Hope

High Desert Farmers Market

The High Desert Farmers Market, Thursday mornings at Victor Valley Community College.

It’s a gray and humid day in the high desert: unpleasant, but at least for me, a welcome change from the relentless scorching of sun. Thunderstorms are predicted over the next couple of days (yay!), but at least for now, it is dry. I’ve been wanting to check out the High Desert Farmers Market since I got to Victorville a little over three weeks ago, but being car-less, confused by the local transit, and not much of a morning person anyhow, I wasn’t able to make it out until today.

I was introduced to farmers markets during a family vacation to Washington State when I was a teenager. My uncle took us to the Olympia Farmers Market. I fell in love. I’m sure the fruits and vegetables were all great, but what wowed me were the handcrafted soaps and jewelry. And all the flowers.

My four years at Gonzaga were punctuated by trips west across Washington to visit my uncle and Grandma, and I always tried to hit the Oly Farmers Market when I went: mostly to buy prepared foods and people-watch and bask in the vibe, but occasionally to get, you know, produce– especially if I went to the market with Grandma, who actually used the market for its intended purpose.

After my introduction in Olympia, and then living in Davis for the last ten years (mas o menos), where the farmers market is an iconic institution, I figured I was spoiled for farmers markets in less agriculturally rich environs– i.e., the I.E. And especially the high desert. When Mom told me there is a farmers market here, at the college, I don’t know what I expected. Maybe a couple of pop-up tents in a parking lot or patch of dirt, some scraggly lettuce and tomatoes, a handful of folks there to haggle over the price of bell peppers. This is the land of Stater Brothers, Food4Less and WinCo. Who would go to a Farmers Market?

I went in search of stone fruit. I’ve been to the supermarkets a few times since I’ve been here, and had yet to find a peach or nectarine that looked like it even had the potential to be edible: rock hard, pretty, but without fragrance– glorified wax fruit. Like I said, spoiled. I just hoped the High Desert Farmers Market would have the goods.

It took me awhile to find it (I am not so familiar with VVCC), but even in the parking lot, I was impressed by the turnout. At 9am on a Thursday, the place was bumping: young folks, old, families, dogs. The first thing I saw, along a strip of grass next to the parking lot, across the street from the market proper, was a table where the Republican Party was registering voters (Yup. Not in Davis anymore). Just beyond their red-white-and-blue promises to lower taxes, a young man in Buddy Holly glasses with a guitar sang and busked with a little sign that said “Playing for Change.” I reminded myself to tip him on the way out.

Crossing the street, I saw pop-up tents, yes, and lots of them– and vans and trucks selling ice cream, sodas, tamales. The first batch of tents that I saw were standard flea market fare: sunglasses, flip-flops, lawn ornaments, cheap hats and t-shirts. And they were, as I had expected, located on a paved lot. Where are the farmers? I wondered, and as I continued to weave through the throng (gosh, there were a lot of people there!) I saw a grassy field before me, and tents that shaded tables laden with the good stuff (or would have, had there been any appreciable sun today. Heat, yes. Humidity, yes. Is this really Victorville?). These were at the far end of the market, though (or perhaps I had just entered through the wrong side). Between the flea market and the farmers were the value-added producers– cakes and breads and pastries, honey, sauces and marinades, and even a woman selling mac and cheese (oh, how I wanted to try; but I held back).

I stopped first at a coffee stand, where a young woman was selling both brewed and beans. I bought a cup and thought I might buy a bag, if it was good enough. I just finished the last of my Pepper Peddler (Davis’ own bike-powered roaster) coffee beans earlier this week, and have been getting by on Yuban (it’s what’s in the house). She told me they roast locally (in Apple Valley) and that this batch was just roasted Tuesday, so it’s nice and fresh. The coffee was good– not Pepper Peddler good, but leagues better than Yuban. Oh! I remarked, browsing her literature. It’s Organic and Fair Trade?! Yeah! She replied, I should have led with that!

I couldn’t tell, at a glance, where all the farm stands had grown their produce, but I bought peaches and nectarines from the first table I reached that was sampling them. They were perfect. I asked the gal who took my money where they were grown. “Riverside,” she answered. Local enough! I thought. It’s a safe bet the berries at the table next to her were from farther afield, though. I think I saw from the website that they’ve got farmers from as far away as Salinas. I’m sure the Imperial Valley was represented there, too. I wish I’d asked where the chard and carrots that I bought were grown, but both those stands were so busy I had a hard enough time just getting their attention to give them my money!

