It's 6:30 in the morning, hot and the freeways are jammed in all directions. Tempers are rising with the heat and exhaust smoke and it looks like everyone with a cell phone is cussing someone out. Hand signals also flash anger.
I spot a momentary opening in the traffic and flying into it catch a glimpse of a highway patrolman on his motorcycle behind me. I feel a stab of panic but he blasts past his eye on someone going faster and driving crazier. Someone either on their way to work or to some other equally pressure packed situation going like mad to be on time.
About 10 miles South of town traffic begins to thin out. I lock into a good cursing speed and glance at my passenger. Bach in town she'd watched tensely as cars shot by cutting each other off and zinging back and forth across the lanes. She hadn't said a word, just watched wide-eyed with her arms wrapped around herself like she was ready for a crash. Now, on the open road running down through the San Joaquin Valley, the hum of wheels on the blacktop and pull of sleep was gradually overtaking her. A couple of twists and turns, a smile and a sigh, and she was out.
This valley is a tough place. It needs water to grow the crops, highways to connect it to the rest of the world and strong people who want to live and work in it.
Without much rain water is delivered through canals and aqueducts from sources elsewhere. Consequently some fields lay bare, brown and dusty. Other fields are lush and green. The ones that get water produce a hell of a lot of food.
The highways are lifelines. Does a busy one go through your town? Does it bring people and business? If it does you're alive, if it doesn't it's over. With Interstate 5 running through the middle nowhere from Stockton to a little South of Bakersfield a lot of towns have been bypassed. But old Highway 99, the one I'm on, the original North /South route, still runs through all of them. The contrast between towns is vivid. Some, rundown and broken, look like scenes out of a dust bowl movie. Junkyards border the highway for miles. Abandoned motels sit in the middle of nowhere. These places are at end of the line. The world goes by without stopping. Yet other towns with good highway access boast new sub-divisions and signs of upward growth. Tall buildings gleam in the sun. Commerce is robust. Life there holds promise.
However, without strong people the San Joaquin Valley wouldn't be any more than a barren wasteland. Those who toil in the sun and heat and the dust, working the land to put food on the nations table, and those building for a new future are keeping it from becoming that.