Bakersfield

     The Thai-Laotian girl stands outside the eyeglass store where she works, smoking. With enormous bangs, eyes as big, golden skin and an ever-changing set of trendy eyeglasses, she symbolizes the urban mix of L.A.
     I tell her I am heading to Bakersfield.
     “Why?” she asks in horror.
     Everybody who knows I am going to Bakersfield expresses a kind of deprecating sympathy and astonishment. Oil fields and smog and the pit of the Valley, they say.
     With dread, therefore, I take off, missing two freeway changes on my way to the grapevine. Something is trying to lead me away.
     But once on the great, winding river of a freeway coursing up through the Tejon Pass, alongside the massive array of pipes bringing water down to Los Angeles in the opposite direction, I settle into a cruising groove.
     It is the evening rush but traffic flows, as streams of cars pass the slow caravans of semis in the right two lanes. The old truck-stop town of Gorman sails past and before long the Tejon is breached.
     The descent into the great Central Valley comes swiftly as the sun swings down to the horizon.
     The big, fat, worn hills are golden in the late light, with the curve of every ridge outlined by the long shadows thrown in parallel undulations. Hills like those have always reminded me of a woman, sensuous, fertile, graceful and nurturing and just knocking you out with their beauty.
     Bushes in bloom fill the median on the straight shot up the 99 into Bakersfield, zipping by in blasts of white, pink and purple.
     Heading east at the 204, maybe the shortest freeway ever constructed, the road crosses the flat, meandering Kern River, that on its lazy, shimmering, path among the greenery looks perfect for a little fishing.
     Then right onto Chester Street, a string of street lights and pie shops, and into the heart of Bakersfield. Some kids are gathered off a side street, as though waiting for a concert.
     The hotel is next to the courthouse which is the goal of the trip.
     “Bakersfield is a blue collar town, but a lot of people are knee-deep in money,” says the hotel bartender who used to work for the Bakersfield Californian newspaper, selling ads.
     A direct flight was recently inaugurated between Bakersfield and Houston, he tells me, before moving over to a set of oil execs who have broken a martini glass.
     A big California county with a lot of under-the-radar wealth means a courthouse that yields important litigation.
     The next morning, CNS outside counsel and I are both dressed in dark-gray suits, obvious out-of-towners in the desert heat where everybody dresses as light as possible. We are walking to the Kern County Superior courthouse on Truxtun and Chester.
     Lo and behold, two judges say at the outset of our meeting that they understand the need for press coverage and believe in the importance of the First Amendment. It is such a contrast and such a relief to start out that way, compared to our confrontations with bureaucrats in other California courts who have no such understanding or belief.
     And it makes sense. The court here has not bowed to the pressures and emoluments of the central administrative office in San Francisco, and one of the judges is a part of the coalition that actively oppose the spending excesses of that central office.
     We leave with a pledge to work out a system for press review which means something will in fact be worked out.
     Relieved after a sleepless night, I pick a different path, along California Avenue, to get back to the 99. It takes me past Bakersfield High School which announces the region’s heritage in the black outline of an oil derrick on the school’s highest wall. On the scoreboard over the athletic field is the team name “Drillers.”
     Back on the 99 headed south, exits pull off onto the flat, dry land on the west side of the freeway going directly to a truck stop followed by an entrance right back onto the freeway.
     A gray, weathered, corrugated tin garage with huge bays streams past the window, announcing in rough letters “diesel engine repair.” A billboard advertises an 800 number and medical marijuana “consultations.”
     A listing truck piled high with corn rolls by on a road alongside the freeway. Where there is irrigation, lush green fields are dotted with an occasional oil pump, bobbing on its steady cycle. The acrid smell of insecticide drifts into the open window as I pass a field of tomato plants.
     I remember that smell from when I was a kid and my dad kept a backyard garden. Spraying was one of my jobs.
     Going back up through the Tejon, the dips in the highest part of the hills have a light purple blush, no doubt from thousands of small flowers.
     From deep in the crease below, it looks like the hills applied a brush of the softest purple highlight just under their ridges.
     It is so pretty and subtle, adorning all the high hollows, nature painting with its vast and incomparable genius. It mocks the artist Christo’s little, yellow umbrellas sprinkled about the same pass in a long-ago, short-lived attempt at art.
     Back in Pasadena, despite too much coffee and too little sleep in the preceding 24 hours, I walk back past the eyeglass store and into work, refreshed and at ease.
     The agitation, the dreams of dead fields, that have dogged me for weeks, are gone. And I think to myself, how strange and wonderful it is to find a bit of redemption on the road to Bakersfield.

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