“Write this down,” he said. “Firebaugh, California.”
I left it up to the last minute to decide exactly how I wanted to get down to L.A. I had been told to avoid the efficient-but-supposedly-boring 6-hour tour down the I-5. Various friends as well as internet travel guides insisted upon the more scenic 7-hour drive on Highway 101, or even the ultra-scenic 8 and a half-hour cruise down the windy coastal lanes of Highway 1.
I asked Patrick what he thought. His suggestion threw me for a loop. The Central Valley, he explained, wasn’t really that bad. He told me of all the good experiences he’d had in Fresno, a city of half a million nestled in the agricultural heartland of California. I considered this, but the clincher came when he told me about a weird little town he’d discovered about an hour outside of Fresno.
Firebaugh, as Patrick put it, was like a community stuck in time, a weird little river town in the middle of nowhere that seemed arrested in its own quaint, archaic atmosphere. I was intrigued. I like weird things. I like different things. I’d already imbibed plenty of the coastal experience from my drive through Oregon on the 101, so why not try something different? It seemed like an appropriately ghostly adventure.
California’s Central Valley is big, wide, hot and arid; vast landscapes of orange trees and grapevines that seem to have no end. I saw corn for the first time since leaving Wisconsin. It wasn’t the majestic beauty of the ocean or the Redwoods but it had its own rugged charm which I appreciated.
When I arrived in the town of Firebaugh I could immediately tell it was different. The town is overwhelmingly Mexican, which is not unusual for California but kind of ironic given that it’s one of the few California locales I can think of with a non-Spanish name.
And yes, it did feel oddly frozen in time. You could tell from the look of the storefronts; all of them small and locally-owned, most with faded, hand-painted lettering and signs on the door reading, “Cash only.” A lot of storefronts were so old and faded I thought they were closed down until I actually walked inside. There was even a pay phone that still worked. I’d never seen anything like it; it was like the past three or four decades skipped over this town entirely.
Everything is cheap in Firebaugh. I got a huge apple fritter for a dollar and a $3.50 milkshake that would easily cost $7 in L.A. The town seems poor but not run-down. I’ve seen plenty of economically depressed towns; places where tweekers and drunks rule the streets and the only signs of life can be found at the Taco Bell or the Walmart. Firebaugh isn’t like that. It seems comfortable in its own self-contained quietude, a quirky oasis in a desert of rampant consumer capitalism.
After Firebaugh I moved on to Fresno, where unfortunately I didn’t stay very long. Patrick had recommended me several good Chinese and Mexican restaurants, all of which were reasonably priced and looked delicious. But they didn’t have what I needed most: free WiFi to write my blog. So I had to settle for the Starbucks in the center of town.
An hour or so later I drove South on the 99 toward L.A. Here the drive became increasingly hot, increasingly dry, increasingly desolate. I crossed over the Tejon Pass, where emergency water fountains sit by the side of the road and signs warn you to turn off the air conditioning to avoid overheating your engine. I began to get paranoid. My car’s thermometer read 95 degrees. What would happen if one of my tires suddenly blew out here? There’s nothing around for miles. How many water bottles do I have left? How in god’s name did humans decide to try and live here in the first place?
Of course I made it in just fine. Even the L.A. rush hour traffic – which once seemed so terrifying when I first drove to this town two years ago – seemed surprisingly manageable, even fun. The Freeway has its own logic, its own code. Concentration is Key, Aggression is Power, Hesitation is Death. In many ways they’re good rules for life as well.
I’m currently crashing at an apartment in West Hollywood that’s owned by Peter, one of my great friends who also happens to be a fantastic filmmaker (I’ll show you some of his stuff tomorrow; I just don’t have the links right now since he’s out of the apartment). I tagged along with a group of his friends as we went first to Vito’s Pizza for dinner and then Republic of Pie for dessert. The latter is a trendy joint in North Hollywood where hip twentysomethings come to gorge on $6 pie slices that are positively decadent.
We ate our pie and played Scrabble until the place closed. Four guys in their late 20s, laughing whimsically at each others’ quirks, debating the merits of films and TV shows, making goofy and offensive words on the Scrabble board like preteens.
It was the perfect place to forget that we’re only inches away from war with North Korea.