Saturday, November 29, 2003

Old SoCal

There are many towns in Southern California, where I grew up. And when I was young, they really seemed like separate and distinct places. Back then, many years ago, the towns didn't have the "geography of nowhere" about them. When you went from one to go to another, it felt like you actually went somewhere that was different from where you came from. For example, unlike Rialto, where I lived, San Bernardino felt like a much different place. To get to San Bernardino, as when my mother and father gathered us children into the old grey Dodge to go and buy clothes for school at J.C. Penney, or to visit my mother's parents, who kept a small dairy, or to visit my mother's sister Ethylen, whom I called "Auntie", we would take what seemed to me like a long drive down Arrow Route towards downtown San Bernardino, passing miles of orange groves along the way, the giant eucalyptus trees with their aged, seemingly ancient, gnarled or drooping limbs and slender aromatic leaves, then the wildish expanse of what were commonly called the Sand Dunes, and next the chasm-like aqueduct which channeled Lytle Creek wash down towards that joke of a river, the Santa Ana.

Now, the first thing to which we came, that distinctly and absolutely delineated the boundary dividing from where we were coming from where we were going, was the wing of the enormous, sprawling Santa Fe rail yards which jutted up from the southwest from Colton. There we would have to stop and carefully, slowly cross many lines of tracks before proceeding. And sometimes we would have to wait some time, delayed in our journey, while a long line of freight cars would slowly lumber past us, headed perhaps towards the El Cajon pass, out to the Mojave Desert. (Later on, a very large overpass was built over the tracks.) For what distinguish San Bernardino, what made it a different place, in fact and in feel, were three, very large things: the enormous Santa Fe rail yards and shops with its giant concrete smokestack which towered above them like a great, mysterious obelisk; and Norton Air Force base, which covered the eastern end of town; and still farther east, like a great unknowable, inescapable presence, which stood unchanging over the years, mount San Bernardino and mount San Gorgonio. They are two of several peaks that formed part of the San Bernardino range, which makes up that fold of the earth separating the Southern California basin from the vast Mojave Desert to the north. The range stabs eastward into the desert and diminishes steadily in size until it finally becomes just a collection of barren, undistinguished desert hills in the vicinity of Palm Springs called, prosaically enough, the Little San Bernardino Mountains. But from where I lived in Rialto, looking out my living room window eastward, the angle of perspective made those two great mountains to be seen as merging together, as if they were really one single mountain, though in reality the peaks were divided apart by many miles by what is called the San Gorgonio Wilderness. But most people, living below the mountains in San Bernardino and Rialto, thought of them as simply one mountain, referring to it as San Gorgonio, which was the taller of the two at about eleven thousand feet above sea level. At its peak, San Gorgonio is rocky, treeless and barren, and it is the namesake of an obscure Roman martyr, Saint Gorgonius, whose feast day is September 9th, who was, though he had once been a court favorite, hanged to death by Emperor Diocletian in the year 303 A.D. In the winters, San Gorgonio is always snow covered. And from the distance always had the dark and ethereal bluish tint about it.

Rialto, the much smaller town, where I lived until around 1969, lying west of San Bernardino, was distinguished mostly by its many orange groves and eucalyptus trees. But San Bernardino was the "big city" for me and my siblings; it had the tall buildings, where Rialto had none. San Bernardino had much more shopping, such as the J.C. Penney and Woolworths. And, since there were no shopping malls then, the downtown district of San Bernardino was always crowded with people using the sidewalks to go about their business. I remember as a child spending hours with my parents and grandparents walking about those sidewalks. But all of that which I remembered, the things which really accounted for distinct and vivid memories, disappeared long ago. As the towns in Southern California overgrew their boundaries, they began to merge one into the other and began to mostly look like one another. They simply became names on a map, mere municipal districts artificially drawn on top on one sprawling and homogeneous megalopolis. Though there are plenty of names — Glendale, Fontana, Pasadena, Bloomington, Rialto, Upland, Ontario, Cucamonga, Montclair, Pomona, West Covina, Baldwin Park, Diamond Bar, Fullerton, Anaheim, Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Buena Park, and so on — the names really began to mean nothing, designated nothing, and nothing worth remembering attaches to them. There are dozens and dozens of names, but none of them really mean anything any longer. To be in any one of them is practically the same as to be in any of the others. They all look the same — the same shopping malls, the same superabundance of strip malls, the same unending rows of suburban housing tracts, all tied together by the same congested freeways, streets and intersections. When one travels those monotonous freeways, the names will pass by, duly and dully noted, on the highway signs, but looking outward across the passing landscape nothing really changes; the same scenery is always there, is everywhere, is never ending.