On my way out, I stopped to buy a pound of the locally roasted coffee, and eavesdropped on the bread baker next door delivering his spiel. The guy was a pro. He even knew the Weight Watchers points of the bread he was selling. I will be sure to get a loaf next time, I thought to myself. We got two loaves of Orowheat at Costco recently so I couldn’t justify bringing home more bread, even if it did look like some very, very fine bread.

The whole time I was there, I kept getting choked up. It would be easy to compare the High Desert Farmers Market to Olympia or Davis and find it wanting, but instead it exceeded my expectations beyond my wildest hopes. Champions for Change was there, handing out free cookbooks; the Market information booth also had plenty of free recipes for seasonal produce, a brochure about composting, and even performed a cooking demo. Signs proudly announced that the market accepts EBT and WIC, and those benefits were really getting used. But what really overwhelmed me was the palpable joy: the feeling of community that permeates farmers markets is one that I’ve seldom felt in the high desert, but here, it was abundant. A carnivalesque atmosphere, to be sure, and one that’s going strong. It gives me hope.

In the life I left as a Co-op marketer, we were always scratching our heads and wondering: how do we get this slow food movement out of the hands of the elite and the wealthy and into the lives of people who can benefit from it the most– the low-income demographic so plagued with diabetes and heart disease? I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know where to even begin looking for an answer (the question itself is so paternalistic that it begs reformulation). I doubt the HDFM poses any real threat of competition to Albertson’s or Safeway, and while there was certainly more ethnic and economic diversity represented at this morning’s market than I’m used to seeing in Davis, there were probably as many or more people like me out for a leisurely diversion than there were hardworking folks there to buy fresh produce to feed their families. Also, I didn’t ask, but I don’t think any of the farmers were organic (one banner proclaimed “Pesticide-free and natural,” but except for the coffee, I didn’t see the word “organic” anywhere).

So that hope? It’s really just cynicism flipped on its head. I held a belief that you couldn’t buy chard in the high desert. I was wrong. Sometimes I love being wrong. It means that there is more right with this place than I knew. And if I could be wrong about that, what else could I be wrong about?

Maybe someday even Barstow will have a farmers market.  Maybe mustard greens are on the rise and McDonald’s is on its decline. Bok Choy could become more popular than Burger King. Why not?  Maybe if a farmers market can happen here, the food revolution can take hold anywhere. What I saw today was possibility. Not just a seed, but a sapling. I close my eyes and envision forests.

Boomerang

I’m on my third boomerang move. The first time, I was just 21: dropped out of college my senior year, moved back “home” with my parents as a sort of cheap alternative to rehab. It wasn’t the house, or even the town, I’d grown up in: Mom and Dad upgraded to a bigger, nicer house in Victorville, 30 miles across the desert from Barstow (that much closer to LA) my second year of college. I felt terribly cheated by their decision to move, selfishly so. I wanted, on those rare times I came home to visit– Thanksgivings, Christmases, the occasional Easter, to come home to the house of memory.

 I would create new memories, somewhat, during the first boomerang move, which lasted maybe eight months. I met a guy online, fell in love, moved to Davis to be with him at the first possible opportunity. In the meantime, I worked as a janitor at Mountain High with my brother, and also at the Hot Dog on a Stick at the mall. I also tried out for, and got to be a contestant on, Win Ben Stein’s Money. I didn’t win, but I did well, and had a lot of fun.

When at twenty two, after transferring to UC Davis, and setting up house with the boyfriend I’d made online, I thought to myself: well, I’m totally independent now. I won’t hbe moving back with the folks ever again. After entering the PhD program in English at Davis two years later, I believed myself to be 100% grown-up, worldly-sophisticated and totally self-sufficient. Adult, if you will.

 Then, shortly after my 26th birthday, my Dad died of melanoma. I came to Victorville at the end of his illness, and stayed for the funeral. The next day, I was back in Northern California, sitting at a seminar table at UC Berkeley, where I was taking a class through the inter-campus exchange. I still thought I was going to finish that PhD. School started at Davis just a week or two later, but because my personal tragedy had occurred after Summer Session 2 ended but before Fall quarter began, I didn’t get one of those department-wide condolence emails announcing a death in the family. I think quite a few of my professors had no idea what had happened. To them, I just stopped being good at my work (do I still sound bitter?). My only concern was coping. I ended the relationship with the fellow from the internet following our four years of cohabitation, and tried to figure out what it was I ought to be doing with myself. I didn’t have many ideas, but a PhD didn’t seem like so great of a goal anymore.

