I’m not going to lie. The romance of this roadtrip was waning. I don’t love driving more than eight hours. Fatigue begins to gnaw at my brain. Muscles can ache for not moving. Mr. Tummy wonders what sugary garbage he can consume to pass the time. It all becomes monotony. But what are you gonna’ do?
However, after reaching the highpoint of the Tehachapi Pass at 3771’, and leaving the Mojave behind, I started driving into the western drainage of the Sierras. Here things change. Here the land grows large swathes of golden grass dotted with live oak mottes, which, of course, indicate more rainfall than Mojave chollas. This rapid change in climate and vegetation reinvigorated me. Steinbeck felt the same.
Then, lo, beams of sunlight pierced through patchy clouds as significantly cooler winds dried my booty. The swaying, golden grass flickering in the beams and covering hills as far as the eye can see makes you understand precisely why California is called the Golden State. Then, to the north, green grew above the gold and gave way to winter white where the Sierras rise over 10,000′. It was cool to see so much snow in June. I knew Yosemite’s waterfalls would be raging.
Here I couldn’t help but to think how much God has absolutely blessed this spot of his Creation. And this is so not just for the beauty of the land.
See, on the western side of the Sierras, the far greater water volumes, from lots of snow-melt, flow not into many different endoheric basins, like on the east where the Mojave meets the Sierras. Rather, here on the western side, water flows into, technically, two basins.
The bigger one is the Sacramento River Basin. Rivers with names like San Juaquin, Merced, Tuolome, Stanislaus, American, Feather, Pit and others start as snowmelt in the western slopes and converge in the middle of the state to become the Sacramento River which flows west into San Francisco Bay just north of Oakland.
In small, southernmost portion of the land west of the Sierras, including the area around Tehachapi, streams used to flow into an endoheric basin that created two ephemeral lakes. One was called Lake Buena Vista. The other was Tulare Lake. In particularly wet years they became connected by sloughs. This endoheric basin ranged from what is now south of Bakersfield to south of Fresno.
Buena Vista Lake covered roughly 100 square miles. Tulare Lake, however, covered 500 square miles. That’s big. That’s why 19th century writers described enormous amounts of wildlife roaming the flat, grassy “Kansas part of California” which depended on that lake water which, again, came from the western slopes of the super-snowy Sierras.
However, these ephemeral lakes didn’t last into the modern world. Mankind saw the fertility of this golden Central Valley and began to mold California into something the world had never seen before.
In the 1930’s construction began on a massive network of sloughs, canals and dams to divert water for irrigating the vast Valley, from south of Bakersfield to north of Redding. Cereal grains, hay, cotton, tomatoes, vegetables, citrus, tree fruits, nuts, table grapes, and wine grapes now play an integral part in making California one of the largest economies in the world. It produces more than half of America’s fruits, vegetables and nuts. Again, this productivity was the hope of those Okie Joads in The Grapes of Wrath.
As a result of newly engineered channels of water for irrigation, Tulare and Buena Vista lakes basically disappeared. Tulare and Fresno counties became the top agricultural-revenue generating counties in the United States of America. Overall, the Central Valley, despite being 1% of America’s farmland, produces 25% of America’s food. That’s a lot. That is why I said this land was singularly blessed by God, and not just for its beauty.
It became an agricultural bonanza, and helped foster the incredible wealth of California of in the 20th century. This fertility is also why there are agricultural checkpoints when you get into the state (which I don’t find particularly constitutional). However, no one wants a foreign bug or disease to destroy this food-producing dynamo.