A drive yesterday with my wife through the mountains behind Watsonville, that narrow gap of Highway 129 that beautifully connects the Pajaro and Salinas valleys. Coastal clouds lay snuggled up against the base of the mountains. I figured that in Gilroy we might find the hidden sun. These mountains become intensely green this time of year, so I want to go see them before April browns out the grass. Men and women in hooded sweat shirts are out working the strawberry and lettuce fields that are spread out in the fashion of a checkerboard across the fertile bottom lands of the valleys.
The old-time Watsonville farmers I knew when I worked in that town called lettuce “green gold”. It grows so easily in this coastal climate, protected from both heat and cold, and is worth so much elsewhere. Here it grows like a weed, but in New York City people pay a premium for it. I find the drive through the lettuce fields to be comforting, if not luxurious, when I think of how the crop is so nutritious and valuable to others.
The clouds do not cover Gilroy, where the thermometer is maybe twenty degrees higher than home. We go looking through the big box stores, but have no definitive shopping list. Santa Cruz County was skipped over when the strip malls spread across America, so it’s an outing to go to Gilroy and wander through the wilderness of needless merchandise. In a vast but empty parking lot, I step out into a soft wind that is pouring sea air through a low gap in the mountains near Salinas. I can smell a tinge of Gilroy garlic. I can’t stop my mouth from watering.
We drive south some ten miles to Mission San Juan Bautista, one of the original twenty-one missions of California, built in the era of Spanish rule. The old mission has been repaired several times over the centuries, yet retains the original appearance. The town of San Juan has also been bypassed by much modern development. Some of the quaint homes on the back streets look quake damaged, tilted and rumpled, as the town lies on the edge of the San Andreas fault.
We head down town, an oddly concocted row of old, stick-built shops, stocked with antiques and tourist curios. I see a bakery, a watch repair shop, a biker bar, a second-hand store, and a Mexican restaurant, where we settle in for an hour and eat tostadas that are stacked tall with shredded Watsonville lettuce. We have been coming to this same place for years, an escape from coastal fog. The owner died and his boys now keep it running.
In the late afternoon we head back to the coast, again following 129 and the narrow pass that scoots us along between the mountains and the fertile farm lands. The day of farm work is slowing to a halt. Trucks and tractors pull out of the fields and on to the highway, leaving trails of rich soil that fall out of the tire tread. The east end of Watsonville butts right up against the fields. The Pajaro River cuts a deep trench along the edge of town before going out to sea. Some of the migrant people live in makeshift shanties along the edge of the river. Today I can’t see much of the river, but sometimes when driving near it I can see ragged blue tarps and campfire smoke coming out of the dense brush.
The clouds burn off while we are in Gilroy, but I now see them returning. A lowering sun illuminates them, as the light scatters and makes the whole world look golden.