Bakersfield and points south

(April 1, 2012)

Bakersfield?

For starters there’s a good Basque place called Benji’s out on Rosedale Hwy west of the 99…it’s a restaurant as opposed to a community table kind of thing, but of all the Basque places in town it’s probably your best bet. If you’re looking high dollar there are I’m sure plenty of those throughout town, as there is a lot of bread up there in places, especially up on  the north-east edge along the Kern…head along Panorama Drive and you’ll see some serious spreads along with some incredible views. In fact Panorama Dr. will take you out onto the Alfred Harrell Parkway and that’s where the Old Corral is, where you can see some genuwine sangers and bands. We’ve seen some great stuff on Sunday afternoon. Beer and burger joint, great views, maybe a few too many bikers. You’ll be overlooking Oildale from up there.  Showed up once and there was a horse at the hitching post, bartender told us that some of the good ol’ boys will ride up the trail so they don’t have to worry about driving home. Later that night, sure ’nuff,  a drunk cowboy reeled out the door, clambered aboard Ol’ Paint, swayed a bit in the saddle and let the horse take him home. He was singing all the way down, just like a goddam movie.

Now if you want to see an honest to god honky tonk right down to the chicken wire round the bandstand and fistfights in the parking lot, Trouts is absolutely essential. It’s down in Oildale there, but if ain’t gotta horse you just turn around and head back down Alfred Harrell and into town again. When you finally get to Chester, turn right, head due north, cross the river and it’s up a couple blocks on the left. You can’t miss it. We love it.  It finally occurred to me the last time we were in there–last night actually–that there’s no chicken wire around the stage. I’ve been telling people about that chicken wire for years. Been there several times, there’s never been any chicken wire apparently. I dunno. Makes me wonder if I did see it there years ago, or maybe I’m thinking some other honky tonk. Maybe it was part of  the decor. Whatever….if there isn’t any chicken wire around the stage now, there no doubt was back then.  Had to be. When them okies chucking bottles at the band, chicken wire helps. (I’ve been pelted with beer bottles on stage, and chicken wire would have been helpful. Then again, I once nailed one mid-air with a drum stick and glass shot through the sparse crowd like shrapnel. No one threw another….) So let’s just say I’m guessing okies ain’t chucking bottles anymore, not inside anyway. Can’t vouch for the parking lot, though. Our first time to the place some years back there was a helluva fist fight going down just outside the back door. It wasn’t affecting the coming and goings of patrons, so security just watched. Besides, the parties involved seemed evenly matched so best they walloped each other a bit before being separated by cooler heads. Didn’t bother us none, we were old punk rockers. Don’t fuck with me or my wife and you can beat each other senseless. Oildale, ya know. I told my pal Greg about the joint…in fact sent the man earlier draft of this here essay. Kind of a travelogue. Which makes this a combination of that travelogue for him and an account of our trip yesterday and therefore kind of a mess. But it’s my blog so whatever…. Anyway, Greg and his wife sat at the bar downing a few too many and digging the scene, then on their way out nearly walked into one hell of a row. A couple dudes clawing and punching and biting and rolling around the street. Greg’s wife went nuts, loving it. She’s a big shot westside lawyer and professor, and there she is drunk and screaming  like she’s at a hockey game. She’s an old punk rocker too. Both of ’em. Greg  used to hang at the Masque. So violence seemed, well, normal. Entertaining. But I’m giving the completely wrong impression….Trout’s is maybe the friendliest, most comfortable and down-to-earth joints I’ve ever been to in my life. There’s two big rooms….in one it degenerated into some bad country karaoke, but go around the bar and there was the other room, a big expansive dance floor in front of a huge stage and there was one fine country band playing, great Bakersfield players, sessions and tours and gold records galore between them. The sound last nite was that pure Bakersfield sound, all of it covers, but great covers–Buck and Merle and Waylon (they love Waylon up there) and a zillion others…if you like country music at all you’ll know the tunes. We were listening to a Lefty Frizell on Willie’s Roadhouse on Sirius pulling into the parking lot and damn if the band ain’t playing it 30 minutes later. We wound up sitting next to a silver haired old boy at the back of the room and just started talking.  His name is Jim Jones, he’s been playing country forever, he’d known Buck and Merle before they were anything, one of those kind of people. Been there, knows everybody, apparently plays a wonderful guitar and lives this stuff. The three of us sat there and talking and listening and laughing. A helluva good time. He tells me Red Simpson is there every Tuesday. Red Simpson. The legend. That’s Trouts, man. If you dig country or roots or Americana or whatever it’s all being called nowadays, you need to go. Consider it a pilgrimage. This is the real shit, and the real joint. There are probably honky tonks on back roads all over rural California , every one a little treasure, but Trouts is solid gold. Just watch yer drinking if you’re the one driving, it’s just too easy to do in there.

