arrested in the scheme, which involved the impounding of cars of mostly unlicensed drivers, then selling them when the cars’ owners were unable to pay towing and storage fees”. Wonderful, right? Wow, when the cops go bad we’re all in trouble. But we’re here in King City simply to gas up the flivver and head south on a loop of county roads (G14 and G18) for a look at Mission San Antonio de Padua (1771), Father Serra’s third such establishment. I was drawn to it because it’s the only California mission situated far off the current beaten path of the Highway 101 El Camino Real corridor, it’s surrounded by 165,000 acres of the Fort Hunter Liggett military reservation, in fact you can see the fort airfield from the arcade of the mission from where you’re standing under one of its graceful three arched openings fashioned from ladrillos, or burned brick. Are you disturbed by an exercise being conducted by helicopter gunships roaring above the mission? Of course you are, but then you realize how appropriate it is because the missions were established to, let’s face it, control and subjugate indigenous peaceful heathen people who must have felt an awful lot like I did at the moment.
Enough negativity. By now we’re really looking forward to ending up in Morro Bay by evening tide to hang out for a couple of days. Fishing might be possible but if not we’ll visit Giovanni’s Fish Market to purchase a couple pounds of fresh sand dabs to fry up ourselves in front of our motel room that faces the beautiful back bay. Our electric frying pan, pre-prepared breading and peanut oil is stashed in the trunk for that purpose. And there’s always Harada’s, a favorite Japanese restaurant that rivals the best I’ve ever experienced after extensive travels from Hokkaido to Kyushu. And Elephant seals are currently having their spring break on the rugged beaches below Piedras Blancas, the pelagic behemoths are always an impressive sight. In mind also is the old creamery town of Harmony that’s now an art conclave with fine pottery and glassworks. Too, the woman has never seen Hearst’s Castle so I’m even having unselfish thoughts about braving the throngs and the tour buses to show her that apotheosis of what too much money and ego can do. We’re anticipating all this and more as I’m following a car doing precisely 55, the speed limit, on Highway 41 that courses the final thirty miles or so of our journey, from Atascadero to Morro Bay. If beauty can be said to be sometimes heartbreaking, the impossibly green shadowed country of soaring rocky outcroppings and deep gorges of live oak that Highway 41 cleaves fetchingly as it descends to the shining sea, does the trick. The car I’m following is still doing precisely 55, not 56, not 57, so with a long straight ahead and a broken centerline indicating it’s legal to pass, I do so with the intention of proceeding at something under 60. Trouble is here he comes at exactly the wrong time from my perspective, CHP Officer Krupke from way down the hill with his radar clocking me at 77 just as I complete execution of the pass. So there it goes, my driving record that’s been clean as a fresh diaper for twenty years. My moving violation. My headline at last.