Place

Three weeks of my writing course have come and gone, and I thought I’d share my favorite essay so far. This went over my 500 word limit, yet it is just a fragment of a much longer story that is still going on. This is pre-feedback from my instructor – scroll down to read:

 

IMG_9941

made of aspen by my love

 

***

Bakersfield rests at the bottom of the San Joaquin Valley, surrounded on three sides by mountains, making other more attractive parts of California harder to get to, but more importantly, collecting the smog that drifts from even larger cities to the north: San Francisco Bay area, Sacramento, Fresno. The haze of air pollution descends on and permeates this valley city, where not even natural cleansing processes bother to purge it. You know that proverb that says it rains upon the just and the unjust?—well, not in Bakersfield 11 months of the year, a desert that averages six inches of rain per year and sees an inch or two of snow every other decade.

The major industries of this city of half a million are oil fields and agriculture, and it has also become a cost-effective place to live for commuters who drive over “The Grapevine” to northern Los Angelas. Citrus trees, almond trees, cotton, and carrots are successfully grown thanks to irrigation, and the water is brought down from the mountains through an aqueduct and distrubuted by a canal system. The dusty bed of the Kern River cuts a wide swath through Bakersfield, hedged by bike trails and golf courses, but is dry more often than not.

Bakersfield’s claim to fame is the Buck Owens Crystal Palace, a conjunction of country western and old-timey Hollywood. Palm frond sentinels line the driveways of hotels. Stucco houses with clay tile roofs and backyard swimming pools are the status quo. The city is bustling with schools, historic sites, shopping malls, parks, libraries, bus stops, an airport; all the modern amenities a city could want. Horse properties border the northeast, and to the southwest sprawl ever-expanding developments of model homes, ranging in color from pink to orange to beige. The less desirable, ill-reputed neighborhoods with their gangs and flea markets huddle somewhere in the middle. I learned how to use the word ghetto before I even knew its origin, but I felt a kinship with those run down backstreets, like they were a truer version of life than the cul-de-sac facades with their perfectly manicured lawns.

My family moved to Bakersfield from Des Moines, Iowa when I was seven. We rented half a dozen places, each one bigger than the last as my siblings made their appearances. Our first house had a crabby old lady next door who scolded me for catching stray kittens. For one memorable year we lived on an acreage with corrugated tin sheds, bantam chickens, and gopher snakes. Another place, then near the edge of town, was adjacent to a high school where my brothers and sister and I would rollerblade or bike around the parking lot on weekends finding quarters and dimes and, once, a ten dollar bill. That was where we lived the year it snowed in January, four bountiful inches gone a day later, my favorite day of the fourteen years I called Bakersfield my home.

Going west, my family had traded tornados for tumbleweeds, and the occasional aftershock of an earthquake. Fog delays replaced snow days. Mosquitos and lightning bugs were unheard of in the desert, but I could recognize the striking red hourglass on a black widow spider better than I cared to. It was so hot, the air quality so poor, we spent a lot of high summer indoors. I never traveled outside the town much until adulthood, except by book. While my brothers played little league baseball year-round, I escaped the noise of traffic and the scorch of sun by discovering or inventing other lands and seas. It seemed the things I craved most were the things Bakersfield did not have. I thirsted for quenching rain, cool breezes, restless waves. I remembered the lush green of Iowa, the clap of thunderstorms and the toppling cumulonimbus clouds rolling across the plains, the glorious gold and firey scarlet of some foreign season called “fall.” Instead of leaves, our yard had spikey coniferous needles and thorny cactus, protecting their own meager supply of moisture. Like the hardy arid plants, I learned to survive the heat and stored up my own longings under the surface until I could make my escape.

Reagan Dregge
July 31st 2014

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