The Touch of the Land

The end of Jalama Road in Santa Barbara County may be beautiful, but dawdling along it can be just as rejuvenating. | Photo: madhias/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Jalama Road is a 14-mile ribbon of wending loveliness that makes its way through countryside California once knew well -- rolling grassland studded with oak trees, cattle grazing on the hillsides, and weathered barns, cool and shadowy, where dust motes drift slowly in the sunlight pronging through the cracks.

I have driven Jalama Road many times. Most drivers storm lickety-split along Jalama Road to the beach in hopes of procuring a first-come, first-serve campsite at the county campground, but I do not because I am a dawdler. This explains why I have almost never gotten a campsite. It also explains why, standing still beside the road, I have watched a deer pick its way, cautious as an evening shadow, almost to my hand. Once I stood equally still beneath a pot black sky in a world beater of a rainstorm (the weather of Point Conception is a law unto itself). Grass smells lovely in the rain.

When I drive through the Jalama Valley, I always pull off to the side of the road. I stop because I like to, and I stop because this special place fifty miles north of Santa Barbara brings back memories that are not mine alone.

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Once I had the incredible good fortune to meet some of the ranchers and farmers who live along Jalama Road. One bright blue summer afternoon I stood with 80-year-old Giovanni Cargasacchi, dogs at Giovanni's feet (animals love him). The two of us looked out over the land Giovanni owns. Giovanni's father worked the land first, finally saving enough to buy his own. Giovanni told me that people had offered him astronomical sums for his land.

"The price of land is suicidal now," Giovanni said, gazing down toward a bean field resting in the sun. "This land is worth millions of dollars. It doesn't make sense. The land should be worth what it is, based on production."

Giovanni is a smart man. He attended Berkeley and was president of the honor society. He told me of an experiment where researchers put rats in a box, catering to the animals' every need. After a time, the rats simply stopped breathing.

"Too much civilization destroys you, I think," Giovanni said softly. "We become rejuvenated by the land."

Giovanni understood. It is why city dwellers offered him ridiculous sums for his land. It is how the landscape changes.

That same day I visited with Kenny and Erin Pata. Kenny was born in the Jalama Valley. He was spare with words, but generous with his time. We walked about his property. The Jalama Valley has been home to three generations of Patas, cattle ranchers and butterbean farmers. We walked into a barn. It was dim and dusty, the walls hung with tools. Done with the day's plowing and hauling, Kenny's grandfather and father hung their horse harnesses in the barn. Kenny uses a tractor now, but standing in the barn I saw the harnesses hanging on the wall.

"It's where they always were stored," said Kenny, who saw no need to take them down.

Kenny left me -- he was gracious, but farmers have work to do -- but I did not leave the barn. I stood in the ghost light and silence inhaling the past. Long ago my mother's uncle owned an orchard in the Maryland countryside. Dwight McCain was one of the kindest, gentlest men I've ever known. We visited him often when I was a boy. Knowing that small boys like to feel important, he would give me something to carry and we would walk among the rows of apple trees. He, too, was a quiet man, but he had a way with children and animals, bestowing kindness with a soft word and a callused hand. Maybe the land does that to you. He has been dead for nearly forty years, but I still dream about walking through the orchards with him.

When I walked back across the road to the Patas' tidy white wood house (built in 1898), Erin also graciously combined her chores with a tour. We walked through the house, past neatly stacked piles of freshly washed laundry and a pelican head Kenny had brought home for the children. Behind the main house, the Patas had turned the original cookhouse where meals were prepared for the ranch hands into a playroom and workplace.

There was a smell of wood infused with earth: the fields can never be kept out of the home, for the two are one. The memory was so strong it stopped me.

When I told Erin it was the smell of Uncle Dwight's home, she smiled.

"Everybody's got a memory of a farm," she said.

Our two sons don't. Most of Southern California is now paved and polished and their Ventura home is no exception. Day by day our fields disappear beneath housing tracts and Home Depots.

Uncle Dwight's orchard is a housing development now.

Maybe that is why, standing beside Jalama Road, I feel something unsettling, even in the drumming rain, a tinge of desperation, a wanting that Giovanni Cargasacchi, and maybe even the rats, understood.

Our opportunities for rejuvenation are dwindling.

Ken McAlpine is a three-time Lowell Thomas award-winner. His most recent book is "Fog," praised by one critic as "one of the most intelligent, richly detailed, deeply felt and evocative novels I've read." He writes weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog about Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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thank you so much for sharing with us ken. what a beautiful story.