The Ghosts of Summers Past

 

CalTrans bulldozed a piece of my heart, just south of the Livingston Underpass, on Highway 99 at Robin Road.

There's a new road where Blueberry Hill once stood.

They presented me with this accomplishment just in time for Christmas. My husband and I were making the Christmas present run to my mother's in Merced. We were looking forward to stopping at Blueberry Hill, that grand dame of a roadhouse/truckstop/coffeeshop, in happy anticipation of a Great American Road Breakfast. We rolled out of Livermore with boxes prettied up in ribbon and paper, through the soft swells of the Altamont Range, to find ourselves the recipients of one of Nature's rarest gifts.

There was no fog in the San Joaquin Valley.

The soft winter sun shone on December's tender grass, framed here and there by the faded bronze of last season's growth. Orchard trees, just outside Modesto on the 120 cutoff, stood black and bare-trunked elegant, or here and there richly draped with the heavy green taffeta of citrus leaves. There were even a few hunting birds airsurfing, taking advantage of winter's thin thermals to search out their Christmas feast

We hooked back into 99 in Modesto, southbound down the gray concrete ribbon, oleanders dobby-woven down its center divide, that threads together the places that were once slow little agricultural towns. Now it's a PVC cable that burgeoning bedroom communities slide along, slipping one into the other with nothing but a change in the subdivision names. Even so, bits and pieces of its former occupation cling to the little stucco business buildings, porches set on no-nonsense pipe columns, with their air of can't- be-bothered-with industrial design, that still lie snuggled close against the freeway frontage. There's a meat locker, still prosperous, though its white-board-fenced holding corrals, that once served a brisk small livestock auction, have been abandoned to the weeds and the taggers. There are places that work decorative iron, RV dealers, camper shell sales.

The locker is a large corrugated iron building, unpainted. There's a taxonomy of commercial space along this stretch of plain American road: small retail business scraping by alright, stucco box from the early '50s;older antique or Fine Junk dealer, frame house, more or less converted, always slightly shabby; large wholesale or farm service business, unpainted corrugated metal, lot tidily kept;prosperous farm implement dealer, painted steel building, yard policed like an army base.

Then there are the Highway's wonderful whimsical spaces, that assure you this is neither Kansas nor Europe. Just outside of Salida is a 3X lifesize replica of a top of the line Caterpillar tractor, complete with glassed-in "cab" that serves as the local dealer's sales office, and a scraper blade big enough to scoop up every pile of debris left by all the commute hour wrecks in Silicon Valley on a Friday night. Between Livingston and Atwater is a camper shell dealer (building:unpainted corrugated metal) whose promotional sign is a camper shell cantilevered over the frontage road, with a pair of legs in cowboy boots and fringed shotgun chaps sticking out of the top of the shell. Lettering on the side says "Dive On In." There's the Dutch Mill Motel, farther up the road towards Lodi, with its three faded-from-bright blue, clapboard-sheathed windmills in the front.

There are dwellings mixed in along the frontage. The most exhuberant are the Mexican ones, with planters made by cutting triangles from the inside rim of a tire carcass, then turning the whole business inside out so the points thus created blossom spikily, like the maguey cactus usually planted in them. Often there are thick plantings of prickly pear, or bright garden ornaments: yellow and black sunflower whirligigs, lusty red porch steps, blue window casings, all against the stark white of house walls and picket fences.

Many houses are worn and scuffed like old carpet slippers. The oleanders that flank their driveways have grown to thickets, losing their shapes like a matron who's finally decided to burn the damn girdle.The gravel on the drive has abandoned the dips to the rainwater and adobe, the once fashionable Mission Colonial houses are clothed in paint and rooftiles faded to the powdered tan of alkalai dust on a pickup truck. Some places are no more than weathered boxes of unpainted wood, old cars hoarded against the day that the single one that's a driver needs a part--but cheap, mind now. They sit, some of them, on what seems to the envious eyes of one forced unwillingly to live in a tract, to be a luxurious richness of perhaps an acre or so. Often there is some sort of livestock fencing, that serves to keep in a horse or two, or perhaps a fattening steer. The wire is so old & rusted, the posts so unsteady in their footing, that the only thing keeping the critters in is the firm belief that feeding time will come. The horses are often well-built, the cattle likely to be of good quality. When it comes to priorities, two cows obviously beats three fence posts.

