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California Dreamin’

Last night, at ten past twelve, I decided to make the best of my insomnia by enjoying a snack of roasted cashews and pistachios. With the two slender packages gripped tightly in my hand, I slid between the covers and silently swore not to drop a single nut crumb; I may have been unable to sleep, but I simply wouldn’t tolerate sharing a bed with salted nuts. Confident that each morsel would make it straight from bag to mouth, I began crunching away. I ate the cashews first.

The cashews, both pleasantly salty and sweet, were a welcome distraction from my sleepless plight. After all, a recent adoption of the keto diet has greatly disrupted my appetite, leaving me uninterested in food most of the time. However, a sudden hunger sometimes strikes in the dead of night, making it a bit more difficult to sleep. This being the case, it was my assumption that a quick snack would calm the violent rumblings of my stomach just enough for me to settle down for the night. So, snack I did.

With only half a bag of cashews (I’d previously used the other half as a salad topping), I quickly moved on to the pistachios. From the moment one of the salty green gems were popped into my mouth, I was instantly transported back to my childhood. Since when have pistachios tasted this good? I thought to myself. These are amazing. Indeed, they were amazing; I could scarely pry the shells open fast enough. 

At first, I attempted to blame the pistachio’s uncommonly appetizing flavor on the fact that I had only eaten broth for dinner. Things often have a way of tasting better when you’re hungry. However, it seemed to me that those particular pistachios tasted better because they were better than the other pistachios I’d had in the recent past. There was just something about them, something so blissfully nostalgic. 

Before I had cracked open my fifth shell and carelessly tossed it onto the crowded surface of the bedside table (I would usually discard the shells in a small bowl, but it was late so I forgot to grab one), I realized that I was sad. Deeply sad.

The more I ate, the sadder I felt.

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I’m a California girl through and through– born and raised. If ever I were asked to contemplate what single factor from childhood has influenced my personality and identity the most, the reward would have to go to me having been raised in 1990s California. Back then, everyday of my life truly looked and felt like a scene from 90210, Saved by the Bell, or Clueless. As silly a notion as I may find it to be today, California of the 90s often lived up to its sun-kissed, “Surf’s Up” reputation. 

No matter where I traveled around the country as a kid, there was no place quite like home. It was almost as though California had invented and patented the pure concept of laid-back coolness. So much of what drove popular culture in the 90’s–from fashion to media–came straight from my own childhood backyard.

There were so many creative and exciting things being developed in the state at that time; if you lived there, you couldn’t help but feel and absorb the energy and freedom of expression. I honestly can’t imagine who I would be today if I hadn’t been fortunate enough to grow up around such positive influences. 

Even still, eating the pistachios made me sad. The mere taste on my tongue caused my eyes to sting and water on cue. 

As much as I love such beautiful and thrilling things from my home state’s past, there is very little I treasure more than the memory of its former pistachio farms. In fact, it was this very same memory that caused last night’s deep sorrow. 

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Growing up, my parents and I would make frequent trips to San Francisco to visit various family members. Upon packing up our car with luggage and snacks, we’d hop on the freeway and make the six to seven hour drive from our suburban Southern California home to our favorite bay-side hotel. 

Being no older than eight, lengthy car rides were not my idea of a good time. Although I knew better than to pester my parents with an incessant barrage of “Are we there yet?” or “I’m borrred!”, there weren’t enough comic books or handheld games in the world to keep my young, active mind entertained throughout a six-hour drive. Heck, I could barely make it down the street to school without passing out from boredom! All the same, I somehow managed to fight the urge to complain about our San Fran road trips just long enough to reach the one thing that made the trips tolerable: the roadside fruit and nut stands.

Traveling up and down the 5 freeway during the 90s was one of the funnest things a kid could imagine. Sure, for awhile the ride could be a bit boring, but just as you ran out of things to keep busy with, you could always look forward to that little stretch of highway that was dotted with fruit and nut stands. By the time the first advertisements citing “Farm-fresh strawberries!” or “Pistachios: 1 Mile” would appear along the side of the road, I would be wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to hop out of the car at a moment’s notice. 

Any time we would head up to San Francisco, my parents and I would look forward to pulling off to the side of the highway to hunt for treats to buy. Back then, there were countless stands along the road where drivers could stop and purchase bright red strawberries by the trayful and pistachios by the pound. There very well could have been other offerings available, but as far as my tiny tastebuds were concerned, strawberries and pistachios were everything

As a child who found both treats to be the most amazing snacks ever, being able to make a special stop to pick them out was truly a magical experience. And judging from the gleeful expressions on the faces of other children whose parents also stopped to purchase goods, the glory of roadside snacks was universal. 