And ya know, I love the Silver Palace. Saw Buck himself there a few times. There’s Nudie everywhere inside (that sparkly, spangly western wear), and I think  that’s one of Elvis’s Cadillacs built into the wall there behind the bar if I remember right. They  still get a lot of great music in there, and the Buckaroos remain the house band and there’s no cover once the main act is over. Somehow I was heartbreakingly ignorant of the fact that Merle Haggard was there that night. The following night too. Four sets. I mean this is my birthday week, double nickles on Thursday, and I can’t imagine buying myself a finer present than Merle in Buck’s place. I’ve been dreaming of that for years. I fucked up. As we were walking outta Trouts somebody–either one of the help or a patron I couldn’t tell, everyone is equally hospitable–well this guys says y’all taking off so soon? I said yeah, gotta get back to LA. Ohhhhh….so you came up to see Merle at the Silver Palace. I told him I didn’t even know he was there until a half hour ago…I fucked up. They just shook their heads, they could feel my pain. Then they shook my hand and said see ya next time.  Hollywood this wasn’t.

The food at the Palace, by the way, is chicken fried steak etc. And not that great. We don’t go there for the food. I never went to Charlie O’s for the food either. Don’t think I ever ate anything in Trouts. Not even sure if they serve anything besides chips and pickled eggs. Not that I recall seeing pickled eggs. You just figure that if a bar sells pickled eggs it’d be trouts. Jerky too. Good jerky. I suppose I’m always full to bursting with Basque food by the time we get there. Just go to Trouts for the music, the whiskey, the people, the vibe. None of which, aside from the whiskey, can be got this side of the Grapevine. Well, it can, I can think of a couple places, fine places–but it just ain’t the same.

Yesterday was a day trip.  We kinda decided around 2 p.m. that we ought to go to Bakersfield for dinner and a little music. It’s a hundred miles from our pad, straight up the 5. Two hours if ya stop at the McDonalds in Gorman for coffee and a leak. No need to worry about accommodations this time,  just that beautiful ride up through the Grapevine, down the grade and off across the 99. Wind came up something fierce out there on the flatland. Kicked up all kind of loose topsoil till the sky and the air was thick, gritty and brown. Tumbleweeds like you can’t believe, some the size of cars. Watched a CHP cruiser aim right for one to keep it off the highway…damn thing was so big it bore the impact and didn’t disintegrate but wrapped itself around the front of his cruiser. He veered off the highway to pry it loose. He must have been cussing a blue streak. Ahead of us visibility plummeted from miles and miles to a couple hundred feet. We all slowed down. As we came into the suburbs of Bakersfield it let up…less farmland to blow away, I guess. We got off on California Ave. and headed east, figuring to go to Woolgrowers, for old time’s sake. Besides it’s a tad cheaper. Not a chance, booked solid. We should have figured on that, it’s always been the most popular of the Basque places in town, diners coming all the way from Fresno.  It’s tucked away in a commercial neighborhood he other side of Old Bakersfield (as opposed to the glassier, multi-storied stretch of new downtown Bakersfield) and the parking lot is always full and the place is a hive of activity in a neighborhood that otherwise closes up shop at 5 pm. But not a chance in hell they could squeeze us in that night. So we headed west on Rosedale Highway out to Benji’s, the place I mentioned back there in the opening sentence. Once past the 99 it’s there on the left. Wind still blowing like mad, nearly took the eye glasses off my head. Put our names on the list and headed into the bar. There was a family at the bar, I remember a peroxide blonde mom, her husband, some uncles, and two daughters even more peroxided than Mom. Knockouts, though. Stunners, even. I made sure I sat a couple stools down and pretended not to notice a single curve, which I’m sure didn’t fool Fyl for a second but she appreciated the effort. I was on my second whiskey when they called us to our table and the Basque feast begins. Course after course…we were there an hour and a half and still took leftovers with us. There’d been a bizarre scene with some neurotic queen talking food channel-speak lingo with the waitress who was terribly busy but polite. Then some endless argument about the kind of box to take his leftovers with. Strange, irritating, entertaining. He tipped hugely so ya never know. He was from outta town. I know I’ll run into him on Melrose sometime….. Then after Benji’s we went on to Trouts. But we already talked about that, didn’t we, and in detail. I feel like I’m writing in flashbacks, like in a 40’s film noir. So nevermind.