I stuck around for a few more quarters, just long enough to eke out a Master’s before taking the leave of absence I wouldn’t return from. I should be home with my family, I thought. We ought to be together for our mourning, to support each other in our bereavement. I moved my stuff into storage and returned to Victorville for the second boomerang move.

Here’s what I thought was going to happen (besides mutual familial support and healing): I’d live at Mom’s, rent-free, get a job substitute teaching, and save enough money to pay off my student loan. It was a fine plan. Except I hit one little snag, trying to get that subbing job: my background check didn’t check out. Just one little arrest (no conviction) and I was deemed unfit to teach (well, I had to assume: I was never told specifically that I was prohibited from teaching, only that there was an indefinite “hold” on my LiveScan, which was finally lifted a full year after I’d jumped through all the hoops and expenses of getting cleared to substitute teach— TB screening, the CBEST exam, the aforementioned fingerprinting, etc. . . . costs I never recuperated because I never set foot in a K-12 classroom). Instead, I parlayed my fancy MA degree in English into a job as a Barnes & Noble bookseller, where I earned just enough to cover my gas and drinking expenses at the local karaoke bar, the only place that made living in Victorville tolerable.

With my income-to-expense ratio resulting in a net savings of zero, I made one last-ditch effort to earn the kind of cash that would allow me to settle my undergrad debt: I took the online test for Jeopardy!, and got called in to audition. I made it. As with Ben Stein’s Money, I acquitted myself admirably, but got matched up with a competitor who couldn’t be beaten. I took second place, a disappointing $2000 (yes, a tidy sum for just a day’s work, but one fifth of what I expected to take home. Yes, expected. I was that naïve). With the prize money, I bought a train ticket to Ann Arbor, where a new boyfriend was waiting for me. I had decided there was little reason for me to stay in Victorville, since I could as easily work at a B&N in Michigan and frequent the karaoke bars there; my presence at home didn’t seem to have much of an impact on anyone else’s grieving process, let alone my own, so why stay where I felt so stifled?

That was 2006. My issues with Victorville are no different than they were six years ago: the arts get little play here, and culture lies predominantly in the realms of off-road vehicles, professional wrestling and/or MMA fighting, drinking 40s in garages, indoor flea markets and dollar stores, and customizing the rear windows of SUVs and low riders with memorials to the dearly departed. Food is fast and life is cheap. Gang activity is common. Sprawl is rampant and walking is seldom an option—not just because of the relentless heat and lack of shade, but because of the aforementioned sprawl and dearth of sidewalks (not to mention a lack of worthwhile destinations, the Barnes and Noble at the mall and my favorite karaoke bar being the only notable exceptions, in my humble opinion).

I should add that I am deeply ashamed by that paragraph. I know the biases that it betrays, and that these are rooted in some ugly tendencies—a classist, racist attitude that college inculcated in me even as I studied the strains of academia that ostensibly would help me recognize those tendencies and combat them (women, gender and cultural studies). Where I come from, people are poorer, less educated, and more ethnically diverse than they are at Gonzaga or UC Davis. I’m trying to figure out how to own this in a way that doesn’t manifest as shame, or regret at the opportunities that weren’t available to me as a youth.

This investigation is part of the reason for my present boomerang move, though not the primary one. As with the prior moves home, this is an arrangement of convenience: I needed some time off during my transition between my accidental career in co-op marketing and my next move to MFA school and (what I hope will be) the start of my career as a writer. Mom’s house is still a rent-free, air-conditioned haven with a well-stocked refrigerator. There are additional physical considerations: Davis is temperate, near sea level, and a Shangri-La of sustainable living and local, seasonal, organic food. Leaving was difficult. I hope that the culture shock of my move to Tucson will be mitigated somewhat by this summer break in a place where the climate and elevation resemble southern Arizona more closely than northern California. I’m re-learning the necessity of copious hydration, the regular application of body lotion, and fabric softener PLUS dryer sheets (static electricity is a nightmare I had completely forgotten).

 I’m re-learning how to be me in a desert, as well as in a more existential sense. This family I come from, these cities of Barstow and Victorville helped shape me. How to reconcile where I come from with where I’m going—not to mention the exposure to dry, open spaces, spectacular sunsets and a sky as broad as the Earth is wide, and the interaction of this environment with my particular aesthetic (part of the draw of Tucson)—that’s what I’m here to do with my summer vacation. I’ve got a month left to do it in. I hope I have some progress to report before I go.

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