Driving South

March 1, 2009


Thursday morning, and we are rolling on our way to Pasadena and then on to the Rotary International meeting in Anaheim.

The fifty miles from home to Stockton, California take longer than usual. We pause on this morning’s drive while a farmer reloads a dozen or so bales of hay back onto his trailer. What is affectionately known as a CalTrans pothole (other’s would call it a sink hole) has caused a minor upset that has spilled part of the farmer’s load on the highway. A rancher has stopped in his chrome trimmed red pickup and assisted in this task with a portable lift which swings from a swivel on the rear bumper step.

The problem is that the lift can only get the bale up to a height which is about two inches lower than the bed of the trailer. Finally, the rural encyclopedia salesman pulls up- I recognize his vintage DeSoto- and solves this mechanical engineering problem by jacking the rear of the pickup truck by two inches.

We sit in the second row position in our Chevy van and watch all of this, quietly entertained by this demonstration of human cooperation. The young couple in front of us drives a Volvo. They are busy arguing over something. Their schedule is obviously more important to them than learning something about local agriculture.

We pull in to “our McDonalds” in Stockton for a late breakfast. Some say “our lawyer”, some say “our Doctor”, we say “our Burger King” and “our McDonalds”. Our affection for this particular place began ten years ago when we were on our way to our new home in California. A bright, cheerful young woman greeted us at the door, asked us what we needed to drink, and warmed our hearts with her role as the charming hostess.

Today, Sheri comes up to us, as she has done each time we stop here, and greets us, smiling as she asks us how we are and if our journey has been pleasant. Definitely an unusual McDonalds! Even if the eggs are a bit plastic, the muffin too oily, and the potatoes crusty with salt, the coffee is good the service is lightening fast, the restrooms are spotless, and I love the friendly atmosphere.

I stop at the next service station because the gas is cheap and I need to add a quart of oil to the engine. Others with these kinds of vans will sympathize with me as I struggle to work the cap off of the oil filler tube. The cap, instead of unscrewing or unsnapping, is a compression fit like a cork in a wine bottle and requires both a strong grip on a narrow lip and a twisting motion to work it out of the tube.

Another pet peeve of mine is that the filler tube is nearly horizontal, so even when I do manage to get the cap off, unless I pour the oil very slowly into one of those little paper funnels, the oil runs back out of the tube and onto the hot engine block. Holding a slippery plastic bottle of oil over a hot engine block does not help me to pour slowly.

Nevertheless, fed and watered and somewhat behind schedule, we are on the road again. Soon we are on Interstate 5, moving south at a steady seventy miles per hour following the flood of traffic which flows unabated, twenty four hours a day, between Sacramento and Los Angeles. At Tracy, we are joined by the stream from San Francisco, also moving south to Los Angeles.

To my left, the morning sun glints off of the great canal which carries water down the valley; to my right, the foothills of the coastal mountains are green with winter showers. Wild onions and blue lupines stretch far across the rolling grasslands, but the snow covered peaks to the east are obscured by haze. Too bad.

Just before noon we pass the Harris Ranch complex. To east side of the highway is a giant feed lot from which a cloud of dusty manure rises and is visible—and smellable— for miles. No one would ask the question “where’s the beef”, here. A few miles later, there is a beautiful, quiet oasis where English sparrows chirp and the meal on the hoof is served with properly chilled wine, crispy green salads with crunchy croutons, and finely steamed vegetables. I came here once as a guest. My wife was invited to speak at a seminar, so I could eat for free. Today, we push on south to a Carl’s Junior. Where’s the chicken?

About charles frenzel

I've been writing all my life. I've also painted, composed, sculpted, contributed to molecular research, advanced some mathematical concepts, lived on a sailboat, and worked for a Nobel Prize winner. Nothing in my life has pleased me more than to share my life with my wife and friend of over forty years.

View all posts by charles frenzel


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