Other houses are as wellkempt as an orchard, flat Bermuda grass lawn edged & weeded, the cedars that provide shade for so many Valley places carefully shaped, cars garaged or parked in careful rows, the broad sitting porches swept, the lawn furniture under cover for the rainy season, paint on the Craftsman-style houses kept fresh, especially the contrasting trim color.

It is not the California of the movies, TV, or the Eselan Institute. Most travelers, destined for Los Angeles or San Berdoo or Sacramento, blow through the Valley like wine connoisseurs passing up the Ripple, averting their eyes and psyches lest being working class and lacking material ambition both prove to be catching.

Nor is it the California of Chez Panisse, cusine minceur, Peet's Coffee, or Car & Driver. There are still people who rise at 5 a.m., bump through fields in jouncy pickups to start irrigation pumps or open checks, and do more physical work before lunch than three C++ programmers do in six months.

They don't tank up on steamed sole, arugula, and brown rice, the leadfree fuel of urban types. They run high-octane Supreme: Red meat. High-density cholestrol and carbs, in the form of flapjacks and buttered baked potatoes. Coffee you could use to degunk an engine. Good sturdy satisfying stuff, if you do it right, to keep you warm in the heaviest tule fog. A lumpen gut-anchor of glop, if you don't.

For over three decades the name at the top of my list of good San Joaquin fueling stations has been Blueberry Hill Truckstop-Café.

It was a gift, that listing, in a way. One hot summer day in 1959, I pulled horse-holding duty while my Uncle Harvey worked on getting shoes on what ain't any horseshoer's dream: a big, stout, half-Clyde, mostly not broke three-year-old that was "mumsy's widdle sweetie."

Sweetie tried leaning on the shoer, snatching his hooves away, offering to kick, and pawing. Uncle Harvey went up the Horseman's Standard Escalation of Sanctions Scale: 1. "Whoa, now." 2. Method 1, accompanied by a sharp yank on the lead rope. 3. Growling "Quit it, now," accompanied by a pop on the butt with the lead rope. 4. Cracking Sweetie a good one on the rear end with the flat of the file when he actually did let fly with a 6-inch diameter hoof, while saying things about Alpo.

Meanwhile, Mumsy went up the Standard Horse Spoiler's Scale: 1."Sweetie going to be good & get his footsies all fixed, huh?" 2. "Oh Sweetie, what was that? We don't get our nosy yanked, do we?" 3. "Poor Sweetie-boy, did you get owied?" 4. Speechless gasping, followed by wailing "My poor boy."

At this point, Uncle Harvey explained that if Sweetie was going to get shod, he was going to have do it without taking out the shoer, and 7-year-old me got recruited to twitch ol' Sweetie.

Twitching is sort of an accupressure procedure. A twitch is usually made from an old hammer handle, with a hole drilled in the narrow end. A length of twine or soft, light cotton rope is run through the hole and tied off to make a loop. To use the twitch, you pull the horse's upper lip out, run the twine loop around it, and twist the handle to apply pressure to the lip. Turns out this releases endorphins in the horse's system, which has a relaxing affect. It's also good at getting a horse's attention, because he doesn't know that you really won't rip his face off, at least not the first time he's twitched..

So, I held the horse's head and the twitch handle, Uncle Harvey nailed the shoes on & explained to Mumsy that 1000 lb. animals are not the best thing to spoil past the point of having any discipline, and we got some grocery money.

We finished in mid-afternoon, on one of those August days that's so hot the air feels tight stretched like a drum, when everything is so still the buzzing of a fly seems like it might burst the air and explode it.

"You did good with that colt, Chucalote," Uncle Harvey said.

I lit up and launched in to a technical discussion of the horse's behavior & what I had done to observe it and act accordingly, with all the earnestness a 7-year-old can muster. Harvey listened gravely and courteously, as he always did, as I expounded on ear position, eye expression, and all the other details of comportment that horsemen learn to watch for. It was a generosity, from someone who understood horses better than they themselves did.

