Faith in Vermont, California Sabbatical: Journey to Points South
In mid-February our family left the house we’re renting during my husband’s sabbatical in Berkeley, California and drove south for eight hours.
Our destination: Orange County, a sprawling collection of suburbs just south of Los Angeles.
Our purpose: To visit my husband’s brother and his family…and Disneyland.
The quickest way to travel from Berkeley to Orange County is to take Interstate Highway 5 through California’s San Joaquin Valley. The San Joaquin is the southern half of California’s Central Valley, a 250-mile expanse stretching between the Coast Ranges to the west and the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the east, and is one of the nation’s top agricultural producers. John Gregory Dunne described traveling on the I-5 as “like driving four hundred miles on a pool table,” and my memories of past drives along this highway were of a flat, agricultural monotony.
Perhaps because I live now in Vermont, where it’s impossible to ignore the centrality of agriculture, I found the trip up and down the I-5 more exciting than Disneyland.
Turns out it’s not all flat: The first 160 miles of the drive, from the Altamont Pass to Kettleman City, are characterized by rolling green hills dotted with free-range cattle and sheep. It’s the kind of acreage that Vermont dairy farmers crave.
The landscape gradually flattens out into row upon row of trees: almonds, oranges, peaches, pistachios.
Alongside the highway, interrupting views of pastures and orchards, are signs: “Stop the Congress-Created Dust Bowl.” “Is Growing Food Wasting Water?” “Over 1.2 Million California Jobs Depend on Agriculture.” These signs are the work of Families Protecting the Valley, a nonprofit organization founded in 2000 by a Madera farmer and supported by a mix of Central Valley growers, ranchers, businesses, and – predictably – irrigation companies.
Just beyond the orchards and pastures is the massive concrete trench of the California Aqueduct. Over 400 miles long, the California Aqueduct transports water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, through the Central Valley, and down to Los Angeles.
If Berkeley and the San Francisco Bay Area are all about start-up culture, with innovative ideas and technology driving the economy, the Central Valley is another California, where it’s all about water.
When I first saw Families Protecting the Valley’s signs, I wondered what all the fuss was about. Although California is in the fourth year of a devastating drought, nothing around me indicated a dust bowl: the grass was green, the cattle were fat, and the trees were leafy.
But as we advanced further south, the landscape became increasingly stark. The cows no longer grazed on green hills, but were packed into massive, smelly feedlots. Between the vineyards and orchards, the earth was semi-arid, with scrubby bushes and tumbleweed tangled in the fences. Oil wells dotted the horizon, and the air grew so hazy that it was difficult to see the mountains on the horizon. “Extreme Dust Advisory Next 40 Miles” a digital highway sign warned just outside of Coalinga.
Families Protecting the Valley believes that food production should take priority when it comes to water rights, but dwellers in Southern Californian cities and suburbs also want running water, and environmentalists are concerned about rivers being drained and irrigation pumps killing Delta Smelt. Meanwhile, a combination of drought, tough new federal restrictions on water delivery, and decades of unregulated groundwater pumping are straining agriculture and the land: Recent NASA research indicates that parts of the San Joaquin Valley are sinking almost two inches each month due to increased groundwater consumption.
We left the Central Valley and climbed up through the Tejon Pass. The crumpled mountains of the Angeles National Forest are a Chia Pet landscape: terra cotta soil with tufts of vegetation poking through. It’s a harsh place. If you’ve read Raymond Chandler, you imagine this is where the noir elements of Los Angeles dump the bodies.
Traffic slowed to a crawl and the freeway expanded to twelve lanes as we approached Los Angeles. The scenery on either side was a dull montage of warehouses and refineries. A yellowish-brown blanket of smog hung over everything.
Finally: Orange County. The second most densely populated county in California (after San Francisco), Orange County is 948 square miles of former orange groves covered now with big box stores, sprawling shopping mall complexes, strip malls, multi-lane “local” roads, and endless identical walled housing developments. (Also: dentists. During the 11-mile drive from my brother-in-law’s house to Disneyland, I counted 27 dentists’ offices.)
There is barely an acre of Orange County that hasn’t been meticulously planned, developed, and landscaped. It is either soul crushing or supremely comfortable.
Behind the walls of those housing developments are more concrete trenches. About 75% of Orange County’s water is imported, half of it from the California Aqueduct along I-5.
Disneyland Park dominates 160 acres of former orange groves in the Orange County city of Anaheim. The original Disneyland, which opened in 1955, was conceived by animator and producer Walt Disney as a tourist attraction to showcase his films. A second park, Disney California Adventure, was built in 2001 on the original parking lot.
The two parks support roughly 65,700 jobs. In 2014, a combined 25.4 million visitors flowed through Disneyland and California Adventure, making them, respectively, the 3rd and 10th most visited attractions worldwide.
Taking our four children to Disneyland was not our idea, but was championed by their energetic grandparents. We were grateful for the assistance of those grandparents and my brother- and sister-in-law, who visit Disneyland frequently and are experts at navigating the parks.
We spent one full day at Disney California Adventure, and one day at Disneyland proper. My sense is that Disneyland – like childbirth, exercise, and housecleaning – appears infinitely better after having done it than while in the midst of it. Although we went to Disneyland for the children, the children -- trudging around acres of theme park in 90-degree heat and waiting in hour-long lines for rides -- did not appear to be particularly enjoying themselves in the moment. Surveying all the faces around us in line, nobody appeared to be enjoying themselves.
But by the next day, our children all had rosy memories of Disneyland.
We stayed up late on our final night at Disneyland to watch the parade and fireworks. The 2016 “Paint the Night” parade features dozens of costumed performers, enormous floats, blasting music, and thousands of colored lights. The “Disneyland Forever” fireworks show was 20 minutes of the best fireworks I’ve ever seen, coupled with film clips projected onto Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. Both shows occur nightly.
As we watched this spectacle and pondered the logistics necessary to carry it off, I turned to my husband and said, “If humans can do this, surely we can solve global warming.”
On the other hand, throughout our time at Disneyland I kept thinking about those concrete ditches traversing the Central Valley farmland and Orange County neighborhoods. I wondered how much of the water they carried was being consumed by this theme park.
Every aspect of our trip seemed mind-numbingly huge: the Central Valley agricultural infrastructure, Orange County’s planned development, the Disneyland amusement factory.
The experience raised certain questions, like:
Who owns the water?
Should we still be trying to farm the Central Valley?
How do people manage to live in Southern California?
Why does Disneyland exist?
These are hardly new questions, and the answers to them are, of course, complex. But I can sum up what I took from our visit to Southern California in one lesson: The Central Valley, Orange County, and Disneyland are all examples of our ability to adapt and persevere under the most adverse circumstances, when money’s involved.
And another lesson: There is no such thing as profit without cost.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone labradoodle — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.