A VISIT TO MY HIGH SCHOOL AND COLLEGE STOMPING GROUNDS PROVOKES A BIT OF REFLECTION, AND NOSTALGIA.

Every year during market season, we plan two breaks. The first about two months in, where we get caught up on farm projects and do an overnight stay somewhere close by, and another 4 months in, when we are deeply weary from the non-stop work that’s been happening since March and take a full week off, leaving the farm and going AWAY. Work/Life balance baby.

This year, inspired by a trip my friend Amy from Frog Hollow Farm did last year, we decided to attend the National Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa California. Imagine the vegetable display exhibits at the county fair, but multiplied by about a thousand. It’s vegetable nirvana for plant nerds. Unfortunately, shortly after booking the flight, my husband had a work leadership retreat scheduled for the same week, and couldn’t make the trip. So I did this one solo.

I grew up in a lot of places. Memphis, the Ozarks of Missouri, Southern Idaho, Southern California…but part way through my 7th grade year, I moved to Calistoga California permanently, to live with my dad (my parents divorced when I was 4), on a 5 acre piece of property on a creek just north of downtown. So attending the Expo meant returning to my old stomping grounds.

The old homestead, long since sold and updated. Owners weren’t home. I briefly snuck onto the property (sorry, not sorry). The “tank house” you see here originally had a windmill and a water tank on the third floor, used for irrigation storage. When my father first bought the property in the mid 1970’s, it was in disuse, and barn owls had taken up residence. Cleaned out, it became my play house and bedroom in the summer months from the time I was 10 until I was 18.

I ended up flying into San Jose, and crisscrossing the Bay Area every which way, traveling over both the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, driving through the heart of San Francisco, visiting the coast in Bodega Bay, and looping the Napa Valley on the Silverado Trail and Highway 29. It’s not that I haven’t been back since I left for Colorado in 1990. I have. Numerous times. But on this trip I covered almost all of the same ground I regularly traveled when I lived in California for 12 years, and visited with a lot of old friends from high school and college, some of which I hadn’t seen in over 15 years. It was a surprisingly nostalgic and weirdly bittersweet trip.

Using google to guide me through Bay Area traffic, I was routed across the Golden Gate bridge and down Hwy 1 right through the heart of San Francisco. Which was fine with me. I think San Francisco is about the most beautiful city I have ever visited, and I relished the opportunity to say hello to an old friend.

The Mediterranean climate of the Napa Valley is bucolic, with winter lows rarely dipping below freezing, summer highs rarely into the 90’s, and a rainfall total of around 40 inches a year, mostly falling in the winter. It falls solidly into growing zone 9, which means you can grow most anything but citrus that doesn’t require long chilling hours. Once fruit trees are established, you can normally cease watering them, as the stored winter soil moisture will often get you through the summer months. And of course, wine grapes fill the Napa Valley from end to end. It’s a lovely lovely part of the world.

Figs were in season while I was there. This big container cost me $4 at Trader Joes. I ate them all in about 2 days. SO good. SO wish Walla Walla was just a tad more conducive to growing figs.
Calistoga sign

Calistoga is a small town. Just over 5,200 people now, just under 4,000 when I lived there in the early 80’s. It’s less than a 2 hour drive from the Bay Area when traffic is cooperating. Known for its hot springs and mud baths, not to mention its wineries, the area’s economy is solidly based on tourism and agriculture. (When we arrived in Walla Walla, I said, “This is Calistoga circa 1978″. I immediately felt at home.) When I moved to Calistoga permanently, in about 1978, it was still a sleepy little town where people came to soak in the hot springs and drink a bit of wine. Great for a kid who loved to roam outside and hunt for frogs in the creek. Not so great for teenagers who are bored and looking for entertainment beyond a nature hike.

Teenage drinking while I was in high school was epic. Keg parties on the sides of roads out in vineyards. Beer bongs at houses when parents were out of town. Driving drunk was common. Drugs, that I was largely unaware of (I had a job from the time I was 13 and so didn’t have a lot of leisure time to attend parties), became more ubiquitous once we passed sweet 16.

