When you live abroad, you always worry that you might start to feel a bit disconnected from your home country. America is something you have to stay in practice for, and I don’t want to lose my touch. Arriving in my native California just in time for the recent election, I was — like nearly everyone else — blindsided by the results. On TV and the Internet, pundits keep describing the US as hopelessly divided, with people on either side existing in realities so separate, we barely share a common language.
“Say it ain’t so!” I muttered to Rich after one such broadcast. Then I thought a minute. “What do you say we go check it out for ourselves? Take a road trip. Talk to people. Listen to people. See if the old e pluribus unum spirit lives on.”
“I’m in! How about the Central Valley?” This is a swath of agricultural land roughly the size of Denmark that runs the length of California’s interior.
“Perfect! I could write a piece about roadside attractions. They always have tons of them along those rural highways — you know, the world’s biggest ball of string, diners shaped like hot dogs, stuff like that. It will give us an excuse to meet people and find out how they’re doing, what they’re thinking.”
So on Monday of this week, Rich and I threw our suitcases in the back of our red VW and headed southeast. A Spanish friend wrote to wish us luck, adding, “Be real nice and carry an assault rifle.” But I am delighted to report that far from needing any weapons, we could not have been welcomed more warmly.
We talked with dairymen, firefighters, farmers, artists, photographers, college students, grandparents, a private detective, museum docents, waitresses, a car wash guy, and many bartenders. In funky bars and old-style diners, where women with starched hairdos poured free coffee refills and called me “hon,” we sat at the counter, read the paper, and struck up conversations. One night in the Kewl Cats karaoke bar, we joined the weekly trivia contest, and the other players could not have been friendlier — or more compassionate about our pathetic scores. Everyone urged us to come back the following week; I wish we could.
And the roadside attractions?
Classics! We saw the ill-fated totem pole that was treated with disrespect so the artist, a member of the Ojibwa tribe, cursed the town sewers; the world’s longest-burning lightbulb (1 million+ hours); diner stools that once held the backsides of President and Mrs. George H.W. Bush. We visited the building shaped like a giant bulldozer, the haunted military plane “Hell Raz'r,” and the small town that once elected a dog as mayor; his slogan — "A bone in every dish, a cat in every tree, and a fire hydrant on every corner" — kept him in office 13 years.
On Pearl Harbor Day, we went to the Merced Assembly Center where our friend Nobie and thousands of other Japanese Americans awaited their assignments to internment camps. We found the name of one of Nobie’s relatives on the wall, below a picture of Ronald Reagan, signing a formal apology, and the words, “Never Again … May We, As A Democratic Society, Never Forget the Injustice.”
Visiting Central Valley diners, dive bars, and roadside attractions, we learned a lot. Here firefighters commute three hours between their job and affordable housing. Merced, home of the Kewl Cats trivia contest, suffered a 62% collapse in median home prices during the recession, the worst drop in the entire country. In town after town, we passed block after block of empty stores. Agriculture, the region’s mainstay, is now mostly in the hands of corporations. “It costs $100,000 for a dairy permit,” a dairyman told us. “Who can afford that?” Six years of drought aren’t helping. “The water table on my land dropped from five feet to thirty,” a melon farmer said. These are hungry, thirsty times, and the wealth flooding through Silicon Valley just hours away barely trickles to the outermost edges of Central Valley.
I didn’t ask anyone who they voted for, and rarely got a hint either way; Rich thinks it’s likely a 50-50 split. I can tell you this: these are good people weathering bad times.
Despite living in circumstances that have become increasingly unsustainable for years, they never expressed a word of anger (well, maybe a little grousing at the government, as we all do) and certainly no self-pity. I didn’t see any swastikas or malicious bumper stickers. Mostly I saw men and women with true grit and considerable concern about the future. I suspect many voted for Trump as a Hail Mary move, a desperate attempt to disrupt a system that no longer serves them or their community. Everyone seemed to be holding their breath about what’s going to happen when our new president takes the reins.
So did I find the America I was looking for? Yeah, I did. I wanted to restore my sense of belonging to this vast, diverse, contradictory population of ours. I needed to know we could still exchange opinions freely over bottomless cups of coffee, and reach out to the person on the next bar stool, across that divide the media is always talking about. Yes, we can still get to common ground. I realize one road trip isn’t going to have much effect on a population of 319 million people, but it’s made a world of difference to me.
Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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