The ride home was mellow. Once out of Bakersfield you can see the 99 go on forever, and endless stream of oncoming headlights in a perfect straight line. The engineers apparently just pointed and the thing was laid out like a ruler. Southbound it comes to a sudden end at the junction with the 5. The light stream switches course smack into the mountains, disappears from view but reappears another thousand feet up. The temperature kept dropping, dropped into the thirties even, 35 at Gorman. It had rained and all was wet and windy. I heard it was much much worse today, with snow and wind. The Grapevine is a different world.  Right now it was a  dark world. At night there’s nothing but headlights. We hurtled through the darkness at 80 mph. The first sign of Castaic is its luminescent glow on the horizon. Our megalopolis is bathed in light. We shut the blinds and draw the curtains and shut the doors to get any kind of darkness at all. But venture off the Grapevine even a mile and unless there’s a moon you’d be stumbling along blind. Cougar bait. Coyotes would watch you, hoping you’ll trip and die.

The Central Valley back there is one of the flattest surfaces on the face of the globe. That explains how you can see the headlights on the 99 ahead of you for miles and miles. No topography. Nothing undulates or swells or dips or outcrops. Just perfect flatness. I can’t remember where I read this–maybe in John McPhee–but  the surface of the valley is so flat that the horizon extends five or so miles beyond what you’d see at sea. You can see that on the 5, north of the 99 split, before you get to Kettleman City. They call it the Antelope Plain, though the antelope are long gone, pronghorns fed by the zillions to 49ers and their followers, then pushed out by farmers. The surface of the Plain is surreal, like it was laid out by German engineers, smooth and perfect and unyielding.

The geology along the 5 through the Grapevine is stunning. It was invisible on the way home, but going up I looked at it with my usual sense of awe. I love where the 138 comes in and the freeway is in a slow motion dissolve, only the endless efforts of CalTrans can keep it together. That’s the San Andreas fault there, you can see it in the small hills and hummocks everywhere or if you go off onto the 138 and see the lake there, which is groundwater seeping up from beneath. Lovely spot. Back on the 5 past the McDonalds with the clean bathrooms you get to the top of the pass. The coffee shops carry both the LA Times and the Bakersfield Californian, as the two civilizations meet there, sun loving L.A. and Okie Bakersfield. You head north again and round a bit of a bend and then there it is, vast, endless, and flat, the Great Central Valley of California. By the time you get to the bottom of the hill and have to put the foot on the accelerator again you know you’re in a different world.

It’s hard to think of another place in Southern California  where the transition is so sharp. The vast L.A. megalopolis comes to a sudden end at Castaic. Gas stations and shopping centers and restaurants and fast food places pile up there at the base of the mountain. And the Central Valley ends there at Grapevine which is really just a travel stop. In between the two sit Gorman, Lebec and the rest of the mountain towns much like all the other mountain towns ringing L.A.  A lot of L.A. up there, a lot of Kern County. Hints of the desert too, since the west end of the Antelope Valley is nearby,indeed it sneaks in between the mountains in bone dry little canyons complete with cactus and cactus wrens.  And Lancaster is not much further away than Castaic or Bakersfield, less than an hour east on the 138. Gorman might seem to travellers to be a roadstop, eateries, fast food and gas stations, but there are a couple ten thousand people up there tucked into a couple small valleys like a little alpine civilization unto itself. Get off and head west there and you’ll see what I mean. Retirees, weekenders, hippies, mountain men. Places like this ring the L.A.. megalopolis, scattered mountain settlements a mile high, from Gorman to Wrightwood to Big Bear to Idyllwild. Alpine but very much southern California. But  keep going north on the 5 and as soon as you hit the bottom of the grade you’ll know that you’re not in Hollywood anymore. You’re in the Central Valley. There’s a twang in the accent, chicken fried steak on the menus and Baptists in the churches. I’ve heard there’s a Democrat up there somewhere.

So Bakersfield is where you go to get the  hell out of L.A. for the weekend. Really out of L.A.  You hit the valley and you switch to a country station. You relax. You look forward to a huge Basque meal, maybe catch a hockey game (the Bakersfield Condors are the team, used to be the Bakersfield Fog with the weirdest mascot I’ve ever seen), maybe shop for cheap antiques. You head over to Trouts for a few beers and a solid country band, maybe some slow dancing. Get tri-tip with your breakfast skillet in the morning. Don’t talk politics. But do talk. They love to talk. up there.  And before hitting the 99 back home grab a cup of coffee (not Starbucks, just AM-PM coffee), settle in, turn on the country station and head straight south. As the mountains before you turn to blue and shadows, the cattle begin to wander back toward the feed barn. If you’re lucky, you’ll see cattle egrets perched on their backs, sparkling white, hitching a lazy ride.

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