Jud and I woke in a cold basement room with a view of the Pacific. That morning we were heading inland. We dressed for 110 degrees.
There’s no mistaking when you cross into the San Joaquin Valley. The coastal fog lifts. The hills flatten into checkered farms bordered by chicken wire and prickly pear.
When we hit Valley bottom, Judson fell asleep. I wondered if these trips were a nuisance to him—the drives out to my family’s ranch, sold off thirty years ago, the walks on the levee into the open Delta, where snowmelt from the Sierras converges and flows out to sea.
I didn’t wake him. Valley air is heavy and vertical—the sun crushes the air into a fine dust. My eyes stung. The sky above Mount Diablo was grayish like the view through an old porch screen. After eighteen years of breathing that air, I knew the Valley’s tiredness. I was becoming it.
I turned the radio off and the air on. The temperature was rising—99 degrees. I thought of my family on their Ham Lane ranch, nestled in the farms and orchards outside Lodi. They never had air conditioning—never longed for it, never cursed it for breaking. I wondered how they cooled the sows and mares on hot days, how they calmed the cows.
When we reached town, Judson was dozing. I drove past the exit for my parent’s house. I took the exit that fell into an oak grove. I drove past the asparagus fields on Eight Mile Road and turned down Ham Lane. We were getting close—the handwritten signs for cherries and almonds appeared. I thought of my grandmother driving home, thinking of her five sons, wondering if they had watered the animals.
I pulled over in front of the ranch, though it was long gone. I listened. The paper-thin barn leaned towards us. I thought I heard a colt neigh inside, shaking off the heat.
After awhile, Judson awoke. He lifted his head and saw the old barn. “We’re here,” he said, and put his hand on my cheek.