The small, rural San Joaquin Valley town where I grew up is not a place that garners much national press, at least as far as travel goes. Oh, there’s an article in Saveur here, or a few blurbs in AAA’s Via magazine there—even a one-off “36 Hours in Fresno” in The New York Times—but the Central Valley is not SoCal or the Bay Area. It can be a tough sell to a travel editor who doesn’t see many people making the trip out there, and to see what?
The Empty Cup by Miche Watkins. It reminds me of
an old truck-stop diner that was razed to make way
for the new highway near where I grew up.
Still, I never fathomed how much I’d internalized the idea of the valley not “counting,” sights-wise, until I started to see images that validated my own experience of growing up there. Even travel stories in respected publications don’t peg what it was like on balmy summer evenings when my dad would pile all of us neighborhood kids into the back of his Datsun pickup and take us for rides in the country. We’d be talking and laughing, wind in our faces, the smell of damp earth rising up from the irrigated orchards, crickets and cicadas chirping incessantly, moonlight glowing down. Or how it was to grab our bikes and go for a ride along bumpy country avenues that sloped past vineyards at sunset, pedaling madly whenever a dog would come tearing out of a dirt road, yapping and nipping our heels.
Travel articles don’t capture the familiar chitchat of longtime parishioners milling around after church services, or Rotary Club or Knights of Columbus pancake breakfasts where everybody knows your name, or how it feels to lie on the grass in summer, reading a book in the shade as a lone plane drones overhead. My hometown was a great place to grow up, even if, by the time I got to high school, I was restless to leave. I wanted to spread my wings, see the world, experience the cultural riches of the big city.
My story is not unique. For years after moving away, first to L.A. for undergrad, then to Eastern Europe with the Peace Corps, then to the Bay Area for work, I’d return to my childhood home only to feel stifled by the memory of who I was. It was as if the ways in which I subsequently strove to define myself would melt away, leaving only what I felt like when I’d left: a gauche, dorky teenager who never quite fit in. But then I realized: Thomas Wolfe may have said, “You can’t go home again,” but you can, actually. You just have to redefine the experience.
There’s the Knight’s Ferry Bridge in California’s Stanislaus County, for instance. Built in 1862–1863, the covered timber truss bridge was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior this past October. I spent the first 18 years of my life just over the border from that county and never knew this bridge existed—and now it’s protected by the National Park Service? Cool. Who knew there was a piece of the storied covered bridges in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County right in my old backyard, or practically? Well, obviously the NPS did, ha. But that’s what I mean: I grew up there and yet there’s more to discover. I love that. I love the idea of being able to approach something I thought I knew with a fresh perspective. I’d like to take all the good of a place and weave it into my personal narrative, without the baggage of my prior notions limiting how I perceive it.
Shaun Sundholm, Untitled (Let’s Get Lost). It reminds me of
the river roads winding through the countryside where I grew up,
and of the canyons where I live now.
(from top, first, third, and last images via the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Tumblr, the National Park Service, and 20×200; middle photo by Ivan Sohrakoff)