Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Pride goes before the muck

At the risk of being a fool, I put pride into my words, into what I say.

It hasn’t always worked out to my advantage, this devotion to words.

Like today, it has sometimes put me in harm’s way.

As winds gusted to gale force, I set out to accomplish what I’d promised my friend Steven, whose blueberries I’ve tended and watched since returning home from Orange County.

It’s the first major storm of the season in California, which needs this rain as much as a budget solution, perhaps more. Forecasters predicted as much as three to six inches of rainfall in some valleys.

For a place that hasn’t had rain in months, and has stayed dry, with little or no recharge for years, that’s a lot of rain.

We need it badly. Avocado farmers in Morro Bay have been trucking in water every day for weeks. One source said they’re paying as much as $8,000 per square-acre-foot of water, just to keep their trees from drying up.

“You know how much I pay?” the grower said. “About $200.” That’s because he’s got water. (Quite a few area wells, which had produced good quality water for years, reportedly dried up suddenly in the 6.5 San Simeon quake of 2003 that killed two women in Paso Robles; just closed up and went dry).

The drought in California has hit hard in some communities; water has become a top priority in places where it impacts both the economy and quality of life. Areas in the Valley, the nation’s breadbasket, have seen vast tracts of farmland turned into dust, as well as 48 percent unemployment among farm workers.

The LA Times recently ran a front-page photo of a Valley farmer standing in a dry field, a grim reminder of the Great Depression’s dust bowl. It’s not the first time we’ve felt this pain.

The rain, like jobs and healthy agriculture, we need desperately. Steady and full as it might be, though, this storm won’t be enough to ease California’s water woes.

We’ll need quite a few more big storms like this one to recharge our water system. Luckily, it’s supposed to be a wet winter, they say.

Of course, there are plenty of skeptics. “Yeah, sure, it’s going to be a wet one all right. I’ll bet this storm doesn’t even hit,” balked a fellow musician Sunday when I said it was going to rain this week.

This year’s first storm was supposed to be power-packed, driven by another El NiƱo warming of the Pacific Ocean, which typically fuels the wet winter storms that occasionally wallop California, causing mudslides where fires burned in the late summer.

I failed to realize how major of a storm this one is, up to nearly an inch of rain per hour and, later, flood advisories and, in some areas, gusts up to 80 mph.

It’s easy to forget about things like storm damage in California, after such a long spell without major rainfall. You get used to day after day of sunshine until it lulls you. “It’s just another rainstorm,” I thought this morning. What’s a little wind and rain?

Zsu Zsi, Steven’s wife, called to say she’d gotten soaked from head to toe while tending her chickens. “It’s not the rain so much as the wind,” she said. “It just blasts you.”

Nonetheless, I told Steven that I’d make a run up to the farm today to see how the area surrounding the new blueberry enclosure would take the rain. He was worried about runoff from a nearby wash, thinking that it might spillover into the enclosure, washing away all of our hard work.

Before leaving, I gave Amber a little grief about being true to her words, following through with the promises and commitments she makes. This has been the subject of much conversation lately.

Amber says she wants to follow through with her commitments, just as I want to follow through with my own, which doesn’t always happen.

We both have dreams we know will never happen until we do something about them. So we’re trying to help each other keep our commitments to what we love. It’s been much harder since the recent economic collapse—even though we’re not really calling it that—and jobs have become scarce. We’ve had to devote more of our time to simple survival.

Amber had made plans to drive up to her mother’s for the night, and was beginning to have second thoughts. “I think I’m going to stay home today,” she informed me.

“You’re backing out?” I challenged, worried that she wasn’t staying committed. She’s not taking the easy way out, I hope. My thoughts were less occupied with the wind tossing the trees outside our windows.

“I’m not really backing out, I’m just thinking about staying home,” she said. I left in a fretful mood. Maybe it was the weather.

Before I could reach the other side of town to drive up Highway 1, however, I pulled to the side of the road, and called Amber on the cellphone.

The wind blew the rain in sheets. Water dripped through the windshield. Puddles and water were all over the road. Visibility was limited to a few hundred feet or less of wet grey and glistening asphalt, reflecting the headlights of oncoming cars. Wind gusts splashed buckets of water at my wipers.