It is a wonderful thing for a child to be taken seriously, and to be complimented by an adored uncle one admires. It can even make the Spanish word for a goat's-head thorn, chucalote , seem like the most desired of epithets.

We bundled the shoeing box with its hammer and clenching iron and nails, nippers and file into the trunk of the '49 Cadillac convertible. The portable forge, coal, and shoeing apron had already gone in.

Harvey piloted the bottle green land yacht slowly down a high-crowned road that etched a line between dry fields and irrigated, green permanent pasture.

"You did real good. In fact you did so good I believe you ought to have a milkshake. Sound good, hon?," he asked as the heavy car rolled slowly over the undulating hardpan monuments to last winter's rains that flanked the outskirts of Blueberry Hill's parking lot.

He beached the car. There was a shady parking slot, the only thing that makes it possible to drive a convertible top-down in the season of Testing Hell's Hinges, otherwise known as summer in the Central Valley.

We walked up to a medium-small building faced with broad white boards that ran up from a skirt of field stones. 1 by 2s painted bright blue drew thin lines between the boards.Another bright blue board made the eave facing.

When the screen door had creaked to behind us we found a lunch counter-and-booth kind of place, with the sort of waitresses who are used to dealing with kids who don't know enough to eat what's good for them.

When you go from the outdoors to the indoors in summer, in the Valley, you learn just how hot and bright sun can be. Your eyes, pupils pinpointed by the unfiltered sunlight of summer, sometimes refuse to open wide enough to see in the darker interior light for several seconds. There's a chill gust of air over your face as the closing door draws the breath out of the ubiquitous swamp cooler in the corner. For that little while, you are blind and numb, and you perceive everything through your nose and ears.

Like every other place I saw him in, somebody called out "Hey, Harvey! How's tricks?" as soon as my uncle walked in. I was dazzled by the smell of burgers and red onions with a tang of ketchup, motor oil on someone's boots, a chair scraping on linoleum, ice tinkling in a glass, fries popping in deep fat.

My cramped pupils finally gave up and dilated, and we walked down the counter to a pair of regulation round red leatherette counter stools, as Harvey answered the greeting.

Then there was a pleasant bustle as one of the waitresses, a comfortable sized woman in one of those pretty pastel waitress outfits that died off about the time Jack Kennedy was inaugurated, worked the counter, multitasking like a Unix box.

"That burger OK, hon?," she asked the customer next to us, as a lightening fast cloth passed over the counter in front of us.

She called a "Bye now" to the mosquito truck crew going out the door, as the cloth dematerialized and she produced glasses of ice water and fresh paper napkins in front of us as effortlessly as a stage magician.

"How's that brother of yours doing, Harvey? He still down in LA riding for the movies? You kids know what you want or you need a minute?"

"Dick's fine. He's working out on Santa Rosa Island in the Channel."

"Still riding colts?"

"Oh, yeah. You know my shoing assistant, here, Maxine? This is my neice, Phetsy. She helped a big old spoiled colt learn his manners today, so we're going to celebrate with a couple of the house special shakes."

"Well good for you, hon. Two blue comin' right up, Harvey." Maxine zipped off in a blur of pastel efficiency, to perform a ritual at the stainless steel shrine of the shake machine.

Maxine soon zipped back, bearing a tray with two of those wonderfully curved, footed milkshake goblets and two big metal shaker cans. She set a thick, white china diner-issue saucer sporting a paper doily in front of me. Another lined up for parade right in front of Harvey. A goblet sailed into a landing right at each Doily Central.

I marveled at the creation in front of me. It was like every wonderful cold summer drink concotion I'd ever had, and also unlike any other.

There is a culture of cold drinks in hot country, with certain defining characteristics. The liquids themselves are stored at very, very cold temperatures. They are very, very fresh, with lots of fizz if appropriate. Serving glasses go from washer, to drain rack, to freezer, so that they are already rough with an ice sweater when the drink is poured.

Beer carries a head so thick it looks like whipped cream, and the bubbles dance in the mug like the fluid in those wonderful Christmas lights. Iced tea is thoroughly chilled from top to bottom, with no unpleasant temperature surprises if you plunge a straw all the way to the sugar layer to begin sipping.