The local jr/sr high school was understaffed and undersupported, with teachers who were burnt out being asked to teach to the lowest common denominator. We generally had one teacher per subject per grade. Many of them doubled as coaches in a town that was very sports obsessed. Football ruled the fall season. The fact that the football coach also happened to teach history, and was a pissed off distracted mess the day after we lost an important game was secondary to his coaching skill.

In high school I was uninterested and unchallenged. My Dad and step mom were checked out and oblivious unless I brought home anything less than a B. My most useful classes in all of high school were auto shop (my friend Jannette and I were the first two girls to take the class – we both aced it. Thanks Mr. Tipton. Knowledge of how a car works has served me well over the years) and typing (which we hated – but I am touch typing as I write this – so it has also served me well. Thanks Ms. Fisher).

My high school graduating class was less than 40. When later I was asked, on job applications, what my class ranking was, the data was literally unavailable from my school. I skated through with a B average, and in the days before the internet or home computers were common, I remember hardly doing any homework other than the occasional reading assignment or math worksheet. I did the minimum I could get away with, and that was fine with me…and my parents, and my teachers, and the guidance counselor. I didn’t take the few Advanced Placement (AP) classes that were offered, because they seemed like they would be more work, and no one else seemed to care if I was headed for college or not. It took YEARS to embrace my deep love of learning and need to be stretched and challenged.

Rooftop view of sunset in Napa. Napa used to be the town we NEVER went to in high school, as it had no appeal. Boy has that changed!

But go to college I did, primarily as an escape from a small town and a difficult home life. I drove myself to Santa Rosa to take the SAT’s and the ACT’s, paying for them myself from money I had earned at my jobs. I filled out my own college application form (one school), choosing the school based on tuition (state colleges were less than the UC system – and the UC system required taking a language – which sounded like a lot more work than I wanted to do) and a reasonable driving distance from home. I got accepted. I had no idea it was normal to apply to a bunch of schools and then pick the best one based on where you were accepted. Plus, I was paying for the application fees out of my own pocket, so applying to multiple schools was expensive.

My first semester freshman year of college, enrolled in a 2 year 24 credit honors humanities course due to my SAT scores (my aptitude in English has always been high and basically innate), I was asked to write a paper comparing and contrasting the Iliad and the Odyssey, books that for most freshman were review from high school but which I had never read. I had to go to the library and look up what a compare and contrast essay consisted of, because I had never heard of, let alone written one. I dismissed science as a career track before I ever got to college because I never scored well in math on career placement tests. Even though I had a clear aptitude and love for science, and never got less than a C in a math class. (It took me 10 years to reconsider. When I graduated with my second undergrad degree, a BS in Biology, in 1998, I had close to a 4.0 GPA and got an A in calculus! Message: be careful of the stories you tell yourself).

This unappetizing picture is the whole reason I chose to fly into San Jose instead of Oakland or San Francisco. Super Taqueria on 10th Street. I literally used to walk by it every day going to and from San Jose State. For a long time I was terrified to go in, as it very much caters to Mexican clientele and I was very intimidated. But I finally did. The “super taco” has beans (not refried), grilled carne asada, some kind of wonderful white cheese, pico de gallo, and a huge slab of ripe avocado. THIS is where I learned that avocados were good eats. And 30 years later, the place is still in business and is the same as it ever was. This taco cost me $3.25. The  downtown neighborhood south of the college is as ratty and run down as ever.

I have come to appreciate, after 35 years, that my high school teachers were doing the best they could with the tools and support they had, but I’m clearly still a little bitter. (An old high school friend just admitted to me on this visit that she flat out believed she was borderline retarded when she graduated high school. Turns out she has learning disability challenges she only discovered when her daughter was diagnosed and she was like, hey, wait….that’s me too. I told her that if she had said that to me, I would have told her otherwise. We worked together for almost a year. I KNEW how sharp and responsible she was. “I wouldn’t have believed you, even if you had told me”, she said.).

The squeaky wheel gets the grease. But what teenager wants to be squeaky, when all the social pressure (not to mention my dysfunctional home life) focuses on fitting in and not make waves or drawing attention? I didn’t squeak. I did my best to take up as little space as possible (I once described my home life to a therapist as “I was a well behaved house guest”). And so I slipped through the cracks of my own potential for a long long time.

