November 9, 2009

Through the Belly of the Beast

Rolling through the southern Cascades, the horizon enshrouded by a thick gray fog, that lifted just in time to get a peek at snow-capped Mt. Shasta in the distance. We were getting close.

Curve after curve, weaving through saddle after saddle, we crossed the border under deep blue autumn skies and rays of sunlight that warmed body and spirit. Goodbye, Oregon. Goodbye damp old-growth and moss covered logs, gushing mountain streams and fern-lined banks, mushroom pockets and orchid patches.

Hello, California. The inspection station a few miles past the border, a different country indeed. No passports required, but maybe someday.

South of Redding, I-5 straightens out again, just as the Valley begins to widen. Flatland is bordered by mountain ranges on either side, but instead of fog, they are choked by a layer of dust and smog. However undesirable the air quality is, this is prime agricultural land, with all manner of produce and feed cultivated in the temperate, Meditterranean climate.

From olives to almonds, cows to goats, tomatoes to corn, California's Central Valley grows it all. Typically 50-60 miles wide, 450 miles long, this huge valley accounts for 62,000 square miles of California's land mass, and is home to more than five million residents.

Much of the valley is used for growing crops, irrigating crops, transporting crops or processing crops. Productive land requires productive hands: towns and cities, large and small, dot the landscape. The Central Valley supplies fully one-quarter of the food America eats, and is the most dynamic and diverse agricultural region in the world. No one crop dominates California's output, and more than 350 commodities are grown here. Products grown exclusively (99% or more) in California include almonds, artichokes, dates, figs, kiwi, olives, persimmons, pistachios, prunes, raisins and walnuts. The state accounts for 90% or more of all US grown apricots, grapes, and avocados, and grows more than half of the nations fruits, nuts and vegetables, including three-quarters of the lettuce crop—an agricultural cornucopia indeed.

Crop after crop blurs in the periphery as you speed down I-5 (later the 99); sometimes signs tell you what they are, other times, it's anyone's guess—especially with the fruit trees. Equally elated by orange grove sightings and the prospect of getting off the 99 and heading east to the Sierras, Bakersfield loomed in the distance, one of the bigger towns in the Valley. Bakersfield's economy is based on both agriculture and oil (rigs are scattered in fields west of the city), making for an interesting socio-cultural dynamic. Turning off the 99, we cruised through urban sprawl and citrus trees heavy with ripe fruit, and finally got a decent view of the western slopes of the Sierras. Arid, rocky and rugged were the first impressions—turns out we had no idea just how so.

Until we entered the Kern River Canyon. The straight-as-an-arrow highway suddenly hits a wall—right about where the sign alerting you of how many deaths have occurred in the Kern River since 1968 (246, by the way; this photo is dated!), the road funnels traffic into two impossibly narrow lanes, and winds itself between rocky cliffs and a class 5+ river. If there is such a thing as topography shock, this would be it.

Through the belly of the beast, we have entered some of California's most pristine river canyon country—steep hillsides rising above remote drainages, backdrops dotted with granite boulders, blanketed by manzanita and pine forests, giant sequoias and other untold treasures that are loudly calling my name.

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