May 23, 2019

I’m going back home


“Home” for me isn’t 15 or even 30 minutes away. It takes me a full hour to get home from Fresno State. Driving hundreds of miles every week, six days a week gets really old really fast. For that reason, a lot of people think I’m crazy for continuing to live at my parents’ homestead in Squaw Valley.

Maybe I am crazy. Judge for yourself. Just hold on tight; sometimes I drive a little crazy.

City driving tends to make me nervous, especially around campus and the freeways. People have no consideration for anyone other than themselves.

Things aren’t like that out where I live.

You can always tell a city driver stranded out there because they drive 30 miles an hour around all of the corners, even the ones you can take at 60. They have bumper stickers like “Keep Tahoe Blue” on their shiny SUVs. We drive pickup trucks from the 1980s, with stickers like, “Forget the Dog: Beware of Owner.” You always know right where you stand with folks up there.

Once we get past Armstrong, past Temperance, where stoplights every block give way to stop signs every few miles, where the speed limit goes from 45 to 50 to 55 and the road narrows from six lanes to two, I’ll crank up the radio and roll down the windows. I hope you like country music. It’s either Rascal Flatts or Flatt and Scruggs in my car.

We’ll turn on Academy. I used to take McCall, because it used to feel more like the streets I grew up along: old derelict barns in the middles of fields, horses in pastures, farmers on tractors. The rows of trees have always amazed me with their absolute straightness, and they’re nothing short of heavenly when covered with springtime blooms. Now, with the construction of the 180 freeway, some of the most fertile orchards in the world are being ripped out to make way for overpasses near McCall. I can’t bear to see it.

Eventually, we’ll turn on to King’s Canyon and start heading up into Redneckville. People in the foothills take pride in their knowledge of how to shoot and how to weld. Most people up there are carpenters or plumbers or backyard horse trainers. The lucky few work for the Forest Service. 

You’d never know it to see it, but there are close to 3,000 people in Squaw Valley spread out over miles and miles. Heading up “The Hill,” the spot where the foothills begin, it used to look like you were headed to a very remote place. Someone’s built a house there now.

I guess time wounds all hills, as the saying doesn’t go.

This land is full of little hidden dales and hills. One of them used to have a lone house, obscured from the road by trees. That valley used to always brim over with flowers in spring, like a basket full of fruit does in a still life painting. During the housing boom, six houses went up there. They’re ugly cookie-cutter tract houses that look totally out of place.

I’m afraid they won’t look out of place before long. As Fresno rolls concrete and asphalt out ever farther, the commute to the “city” gets shorter every day.

There used to be a part of my drive, not long ago, when at night the mountains rose inky black and majestic against the night sky. You could only tell where the mountains started because there weren’t any points of light to blend them into the starry sky. Now the area is covered with dusk-to-dawn lights. 

I know this place doesn’t look overrun with people like I am making it out to be. In fact, it probably looks barely populated to you. It still is beautiful.

In many places, the wooden fence posts put in by ranchers in the 1800s are still functioning. We call them “pecky posts” because over the years woodpeckers have drilled holes in them to get bugs. Some people take the posts that have been removed and sell them to city folks to decorate with.

You wouldn’t believe what someone pays for an old piece of rotting wood. Or for a boulder that someone ripped out of the ground and took to a swap meet. Some people have entire businesses that survive that way: They come here, rip up our ground, steal our granite boulders covered with lichens and moss and sell them for a few hundred bucks to people who want to have that “natural” look in their landscapes. I wonder if they realize real nature is being destroyed to give them that.

Blink and you’ll miss “downtown” Squaw Valley. We have two churches, a public library, a pizza parlor, a car parts store, and a real estate agent. We have a couple of other churches, a mobile home park, a little cafe that isn’t very good and an elementary school that’s even worse farther back in the hills. We have no high school. The sign billing one coming soon is peeling and fading from being exposed to the elements for so many years. 

We’ll turn off the highway here on to the backroads. I wouldn’t be surprised if we meet someone riding horseback along the road, or if we see some nuns playing with their little charges around their convent, which seems to be a large converted mobile home. The Order of the Winnebago, it has been joked. Wave back if someone waves to you or they’ll think you’re rude.

Maybe I am crazy for living out here. To me, it feels good to arrange a visit with a friend and surprise them by showing up in my truck instead of on my horse. I enjoy discussing weather with people who can feel a shift in the wind because their livelihoods depend on it, rather than with people who ignore the sky’s signals because they will be stuck in climate-controlled offices anyway.

I know that after the stress in Fresno, the smog and the careless drivers and the people who don’t give a damn, it feels good to come home to this world apart; this place where fences and family bloodlines are a hundred years old. It’s like a secret that no one knows but me, and that secret gives me joy.

I wouldn’t trade that joy for all the convenience in the world.

Heather Billings is a senior at Fresno State majoring in mass communication and journalism with emphases in print journalism and digital media.

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