At home, the land matters more than it does here in L.A., and when I say that, I’m not making some trite observation about the earthy superiority of people living in an agricultural community. It’s just that L.A. happens to have paved over itself to the point that the setting of the story has changed to one of shiny right angles and rolling asphalt. In Hollister, elbow room abounds, and people still make a living off the land — not as often as they did years ago, but it’s a defining quality of the city. The high school mascot, after all, is still the Haybaler. “Go Haybalers” is something I have never actually said.
But it’s more than hay, which, if we’re being honest, was replaced by apricots and walnuts years ago, because it’s not just what grows on the land. It’s the land.
An example: Hollister is next to the Salinas Valley, an even richer source of produce and economic green, with the Gabilan Mountains from Of Mice and Men separating Salinas’s Monterey County with Hollister’s San Benito County. This geographical barrier keeps Salinas’s unending fog trapped to the west, to the point that you can tell more or less when you’ve crossed from Monterey to San Benito because you can feel the sun shining again. Hollister has the great weather, my grandmother still points out. However, on all but the hottest days, you can usually look west and see a thick blanket of coastal misery waiting to ride late afternoon winds into Hollister. That’s another meteorological plus — cool nights, even on hot days — but it also creates a sense of foreboding: That damned fog just waiting for its moment.
I’d never thought about the fog in those terms until this weekend. I was actually driving toward it when I passed by an ag field that my mom had pointed out to me the last time I was home. “Do you know what that is?” she asked me, pointing at this plot of land growing conspicuously red-topped plants. I did, thanks to fancy L.A. salad culture. “It’s red amaranth,” I answered. My mom had never seen amaranth growing in Hollister, and I don’t think I’d ever seen it anywhere outside of the washed microgreens packages at Gelsons. “Honestly, I feel like people use it more for color than for taste,” I explained. This time, I was in the car alone, thinking of that poor girl who was murdered and whose car was found on fire, burning near an intersection of streets I didn’t recognize when I read the news report. When I passed where the amaranth was — it had been harvested — I realized that very spot was where they’d found the burning car. I instantly felt rude, in that inescapably Catholic way, for having stood on that land a few weeks previous, leaning over a fence to make sure that the bright red flowers were, in fact, amaranth, just so I wasn’t steering my mother wrong. Given what had eventually happened there, I felt like I’d trespassed, even though my more rational mind knew that the connection only existed in a symbolical sense — in an English major sense.
(I may have strange conceptions of space and responsibility and ownership and privacy, and that too may be a consequence of where I grew up.)
I didn’t get out of the car this time, and as I kept moving west I noticed the fog. I think my state of mind made it easy to see the fog as more than it was.
Still, I grew up there; you’d think I’d have noticed before.