the Road in Winter
it is: One of the last few giant orange stands along Highway
99 in California. Can't you just taste that orange shake already?
without chains in winter
By JOYCE KIEFER
As we turned south onto Highway 99, which runs along
the spine of the West coast, I spotted the last of the giant
orange stands. These oranges used to dot the stretch
of 99 that ran through Californias San Joaquin Valley.
When I was little, as soon as I spotted the first one I knew
my parents and I were on our way to the wonderland of Los Angeles.
The last stand turned up on the opposite side of the road. Of
course my husband and I would risk our lives to check it out.
Youve got to turn around, I yelled. Bill obliged,
flipping a U-turn through a break in the center divider and plunging
into the endless stream of trucks. We splashed to a stop in the
puddles surrounding the stand and ordered an orange shake.
Stopping at the Mammoth Orange was trip insurance- a guarantee
that we would experience the glories of California if we were
denied what we set out to see: giant trees draped with snow in
Sequoia National Park and Yosemite Valley in winter white. Roads
to snowy places in California require chainseither on your
tires or packed in your car.
We had lost our chains.
So we took along trip
insurance. Not the kind you buy when youve booked a tour
to Europe and want to cut your losses if youre forced to
cancel at the last minute. Our insurance was against disappointment.
The policy consisted of a magazine list of funky
things to see on Highway 99 and an observant state of mind. If
the park rangers turned us away from the wonders of nature, our
trip would not be a loss. We would still enrich ourselves with
sights far different from our surroundings in Silicon Valley,
such as the Mammoth Orange.
The Orange was no Starbucks.
We were joined by a couple that bounced out of an 18-wheeler.
He and she looked a bit grizzled and both were 5 x 5. He wore
several earrings and she had no front teeth. They ordered corn
dogs and fries to go with their orange shakes. Two men wearing
bright orange jump suits were already seated at the picnic tables
under the corrugated shed that protected the peeling paint of
the giant orange. They drove off in a pick up truck that carried
two large drills. I asked the pony-tailed teenager behind the
counter when the place was built. She smiled, showing virgin
teeth untouched by an orthodontist.
Oh, 1942 or 1947, she said vaguely.
left, the palm-lined
streets of Chowchilla;
at right, the giant "coffee pot"
water tower in Kingsburg.
We drove on to the giant coffee pot.
Decorated with a floral design, the big pot is actually a water
tower that commands the skyline of Kingsburg, a town of 9,000
once settled by Swedes. We took the right turnoff but couldnt
find it anywhere. The kid at the gas station looked at me funny
when I asked directions and sent us under the overpass and right
at the Chevron. We looked up and there it was. In front of us
stood a Swedish-style downtown as interpreted by the San Joaquin
Swedish flags and painted horses hung from the streetlights.
Timbered design decorated some of the shops. A mural on the side
of the county library portrayed Swedish immigrants, along with
Olympic track star Rafer Johnson, a local boy. I stopped at the
Chamber of Commerce. How big is the worlds biggest
box of raisins? I wanted to know. My list placed it in
Kingsburg along with the big coffee pot. The list didnt
mention the Swedish downtown and I wanted to stay focused. The
man at the desk waved toward the bookcase. About that size,
he said. Not worth going back two freeway exits, I decided.
He warned us not to take the back roads to Sequoia National Park.
Lots of illegal immigrants around there. We returned
to the freeway.
The road east to Sequoia National Park tantalized us with a view
of the snow-covered Sierras just beyond the orange groves on
either side of the road. But the sight I saw from my minds
eye was a grove of 300 foot sequoias with trunks 40 feet in diameter
rising out of the snow. The branches, eight feet in diameter,
were flocked with more snow like massive Christmas trees. What
pictures I could take!
Mary's Armenian Apostolic
Church in Yettem.
We settled down in the rocky hills at the edge of the park where
our friends cabin was located. The big trees stood deep
inside the park. Our friends would drive us in the next day.
That night a giant boulder rolled onto the road. The park service
spent the next day blowing it up.
Trip insurance to the rescue: go shopping in the nearest town.
The other woman and I spent hours inspecting a candy shop. It
was a wondrous sight to watch the owner, an elderly German immigrant,
carefully arrange Brazil nuts in pairs inches before a belt passed
them under a wheel dripping with chocolate. We moved on to a
house where the front room was filled with Russian nesting dolls
for sale. It would take days to open each one.
The next day Bill and I left for Yosemite, driving the back roads
out of Sequoia. The illegal immigrants were there, busy picking
oranges. Tienen cadenas para llantas? If so, we could
take the turnoff to the General Grant Grove, our last chance
to see the big trees. Chains were required to be in the car,
not on the tires.
Instead, we turned away toward Highway 99. We left the emerald
green foothills and the groves hung with oranges like Christmas
ornaments. The land turned flat, studded with puddles. The orchards
were pruned into grotesque shapes. One stand of fruit trees had
died with its leaves on.
We slowed down at a town whose name was lettered on the map in
faint, small type: Yettem. Armenian for Garden of Eden. The residential
area of the town, Population 250, was a scattering of white stucco
cabins, front yards hung with colorful wash. The school was a
collection of faded trailers. But a magnificent Armenian church
rose up next to the road, surrounded by palm trees and an iron
fence. The churchyard was filled with cars. Although this Eden
did not appear on the list, I had to take a closer look.
Inside the vestibule of St. Marys Armenian Apostolic Church,
I found two men counting money. They told me the church was built
around 1901. Although I was wearing jeans and no hat, they allowed
me to take a look from the choir loft. The interior was awesome,
but not as elaborate as an Orthodox church. The priest was gorgeously
robed. A choir of women sat in a horseshoe of seats next to the
altar. They wore white crowns and short veils. The church was
at El Portal in the Yosemite Valley.
We reached our Yosemite destination of El Portal by mid-afternoon.
The weather was gorgeous. I didnt dare ask the motel clerk
if chains were required to enter the valley. I wanted to extend
the feeling of hope. We followed the Merced River to the park
entrance. As we gained altitude, snow began to cover the logs
and boulders strewn through the rapids. We reached the gate.
The park ranger waved us through. Chained or not, we were worthy
The canyon opened up and there it wasthe Yosemite Valley
Ive known since childhood but never seen transformed by
the magic of snow. Camp Curry was made of ice. El Capitan was
a lump of gold in the alpenglow. Mist rose from the snow covered
meadow. Paradise on earth.
On the way home across the San Joaquin Valley we spotted the
endless row of impossibly tall palms that mark the town of Chowchilla--Population
11,000--including the womens prison. How could we resist?
We turned off the freeway and drove the palm-lined Robertson
Now we were following instinct.
A week later we found our chains, hunkered in a corner of the
garage along with the hibachi, fire place screen, and other unused
objects. We didnt need them at all.
©2005 by Joyce Kiefer.
The photos are the property of the author. All rights reserved.
This column first posted Feb. 14, 2005.
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