In general terms, the Central Valley encompasses the land-locked farm towns of California, spanning from Redding down to Visalia.
Back when I first started to compile this entry, I wanted to know how the locals felt about living here. Did it suit their needs? Had they lived anywhere else? What made it special?
One passenger replied that it depends on your interests. If you’re a low-key person who’s passionate about farming, and as keen on harvesting your inner world as you are on tending to your almond orchards, this place won’t feel like a prison (is roughly what I took from our conversation).
Another said the lower prices allow for a more stress-free existence. She had bought a house here at the age of 27, which she never would have been able to do in the outrageously expensive Bay Area.
Drawbacks for some was the conservative culture. “It isn’t so nice having to keep my sexual orientation a secret,” said the same woman passenger, who worked as a middle school girls’ basketball coach. “Being open about it got me fired at my last job. I don’t want to take that risk again.”
The thoughts of one passenger in particular really got me thinking when putting this blog entry together:
“When friends from out of town come visit and say ‘oh that place was fun.’ Or ‘yeah there’s this cool thing to do– it would frustrate me because I would think, This isn’t your daily reality, you don’t have to wake up here every day. You’re not seeing everything. But you’re telling me ‘oh it can’t be so bad.’
Places almost always seem nicer when you’re a visitor. Cherry-picking helps to form a neat and tidy impression. One can simply avoid the bad parts and stick to the highlights, filling their day with the one good brewery, eclectic cafe, or scenic river stroll out of the hundreds of other drab, monotonous, or otherwise unremarkable sites that also constitute the town.
Applying this selective vision earns you the Optimist’s badge. It helps you to feel like a person who can find the gold in any situation, someone who’s flexible and easy to please and sees the best in everyone and everything. The problem with the mentality though is that sometimes applying it comes at the expense of portraying the more complex truth.
I tried to hold onto this awareness when writing about these farm towns I explored. While I did pay attention to the positives, I also sought to avoid generalizing those experiences in a way that would paint an overly-idealized vision of the place. I’d catch myself when I started wandering into linguistic flower orchards. I’d pause whenever I felt tempted to rub out the weeds and replace them with roses.
Ride along with me today through Fresno, Turlock, and Modesto.
Fresno isn’t first on most people’s list of travel destinations. Before going, I too had preconceptions, knowing little about the town beyond that it was home to Fresno State University.
I’d heard people jokingly disparage Fresno; had seen a movie at San Francisco’s LGBT Film Festival that took place there (lesbian love story meets crime satire Addicted to Fresno starring Aubrey Plaza and Natasha Leone); and had also once written the following about it:
Every time I hear the word Fresno, I picture a frosty cone– like a snow cone without the food coloring, just the ice, and I hear snow crunching against a boot. Even though there’s never any snow in Fresno, that’s what comes to mind whenever someone mentions it.
Christie Marks, a Santa Rosa artist, has written about how she’s come to embrace certain aspects of Fresno after being forced to move there for a job she “did not want but sorely needed.” Once there she sought to turn glimpses of the ordinary into the extraordinary within her Central Valley surroundings.
“The idea is to look below the average, often homely, even melancholy facade to find the beauty below. I shot photos of downtrodden streets, impoverished farm towns, crumbling house trailers and more,” she writes.
After driving through miles and miles of farmland, past a billboard with “Pray for Rain” written on it, past an all-woman’s prison in Chowchilla, and past a sign that says “Steakhouse and Coffee-shop” next to a Days Inn, I arrive in Fresno. My first impression is that the tall buildings poking up towards the sky appear out of place next to their farmy, agricultural surroundings (as is also true in Sacramento https://bit.ly/3qa2T3u ).
At eight in the morning there’s a languorous feel to the commercial streets, which are long, spacious, and speckled with businesses. Three fourths of them are closed; I can’t tell if the theater is a defunct relic of the past or just not yet open for the day.
I walk inside a Starbucks and order cheap coffee (lower prices, one of Fresno’s perks?) after passing by Fresno State students on their laptops and families circled around small round tables eating egg McMuffin sandwiches.
Passing by a shuttered club called Splash Bar, I recall how a woman I once dated who’s from here told me that the gay night life is taking off, particularly in the Tower district right next to downtown.
I wander into Fresno’s Chinatown (just south of downtown), past a tiny brewery that a friend of mine who lives here refers to as his “little slice of heaven.” Inside it is spacious. Black leather seats are paired incongruously with barrels for tables. Pass by metal, tank-like beer machines lined up like science experiments on your way to the bathroom. A skeleton wearing puka shells, a black wig, and a teal Hawaiian collared shirt leans against the wooden wall outside of it.
One passenger will talk to me about how not wanting to be “just a number” at Fresno State prompted him to attend private college.
“All the professors knew my name. Classes were thirty people. They saw me as a person. One time I got a flat tire and couldn’t come to class, and my teacher was completely understanding.”
Despite its somewhat bad publicity, one reviewer on Yelp comments that Fresno is improving: “We used to only have burger joints and taco stands,” he writes. “Now you’re seeing more variety. A Japanese restaurant opened downtown that’s pretty good.”