“Hey, Amber. It’s probably not a good idea to be on the road today,” I said. “Don’t go to your mom’s house. Stay home.”

I even thought about turning around and waiting it out. I could run up to the farm later, during a break in the storm. But I promised. I’d better go up there now. Back and forth it went, until I turned back onto the road and drove into the battering rain.

The first sign of real danger were the blasts of wind howling through the canyons, rattling and buffeting my little Toyota truck between the lane lines. I managed to avoid oncoming traffic and watched for swerving cars, RVs and trucks crossing into my lane.

This is stupid. I pushed against my better judgment and kept driving north along the winding two-lane highway. I’m halfway there, might as well keep going.

I put keeping my word above plain old common sense and drove on, not realizing the danger of driving in the worst storm to hit the Bay Area in nearly 50 years.

As soon as I turned off Highway 1 onto Villa Creek Road, I felt relief. At least there wasn’t any oncoming traffic. Californians are the worst drivers in the world when it rains. They drive too slow or too fast, contributing to the hundreds of accidents that occur during storms.

Coming off the highway, the three-mile country road first enters upon a sizable grove of eucalyptus trees, a non-native tree that is often associated with California in romanticized versions of the state’s majestic landscapes.

The trees are a nuisance and present serious hazards during storms. I grew up watching them, planted as windbreaks for orchards, topple with every Santa Ana wind that blew in the fall and winter.

They’re brittle, have shallow root systems and choke out native plants. I’d love to see them declared a noxious weed and eradicated. But eucalyptus romantics argue they provide habitat for Monarch butterflies, not realizing that replacing the invasive trees with native oaks would provide better habitat for a wide variety of wildlife, not just butterflies.

In storms, eucalyptus trees drop limbs, branches, and debris—when they’re not uprooted by the wind. I got my first real panic passing under the canopy of eucalyptus that greets motorists as they turn onto Villa Creek Road.

I sure hope one of these suckers doesn’t come down on me. Debris was strewn all over the road. Limbs creaked above as the wind bent them this way and that.

Turning back seemed silly now, only three miles left, half of it unpaved road, to the blueberry enclosure.

I slowed my speed as the road turned to wet dirt. I had to navigate a few treacherous turns, one by an old oak tree, a sharp blind corner that plunges to a deep ravine. The slightest fishtail could have sent me careening.

The truck slipped here and there but I managed to avoid dreaded fishtails through the sharper turns in the road.

One car passed slowly from the other direction. It must be passable, at least. Otherwise, there was no sign of activity, no workers in the fields, just lots of mud and clay. Crushed redrock kept the road from turning into muck.

I crossed the bridge that passes over Villa Creek and turned into the encampment of workers’ homes located near the packinghouse, not a sign of life. Usually there’s a flurry of activity, a forklift loading crates onto Albertson’s trucks, UPS vans making deliveries, workers packing oranges into crates.

I was the only person out today.

I turned past the packinghouse and pulled up to the gate leading to the enclosure protected from deer, wild pigs and cattle. I didn’t have any trouble getting to the gate but decided that it would be best to park at the gate and walk along the enclosure rather than drive into it and risk getting stuck.

The wash that Steven and I had worried about appeared fine, no rushing rivulets of water pouring into our project, no immediate risk to our new plantings. A few limbs from willows along the creek had split and were left dangling, the only real sign of damage from the storm.

Even the blueberry plants appeared to have suffered little damage. The rain and wind continued to howl through the canyons.

Satisfied, I got back into my truck and started to back up toward the packinghouse when my tires started slipping in the mud. The back end veered first toward the creek, where I would have needed to a tractor to get out, then toward the orange trees.

Then, I was stuck. Three times I got out, checked my tires, submerged in muck, spinning freely, unable to get traction. Finally, after about half an hour of twisting and turning and making a mess of the short stretch of road, I escaped.

What a fucking idiot! What was I thinking? I drove home thinking of how foolish I had been trying to keep my word in the face of such unnecessary risks. I was lucky to get home in one piece, lucky that I didn’t have to knock on Lorenzo’s door to ask him to come out into the rain and pull my truck out of the creek.

I managed to keep my word but next time I make a promise, I’ll let common sense rather than pride guide my actions. §