Map of the United States-4

12 Days … 8 States… a “taste” of many places and sights… Nevada (blue surrounded by red) will have its own stop one day later on …

Why don’t you go on west to California? There’s work there, and it never gets cold. Why, you can reach out anywhere and pick an orange. Why there’s always some kind of crop to work in. Why don’t you go there?
 The Grapes of WrathJohn Steinbeck

 

Salinas, California – Huddled gangs of male, dark-skinned immigrant workers sway swiftly, expertly in the skin-searing sunshine. Salty drips of sweat glisten on their faces as they creep steadily forward, feeding the machine.

It’s a synchronized dance – bent over at the waist, quietly swinging their arms and hands back and forth, cutting off the lettuce head at its base, then flipping the green, leafy bundles upwards to the hungry motorized contraption that semi-automates the harvesting of vegetables.

A quiet mix of Spanish chatter accompanies the work train as it inches, like a fuzzy caterpillar, over the landscape.

Women workers sit crouched under the shaded canopy of the moving machine, catch the lettuce head tossed their way and rapidly strip any stray or dirty leaves before layering the head into a waxed cardboard box that is whisked away across the country to your neighbourhood supermarket or restaurant.

 

Harvesting Romaine Lettuce in Salinas, California

Harvesting Romaine Lettuce in Salinas, California

Hundreds and thousands of store shelves are filled with heads harvested every day in this very same way, using the inexpensive sweat of a Mexican worker’s brow.

If you had a salad this week that crunched with lettuce, chances are it came from this field, or one just like it in California’s famed Salinas Valley. 80% of the lettuce consumed in North America is grown in the seemingly endless trench of flat, fertile farmland south of San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

On the dirt roads that line the edges of the field are mobile Porta-Potties… 5 to 10 upright pee and poop houses pulled on wheels like a wagon train behind dusty pickup trucks that follow the workers from field to field.

Field after crazy long field look the same – endless rows covered with leafy greens stretching off to the far-distant hills.

It’s a modern, ghost-like vision of the 1930’s Depression-era John Steinbeck novels Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden.

Of course in the 1930’s harvesting was done with the grunt labour of the displaced mid-western sharecropper forced off his land by drought and dustbowl conditions.

Today, the Mexican labourer is the standard-bearer for the 30-40C hard work while his American counterpart drives an air-conditioned Hybrid-powered Prius to work in Silicon Valley’s shiny Apple and Adobe office buildings just a few miles north of here.

Reading Steinbeck’s stories of the Depression and the Salinas Valley was a treat for me in high school – his detailed, painted descriptions put me in the hot field alongside the poor emigrant farmer from Cimmaron, Oklahoma or Dallas, South Dakota.

Depression workers in field

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We’ve been off driving through 8 western U.S. states for the past two weeks – absorbing the stunning views and the sounds, smells, and tastes of the country and its people – a fast-paced 14 day “tasting” tour.

This journey is another slice of the pie that makes up my bucket list goal of visiting each of the 50 American states – a slice bitten into and consumed in years past has been walking the roads of each Canadian province and territory.

Of course, this one blog post can’t bite very deeply into such a large pie. And so I’ll share with you an appetizer “taste” from each state we passed through of the larger impressions and themes that swirl in my head from such an odyssey.

But firstan important starter.

Music.

I always find a way of cementing a trip like this or any other into my mind, is to choose one song that somehow connects with the memory and impressions of the scenery and the people. We all know a certain song heard years later re-immerses us in the sights, sounds and smells of a moment in time.

With the exception of California, the musical sounds of the western America’s radio airwaves are dominated by country station after country station, while the talk radio is all evangelical scripture and deep-voiced preacher types.

One song played over and over again each day that I couldn’t resist singing like my hair was blowing long and unfettered in the breeze – Bartender – sung by the trio Lady Antebellum –  a harmonious blend of voices, pop-country beat and great banjo picking at the end of the chorus (I even enjoyed the song before I’d seen the video featuring blond eye-candy Kate Upton — BONUS!!). This song will project a clear vision of the highways of the western U.S. onto my interior TV screen for years to come.

