Monday, May 19, 2003

More Things I Never See in California

I was back home for a week, and with sharpened eyes I noticed even more defining differences between my Pennsylvania roots and my home in the Bay Area.

Some Flowers

I knew – oh, I knew I would see lilacs. (My favorite flower, and one of the best reasons to return home in May.) Still, the scent and abundance of them overwhelmed me. Individual lilacs growing in graceful urn shapes, like floral elm trees; home places sheltered by lilac hedges a hundred years old, solid with bloom and as high as the rooftree; double Persian lilacs still blooming next to wrecked farmhouses whose walls fell in during the terrible winter just past, or the bad one two years ago, or the epic snows of the mid-1970s.

I expected the tulips, too; they don’t grow here, though daffodils and redbuds are as lush here as in the East. (Less important, though, in the riot of other colors.) But I had forgotten the dogwoods, flowering pink or white. (Many of them dying now of dogwood anthracnose. New cultivars are being developed, thank God.) After the bad winter, this year’s blooms were astonishingly dense. So were the azaleas and rhododendrons I saw in southern Pennsylvania. The fruit trees were blooming, too: crab apple, apple, cherry, Not peach, not yet.

I had forgotten the black, twisted Royal Paulownia trees whose upright lavender flowers look like chestnut blooms. They grow wild in the hills, and their wood is sacred in some eastern cultures.

I hadn’t remembered that the paulownias, dogwoods, redbuds, fruit trees, tulips, lilacs would all be blossoming at once. I didn’t expect that assault of color and richness.

Further north, where the lilacs were just coming out, the maple trees were turning red on the hills. Most branches were bare, but emerging leaves dappled the trees with brilliant green.

And it’s all such bright, innocent green. None of the blackish, olive, rusty, greyed hues of desert trees.

Many Bugs

Blackflies, mosquitoes, and other stinging bugs: plentiful back East, nonexistent in this fortunate clime.

Some Weather

The week before I left California, everyone was lamenting the unusual weather. Rain starts here in November or so, continues off and on through March, and tapers off in April. This year, though, it rained every day of April (a month lavish with rainbows, stacks of slate-grey clouds, and watercolor skies breaking into sun), and it even rained the first three days of May – unheard-of weather for California. Naturally, it snowed back home, so nobody here has a right to complain. While I was back East, I saw rain every day, plus good thunderstorms a couple of times. "Good" = "severe" – heavy rains, winds over 55 mph, lots of lightning, possibly damaging hail, and tornado watches. Spring thunderstorms aren’t as much fun as the late-afternoon summer storms that sweep in, blacken the sky, bend the trees, and drench the earth. But they’re better than the anemic storms of Northern California, where a single flash of lightning may be the whole show.

Some Food

Pierogies are always on the menu in PA, and I got to drink some birch beer. Didn’t manage any hot pretzels, and I saw but passed up Tastykakes. The price of restaurant food (and houses) in upstate PA is just painfully low. It’s like translating francs or lira into dollars to go from California prices to PA. Of course, salaries are also relatively low back East. They’re higher here, for those who have jobs.

Some Houses

There may be abandoned houses here in Silicon Valley. (Certainly there are abandoned industrial parks.) Nowhere in California, however, have I seen the bleached, ghostly hulks of houses abandoned for years. I haven’t seen old houses sinking into the ground, windows blown out and roofs collapsing. Two reasons: real estate is too valuable here, and the climate lacks the punishing edge that gnaws at the paint of cars and houses. It’s the weight of accumulated snows, the freeze and thaw of water in the joists, that brings houses down.

The sad thing isn’t just that I saw a house or two sagging unpainted toward doom, but that I drove through whole towns that way: such as Center Lisle, New York, on the way to Ithaca. I didn’t drive through Jackson – I am not ready to go back there – but that’s another dying town on a road of dying towns.

On the other hand, the little towns, the villages, the remote farmhouses of Luzerne and Columbia counties mostly looked good. (Except the abandoned ones.) Every yard trimmed, every porch swept, paint and flowers and curtains all proclaiming the excellence of the housekeeping within.

Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign

Road signs, mostly, not signs and wonders.

Pennsylvania has a new program for warning people about dangerous stretches of road. Big rectangular signs the color of fluorescent Tang proclaim such tidbits as "Buckle Up Next Million Miles" (which at least has a sense of humor), "Targeted Enforcement Area" (watch out for Smoky), and "High Accident Area, Aggressive Drivers" (which is where I’d put a speed trap, myself). I was puzzled by the signs warning people that it was a high DUI area. Surely the best idea is to arrest the drunks, not just scare people about them.

I loved having numbered exits again, as well as the mile markers I never see on California freeways. Signs on PA interstates also list what services are available at each exit and who provides them, lest people like me be lured off the road by the promise of something to eat and find out it’s not food, it’s MacDonald’s.

Then there are the signs in people’s yards asking where you’ll spend eternity, or the vast mural on the end of a barn showing Jesus carrying his cross. "He suffered for you." Especially on remote country roads, signs in front yards declare the presence of hidden services. Beauty parlors are the most popular, followed by taxidermists, but a few "tax preparation" signs were still up. Didn’t see any signs selling night crawlers this trip. My favorite: "Notary. Firewood."

I haven’t seen this at all in California, but the local sign ordinances are probably a lot tougher here.

The signs in the airports were bizarre as well. Denver had signs for a tornado shelter – now that’s reassuring. In BWI: Terminal Enhancements Underway, which sounds like someone’s being fitted for concrete overshoes.

Some Bridges

I doubt there’s a single covered bridge in all of California. I saw three in a one- or two-mile stretch of road. That’s in Columbia County, a place noted for its covered bridges. I learned to swim under Twin Bridges and down the road at Zaner’s Bridge. Zaner’s Bridge is an open iron grid laid across Fishing Creek. I love the high humming sound a car makes going over it. I saw a few of the old arched iron bridges as well.

Bridges mean rivers, creeks, ravines. Though California is well-stocked with gullies and other dramatic changes in ground surface, the bridges crossing them seem to be modern. And though I have seen the bay and the ocean here, I don’t see much surface water: not lakes, not ponds, not swamps. Occasionally, in winter, I see the flowing waters of an intermittent stream, but I haven’t yet seen any of the area’s great rivers.

Some Animals

Roadkill, mostly. Springtime is dead skunk time; they get run over when they’re out looking for love. But I also spotted flattened cats, dogs, woodchucks, deer, and raccoons. Saw a whole herd of deer grazing in daylight. I heard crickets and spring peepers, too, but those I can hear in California. Tonight I went up to a wild place I know, not a mile from our suburban neighborhood, and heard the peepers. Saw a mule deer, too, crossing the road.

Some People

I can’t yet begin to talk about seeing my family, both blood kin and heart-family. The trip was almost perfect, though I missed seeing Joe. Why can’t I just step from my front door to the east coast, so I can see my sisters, my mother, my much-loved Gwen and Adrian?

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