As I drive past yellow hills speckled with windmills waving their arms through the air (after dropping off a passenger in Tracy), I am reminded that scenes can be calming even while lacking beauty or intricacy. The constancy of yellow along with the barren spaciousness and lack of clutter out here puts me at ease.
Passing by parched fields with cows gathered in what looks (uncannily) like a town hall circle, the scene from The Witches where dozens of nefarious women convene to plot their takeover of children comes to mind. The cows look laidback and organized at the same time, if that’s possible. I’d never seen anything quite like it before.
Driving on, past a sign that lists upcoming food options (Burger King and Jack in the Box), I see that someone has used sharpie to put quotes around the word food.
Finally I arrive in Turlock, a town of 73,000, best known for its ample farmland and university (CSU Stanislaus) established in 1960. Like in many parts of California, the influx in construction of new homes can be attributed to more people moving inland from the Bay Area, which has resulted in Turlock becoming less affordable.
At the cafe downtown, three girls dressed in oversized band shirts eat bacon and cheese croissants while seated on high stools around a large wooden table. The topic of their conversation is how they chose their specific churches and pastors.
Families, old people, kids in high chairs, bros, and what honestly looked like half the population of Turlock fills nearly every table inside Turlock’s sole brewery, which is enormous but still so packed (at maximum capacity even).
At The Udder Place, a multi-colored cow painting greets you towards the entrance. Cow skins are slung over the bar seats, and most of the tables are barrels. Live guitarists and country singers perform on the Udder Stage while people dance springily on the vast floor space just slightly below them. Dart boards hang in a room off to the side, next to hay bales meant for sitting on. The place is so expansive that even when packed it doen’t feel claustrophobic.
“That’s just what turkeys do! I mean, they’re turkeys!” remarks an older lady passenger to her friend. I have no idea what the context is but I really enjoy the fact that these words came from her mouth.
Cows. Lethargy. Endless cornfields. Drinking Oreo frappucinos on a red couch inside what felt like a queen’s dining room but was actually a small-town coffee-shop (a girl I briefly dated over a decade ago was from here and introduced me to Queen Bean). These are the first images that come to mind when someone mentions Modesto.
Googling this Central Valley city expands my knowledge a bit, and therefore my impression. I learn that George Lucas made a movie about his life growing up here (1973’s American Graffiti); that Modesto residents like to eat and grow a lot of nuts; and that it’s close to wildlife, namely the Stanislaus National Forest (what city in California isn’t though?).
Modesto also has the world’s largest winery, and movoto.com bills it as a “big party town” (maybe the city’s naysayers just haven’t been spending time in the right neighborhoods).
Perhaps most interestingly, when founded in 1870 Modesto was supposed to have been named Ralston after financier William C. Ralston. After Ralston (humbly) declined the offer though, it became Modesto to honor his modesty.
Curious and compelled to rediscover the oft snickered about town beyond what the random scraps pulled from memory and hearsay have provided me, I set out on the roughly 1.5 hour drive past rivers, marshlands, and farm topography to this cow-filled city of 212,000.
Once there I walk towards downtown past the gleaming pink marquee of the movie theater, across the street from which a jazz band plays in the warm summer evening air, while locals watch from fold-out chairs in front of them.
I reach clusters of storefronts. Clay flowers rising up from a stained-glass vase vivify the display in one of them, their colors ranging from magenta to teal to plumb to chamomile. Kate Pethoud, who’s been in “clay love” for more than thirty years (focusing mostly on flowers) is responsible for this calming and aesthetically pleasing arrangement.
Passing by railroad tracks, I recall (from online reading) how Modesto had originally served as a train stop between Sacramento and Los Angeles. When I walk across the painted keyboard crosswalk outside the music hall, I wonder which song I’ve just played with my feet, if any.
“I wrote this song about my piece of shit truck,” the long-haired, bearded musician announces inside one of the bars I stop to use the bathroom at. “Which you all probably have some experience with if you’ve been living out here in the valley for a while. This one’s for all of you.”
He adjusts his trucker hat and then his guitar before he begins. Skateboards, bicycles, and surfboards hang above his head and speckle the surrounding walls.
Other nice elements of the farm city that stand out to me: diverse architecture in the older neighborhoods. Ample trees (Modesto has won the title of ‘Tree City USA’ every year for thirty years).
“Everyone takes a lot of pride in the trees, and the city tries hard to maintain them. They provide a wonderful canopy and shade from the heat in the summer,” one reviewer on Yelp wrote.
Final general observations:
*Cats skittering around in front yards— more here, on average, than I’ve noticed in other cities. It tempts me to take out my camera and start a “Cats of Central Valley” album, if even just for myself.
*More passengers on average getting into the car with coolers and six-packs of beers (Modesto seems like it would be that kind of place, wherein “night life” takes place more in laid-back gatherings and neighborhood potlucks).
**Thanks for reading! Check back in a couple of days for Part 2, featuring more Central Valley towns and a special app for cow whisperers.