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I must be indifferent, then, about having a spunky, red-haired bundle of enthusiasm to carry on the Courtney bloodline? Poppycock!
What then? Was I waiting for her high school graduation?
I ran out of excuses a week ago. Forget COVID. Forget Cheryl’s job demands. Forget inertia. We packed up for a Cannonball Run down I-5 to L.A. — down and back in 30 hours.
In all honesty, the catalyst was not Helena Wren Courtney, but the death of one of Cheryl’s childhood friends’ husbands. We would attend the funeral, socialize with Cheryl’s teen-years girl squad and then, finally, see my granddaughter. And my son Dennis. And my daughter-in-law Margaret. And their cat Livvy.
We set out for L.A. at 4 a.m., Cheryl behind the wheel. We left so early because we were burned out on the Napa heat wave and wanted to get through the Central Valley without fear of melting.
We’d gotten up at 3 to finish packing and do some last-minute landscape watering. We would drive fast, going as far as we could before our first stop. That meant no eating or drinking beforehand. We would be road warriors.
We were in the Central Valley when the sun popped up. The scene was beyond disturbing. Much of it was dystopian.
The Central Valley is America’s most productive agricultural region, but the scene along the Interstate told a more complex story. Orchards as far as the eye could see were dying, dead or chopped up into mounds of wood chips.
We’d viewed some of this in June 2019 on our last trip to visit Helena and family, but nothing on this scale.
Homemade signs along I-5 told the story: Water, the lack thereof.
“Build more dams, stop manmade drought.” “Newsom: Stop wasting our dam water.” “Dam water, grow food.”
California’s multi-year drought, the shrinking snowpack, lower reservoir levels and reduced water allocations were putting many orchardists out of business.
Back in Napa, I’d reluctantly accepted twice-a-week irrigation restrictions and grimaced as our remaining patches of lawn turned brown. I hadn’t appreciated that for Central Valley farmers, especially those in the San Joaquin region, the situation was far more dire.
Official highway signage added to the creepy feeling that California was under siege. Electronic message boards flashed: “Conserve electricity after 4 p.m.” Other signs warned of “Severe Dust Area Next 40 Miles.”
And on we rolled. More orchard deaths, the occasional new orchard planting. Vast amounts of fallow land dotted with tumbleweeds. As we got closer to the Tehachapi Mountains, fresh plantings of the only crop I could identify for sure: acres and acres of corn.
After four straight hours of driving, we pulled over at the Tejon Ranch Starbucks. It was 8 a.m.
We ate muffins and drank (Starbucks) coffee that we’d brought from home and used the bathroom facilities, and then I got behind the wheel for the roll into L.A.
Our map app had us jump from freeway to freeway until we landed in downtown Glendale at the high-rise Hyatt Place hotel.
This was a sad-happy trip. First we would do the sad and attend a funeral that afternoon at the Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale. The next day we’d do the happy and see the legendary almost-4-year-old, the star of so many Instagram videos.