“Dirt Roads”

In honor of John Steinbeck’s birthday yesterday, I’m publishing this essay I wrote last spring as a memory of Brentwood, California– my own piece of rural California with its own beauties and shortcomings.


When I sued to live in Brentwood I was fifteen. Not old enough to drive. But I drove everywhere. The backseat of my family’s car gave me lenses for seeing the best of this tip-of-the-tongue East Bay town where I cannot see myself ever again– even thirty years from now.

In that one year I was there the sun licked everything and it gave the people a glow about this old land. An old place to make anew.. They would overstock in coming months for new blocks and streets, lining them out with heavy tar and building upwards to the sun with  fresh cream stucco that dried quickly. Bright palm trees arrived, growing from wood crates. They wanted all of it to come together, melt and mold into the Rave Cinema and Best Buy, BJ’s and Swarovski now there.

Still there was only dirt from which to start forward. I enjoyed the roads that brought me to them, took me right by the dirt and strappy gray trees with roots plunging into them when I could seem them at forty miles an hour.

They’ve piled on the dirt for decades. Spaniards mounted on terra-cotta-toned steeds or farmers wandering and watering and sowing uncertainty. They had trucks, rusted ones because in the beginning few grew out on the dirt. Better irrigation solved the truck problem– more crop gave more cash for new ones and other things.

The storefronts came when the cash did too. Most I still see standing there. The old buildings are my favorites, they are the heavy weight champ of the years. Mostly, they’re antiques. At the end of Lone Tree Way the car gets through the stucco homes and orchards and turns right, coming up to the side of the road three little shacks brown but one white, seated and waiting in the dry air. Antique shop row. It was a new drive, difficult being my first time this far from the downtown. I read about the antique shops in the local paper, how the white building would serve you tea as you browsed. It was the first one I went into with Mommy one afternoon and we both didn’t get any.

Take that same road farther down, and it wraps around the powdery clods piled near farm gates and into the main streets of Brentwood. Somewhere off one of them is the party goods rental store in an aluminum shell painted white. I forget what that store is called, only that the sign above the side door was in red letters. They supply good chairs there and a portable dance floor.

The only other business good for dirt roads are for the cars. Repair shops have concrete offices and tin-thick spaces for cars in waiting, bare. Others are discarded into lots not far from the garage but by a new business. Junk autos don’t mind the dust and thick soil. It’s good for their worn tires which they dig into the dirt to keep them cool.

New cars park off the main streets in the center of town, thinking too good of themselves for dirt to glaze their tails or side doors. Stiff pride, trying to keep clean as long as possible while blue and red and yellow vinyl pennants are strung around their perimeter.

The rain sprinkles on the soil in January to March and spits up corn by August. The Brentwood cherries are just as favorable. Families and lovers around the East Bay turn their heads to this town in early summer when they want cherries. The dirt moves every one of them along to their trees, ripe and generous with branches of the fruit; the pickers pay no attention to the road other than straight ahead and think about how fair a day it must be today in Brentwood, with the sun still licking it all and the clouds barely there. The people who pick cherries thank the dirt road with the stems and fleshy maroon pits they throw on the ground.

I lived out here when I was fifteen. I never needed to just drive out here for cold tea or far cherries. It was all here on the dirt roads, close to me but still a different world. I lived a new Brentwood, of the stucco that formed new single-family haciendas side by side on hillsides where they still need to lay down grass for both the homes and golf courses.

But not far down the road did the gold courses end and surrendered to the dirt. They were there, when we drove by them, over them, through them– when I wanted them there under the sun and for the remembering.


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