Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Highway 180 Blues

From Joe Viger:

Zipping along at an air-conditioned 80 miles an hour through an arid, desolate stretch of California, I was struck by the sight of a fireplace and chimney sticking up out of the field. I stepped out of the car and felt a wave of heat on my shoulders. My feet settled into the pavement like it had just been steam-rolled minutes before. Crouching to make these pictures, the grass as dry as hay, I could feel the heat coming up from the ground. This wispy plant was the only speck of green in eye shot.

Abandoned Hopes 1

I was on California State Highway 180 going from Kings Canyon to Fresno through the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. While only about 60 miles, this stretch of road is full of contrasts. As you descend from an elevation of 6,500 feet in the cool Sierra, the Sequoia trees of Kings Canyon give way to the scorching, low land of the San Joaquin. The twisting mountain road with white-knuckle turns and sheer drop offs works itself out into a straight, cruise-control highway where you drive with your knees and turn up the radio to stay awake.

California is one of America’s primary agricultural states and the San Joaquin Valley is central to that reputation. The Valley has been said to be the “most productive unnatural environment on Earth.” It is a sea of yellow grass punctuated with black rock outcroppings and green islands of agriculture. Many different crops are grown here through the wonders of irrigation. In the area just east of where I made these pictures and near the junction with Highway 63 to Visalia, citrus orchards crowd the road. Earlier in the trip, I had seen trucks with high, open sideboards that literally overflowed with carrots. Just south of here is the world’s largest cotton farm, occupying more than 40,000 acres; Fresno is the home of Sun Maid Raisins.

Abandoned Hopes 3

As I looked at the old rock foundation, I couldn’t help but think this was a heck of a place for anyone to set down roots and try to start a dream. I have no idea of the story behind this abandoned homestead… it’s just a random, interesting thing on the side of the highway that I explored for 10 minutes before jumping back into air-conditioned comfort and driving on to get some enchiladas in Fresno. But as I drove away, I formed a story for myself and searched up the appropriate song on my iPod: “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” I had two versions and I listened to them both -- the original by Bruce Springsteen and another by Rage Against the Machine.

Later, I found out that State Highway 180 was formalized as part of the California freeway system in 1934. Even though the cement steps offer a sense that the house had a modern life, I like to think that this foundation is from that time because it adds to my mind’s story about what this place was. I recently read a great book about the photographer Dorothea Lange, whose iconic images chronicled the dustbowl migration and I'm sure this colors my impression, but this house seems to be an unwritten chapter from "The Grapes of Wrath." After months of traveling west in an overloaded truck, some Okie dustbowl migrant family chose this spot to get another chance at happiness that the corporate farms of the area weren’t going to offer them. It was good enough until they fled to the city and left the dream of farming behind along with this rock foundation.

Abandoned Hopes 2

10 comments:

  1. Judging from the color (which indicates oxidation, among other things), you're right: These steps probably do date from before the 30's - but probably a little earlier. The grandiosity of the steps makes me wonder, too, if this was a building much grander than the one-room apparent in your photos. I may use some connections to dig up some info on this. I'm intrigued....

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  2. When I saw these steps, I thought of a church, or a municipal building. They do seem pretty grandiose for the location. I hope you find something, Lori.

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  3. Thank you fore posting this. My husband and I fell in love with this when we had moved from Chicago to San Jose and came upon it on a trip to the King's Canyon area. I have since moved to the East coast and lost my pictures of it in the move..I longed to see this image again.I too, would love to know the story behind the simplicity of the fireplace with such a large scale front steps in this location. Glad to see it is still standing since it seemed for years that it kept tilting a little more forward each year we drove by it.

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  4. I wish could post a picture for you. As I drove the 180 today, someone had very lovingly placed three stocking on the mantel and hung a wreath above it. Beautiful......

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  5. That's fantastic... I wish I could zip out to CA and make a picture of that myself! Thank you very much for sharing that.
    Happy Holidays!

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  6. This piqued my curiosity, too, and here is what I found...

    http://fresnobeehive.com/photos/2011/12/23/happy-holiday.html

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  7. Patti -- that's a fantastic find! Thanks for the link to the great picture and story about the house.

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  8. Oh SO interesting! Thanks for digging that up, Patti!

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  9. I'm glad I could help. As time allows, I'm trying to find where the house is now. I'll let y'all know if I find it.

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  10. Patti Your link could not be found above (your post on March 27, 2012) Can you tell me anything about the homestead with only the rock chimney standing? I've driven past it all my life and have always wondered. I live in another state now so I can no longer visit it.

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