I had time to pay a visit to the Hakone Estate and Gardens in Saratoga. I used to visit here when I lived in the area, and always thought it was a special hidden gem.

As an aside, there’s an old adage taught to new teachers. It’s easy to spend 90% of your time on the 10% of the students who are most demanding of your attention, while ignoring the easy students who are doing what they are asked. And that’s unfair to those 90%. Don’t be that teacher. Find a better balance.

Most of my high school mates were basically walking wounded. The number of us who came from alcoholic or addicted families, or situations of abuse, seems exceptionally high for such a small town. A friend relayed this story of her and her two best girlfriends getting together at one of their colleges. Somehow, they had managed to get locked out of the apartment. But they had alcohol. So they proceeded to get drunk on the front stoop while discussing which of them would most likely end up an alcoholic, since all three of them came from alcoholic parents. I found out on this trip that a different friend’s father was also severely alcoholic. One I DIDN’T know about already. Several boys I went to school with changed their last names later in life, to distance themselves from fathers who did more damage than good as they were growing up.

Hanging out with the beautiful people at Sky and Vine rooftop bar and restaurant in Napa. It’s an interesting thing to reach an age where you can gawk at all the lovelies showing off to each other and not feel one bit of envy or the need for comparison. Let’s hear it for our 50’s!

It’s no wonder we weren’t better able to navigate the pressures of high school, a time when teenagers tend to be deeply narcissistic in the best of times. We were sorely lacking in roll models and guidance and were all basically in survival mode, despite our strong proclamations of “I’ll be there for you no matter what”. Our Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) scores were high almost to a student. The more I come to realize this, the more completely gobsmacked I am by it. Where were the functioning adults? Was it something in the famous water? Good grief!

Calistoga, for all its natural beauty, never really fit who I was. I was a square peg in a round hole, who was way more interested in going camping (there was no one to go with and no gear to use – and to camp in California you generally need to make reservations months in advance, even back then) than where the next roadside party was. You can only discuss the last football game or repeat that Monty Python line or hear that story about how so and so was SO drunk that one time before you are crushingly bored. I was crushingly bored a LOT.

I left to go to college at San Jose State mostly to get the hell away from home. I wanted a big anonymous city where no one knew my name or my history and I could be in control of my own life on my own terms. I went home for Christmas break my freshman year for about a month. And was already so distanced from my old friends that I spent most of the time out walking in the drizzle or reading. I stacked up a pile of firewood my dad had had delivered, in the rain, just for something to do outside (both parents smoked 2 packs a day, so being inside was pretty awful) and my parents were like, “Who are you and what have you done with our daughter?” I had moved on. After that, I don’t think I ever went home again for more than about 48 hours until my parents passed and the property was sold in 2000.

Bodega Bay was always a destination in high school, as it was only a bit over an hour drive away. Still a sleepy little town, it was a great way to relax and catch up with an old friend.
This seagull was clearly looking for a treat, but he/she was very polite about it. It was around for our whole stay. I did give it a bit of banana bread to say goodbye when I left.
Fabulous seafood place in Bodega Bay, on the recommendation of an old high school friend who now lives in Japan.

But the Bay Area, for better or worse, was my crucible. It formed me in ways I’m only now really beginning to appreciate. It’s where I had my first weak-in-the-knees love interest. Where I had my heart broken by the same boy several times. Where I broke several hearts of my own. Where I learned to drive in a town with no stop lights, and then in a city with freeways, and then in a city with a LOT of one way streets, and then, occasionally, in San Francisco, which I considered the penultimate of driving prowess. Where I got drunk for the first time (and have, 39 years later, never been as drunk since).

I drove past the spot where I totaled my car when I was about 20 (I ended up in oncoming traffic on highway 680 after rolling the car up on its side, through the Oleanders in the center divide, just after crossing the Benicia bridge heading north). That highway now has a Jersey barrier between the two directions of traffic. Had I had that accident now, I probably would have been killed or have killed someone else.

