After work on a Friday, I find myself bumbling along at 60 miles per hour on a stretch of road so flat I can see the blinking light of a stop sign that is miles away. It’s not a situation I’ve found myself in since I moved back to California. It was as refreshing as it was odd, and something I’ve decided I definitely need to do more of.
It is two lanes and flat, but bumpy because the pavement rippled with the dirt below it. As I leave Interstate 5 behind me, I wonder if I’m heading in the right direction. The further away I get from the four-lane semblance of civilization I exited off of, the darker it gets, and I think to myself “just trust your phone’s directions.” Kind of a strange thing to think, considering I’m always the type to know the route before I get in the car. Essentially I put my trip in the hands of an electronic device that has steered me wrong in the past.
But nevertheless, on I drive. The stop sign I saw from a distance 10 minutes ago, is only visible by my headlights as I approach it up close. The lights from a water truck blind me as I come to a complete, non-California roll, stop. Left I go, just like the directions told me. Onto another two-lane beauty with pot holes and signs that read “Road Subject to Flooding.” It makes sense, considering the water level on the left-hand side of the road looks to be at the same level as the road itself, held back only by a dirt berm that’s hilled up only a foot higher than the road.
That is when the smells start hitting my nostrils. My windows are rolled down so I can feel the heat of the Central Valley evening flood into my car and warm up my coastal fog-chilled bones. Irrigated fields of alfalfa, corn, and some crop that looks like small, low-to-the-ground rose bushes with yellow flowers meet up with the shadowed outlines of open barns containing far too many cows for such a tight space. The smell of sweet and wet collides with the skanky aroma of rotting roots and methane produced by dairy cattle.
Lights illuminate something I can’t quite make out. I’m staring at it hard, when I hit a pothole and swerved onto the other side of the white line to avoid a semi-truck. I missed my turn and flipped around to make my right that is now a left onto another two-lane road that takes me right by the lighted structures.
A stop sign outside the entrance reveals that it’s the home of the Corcoran Correctional Facility, like the ones I always see as I fly by them on the interstate. You know, the ones that always come with signs that warn drivers about picking up hitchhikers. Barbed wire tops one-story tall chain-link fences and guard towers watch over parking lots that become buildings. The compound is gigantic, by my slowed-down driving estimates, at least a half a mile long. And it’s also a little creepy.
The smells seem to land on top of one another as I move from staring at the compounds to looking at the what’s visible in my headlights. Scents interweave between awful and nostalgic. Corn rows hide dairy farms, lights illuminate dirt lots, barns, and mooing movement, and the bugs start hitting my windshield at rapid fire. I get to a busy road, start to worry about directions again, and finally pull over to look at my phone one last time. It assures me to keep moving in a straight line. I thought, “here goes nothing,” and on I continue.
I cross a couple highways, but remain steady in my eastward movement. Towns, fields, and more cows click by. I start to wonder if this place I’m going is actually a segway into the mountains, because it’s beginning to seem like the flat will go forever.
Finally, I see a sign for Porterville and then a sign for Springville.
Finally, the road starts to twist a bit and gain elevation.
“Sweet,” I think. “I’m going to make it.”