Today, thinking about the end of the school year makes me think of Bakersfield and Bakersfield makes me think about cars.
My grandparents' farm was about half an hour south of Fresno. On the drive there, Bakersfield was the final town of any size larger than something explored by Larry McMurtry in The Last Picture Show. Back when Highway 99 passed right through Bakersfield, we'd stop for hamburgers at a Carnation Ice Cream...place. They called them fountains back then, though that word usually referred to the counter in a drugstore. Maybe it was a diner, maybe a cafe. It was an oasis before the road became a ruled line through fields of cotton and alfalfa, edged on the east by a misty silhouette of the Sierra Nevada range.
It was the era of billboards, enticing the traveler to exotic destinations beyond the valley - Reno, Tahoe, mountains and lakes and gambling. Burma Shave still put its sequence of advertising prose along the route; signage was shaped like soda bottles. Plaster-covered chicken wire mimetic architecture - giant lemons and oranges - sold ice-cold, all-you-can-drink citrus quenchers at the edges of farmland, spaced about every half-hour or so. Summers in the central valley left tourists - even natives - panting and diminished.
When we journeyed mid-summer, we drove at night. As we stopped to stretch our legs once we were on the downward side of the Grapevine, even in the dark the heat rushed up the scorched hills and the shape of the land created its own wind. Stepping outside the car, stifling though it was, felt like an oven set at 350 degrees, opened to check how brown the ice box cookies were.
As the oldest of the three of us in the station wagon backseat, I usually got a window. Beyond the towns there were few lights, the ones visible either illuminating the names of not-too-distant motels or marking sites of agriculture, due to start up again with the sun. The only activity available was reverie. I wonder how many miles I have ridden in a trance state, having the conversations, living the life, of my child-then-adolescent imagination. Staring into the fenced and flattened dark, knowing that whenever we arrived, my grandmother would waken us from our dreams, saying either, "You're late," or "You're early," I waited for the right turn that took us onto secondary roads and meant we only had about 30 more minutes to go.
If we drove during daylight, we'd notice sedans with bulky, cylindrical window attachments, early versions of air conditioning. Unless someone complained - and good luck, majority rules - we had all the windows open. We were not the family that played games with license plates or named sighted objects alphabetically. We rarely had the radio on; my mother wanted no part of farm reports or country music. If I sang to myself, it annoyed my brother or sister, as it would have me, had they tried it. We might bicker, but quietly, since everybody got a swat if one of us caused a fuss. If we hadn't been in shorts and summery shirts, we could have been mistaken for pilgrims from some cloistered order, our vows of silence riding with us to the new monastery.