Filling Stations

“This is the kind of place where you realize Americans like to feel full, quick,” muses Verlyn Klinkenborg in this week’s New York Times, on the most ordinary of places, another American highway rest stop. It’s the type of place known best for its placelessness, a mere pause for 18-wheelers and station wagons to load up and get on the road again, where McDonald’s and Starbucks and Mobile Mart exude extraordinary ordinariness.

The particular place Klinkenborg, who writes the occasional treat of a Times editorial on farming and the rural life, muddles over spending the night in happens to be a node on California’s spine. Those of us who like to think of ourselves as cosmopolitan conduits between San Francisco and Los Angeles know the spine well. The 101, the 5, even the 99, which I have never adventured onto but I’m sure is thrilling nonetheless: they all run the length of California's spine and they all, at some point, slice through the solemn heart of the state’s agricultural industry, the Central Valley. The Central Valley is a bit of a paradoxical landscape to me. At once both industrial, pumped with chemicals and unjust labor, and the underdog in America’s agricultural wars, it's not the demonized target that Farm Bill activists and food geeks from the coasts have made out of the Midwestern corn-scape. It can’t be—the Central Valley actually gives us edibles. The largest domestic supplier of almonds, grapes and tomatoes, virtually anything non-tropical can be planted along the 400-mile long stretch and it will take root and yield fruit.

The most recent version of the federal Farm Bill passed by Congress finally allotted fruit, vegetable, and nut growers a portion of the subsidies traditionally handed over to the corn, soy, rice, wheat and cotton producers of the big square states. So it was that I went to San Francisco a few weeks ago with America’s freshly subsidized fruit basket at my side, in an airplane drawing a path parallel to Interstate 5.

The interstate was my anchor for knowing, vaguely, where we were on a map and as the dry mountains north of LA flattened out into the agricultural plain of the Central Valley, the landscape became etched with boxes and lines. The fruit and nut orchards are anonymous from above though the work of human hand and machine on the land is still visible, however dwarfed by its geologic context. Whatever land can be planted with crops and irrigated to an artificial green in the valley, is—except for where crops have been uprooted and replaced with solar panels. Solar panels? I doubted my eyes at first, but the reflective blocks nestled among fields of brown and green were unmistakable. Lucky for California's dwindling water reserves, they don't need to be irrigated.

Adding paradox to land-use paradox, can our thirst for fuel exist harmoniously with our desire for full bellies?

These solar panels add social and environmental texture to the Central Valley, a third dimension to the two-dimensional carpet of an agricultural cornucopia. They flickered opaquely, reminding me of the dozens of ‘golden’ lakes throughout Ethiopia’s southern Rift Valley that gleam under the spell of some naturally-occurring metallic compounds. The Rift Valley‘s food and fuel chain is simple and synergistic, with herds of goats, cattle, and sheep weaving back and forth across the single road in search of the freshest grass. Trees provide campfire fuel for the shepherds trailing their animals. There are no gas stations along the Ethiopian road, nothing to snack on if you’re not a cow, and cruising speeds are unobtainable due to frequent animal crossings. Yet I drove through this flat valley for hours and never felt deprived. Here, even the ordinary enchants.

filling stations

filling stations

I found myself in yet another window seat on my return to LA from the east coast a few days ago, next to a young woman returning home to southwest China after her first semester at college in the Northeast. Her trip to Massachusetts (she’s a Mt. Holyoke student) back in September was her first ever to the United States. She clutched a treatise on Wittgenstein, placed her slang perfectly in speech, had spent Christmas with her new best friend in Greenwich, CT and proclaimed that the only thing she missed about China was the food. She was a bit full in the face, and I was struck by how at ease she seemed to be with the transnational life she's embarked on. The woman to her left, a computer programmer for the air force, asked her if she ever eats dog. The Chinese girl made a gagging sound. I rolled my eyes. They don’t eat dog where she is from, she explained with patience, though some people in China do, she never does. Mostly she misses the simplicity of rice and vegetables and all the little dishes cohering into a meal. I asked her how the food was at Mt. Holyoke. So good, she told me, but there is so much of it! She asked if there was dessert at every meal at my college. Of course, I replied, we used to eat cornflakes with vanilla soft-serve at weekend brunch after sampling all the pastries.

“I’m afraid my family won’t recognize me,” she said, “you know, there is the freshman 15 but I gained more than 15.” There was no remorse in her voice over this, just a hint of incredulity. Just then, as I was about to offer unsolicited advice (which is what seatmates in the air are for, no?) on how moving off-campus to an apartment with a kitchen is always a healthier option, a floating pool of light appeared out of the blackness to our right. Oh look, I told her instead, there’s Vegas.

“How do you know that’s Vegas?” asked the air force programmer. How did I know? No matter what direction you approach Vegas from--southeast, northwest, or above--you just know. Vegas requires no highway marker or GPS coordinates, no billboard announcing its presence. It arises ahead out of dust as a veritable Oz in the desert, a most anticipated filling station en route to the sea, or the big square states.

Tonight it shone like an oblique Lite-Brite board, a fine-grained orange glow unhumbled by its context, a singular dimension of black.

We were an hour from touching down at LAX as Las Vegas drifted off to our right and finally out of sight, into the abyss of as-yet unlit, still frontier. What remained in sight was the city’s electrical tether, one thin illuminated line punctuated by crosshatching that stretched from the southern limits of this embodied civilization all the way under our plane and beyond. If one could dip a hand down from the air and slice through this thread with a fingernail, the city might fly away like a kite freed from its string. Until someone scrambled to plug it back into the outlet of infinite power, that is. Then the whole thing would rise from the earth again.

Happy New Year.