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Five Days of Hope and Despair

I am now writing a book, and one chapter deals with the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project, in which Collis Huntington’s gifted nephew, Henry Huntington, hired the brilliant engineer John Eastwood to plan the extravaganza. Henry soon acquired Eastwood’s visionary blueprints for dams, penstocks, lakes, and powerhouses on the north and south forks of the San Joaquin River. He won him over with stock in Huntington’s new corporation. Then almost immediately Huntington required the new “stockholders” to pony up $5 a share -- ensuring that the poor Eastwood could not pay his way and was railroaded out, just as Big Creek got underway.

Huntington took the financial risk, sent the power to Los Angeles, gave us beautiful lakes, flood control, irrigation water for vast acreages -- and siphoned off the work of the man who thought it all up. You figure the morality, I can’t -- other than did Huntington really need $27,000 from the poor Eastwood, or need to drive him out as payment for his genius?

Leland Stanford’ millions (over a $1 billion in today’s money) created a top-notch research university that improves the lives of millions with medical breakthroughs, high-tech innovations, and state-of-the-art engineering. The beautiful world of tiled buildings below this window is an enclave of big-government liberal thinking that one might think is antithetical to Stanford’s 19th-century laissez-faire worldview. Yet on second thought, it is not so antithetical at all -- given Leland Stanford’s notion of unfettered capitalism as predicated on insider deal making (he was both magnate and governor and senator). It is difficult to figure out quite how the methodology of gaining huge fortunes is atoned for by later unprecedented generosity. Might Bill Gates have been a little more honorable to rivals when 35, earning a billion or two less -- or did he need every penny so that he could give most of it away at 55?

Day Five. Very Much Alive

On the fifth day, I am pulling into Selma, after a brief stop in Fowler. Say what you wish about the 17% unemployment of the San Joaquin Valley, the 48th or 49th slot in the national ranking of the public schools, the ground zero of illegal immigration, the flat landscape between the Coast Range and Sierra Nevada, but one can feel alive here in a way not quite possible on University Avenue. California has lots of rules, but they mostly don’t apply out here. Who wants to pull over a smoky truck with tree limbs flying off the bed, outside of Kerman, when the easier $300 fine is found citing the cell-phoning soccer mom in her Yukon on the 99? Does the Carmel resident really care that there are 10 unlicensed, unvaccinated dogs down the street out here on Mountain View Avenue? I don’t think any more so than those of the Gilded Age on Fifth Avenue worried whether 1884 Dodge City followed habeas corpus.

This day, a clerk, working 12 hours at a shift in the local food market, complains to me about EBT cards and illegal aliens, and starts praising -- yes, this is true -- Mitt Romney, in a right-wing rant. She says she immigrated legally from Jalisco. Another guy in the heart of Obama country posts garish signs on his desolate one acre about Obama as a socialist. (Does he get it -- or care -- that 100% of his neighbors voted for Obama?) I talk to a guy from India who has leveraged his way into owning 500 acres and taking million-dollar gambles on rising almond prices, cooler than I was when I borrowed $10,000 to plant five acres of Shinko apple pears. What a world.

Lately, I’ve seen men in sombreros riding down the street on horses, coyotes trotting along side the road eating garbage, and a compact car pulling a huge flatbed truck with twenty feet of heavy-duty rope. I just drove by some ancient relic of a farmer with a pith helmet, who was mounted on a 1953 NAA Ford Jubilee (all 30 hp) tractor, making wide turns onto the rural avenue; and nearby five Mexican nationals were on their hands and knees, weeding a one-acre onion field they must have rented and thought was the way to riches. Behold the old and the new.

Recently I saw another guy throwing out a baby carriage on the road, but two others on bikes carefully hunting cans and plastic. I went into a stop-and-go in the local barrio, and an immigrant owner from the Punjab was discoursing on California gas taxes at a level a policy wonk might emulate. Yet on the way home, a pick-up and trailer coming in the opposite direction cut across the white line of Highway 43, and pulled into one of the many roadside taco canteens, waving and smiling as he heard me hit the brakes.

Whatever you say about some of the small towns of central California, and I’ve said a lot, they are certainly alive, a boom-and-bust Tombstone that is premodern and postmodern all at once, and so similarly a lot more exciting, a lot more dangerous, and a lot more alive than was life back in 1880s Massachusetts. There is a Doc Holliday on a corner. And a Johnny Ringo to match. Maybe a Wyatt Earp as well. And like Tombstone, you know that it can’t quite go on quite like it is, and will either get better or worse and sooner than you think. Tombstone and Dodge did not last long.

It’s been quite a five days…