Rough and Ready is named for the 12th president of the United States, Zachary Taylor. Established as a mining camp by a group from Wisconsin, they seceded from the Union in 1851 to avoid paying taxes. That didn’t last long. Driving through on my way back to Yuba City, I discovered that pioneer town, with a blacksmith shop, saloon, and post office. On the other side of the road was a facsimile of the mine, complete with railroad tracks, a few carts, and a dummy standing behind the gate. A wagon next to it advertised cemetery rides for only a dollar each way.
Arriving in Yuba City brought me right back to the here and now. Fast food restaurants as far as the eye could see. I stopped at Burger King for lunch and drove past the parking lot where I’d been tested for my class A license twenty-five years earlier. I went looking for the plant where I’d worked. It was now a Walmart. The farmhouse across from it where we’d bunked had been razed. Even the country music bar at the end of Harter Road, where the band had included a pedal steel player was gone, now a barber shop.
Most everything had changed except for the Sutter Buttes. The Sutter Buttes, just outside of Yuba City, are sometimes called the smallest mountain range in the world. The Native Americans had known them as the Middle, or Spirit Mountains. With red radio towers blinking atop of them, at night you can see them from miles, in every direction. Although they’re private property, I used to park my truck at the base during a night shift and stumble to the top, just for the thrill of feeling alive. Now, in broad daylight, they resembled little more than yellow mounds.
Williams was the place I’d first been stationed when I got hired to drive trucks. At the time it was designed to be the biggest tomato processing plant in the world. Without all the kinks out of the system, they’d brought in a hundred of us drivers, only to hurry up and wait. We were housed in trailers and ready to work, but the conveyors weren’t synching up right. Since all we were getting was commission on the loads we hauled in, they had to promise us a stipend to get us to stay. In the meantime, we hit up all the bars in town, and spent long afternoons throwing rocks at beer cans floating in an irrigation canal.
Those three years driving a tomato truck had been OK. At the end of the season, we got laid off, so were able to qualify for unemployment. There’d been a lot of time to sit out in a field beneath the stars and write songs. After the second year, I’d saved up enough to make my first record. It wasn’t something you wanted to do for the rest of your life, but at the time it had served a purpose.
Pulling up in front of the Morning Star plant, I was surprised to see that the season was still going on. Trucks were lined up at the scales outside, the drivers anxious to drop their loads and get out into the fields for more. I saw that they were still hiring. It had just been a lucky break that had brought me there years ago, meeting a driver in Guatemala, who’d claimed to have saved ten grand in the course of one summer. I’d returned to California with his name and that of the company written on the back of a notebook. One mention of his name, and I was in, although I never did work with him.
Those had been impossibly long, dreary, dreamy shifts. Getting in a truck at six at night and finishing at ten in the morning. I saw every sunset during those years, every phase of the moon, every formation of the summer stars. There were times on a long run down to the Delta where I’d almost fall asleep at three in the morning and have to pull over. A state of lucid dreaming would fall over the world. In the morning, white cranes would rise up out of wetlands. The sun would begin infiltrating the earth again. In a few hours it would be as dry and dusty as an atomic blast site.
Now I sat and watched the young drivers waiting their turns. A white crane stood beside an irrigation ditch, staring me down. I briefly thought about taking down their number and giving them a call. After all these years, I was unemployed once more. I no longer had my commercial license, however, and it wouldn’t be the same, even if I did. The fact is that most of the job had been an excruciating drag, and all it would take to remember that is to climb back into a cab.
All the promise of that situation had been extracted years earlier, just as most of the gold had been tapped from the mines. The only option was move forward, even if that meant no longer knowing where to go. So that’s what I did.