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