To head forward, sometimes you’ve got to go back.
On the road at last.
Destination Charleston, South Carolina by way of Houston, New Orleans and Tallahassee. Motoring towards the land of Dixie. I expect to travel 3,200 miles to get there.
During the first legs—Redding to Bakersfield, and then on to Arizona and Texas—I am alone. I’ll pick Karin up at the San Antonio airport. But for hundreds of miles I have the car to myself.
I fill the hours with books on tape—I’m not one to listen to music—and when I tire of them. I switch off the player and study the landscape. In the silence, without companionship or conversation, my mind wanders a bit.
“Going south,” I think, and suddenly that phrase takes me back 50 years.
I can see Dad in my mind’s eye.
He’s all of 32 and I’m 9. I’ve crashed bicycle, again, and he’s bent over it checking it out.
Dad’s a magician with a wrench and a welding torch. All our household’s mangled machinery and distressed toys eventually ended up on his workbench. There they’d be tended to with a deft touch and a dab of glue.
Extreme cases were re-jiggered, re-modified and re-paired. They emerged better than new.
Once in a while though, he’d get a basket case project that was truly terminal. When this happened, Dad examined the pieces, slowly turning them over in his hands, shook his head sadly, and said: “Sorry. It’s gone south.”
This was his way of saying it was toast. Finito. Busted for good, like the time I ran over my sister’s brand-new Malibu Barbie with the rotary mower. In the flash of an eye, Barbie looked like she’d earned the starring roll in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
We rushed her to Dad, but it was no use. She’d “gone south.”
So we entombed her in a shoe box and after a brief formal ceremony, sent her to her final reward via a Varner Brothers’ Sanitation truck.
She was survived by Ken and Skipper….
Dad developed his fix-it talents because his job demanded them. Much of the day he resuscitated his father’s threadbare, whipped-out oilfield equipment. Dad’s domain included balky pumps, frozen valves, rusty boilers and old pickups that ran so poorly he’d leave them idling all day long because he was never sure that they’d start up again—ever—once he shut them off.
This tactic was not so much a repair technique as a way of keeping the heap on the job and off life-support. It worked, if you don’t count the time his Ranchero kicked itself into drive and motored, driver-less, into an oil sump. He looked over just in time to see the tailgate go under. The only remaining sign of the truck was a stream of bubbles that drifted up for a day or two.
His co-workers began called him “captain of the Titanic,” but this didn’t stop Dad from leaving his truck running, despite complaints from his boss, my Grandpa.
“Dammit, Ronnie. You know what that costs?” Grandpa asked.
Dad shrugged and kept working, fixing an ancient Ford Ferguson tractor. Grandpa stared at the sputtering pickup. A cloud of smoke curled from its tailpipe.
“Needs a ring job,” Grandpa said.
“Ring job?” Dad looked up from the tractor. “Hell, Dad. It needs someone to jack up the radiator cap and drive a new truck under it.”
Grandpa rolled his eyes.
“Yeah. I know,” he said. “The whole thing is going south.”
Funny, it has been years since I’ve heard this phrase. Is it peculiar to Kern County, or just oilfield vernacular? It fell out of my vocabulary when I went to college and then moved north. But it popped back into my mind this week as I passed through my my old stomping grounds, Oildale.
It’s still a rag-tag oil town. No surprise in that. But then I headed on the next leg of my trip, and I made a shocking discovery.
I learned where they store all the sad-sack stuff that’s too spent for Kern County.
It goes south. Really.
I discovered this after climbing the Tehachapi mountains, passing through Mojave, and ending up in the middle of nowhere on Highway 395.
It’s the bone yard of all-things-Oildale.
I swear I passed by a pile of scrap and saw, through some desert time-warp, Dad’s missing Ranchero, my old bicycle, swing-set, our picnic table, washer, dryer, and Mom’s avocado-colored refrigerator.
They shimmered, ghostlike, in the heat.
Or so it seemed. Well, OK. Maybe I was hallucinating.
But it could be so. The Mojave is the perfect place to park all this stuff, with room left over for Amelia Earhart, Godzilla, and the national debt. It’s ideal since it rains one every million years or so, the things cease to rust and sit there waiting.
For what? I’m not sure.
I drove on, reflecting now about the Mojave and the high desert plains that fan out for miles in all directions and that dominate the southern part of the state.
What a God awful place, I think, grateful for my car’s A/C.
And it’s true. The desert deserves its reputation. It’s harsh. It’s bleak, bland, and it will gladly kill you and bleach your bones. But, then, it will preserve them. There are, for example, rutted trails made by the passage of a wagon more than 100 years ago.
There are shells of buildings that have been abandoned, and they are weatherbeaten and inhospitable, but, still, they stand, monuments to misplaced optimism. It’s like the heat sucks the life out of them, but leaves them there as a warning to anyone foolish enough to think about returning.
I traveled for three or four hours through the Mojave, heading mostly south, until I turned east and made my way into Arizona.
This landscape, too, is stark, but less trashy. There are acres of irrigated land, golf courses of all things. The region attracts people—an acquired taste, to be sure. Yet it has its admirers. I know because I had the opportunity to talk to one man on my trip who’d lived in Ridgecrest, and he was thinking of returning.
“When I first got there, I thought it was terrible,” he said. “But it grew on me. When the desert flowers, and it’s stunning. And at night, the starts are UN-be-lievable. The sky is white with them all.”
I listened with interest to this tribute, and my take-away was less about the land than about this man and the others who live there. They remind me that the world is a fascinating place because of how people adapt and make even the most inhospitable places home.
But you won’t catch me out there.
To my mind, that’s the real beauty of it all: We’re all so different.
For most of my life, I couldn’t wait to escape Oildale and seek the greener climates of the north state. But others find their beauty elsewhere, even when it means going south.
So here’s to all you most-Southern of Californians, keepers of the desert detritus. I salute you and wish you well.
And give my best to the late, great, Malibu Barbie.
Robb has enjoyed writing and performing since he was a child, and many of his earliest performances earned him a special recognition-reserved seating in the principal’s office at Highland Elementary. Since then, in addition to his weekly column on A News Cafe – “Or So it Seems™” – Robb has written news and features for The Bakersfield Californian, appeared on stage as an opening stand-up act in Reno, and his writing has been published in the Funny Times. His short stories have won honorable mention national competition. His screenplay, “One Little Indian,” Was a top-ten finalist in the Writer’s Digest competition. Robb presently lives, writes and teaches in Shasta County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.