It was 5.45 on a Saturday morning and we are setting off for Fresno. Our normal route is 101, 152, I-5 and then through Firebaugh to 99. This time we are taking a different route, first stopping for breakfast at Eddies Restaurant in Los Banos and then taking 33 south, driving down the middle the San Jonquin Valley.
The temperature was just below 50 degrees and we were hoping it didn’t rain. It was still dark but we could see one star (Tom said it was probably a planet) twinkling in the night sky. The sun began to rise and the mountains became more defined. As it became lighter, we could see more and more detail. Then the sky turned pink above the peaks.
By this time we were driving along Highway 152 through rich farmland and passing signs advertising fruit stands – all closed as we passed of course. Then we reached the foothills and started to climb. On either side of the road the green hills dipped and rose. Casa de Fruita, with all it’s lights ablaze, shone like a beacon.
One of the peaks we saw as we turned onto 152, was the one we spotted when we were having dinner at the Faultline in San Juan Bautista last year. We hoped to pass near enough to it so we could identify its location and hopefully discover what it is called but alas we were disappointed. Every so often we spotted it and then lost sight of it again. Eventually we lost sight of it completely and even by looking back I could not see it.
Many times we have travelled this road and passed the sign for Dinosaur Point. This time we decided to investigate. As soon as we turned onto it, Tom realized that this was the old road he used to drive on to get to the Central Valley back before the San Luis Reservoir was created and the B.F Sisk Dam built in 1967. The road led to a boat launch on the reservoir. The level of the water was to the brim due to the amount of rain we have had recently. It is the first time for several years we have seen so much water.
Back on 152 again we drove the short distance and pulled into the Romero Visitors Center and the overlook. The gate was closed because the Visitors Center was not open yet. We parked the car just outside the gate and had a wander around. From my vantage point looking down onto the water, I could see several fishermen precariously standing on the side of the hill at the waters edge. Out on the water were several groups of birds and a beautiful egret flew by. I even saw a fish jump. On the other side of the water I saw a wind farm. Even though I was experiencing a chill breeze, none of the windmills appeared to be working.
After breakfast in Los Banos, we carried on driving east along 152 and turned right onto 33 a few miles outside Los Banos. Just before we drove through Don Palos we passed a diner called Barb’s Breakfast & Brunch on our right. Next time we are down this way we will try it out. The sign outside Don Palos informed us that there were 5,000 lived residents there.
In the distance we saw a crop duster which was flying low over the ground towards us. Just before it reached us it banked and turned back. I have never been that close to a crop duster before and hoped that we wouldn’t be be overcome by whatever he was spraying. Along the way we passed several huge concrete buildings dotted here and there. Some still seemed to be thriving businesses but a lot looked abandoned like one with ‘Farmers Rice Crop; still barely readable painted on the side.
It was a very pleasant ride through territory we have not seen before. In the distance we could see the snow capped Sierras about 90 miles to the east. The fields were freshly plowed and not showing much sign of anything growing yet. Off to the left we saw a hawk hovering, waiting to pounce on its unsuspecting breakfast. Sheep and lambs were grazing in several fields which is a rare sight in the area.
Approaching Firebaugh I saw two small decrepit houses raised off the ground on blocks of wood. Soon after that a full sized metal sculpture of a buffalo in a garden. Normally we drive into Firebaugh on W Nees Avenue from I-5 and then on Firebaugh Blvd towards 99 and Fresno. This time we saw the industrial side of Firebaugh with the N.F Davies Drier and Elevator grain store to the north and lots of other businesses. I always considered Firebaugh a relatively small place but now I realized it is quite large.
Less than 10 miles south of Firebaugh we drove through Mendota. A large sign informed us that it was the ‘Cantaloupe Center of the World’. South of Mendota we turned left onto Highway 180 and past the huge Spreckles Sugar factory which dominates the landscape. It was only open from 1963 – 2008. The fields on either side of the road for a few miles were just scrub land and hard pan. Slowly the scenery changed. First we saw a feedlot and then the orchards began. What a beautiful sight – rows and rows of trees with white blossom, which I think were almond trees. We stopped so Tom could take some photos. He wandered down amongst the trees and called me over. As I got out of the car I could vaguely discern a sweet smell from the blossom which became more and more intoxicating the closer I got to the trees. Looking through the trees I could see the blossom falling and laying on the ground like snow.
We turned north on Lassen towards Shaw. The road became narrower and there were more almond trees. Grape vines started to appear and in several places some very old and abandoned vines. Along the road, which was less busy than both 33 and 180, were bee hives. We passed more and more houses and soon we were on Shaw and rapidly the countryside was no longer visible as shops and urban life took over.
We have found a new route to Fresno which cuts out the boring ride down I-5 and will come this way again.