"Over the River and Through the Woods" (California Version)

by Bill Monson

To begin with, there are few woods in California. Redwood groves and timberland, maybe -- but not woods in the usual sense. And today's grandmothers here seem to be on the move, not staying home to cook turkey and bake pumpkin pies.

Traditionally, Thanksgiving weekend sees millions of Californians on the road, half headed north, half headed south. My wife Polly and I were among those headed north -- 235 miles to Castro Valley near Hayward -- the equivalent of driving from Galesburg to Milwaukee.

Our route was U.S. 101, and for much of the way the river we paralleled was the Salinas. This is the old Mission Road -- El Camino Real -- though we covered in 20 minutes what took the padres a whole day. The first fall rains had greened the rolling hillsides yet the trees were still in color -- about six weeks behind Illinois.

On Thanksgiving morning, there were no workers in the laser-leveled fields, but the tractors and rubber-wheeled wagons were parked at the verge, ready for Friday action.

The Storm Door was expected to open Saturday: storm after storm would begin marching in from the Gulf of Alaska. Drainage ditches were already dug; and unneeded irrigation pipes were stacked out of the way on their two-wheeled carts. Many of the fields were already planted with winter crops even as the last of the fall's harvest was headed to market. The stink of rotting, plowed-under broccoli hung on the air.

There's a new crop along 101, however. Paso Robles is the heart of California's newest wine country; and on both sides of the road, the empty vines glowed red and gold in the low November sun. North of the city, Camp Roberts -- home of the California National Guard -- and Fort Hunter Liggett take up hundreds of square miles. This is also oil country; and Lufkin pumps bob and bow like Japanese diplomats alongside the freeway. Near Bradley, a huge refinery straddles the UP SP railroad in the distance.

Then, from San Ardo to King City, more vineyards sprawl across the hills. From King City, it's lettuce that dominates the Salinas Valley -- although on Thanksgiving weekend, the lettuce industry packs up and moves to Arizona's Yuma Valley until spring. The fields are black and empty, but huge semi-trucks and their trailers clustered around the packing plants, ready for the Friday exodus.

Salinas is Monmouth on steroids -- a small, blue-collar farm town which has exploded with new growth. Over a mile of malls line either side of 101 on the town's northern edge. It still has its annual rodeo, but now the cowboys arrive in private planes.

The town has even forgiven John Steinbeck enough to build a center devoted to his life and works.

At Prunedale, the coast foothills angle in from the Monterey Peninsula, and their timbered slopes are as close to woods as you'll get on a trek like this. Once beyond them, California is flat until you reach San Jose and enter the megalopolis that extends from it to San Francisco Bay.

In this stretch, California's Adopt-a-Highway project (in which sponsors pick up litter for a mile) is joined by Adopt-a-Wall. The suburbs are walled off from the freeways, and sponsors spray over graffiti.

By San Jose, it was afternoon; and even on Thanksgiving, traffic was heavy. Every interchange was backed up for two miles.

Construction was everywhere -- new malls, new hotels, new tech companies, new lanes. (A California freeway is never finished!) For a supposedly shaky economy, someone is surely betting on the ''come.''

At last, we left 101 and crawled up 880 to 580 and into the Hayward Hills. The family arrived en masse by 3, and we were eventually 16 at table for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner and lots of talk. However, there was no TV football -- just soft jazz from a San Francisco FM station. What sports there were got played by the grandkids outside or on a computer after dark while the adults loosened their belts and pantyhose and talked about where to have Christmas.

By 9:30, the clan began to depart -- back to Pleasanton, Millbrae and Lodi. An hour later, Polly and I retired in a guest bedroom, ready to arise at 3:30am and hit the nearly empty freeways -- past people lining up outside Wal-Mart and Target stores -- for the long haul back to Pismo Beach.

Such is one California family's version of ''Over the River and Through the Woods''....

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online November 28, 2001

Back to The Zephyr