This is one of those trip reports that offers no pretense to literary quality. I simply want to remember the details of our occasional journeys, even though outside readers will likely find them bland. That apologia offered, let's hit the road.
Jenny and I drove to Visalia Friday evening, returning early Sunday. It was one of those momentary decisions when I woke up and proclaimed, "I've got the fever." Generally Jenny responds to those light-hearted announcements with a wan smile and a noncommittal assurance that some day soon we will return to the road. Not this time. I was determined and Jenny was willing, so I started pouring through my trusty Rand McNally. There's so much to California that we haven't seen, but we wanted a trip that was short enough to make in one day, allowing a full Saturday of sight-seeing and the ability to return in time for Jenny to attend church on Sunday. Hoping to see more of the Central Valley than I've already explored, I proposed that we search for cities on or near Highway 99. Visalia has a pleasant enough sounding name, so that's where we headed.
The drive took us through fragrant fields of springtime produce and fields of empty houses that suffer the ravages of the latest California housing bust. Night fell quickly as we turned east on State Road 198 toward Coalinga and points beyond. A little piece of advice for folks who might attempt the same feat: Don't. Those little dots that parallel the road on some maps, the ones signifying "scenic view," also mean tight hairpin turns, often at the top of hills that allow for no warning. There are other ways to get into the Valley, and we'll seek them out next time. Jenny and I were somewhat frazzled once we made our way into town, and we were a little disappointed that Visalia offers so little appeal at first glance. 198 carves through town as a limited access freeway, revealing no charm or character. We got the last room at the Marco Polo Inn and drifted to sleep to the tune of footsteps on the ceiling.
The next morning, our spirits revived, we rolled onto Visalia's Main Street and discovered a pleasant community with a surprisingly large selection of diners and restaurants, lots of quirky shops, and even one of those nickel arcades that I haven't seen in years. We chowed down at the Main Street Cafe, one of those "we're a diner"-diners: Pictures of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, chrome stools, and a jukebox. No matter. The food was swell and the service was friendly. There's something almost perfect about ordering a cup of coffee and getting a personal pitcher. After breakfast we wandered through town, gazing up at the 1930 landmark Fox Theater, whose interior was crafted to resemble the garden court of an East Indian ruler. [Learn more about the Fox at their website.] Later, we stopped at a home show, where we spotted a wooden sign-carving display. Almost immediately, we ordered one for our house. Now when folks enter our porch, they walk under a hanging sign that announces, "Woodland." We picked one with two trees whose branches have grown together. Tacky, but accurate in our case.
We then headed south toward Mooney Grove Park in search of the geese. We'd heard that this park boasts a large collection of the squawking, squabbling creatures, and we were not disappointed. We'd bought some bread at a nearby supermarket, so we came prepared. The birds were split into various competing groups, and it was kind of sad that the tougher birds were able to push their ways ahead of their weaker cousins. Naturally, Jenny and I aimed our bread for the little guys, but it wasn't easy. The big birds would waddle out of the lake and walk right up to us, hissing and clucking, eating right from our hands.
While at Mooney Grove we also visited the "End of the Trail" sculpture, which was created by James Earle Fraser. In our travels, we've seen some variation of this piece throughout the West, on motels and diners and belt buckles. The "Trail" was first made for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, though only in plaster. In 1968 the city traded it away to the National Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City in exchange for a bronze casting. Jenny and I sat and stared at the piece for a while, moved (as have been so many other people) by the sadness and spirituality of this tribute to America's first peoples.
Never afraid of a little irony, our next stop was Big Bubba’s Bad to the Bone BBQ, an oversized phantasmagoria of cowboy imagery, featuring a mechanical bull and drinks you can sip from a boot. The food was hugely portioned, calling forth our better instincts: a split of one combo onto two plates. Kids cavorted along a hanging walkway that led to a treehouse in the middle of the restaurant and we smiled at the silliness of the whole thing. The restaurant's website labels the place a Roger Sharp "concept." I get a little puckered at the thought of eating in a "concept" But the food was pretty good.
Heading back toward 198, Jenny and I stopped at a recently commissioned mural by Glen W. Hill, entitled "The Greatest Generation." Stitching together portraits and images that stretch from the bombing of Pearl Harbor through to the incinerations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this piece is Rockwellian in its moral clarity and sentimentality. Even so, I always grow misty-eyed when thinking about World War II, particularly when contemplating the mural's conclusion: a soldier's homecoming (I've added a close-up of that image to the photograph). Leaving this place, I was gladdened. We need not journey to Washington D.C. to find how our small towns were also touched by the war. We need only read the walls.
The afternoon was dedicated to brief visits to nearby towns. Jenny plotted a path through Lindsay, Portersville, Poplar, Woodview, Plainview, and Exeter, mostly little towns with their own Main Streets and even some nice murals. By the time we returned to Visalia, the sun glowed fat and red through the haze. By evening we searched for neon to photograph, savoring the Chop Suey sign and feeling joyful that the Fox also lights up at night. Dinnertime brought us to the Wagon Wheel Steak House, where thick loaves of fresh bread are delivered by knifepoint. Again, we split a plate and left satisfied at a hearty meal served well.
Our trip concluded, we headed north on 99 where we were reminded of how tricky it can be to get gas on the freeway, with one place selling for $3.35 and another selling for $2.93 just a couple miles away. Gassed up, we stopped at the Madera Motel 6 whose somewhat higher than normal price includes an indoor heated pool, hot tub, and sauna. The next morning we hit the road by seven, stopping only at a Big Bear Diner in Gilroy for one of that chain's dependably tasty breakfasts. Aiming for 10 o'clock arrival, we returned home only ten minutes late.
(Photos by Andrew Wood)