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I still remember standing on my toes to scan the tables, intently looking for the perfect crate of strawberries. They had to be extra plump, but not too pink or too soft. A deep red body with bright green leaves was the sign of a faultless strawberry. The true torture came once we’d selected the ideal tray of berries. Since my mother would never allow me to eat them unwashed, I would have to withstand the desire to bite into one until we reached our destination. I don’t know how I resisted their candy-sweet allure.

With the berries being completely off-limits, pistachios were usually the main object of my attention on the way upstate. Upon picking up a large bag, my parents would let me dig my hand deep into the pistachio shells to grab a portion to snack on for the remainder of the car ride. One after the other, I would pull the shells apart, happily munching on pistachios that, until this very day, tasted like the finest in the world. Until last night, that is.

As I cracked open the last pistachio shell and set the remains aside to be discarded, my heart sank. What had happened to all of those wonderful fruit and nut stands? Where were all the excited customers? Where were the proud farmers? What on Earth had happened to the miles and miles of orchards and produce farms?

Many years have passed since my happy childhood visits to Central California’s agricultural region, but so much has changed without me fully understanding why. Once thriving farms were shut down due to lack of water, but where has all of the water gone? 

Photo Credit: Markus Spiske/Pexels

What has happened to the magical California I once knew?

Instead of driving the 5 and seeing bustling stands full of lovely produce, drivers are now greeted by the eye-watering stench of cows. Anyone who has driven the particular stretch of highway that I am referring to surely knows the foul experience of passing the farm in question. 

A thick, brown haze looms over the farm as thousands of cows stand crammed into acre upon acre of what appears to be one of the most unpleasant places a cow could ever live. It looks unreasonably filthy and disturbingly unhealthy even on the prettiest and clearest of days. Once you pass the place, the smell of these poor animals and their waste remains circulating through your car’s air system for miles. It’s horrible.

My childhood neighborhood, once surrounded by acres of lush, fragrant orange trees, is now nothing more than a master-planned concrete jungle. Tract homes built on top of tract homes.

The beaches, where I once spent my weekends splashing in the water and collecting seashells by the bucketful, now resemble sandy landfills. On many beaches, you would sooner see an abandoned cheeseburger box or a snubbed out cigarette before finding an actual seashell. Have beach-goers finally harvested all of the seashells from the shores, or are our oceans dying?

Much of California is encapsulated in a heavy cloak of smog, and has been for many years. There is bumper to bumper traffic, not for miles, but for counties. In some places, you can hardly see the mountains anymore, even though they are right there.

Wildfires, which were once a sporadic occurence, are no longer so uncommon. “Wildfire” has seemingly become it’s own season, right alongside “Drought” and “Landslide”. It breaks my heart to see many cities, including my old favorite hangout of Malibu, flattened by fires that seem to have a mind of their own. It happens so often now… far too often.

Moreover, a local culture that was once well known for its health and environmental consciousness has been largely replaced by gross consumerism and materialism. Appearance before character. Self before community. Now before future. Me before we. Bank accounts before Mother Nature. 

The worst part of all of this isn’t the fact that California’s beaches have lost their seashells. It isn’t that I can no longer buy pistachios along the highway. And it is certainly not that excessive construction and fire has decimated the state’s natural landscape.

The worst part about California’s lost magic is that it is just a small sampling of our planet’s lost magic. Things such as this, or even worse, are happening all over the world. It’s not just my hometown or home state that is suffering in this manner, but everyone’s

Photo Credit: Stijn Dijkstra/Pexels

Still, I ask myself… Who is responsible for all of this? The fires? The missing farms? The lack of water? The waste? The unethical farming? The pollution? The lost magic of the world and life?

What is it that you enjoyed as a child that your children will never come to know or experience for themselves? 

What beautiful memories have been turned into parking lots?

What amazing sights are now pure ash?

For me, it is the pistachios. The seashells. The hillsides. The orchards. 

My future children will never fully know the once “magical” land that their mother, grandparents, and great-grandparents called home. Of course, they can always visit and I can point out the places that once brimmed with life and vibrancy, but it may never be as it was. Not unless something is done, but what? Who is responsible? What can be done? Who can answer my questions? Who can return my lost memories?

In between helpless sniffles, I instantly regretted having bought the pistachios in the first place. 

Although those little shelled nuts haven’t tasted the same to me since the days of buying them along the freeway, I have consistently paid $8-10 a bag, trying to find some that would remind me of my childhood. It gutted me to realize that I had finally found some that had brought me back to the good ole’ days. Now I had to also acknowledge why it’d taken so long, why I couldn’t revisit the California I so often find myself dreaming about. 

With a satisfied stomach, but a broken heart, I stared at the empty pistachio packet and frowned. It was plastic.

Photo Credit: Magda Ehlers/Pexels

That, among so many other things, is precisely the problem.

© C.M. 2020 All Rights Reserved

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Ciao for now! 


Featured Photo Credit: Roberto Nickson/Pexels

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