I unexpectedly got a lump in my throat when I saw an exit sign for Alameda Naval Base, where my father received a lot of cancer care. It’s where I saw a rare snowfall on the foothills east of San Jose and thought, “That is oddly comforting,” and then “I am living in the WRONG place”. I moved to Colorado within the year.

It’s where I first learned to cook, using my mothers copy of “The Joy of Cooking” in an apartment with no oven. It’s where I first started to understand that food is what connects us all, and is about so much more than just living to eat. And that I needed to be brave and eat the damned avocado.

I was also reminded, on this trip, viscerally, of why I choose to no longer live in California. It’s not just the cost of living (the Best Places website, which benchmarks the average cost of living for the entire United States at 100, and then ranks each city in comparison to that average, gives Walla Walla a score of 97, slightly less than the national average. San Jose is 260! Calistoga is 207.) I paid $16 dollars for a cocktail in Napa and what should have been a $45 budget hotel in Vallejo – NOT a destination town – went for $110 on a Saturday night. It had a dinged up dresser and a shower curtain that smelled like mildew. It’s not just the density of people (the population density of San Jose in 2010 was 5,256.2 people per square mile. For comparison, Walla Walla is 2,477). Its not just the traffic congestion (the amount of time lost to sitting in traffic in the Bay Area is truly astounding).

There is something less tangible about the Bay Area, and honestly, in my experience, most of California, that has always left me a bit cold. It’s just so damned impersonal. People are friendly, in a surface kind of way. But I think in order to live at that density, with those amounts of financial and time stressors, not to mention safety fears, you tend to shut down your willingness to be vulnerable with your fellow human beings and connect in a more genuine way. Trust is hard to come by. Everyone has their guard up, ALL THE TIME. I did too. For years. And didn’t even know it. It’s just how I had learned to survive. And then I moved. And strangers would strike up conversations with me in line at the grocery store. Or pull over to help get me unstuck from a snowy road. My neighbors would invite me over for dinner. In short, I felt SEEN in a way that I rarely did and generally still don’t in California.

California has a lot to offer. High paying jobs. Beautiful climate. Fantastic year round fresh food. But I’ve never regretted leaving, even though I know it broke my father’s heart to not have the property I grew up on stay in the family. No regrets.

And it was amazing to reconnect with old friends on this trip. People who have always seen me, and still do today.

Camella (a dear friend from college who I may not see or talk to for 5 years or more but when we’re in the same room together we pick up right where we left off. We shared a bed in Bodega Bay and stayed up talking until one in the morning BOTH nights. We are sisters from another mother girl, and I adore you).

Tracy (who I met in 7th grade when we were lab partners in science class – and I knew from that moment I wanted her for a friend. Our lives have gone in very different directions, but I still feel as comfortable around you as I did during late night sleep overs when we were 14. I’m excited for your pending move to Idaho!).

Tracy. Friends since 1978.

Jean (who I met while working for Underwriters Laboratories right out of college. We were randomly assigned to share a cubical, and despite our wildly different backgrounds – Jean immigrated from China when she was 8 – we somehow immediately recognized a kindred spirit in the other and became fast friends. I still feel that deep recognition of another soul to this day.)

Jean, who when I met her was still going by Jing. We’ve both come a long way from UL!

Jannette (a high school classmate I barely knew until we both worked together at a local ice cream parlor with a mostly absentee owner. We pretty much ran the place at 17, and I have never laughed so much in my life or had as much fun on a job – how I love you girl).

Doug (who’s bumps in the road were bigger than mine, but who managed to come out with his hopeful positive future looking approach to life intact, and surrounded by the love of a strong family that he built piece by piece.)

Dan (our high school salutatorian – who then went off to Iraq as a private contractor and experienced an IED first hand. You have discovered that finding peace after trauma takes vulnerability and deep reflection. So proud of you for not shying away from that hard hard work).

It was a wonderful, if bittersweet trip. It will probably be some time before I visit again. Thanks for the memories California. All of them.

Bodega Dunes Beach, 2019.

© 2019 Miles Away Farm, where we’re miles away from wanting to return to California, apologize for this self indulgent post, and are weirdly thankful for the first frost last night. The only constant in life is change. And we’re so so ready for the changing of the seasons, even if it does mean saying goodby to the tomatoes.