Once a month I’m let out of the office to cover Mariposa County Superior Court. It’s a beautiful drive up Highway 140 any time of the year, but my favorite time is when winter gives way to spring and the hundreds of thousands of oak trees that blanket the foothills east of Merced show off their lime-colored coats of new leaves.
Usually I’m pressed for time and I jet up the hill, grab the month’s cases, and then fly back to the Central Valley – three hours tops. This time, though, I wanted to linger. The winter rain faucet is twisting shut. The green hills will soon fade to yellow and then brown. The seasonal brooks and pools will slow to a trickle and then dry up altogether under the hot valley sun that isn’t too many weeks away.
Just west of Catheys Valley, population 825 (and three times that if you count the beef cattle roaming the hills around and above town), I pulled over onto the wide gravel shoulder and parked next to an ancient chimney jutting up from the roadside. The homestead it belonged to has long since vanished, and now it stands in silent watch over a little valley, a bouncing seasonal stream, wildflowers and a dozen cows.
For the last year and a half, the chimney has also been home to a handpainted “Ranchers for Trump” sign. The folks in Mariposa County bought into the Trump campaign early – long before the Republican field was winnowed to just the billionaire mogul, back when some pundits believed Bernie Sanders had a better-than-even shot at Hillary Clinton. They displayed their choice for president proudly on sheets of plywood painted in America’s colors up and down the road to Yosemite.
Unlike most election signs, which disappear like holiday decorations do come the second of January, the one attached to the chimney remained. Ranchers for Trump, stuck to the front of a decaying chimney as if Trump were Herbert Hoover and instead of a chicken in every pot, he’d promised to return the glory of rural living to Mariposa County.
This trip, though, the chimney was bare. I wondered why as I watched a calf scamper across the creek to follow its mother. I’d thought it would never come down, like the “Nobama” sign that’s been up for almost a decade a little farther up the road.
As I was about to get back into the car to drive the last 15 miles to the courthouse, I saw a grizzled man repairing a barbed wire fence that even once fixed probably won’t keep the cows in or anything else out. I walked over to him because while not overly curious by nature (or particularly friendly with strangers), I need closure. And the now-missing campaign sign required closure.
“Good morning,” I said in a voice that I hoped still rang with a note of my own rural upbringing and not the fact that I’ve lived in the “big city” of Modesto for years.
“Howdy,” he replied without looking up from the wire stretcher.
“I was wondering what happened to the ‘Ranchers for Trump’ sign that was hanging on the chimney.”
He set the tool down and ran his weathered farmer’s hand across his chin. “Took it down.”
I never know when to stop talking, so I pressed on.
“It’s been up so long I thought it had become a permanent thing. Any particular reason why?”
He shot me a look that said “nosy city slickers with nothing better to do” before answering, “I just don’t know about him anymore.”
That makes two of us, I thought, though my many pauses came early and often during the 18-month-long Trump campaign. “Any particular thing that set you off?” I asked.
He put a hand in the front pocket of his jeans and picked up the wire stretcher. As he turned to walk away, he said: “Russia. I nearly died fighting the commies in ‘Nam. Never thought we’d be making secret deals with them or inviting them to tinker in our elections all these years later.”
As I continued up the hill to the courthouse, past the gas station with $4.59 gasoline that caters solely to the desperate, my thoughts turned to what makes a Rancher for Trump lose faith in his candidate so soon after the election.
We’ve all voted for someone and later regretted it. As a registered Libertarian, I realized I could never again cast a vote for perennial presidential nominee Gary Johnson after he was asked what he’d do about the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo, Syria, and he answered, “Aleppo? What is an Aleppo?”
It usually takes more than 100 days in office before regret kicks in. But there’s never been a first 100 days like this one.
As I slowed into the quaint Gold Rush town of Mariposa, I chalked the whole thing up to the rancher’s own life experience and reminded myself to ask my dad – who also served in Vietnam and voted for Trump – if he felt the same way.
Until I pulled in front of the courthouse and parked next to a pickup with two bumper stickers. One read “Beef – it’s what’s for dinner,” and the other was the remains of a Trump/Pence campaign sticker. The owner of the truck had taken a Sharpie and blacked out Trump, leaving only “Pence for President” behind.
Buyer’s remorse has set in, at least in the hills of Mariposa County.