Over the Grapevine down into the Central Valley, you travel through the dried-up hills of the Tejon Pass with the blond grass and parched landscape. You pass the water museum and Pyramid Lake and Smokey Bear Road and you pass through a little town called Gorman split by the highway with two fast- food restaurants and two gas stations and one vintage furniture store. There are signs advising drivers to turn off their air-conditioning to avoid overheating. An hour and a half north of Hollywood, you crest and descend toward a 23,000-square-mile quilted valley floor in varying shades of brown and green. More than twenty thousand acres of the best land in that valley belonged to Dad. He had assembled his ranch entirely on his own, beginning with one hundred acres his parents had bequeathed.
On the road from Bakersfield to Fresno, the farms on either side have small blue signs identifying what’s grown there: table grapes, wine grapes, pomegranates. English walnuts, peaches, nectarines, almonds. Apricots, pistachios, plums. For years there were oranges, but the oranges were replaced by clementines and soon after the clementines were replaced by pistachios. Everyone grows pistachios these days, or almonds. Even the packing house that used to bundle small wooden boxes of tangerines now sorts and distributes nuts. I can tell the difference between the peaches and the nectarines before I see the sign: the leaves of the nectarine tree start to go brown earlier in the summer.
Anne can’t even tell the almonds from apricots.
Before Gorman there was a sign advertising Guns and wine: This Exit. Farther on, a billboard with a rejoicing grandmother said Bingo! Where shouting is fun! Other signs reminded us that Jesus Is Lord, Abortion Stops a Beating Heart, and No Water = No Jobs.
White grapes were getting picked: Thompsons, chardonnay, sauvignon. The chenin blanc and some of the early viognier. Picking started in the south and followed the weather north. From the Grapevine to Bakersfield, pickups and water tents and harvesting trucks lined up against the fences of the highway. When Bakersfield was done, Tulare would get started, and Visalia, and Selma, and then Fresno and the north.
Past the dairies in Hanford, you could smell the cows for twenty miles.
Fresno smelled like dust and the start of rotting fruit. It was afternoon when we arrived and the sun was high and hot. Once we got out of the center of town, off the 99 down Avenue 7 halfway to Firebaugh, through the vineyards on the one-lane road to the house, you could begin to smell the briny river and the algae that grows up the sides of canals. It had been the third bad year in a row for water; the canals were nearly empty. The smell of the river and the dust in the vineyards always made me homesick, homesick while I was standing right there at home.