The flood, the farm and the receding river


These words perfectly describe my situation in January, 70 years after the novel was published. Drought seems like a distant memory; The green hills contrasted with the rapid, muddy flow of the Salinas. On River Road, I met a couple on a morning walk along a muddy road on swollen Salinas. In the 30 years he’s lived in the city, the man told me, he’s never seen the salinas that big — adding, the river has flowed more and more consistently over the decades. “Here was a slaughterhouse,” he said, pointing to a row of houses by the river. “They would pour blood directly into the river. The water was always red.

As I was heading out of town on Highway 101, the rain started hitting the windshield. During the brief breaks between rains, the land turned into a misty dream. I stopped at one of the climbs to get a view of the river and the huge San Ardo oil fields. A rainbow in the distance is an arrow over the Gabilan range. A few months ago these hills were sun-baked and desolate. Now they glowed bright green, and the river roared, carrying with it dozens of huge logs.

I was hoping to get to the water’s edge by way of the gas station. But a fence and two private security vehicles blocked the road. In one of the vehicles, a man pretended to be asleep and returned to his seat.

It’s only because I’ve driven this stretch of Highway 101 dozens, maybe hundreds, of times that I’ve begun to notice that there are no attractions to draw attention to the valley’s namesake river, no preserves or riverside parks. Most of the time, the river’s symbol is just a blue blip on a GPS map – an abstraction that masks the reality, that the river’s remains are forever intertwined with industry.

The salinas are neglected, I think, partly because they are a naturally raging river. It begins as a series of obscure streams, many of them meandering, that meander through the chaparral and low-elevation pine forests of the temblor and coastal regions. Because the river is largely inaccessible, its anonymity increases; It crosses private property or small and out-of-the-way towns like Chular, Gonzalez, San Ardo, Soledad, San Miguel.

Founded by Spanish settlers and missionaries in the 18th century, these small farm towns are located in an agricultural landscape that produces 28 percent of strawberries, 57 percent of celery and 70 percent of lettuce. Monterey County has become one of the nation’s leading wine producers. Anytime you eat a Caesar salad or bite into a Caesar salad, there’s a good chance you’re drinking from Salinas.

Water shortages have taken a toll on Salinas Valley farms and farm workers over the past decade. Now the problem was too much water – or at least too much, too quickly. With thousands of acres under water, many farm workers were suddenly out of work. Still, I saw dozens of them on the field, toiling in the storm. Dressed in raincoats, they waded through the muddy berry and garden fields, gathering what they could before the flood washed away the produce. Even in times of disaster, the inhumane economics of the Salinas Valley prevailed: the lives of farm workers were valued less than the crops they tended. Meanwhile, it was their own neighborhoods that were heavily damaged by the floods. They are caught between rising flood waters and lost wages. The Salinas Valley floods took a heavy toll on people with less means.


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