Memories Stink

This story stinks.

Back to that in a moment.

Any time my family and I take even the shortest of road trips, it doesn’t take long for my son, Atticus, to ask: “Are we there, yet?” And no matter our response, he usually has some follow-up questions — to which answers are never adequate. At least — unlike people my age — my son always has a device to keep him entertained on long trips.

The unofficial rite of passage for all Californians is to trek down or up Interstate 5 (depending on where you live in the state). Often referred to as I5, it is arguably the most important highway on the west coast. In one long 1,382 mile stretch, it can just about get folk from Vancouver to Tijuana.

While I’ve never driven its full length, I’ve taken countless trips from the Bay to Los Angeles and Anaheim, and occasionally, to San Diego.

When I was a kid I entertained myself by staring at and counting the rows and rows of trees along the roadside. Something about the symmetry of the farmland was mesmerizing. And if I wasn‘t staring out of the car window, I killed time by catching a few Zs in the backseat of our Chevy Nova. (I’m still amazed that we, and millions of others, in those days, put ourselves at risk — before buckling-up became the law of the land.) Moreover, I can’t imagine driving 55 mph (the speed limit in those days). Today’s 70 mph feels like a crawl; 15 mph slower would take an eternity.

This is the part of the story that stinks.

Pre-dating my son’s aforementioned questions by 40+ years, I usually awoke to ask my parents one question: “Have we passed the ‘cows’ yet?” Although, driving through the thick stench, of what I came to learn was Harris Ranch, didn‘t mean we had arrived, it did mean that we were closer. To that end, learning that the stretch of stench was behind us, always came as a relief.

The times I didn’t nap, inevitably, my brother or I would ask, “Who farted?” Of course, my dad never liked that word, so he reprimanded us. Nowadays, since my dad is no longer in the car with me, I usually say, “Holy shiznit!” And no matter how many times we‘ve passed through, my wife still asks, “What. Is. That. Smell?” Because she’s the steak lover in the family, I‘ll respond with something like, “That’s your steak.”

After a few minutes of driving through what smells like the funk of 40 thousand years, there is a bright side. On the one hand, the advantage of Interstate 5 is that it gets you from point A to point B faster than the slower, albeit more beautiful, Highway 101. On the other hand, it‘s desolate and boring, which is why you need good music and good company.

As I look back on my childhood, I remember enjoying the drive much more when my parents were married. My dad was always singing songs by Kris Kristofferson or Juan Gabriel, and my mother habitually made sure we were comfortable. As much as I liked sitting in the front seat, I recall feeling somewhat broken when occupying the place my mom used to sit in. Divorce stinks, too. To this day, Travel Lodges, which were often our final destination, remind me of this period in my life.

Back to the stench.

Founded in 1937 in Coalinga, California, Harris Ranch has grown into one of the largest players in the business, covering 800+ acres, employing about 400, and producing over 155,000,000 pounds of beef every year. Chances are that you’ve eaten it, too. The majority of the meat cooked and served at In-N-Out is from Harris Ranch. So the next time you drive through the stink, wave to your burger, she‘s out there.

Because the smell is inescapable, we never stop anywhere near the ranch. That said, on our last trip, we had to stop for a reason that I can’t remember, and, as it turns out, just 40 feet away — on the other side of the road — were fenced-in cows — looking right at us.

Like other similar outfits, Harris Ranch is not immune to scrutiny. Activists have been critical of its farming methods, and extremists have taken responsibility for an arson fire that destroyed 14 cattle trucks.

In a more reasonable and measured approach, activist, Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, was slated to speak at Cal Poly until Harris Ranch chairman, David E. Wood, (a Cal Poly alumnus), threatened to withdraw a $500,000 gift to his alma mater. In the end, Pollan’s role was reduced to being a participant in a panel discussion. His response to the demotion:

“What’s happening at Cal Poly has a very different flavor. They want to close this conversation down. Harris Ranch does not understand academic freedom.”

In 1979, AC/DC released “Highway to Hell” to describe what it’s like to be on the road. In 1991, Tom Cochrane penned an upbeat song titled “Life is Highway,” to put a positive spin on a traumatic experience. Both songs aptly speak to our collective experience of life on a highway.

In the latter, Cochrane says, “I want to ride it all night long.” (Clearly, he hasn’t driven through Coalinga.)

It’s difficult to imagine life on the highway without the cows. For generations, they’ve interrupted songs, conversations, and breathing. But more importantly, they’ve added to our memories.

And there’s nothing stinky about that.

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