I moved from California to the Pacific Northwest at the age of 14 and spent the next 25 years there, during which time my home state slowly became a distant memory. I finally returned to take a job at a community college—though in Southern California, not the Northern California of my youth. Since then, I have driven the length of California (there and back) once or twice a year, as I often spend my academic breaks in Oregon. This routine has reacquainted me with the entire state.
The I-5 experience in the long valleys can vary, depending on the weather and time of year. Last summer the scorched land – struggling under an oppressive drought – looked a little worse for wear—brittle, dry, parched. Smog or smoke can make the drive less appealing. But this winter – after glorious rain – California looks like the Promised Land once more.
It has even been raining in the desert. In Rancho San Diego, my colleagues and I arrived at work one morning to find over an inch of water in places on the first floor of our college library. Water had spilled into the work area, staffroom, and dean’s office. Amazingly, it missed the books.
It’s remarkable what they can do to dry out a place. Within hours we found ourselves with a set of industrial strength humidifiers. Then someone came along to drill a line of holes into several interior walls. Meanwhile, finals week proved to be a noisy affair for all involved. Humidifiers were still humming strong when I bid farewell to the attendees of our staff holiday party and turned toward winter break.
Of course, national news outlets covered the more serious floods and slides, which did occur around the state. The Los Angeles River – normally a shallow stream – became a roaring river, became dangerous. Real rivers swelled and wreaked havoc here and there. Mud burst into homes in Camarillo Springs.
It rained in Joshua Tree National Park where I spent a few days with friends. Welcome moisture continued to hover in the air for some time afterwards. This made it easier for me to adapt to the normally ultra-dry climate. Dampness also made it easier to hike in the wash leading up to Warren Peak. The 360-degree vantage point provided a clear view of Mt. San Gorgonio, snow-covered and primed for winter outdoor enthusiasts.
Apparently, Joshua Trees don’t always bloom. They need showers at specific times of the year—and they need it to freeze for a spell. It is worth waiting them out. Joshua Trees deliver greenish-white flower clusters resembling large pinecones. Folks in these parts are hoping for blossoms. They are already trying to predict just how spectacular the upcoming desert wildflower season is likely to be.
As far as I’m concerned, bold green swaths have offered enough inspiration for one year. Green has sprouted everywhere: along I-5, the back roads, Highway 101. Green – luminous green – a 2014 holiday treat.
I drove along Highway 1 in Northern California on Christmas Eve day. Diamond-shaped road signs, newly placed at regular intervals, warned me about floods that were nowhere to be seen. I found it easy to imagine how water had recently covered these dips. While the road did seem safe to drive, I reduced my speed anyway, in case other hazards might be lurking ahead. One did materialize: a herd of loose cows, aimlessly wandering into the road.
I finally dropped by Blue Canoe Coffee & Tea in Anchor Bay (population 176) in order to get this piece started before I lost too much fertile mind-stream. The place was supposed to close ten minutes ago, but the atmosphere has proved to be laid back.
“Here comes the rain again,” someone at a neighboring table casually notes. “It will stop by the time we leave.”