Ice cream concoctions have very distinct consistencies: floats are not an oozing thick cream blend of root beer and ice cream, they are solid ice cream scoops floating in sweet liquid, with a crystal coat of the drink. Milkshakes require much use of the long spoon before one can even bother to blow the wrapper off the straw. Cognoscenti often begin by consuming the contents of the shaker can, to allow the stuff in the goblet a little softening time.

The goblet that landed in front of me had obviously received the proper treatment: its surface was frosted with ice, there was no tell-tale lighter streak in the contents that comes from warming, the little whipped cream cap set just in the middle of the shake's top surface, an impossibly red cherry nested inside (stem out for easy finger work.)

But it was either pale lavender or light blue, depending on how many color names you know.

"Uncle Harvey! What is this? Is it OK?"

"It's fine, hon. It's a blueberry shake."

The idea of blueberries was outside my grasp. I knew blackberries, which thrive along the very sunny irrigation canals of the valley, sweet and rich and wild tasting. There were lots of backyard truck patches, with a shady spot that got a bit of sun but kept the dew, producing the domestic ambrosia of fresh strawberries. But nobody I knew of, commercial grower, truck patch owner, or one-crop farmer, raised something called blueberries.

I was faced with exotica.

"You mean blackberry? How come it's not real purple? And why didn't they make a cobbler out of it?" I asked, thinking of the One True Purpose in life of dark berries.

"No, they're blueberries. Come from Oregon. They like the cool and the mist. Go ahead, taste it."

Tentatively, fearing that I might be taking up something as horrid as the artificially flavored strawberry ice cream that plagued America's freezers in that era, I spooned up a small sip of the strange concoction in front of me.

It was cool and sweet and thick and rich, of course, but it had a little tang to it, a spare little freshness that wasn't like the richly opulent flavor of blackberries, and didn't have the rosy taste of real strawberries, and certainly wasn't the dreaded fake stuff. It was like the other berries, but not. It was an alien flavor, an adventure of the palate.

"You like it, hon?"

"Yeah. I think I do. I might like blackberries better, though. You like it, Uncle Harvey?"

"Yes I do. Used to get blueberries up in Sisters, sometimes. They bake them in a pie, up there."

"What Sisters?"

"Not what, where. Three Sisters, Oregon. Used to cowboy up there."

Harvey talked on, remembering cowboy life in the Oregon country, He sipped and remembered, I sipped and dreamed, of exotic places where rain fell even in summer and there was always green grass but no oak trees to speak of, and people ate strange pies of blue not black berries.

Shakes finished, Harvey paid our tab and left a good tip for Maxine. The Cadillac slid back on to 99, southbound for Merced and our barn and evening feeding. I curled in the angle between seat and door, looking out at the flat green fields that swept up in the distant West to the Coast Ranges. The lowering sun balanced over the Pacheco Pass, a ball of rose fire that limned everything like an engraver's tool. Sated in my corner with fatigue and achievment and milky contentment, I thought of rain falling every day in July, and green pastures that needed no irrigation in August. I wondered what the colors would be like, how the shadows would fall, and how you would keep thrush from the horse's feet. I licked a little missed trail of blueberry shake from the edge of my lip, and began to believe that the world was a large and strange place, wonderous with odd weather and exotic berries.

So Blueberry Hill was a gift, one that I enjoyed for many years, in many different ways.

I still went there through high school, usually with Uncle Harvey, more rarely with Uncle Dick. The Hill burned, in '61 or so, but it was just another chance to remodel and expand. Harvey got a mirror salvaged from the incarnation I first knew, with a wooden frame like a horseshoe and a brass snaffle bit for a hanger.

When I reached college, I'd come back to Merced, by bus or train, and Blueberry Hill was one of my personal landmarks, just the Livingston and Atwater stops away from the Merced station.