And so now, my quick and dirty impressions:

  • WASHINGTON – Known as a huge apple-growing state I was taken by surprise to find a prairie landscape on its interior roadways. The stretches of blacktop between Spokane and Grand Coulee Dam were surrounded on both sides by monstrously huge grain and hay fields stretching into the distance. It only seemed appropriate to eat a COW PIEmashed potatoes, corn, crumbled meatloaf smothered in gravy – at the Cowboy Cafe in Davenport. YeeHaw!

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    Where are the apple trees?

  • OREGON – Sparkling sun interspersed with fog and mist along the twisting bends of craggy shoreline, azure sea and royal-blue sky. Scents of salt and slightly fishy breeze had me dreaming of the next serving of clam chowder and crab with each step along the long, sandy beaches.
  • CALIFORNIA – Towering redwood and sequoia forests made tunnels every few miles along the weaving highway north of San Francisco. When you entered the grove, the air became damp in the dark and cool, as if someone had turned out the lights in the room. The car danced between the trees that hugged the edge of the roadway. Deep, vertical striations in the bark of the grand trees lead your eyes upwards, straight up like pencils because the trees have no signs of any bend in them. There was no branch growth going up for 40, 50, sometimes 100 feet.

Further south and west of L.A. – beyond Palm Springs and gargantuan “wind-turbine farms”, the hot, dry, desert highways were lined with mile after mile of plantations of almond and pistachio orchards.

  • ARIZONA – Scrubby desert, McDonalds billboards, and 44C temperatures led us to the precipice of the striated, colourful Grand Canyon. Despite being the “shoulder season”, licence plates from across North America jammed the numerous parking lots leading to the Visitor Center and the edges of the immense canyon. Yes, it was GRAND!IMG_4562
  • UTAH – 80 mile-per-hour (135kph) speed limits carried us northward like a strong tailwind. Evenly-spaced green grass clumps speckling the wide valleys like a measles epidemic collided with hillsides of red soil and rock. And then the white white granite architecture of Salt Lake City arose, the spotless homebase of Latter Day Saints. Immense, shuddering musical notes emanating from the colossal pipe organ inside the Mormon Tabernacle leave me breathless and at an unexplainably heightened spiritual level.
  • IDAHO – Highways that in most areas normally rumble along with a happy mix of auto and 18-wheel freight truck traffic, are taken over by heavily-laden potato trucks running just-harvested tonnes of spuds to markets and storage depots and french fry processing plants. Yes, Idaho really does grow potatoes, lots of potatoes. I pulled out a bottle of ketchup and began to salivate as I drove alongside.
  • WYOMING – Yellowstone Park has an amazing landscape of geysers, steamy outbursts, and bubbling mud flats. And then, of course, each 90 minutes, Old Faithful, the lover that never tires, recreates its explosive show over and over. It attracts tourists to its ritual performance, like a popular Broadway play in New York City, or, for a trip like this, like the Grand Canyon’s quietly impressive presentation further south.IMG_4711
  • MONTANA – This is truly big cowboy country. Lacy, translucent mist in the valley bottoms with sun that streaks the upper surfaces and hillsides in the early morning dawn. Smooth-sloped hillsides that are grassy on one side, and furry with evergreen trees on the other side like a man’s unshaven back. Montana is replete with big skies, big fields, seemingly ubiquitous casinos and big, huge bellies. It’s a surprise to me that I haven’t encountered it before, but Montana is the first U.S. state where I’ve eyed the modern-day stereotypical American we all hear of with a huge appetite and belly to match.

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The road trip journey just ended has added another 8 states to my list and left me with a lifetime count of 22 states sampled. Yes, I’m not yet halfway finished in my search to make a call on all 50 states. It’s a dirty job …

But I’m carrying out my wanderlust pilgrimage by free choice and personal desire.

I look on John Steinbeck’s depression-stricken characters like Tom Joad; or today’s Salinas Valley, filled with desperate immigrants working for meagre pay – all impressive in their resilience and strength, carrying out their own journeys to survive – a necessity for existence.

For all of that, I feel myself so lucky, so fortunate, to live in a place and time where I’m not scrabbling hopefully, desperately, across the landscape searching for a meal and a dollar to survive.
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Next time you’re in Utah, drop by my new enterprise!

 

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