I was making a frightened rabbit's run out of the valley, rattling down small roads through the desolate miles, northward. My first exploration of the lower San Joaquin Valley, the arable lands of Fresno and Tulare counties, had ended in disaster. I thought the Sacramento River Valley had shown me horrors sufficient to my task, that I was now inured to the spiritual torpor induced by miles and miles of monoculture. I had witnessed the mass melon grave. I'd seen pickers resting under the machinery, the only shade for miles. I thought I was ready.
But in the citrus groves extending from Lindsey north to Exider, and then on every side of Reedley, Orosi, Sanger, and Selma, I encountered a new terror. Every orange on every tree spoke to me of its destination, and I traveled with them through time and space. I was driving down pale dry orchard roads but I was also an invisible attendant to every breakfast table across the country. The cataract roar of millions of glasses filling with juice, the shriek of every spiral torn peel, the thunderous applause of teeth against pulp--the hive sound of that simultaneity increased with the hailstone clatter of unpicked oranges falling against the hard lifeless ground. In searching for the edges of bounty, and I stumbled unwittingly into bounty's core. Flee! I pointed the car west and threw up clouds of dust to obscure my retreat. Mercifully, the citrus groves eventually gave up the chase, but instead of their terrible globular monotony, I had driven into a dust-riven hard plain of emptiness, a peach pit pressed flat. The only break in the agriculture of the apocalypse was the smell of molasses and manure from innumerable dairies of Holstein milk and misery. Land o' lakes my sweaty ass.
The towns along Colorado Road remain a blur, San Joaquin, Tranquility, Helm, Ingle. Signs began to appear shortly after for Mendota, the Cantelope Center of the World. What I needed was a thriving little downtown with a dark bar staffed by a pretty woman with a community college education, a kid or two, and a piece-of-shit ex-husband in Madera, but the sewage disposal centers along the Fresno Slough augured poorly. Mendota may be a nice town, but I saw only the paralytic immobility of its streets, the invalid stare of boarded-up shops and the usual broken-window ruin agribusiness brings to its devotee cities and sped past towards Firebaugh. No hope there either. I took Avenue 7 ½ towards the Buttonwillow Drain on a whim, crossed it, despaired, and backtracked to Highway 33 north a broken man.
I turned off 33 onto Volta Road to avoid Interstate 5 and crossed a road named Badger Flat. If I could make it to the Past Time Club in Gustine, I'd be home safe. Not that there was any escape. The valley may be the fuel of this ugly civilization, but the Cities of Enlightenment along the San Francisco Bay are the engines, and their self-righteous bubble life is only made possible by the heedless predation of rural places. Broken, I thought, every god damned thing under the sun is broken.
No bigger than a flea on the enormous dachshund of the valley--only four small blocks by three-- with roads of an ancient pavement covered over with sand, Volta, Unincorporated, arrested my deranged flight effortlessly. This place, I thought, breathes its own air. A gang of little brown boys rode bicycles lazily down the empty streets, steering one-handed around potholes and chickens. The setting sun made everything bigger and slower to leave the senses. In the yards of houses variously upkept grazed goats and an occasional head of cattle or two. Nobody's chickens ranged everywhere and roosted in old cars resting on cinder blocks. Cats with speakeasy attitudes strutted from slanting light to long-shadow. The boys rode by again, taking no heed of me, shouting to one another in English and Spanish.
Time, it is said, has stopped in a place like this. The sentiment has always bothered me, but I hadn't, until that lazy dusk in Volta, thought it through. Time, it seems, rather than measured in hours, days, or years, has come to be measured by material goods, the implication being that contemporaneity, and therefore relevance, is a luxury item, a marker of class. These old Chevrolets and Buicks still run, these old individual houses still sheltered, and a well made thing, be it wall or saw, should last a century or more. Agriculture itself is something civilization places behind it. What a clever way to ignore entire places and peoples, to place them outside of time itself. But what an impoverishment of currency, to find it only in the infant tantrums of new technologies and fashions.
From where I was leaning, Volta looked like it was on the cutting edge. It was the animals, naturally, and the humbleness of its size. Were Volta incorporated, laws would prevent the residents from keeping a goat or two in their back yard. But animals are a great benefit to the poor, and by the poor I mean mankind, for it is only in the necessity for food, clothing, company, and vocation commonly called poverty that we are known to one another. Should the oil run out, should this luxuriant civilization wreck upon that or any other iceberg, we'll bring the animals back into our lives. For their meat, their milk, their fur, wool, and hides, for their bones, for their warmth, company, and for the unique, unspeakable knowledge of ourselves found in their eyes. They provide for our every necessity, and we owe to them the greater portion of what we call human. It is a comfort to me, the odds that they will return to us, though we scarce deserve them.