It kept metamorphosizing: first a marker of home, then a little rememberance of love from my uncles after they died when I was in my mid-20s. A way of life I slipped back into like well-broken in riding boots. There was always the Merced Sun Star, and talk of rainfall, livestock prices, and who'd up and run off with somebody else's wife. Maxine, or her moral re-incarnation, was always there, making sure that a young woman just old enough to travel by herself got no grief from out of area truckers. It was a bright safe oasis in the dark of a night, offering hot, creamy mashed potatoes cradling rare beef and brown gravy against the bone chill of the deep December fog. It was my 7 a.m. stop after the 2-hour haul from Livermore, with a place to park the horse trailer in sight of the window, convenient for keeping an eye on the equine passenger. Even better, the rest of the clientele were rural enough not to park-in said horse hauling rig.

It was the embarcadero for a culinary voyage that's put into prandial ports all around Western Europe, from prieselsack rot-und-weiss in Munich, to calamari in su tinto in Venice, with stops for assorted cheeses, breads, sauces and chutneys in Amsterdam, Barcelona, London, Vienna and Paris. I've even eaten winter salads on the East Coast of the States. Nothing's ever been quite as risky as those first sips of blueberry exotica.

It was a lot of memories, like the time two friends and I were bringing horses back from Yosemite. I had stopped for the light just south of Blueberry Hill, when I saw a blond-haired, blue-jeaned blur pelting for the passenger door of my van. Next thing I knew, my friend Karen had thrown herself into the passenger seat, blurting out "Blueberry Hill" in exactly the tone of voice I use to tell a 1000 pound horse to "Get over." I went quietly.

Blueberry Hill was also a steadfast witness to plain good American food. There wasn't anything cuisine-ish about it, and there was enough fried stuff to give all of the San Francisco Financial District a heart attack, but dang it was good. There was the aforementioned hot beef sandwich (at prices and sizes a starving student could afford and relish), a good chef salad, cinnamon buns the size of Fresno, burgers and chicken and steaks.

Oh, the steaks. The Blueberry Hill folks always believed in beef. They never lost their faith in the face of cholestrol-counting joggers and health-obsessed suburbanites. The place had the kind of beef you don't get outside of ranching country. It had been well-hung, and had both rich flavor and tender texture, at $6.95 for the steak and eggs breakfast. This was not foofoo cornfed MidWestern beef, and it wasn't that candy-ass Harris Ranch watery stuff: this was beef that had walked out in the sunshine and eaten the strong dry grass that Nature sows, with just a little finishing feed of grain. It was the kind of beef that cowboys bite into and say "Now that cow lived a good life."

Blueberry Hill was just a plain, homey, good eats kind of place, with straight shooting food, fill ups for your coffee thermos, and people who kept on dealing with Nature's concerns with life, death, and taxes, season after season, year after year.

Until this year.

I guess that beautiful clear Christmas Day was by way of monument, becuase when the truck popped up out of that Livingston Underpass, slowing for the Robin Road turnoff, there was no 50-foot-high neon sign to greet us. There was no big full parking lot, with its slots for 18 wheelers and turning space to match. No field rock facade, no paper stands with the Bee and the Sun Star.

Just graded mounds of earth, heavy equipment beached for the holiday, and a sign promising a new subdivision soon. Blueberry Hill, and all its good food, plain people, and memories, is gone. You can't go there anymore.

But if you should pull off there at the Robin Road exit, to check the map or stretch your legs, and you look out through the December mists, you might begin to see the ghosts of summers past, the '57 Chevy BelAirs, the '59 Rancheros, the Dodge pickups and Maxine in her pastel uniform, the sizzle of steaks on the grill and the shuffle and whicker of horses in trailers.

If you look closely, a little to your right as you pull off 99, you might even see the wavering outline of a bottle green '49 Caddy convertible, top down to show tan leather seats, piloted by a cowboy in a white straw hat and faded long-sleeve denim shirt, work-gnarled hands diving and rising with the spin of the wheel as the big car wallows over the dried legacy of puddles. You might even see a little girl drowsing in the corner of the seat, one long blonde braid pulled over her shoulder, bemused with the taste of exotica and first dreams of foreign places, where it rains in summer and they eat pies of blue-not-black-berries.

End

This one's for Jim and Karen. Thanks for contibuting to the soulsaving, guys.