We drove south on Highway 99, through eastern San Joaquin Valley. Joan Didion territory. In the decades I’ve been travelling this route (the scenic alternative to the deadly dull I-5, which runs parallel to 99 down the western side of the valley) the sky has never been anything other than weak lemonade yellow. Brown hills hunch on the horizon. There are crop-dusters, billboards advertising bail bondsmen in Spanish, and towns that have taken a beating by the recession — Manteca (“lard” in Spanish), Salida (“outlet” in Spanish), Turlock (“outlet stores” in English). Still, the only thing that seems to have changed over the years are the number of Starbucks. Like Taco Bell and Subway, the round green and white logo looms above the highway on thin pole legs eight hundred feet tall.
Just like when you’re pregnant and every woman you see on the street is pregnant, every vehicle on 99 is an RV. The drivers of giant motor coaches wave to us, like we’re part of their tribe. I wonder if, upon passing us and glancing in their enormous bathmat-sized side mirror, they wonder what we think we’re going to do with one bike. Like, how stupid can we be? Where is the SUV we should be towing? Or the trailered twin Harleys? When I think about the bike, I try to envision it tooling around an East Bay neighborhood, steered by a kid who now thinks his luck has changed.
To get to New Mexico we must turn left at Bakersfield onto Hwy 58, over the Tehachapi pass and into the Mojave. We cannot possibly come this way without making a slight detour at the Rankin Ranch. The Rankins are old friends of my father.
Before he died, the last place my dad wanted to go was the ranch, where he could ride the Rankin cow ponies up into the rocky, wild-lavender-covered hills, eat barbequed tri-tip and Helen Rankin’s locally famous “patio potatoes,” and chat with Bill Rankin about his alfalfa crop. If you click on this, you can read all about what the ranch offers, and see how, as in Lake Wobegon, all the Rankin women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are above average. But the biggest testament to the magic of the place is this:
No, these horses are not dead.
They’re napping. If you know about horses you know that, as prey animals, they prefer to doze on their feet. To throw themselves on the ground and have a deep, lip-twitching nap takes an enormous amount of trust. They need to feel relaxed and safe. Look at these guys. Running dreams and snoring like your grandpa. The Rankins offer that feeling to their guests as well.
Getting to the ranch, however, is an awesome nuisance. There’s a Y in the road, and you’ve either got to traverse nine miles of hairpin curves up Caliente-Bodfish Road, never knowing when you’re going to swing around a blind turn and run into a herd of cattle, or you’ve got to go the long way, around the base of the mountain. The long way is less steep, less curvy, less littered with small shrines — white crosses, plastic flowers — on the narrow road’s outside curves, but it is much longer.
We reached the Y in the road and proceeded right. Once again, it is too late and too dark to be driving this huge beast of a vehicle. We have apparently learned nothing from driving around San Francisco only days earlier. As characters, we can exist only in an unwatchable French existential play, or a blog. Here we are again, having learned not one thing.
It’s spring and the snow has begun to melt. The run-off has begun. Our headlights illuminate streams gushing across the road, making the curves slick, our brakes wet and unreliable. We drive for an hour. It can’t be this far. Houses are set back against the hills, their pale porch lights glimmer between branches.
Jerrod asks if anything looks familiar.
“I’ve never gone the long way,” I said.
“You’ve been coming here for thirty years!”
“In a car. Taking the short way.”
We did not have it in us to argue, until we reached:
(Imagine this place on a dark night, which, obviously, is every night.)
“We need to turn left on Walker Basin Road,” I said.
“We are on Walker Basin Road,” he said.
“No. We just passed Walker Basin Road. We need to turn left, or we’re going to miss the ranch completely,” I said.
“I don’t know what left hand turn you saw, but we’re on Walker Basin Road,” he said.
“That’s impossible. We just passed Walker Basin Road,” I said.
“No, we’re on Walker Basin Road,” he said.
“Just go back,” I said.
In the dark, with a billion stars all around (thank you, Eagles), Jerrod backed the RV up about a half mile. Our relationship works so well because, even though he was right (and so was I), he still did what I asked. Five minutes later, we arrived at the ranch. We were four hours later than expected. Rudy, the Rankin cook, saved us some tri-tip.