Sunday, June 13, 2010

Last lemonade stand for 30, 60, 90 miles

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 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.


Elisabeth said...

I love the image of you three children like nuns or priests vowing silence while inside your narrator's everything seems to clamor to be heard. Wonderful writing, Marilynn.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Wow, that brings back memories. Vacationing from San Francisco to my aunt and uncle's in Santa Monica each year. The trip took two days on highway 101 (pre-freeway days), my sister and me in the back of our 1957 Chevy wagon.

Hugging the coast we didn't need the "air conditioner" (we saved that torpedo window thing for the summer drive to Colorado one year). Anyway, we would usually stay the night in Paso Robles, if we were lucky, the motel had a pool!!

Our parents relenting to our begging for root beer floats made the trip somewhat tolerable for them. What memories your story conjured up for me!

Erin in Morro Bay said...

Wow, you got to sit by the window? I was the youngest of three and always was in the middle with my feet perched on the bump that ran down the center of the car. We'd go to Yosemite every summer, leaving Azusa in the pre-dawn darkness and stopping at a park in Bakersfield for a late breakfast of cereal in those little one serving boxes (a once-a-year-treat). I do remember all the giant orange stands, though we never stopped. I would usually spend the endless hours contemplating the joys of a week of camping.

Radish King said...

Oh this took me right out of my head bubble. Bakersfield. Night drives. I remember the Burma Shave ads too but in Idaho Montana and Wyoming where the mountains rose up sharp. We were a quiet family of 4 or 3 depending on which step father month it was. Mostly I was being tortured in the backseat by my brother's anger. This is visceral and clean and perfect. I could smell the inside of that station wagon in my mouth as I read.

Anonymous said...

My brother and I would
take turns

throwing up.
Terrified to ask dad to stop,
but more terrified to throw up inside
the car....

Marylinn Kelly said...

Had our cars passed on the highway, we could have held up notes or mouthed words of encouragement, envied those on their way to a motel with a swimming pool or the unique glory of Yosemite.

Each posting feels like a party and I the glad hostess who thanks every one of you for coming by and leaving me a note. I can barely express how you delight me.

Sultan said...

Nicely expressed.