Almaden

SANTA CLARA VALLEY – 1964

John stood outside in the back yard of his family farmhouse. He struck a match, lit a cigarette, and looked out across the maintained rows of green leaved plum and apricot trees under the midday sun as he tossed the burnt match to the ground. In the distance he saw a construction crew on a recently cleared lot paving new streets and laying foundations for future tract houses, and felt encroached upon. His mother came out the back door of the house. He sensed her looking at him with concern as he looked away toward the western mountains.

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” he asked sullenly.

“We couldn’t get a hold of you,” his mother replied. “You’ve been away for close to three years now. And with all your moving around after your discharge, we didn’t know where to find you.”

“I would’ve returned sooner if I knew this was going to happen.”

“I’m sorry you had to find out like this. We were hoping to keep the orchard, but your father isn’t as young as he used to be. His doctors are telling him to take it easy.”

“And Richard is okay with this?”

“Richard just got promoted to foreman at Owens Corning. He’s doing well. He could probably get you a job there.”

John looked back at his mother. “I would’ve taken over the farm.”

Mother looked at him sympathetically. “There’s just no more money to be made from fruit trees,” she said, “at least not around here. All the new housing and shopping centers are driving up the price of land, and our property taxes are going up with it. A lot of farmers are selling out.”

John took a drag off his cigarette. “This is all wrong.”

“I don’t like it either, but we don’t have much of a choice.” Mother moved a little closer toward John. “And the trees are getting older, some of them are at least fifty years old or more.”

John looked back at their rows of fruit trees, and was pained that they would soon be gone. “I thought this would always be here. Growers made this valley.”

“Yes, yes we did.” Mother came up to John and stood next to him. “Farms and orchards used to cover the entire valley, as far as the eye could see,” she said nostalgically. “When the trees were in bloom, people from all over would come here and visit just to see them. I always thought it’d be that way too,” she added forlornly.

Jason shook his head. “Our way of life is coming to an end.”

“The valley is a big place,” mother reminded. “I’m sure some of the orchards will remain. People will always have to eat. And the south valley is still unbuilt upon at least.”

John took another drag off his cigarette as he wandered away further from the house still feeling crestfallen. “So what am I going to do now?”

“We didn’t think you’d be back anytime soon. We just figured you’d settle some place else. You always were restless,” mother recalled maternally.

“Yeah, I did some adventuring around, but I’m back now.” John looked back at mother. “And the whole time I was away, I thought there would always be a home to come back to, and that a future here was possible. And I was wrong.” He paced around some more. “So what are you and Dad going to do? And Scott and Erin?”

“Well, we don’t have to move out just yet. We’ll get one more harvest. And with the money we’re getting we can buy a new home somewhere.”

“It won’t be like this,” John said disappointingly. “Just a little house with a little yard. Where are you all going to move to anyway?”

“Willow Glen might be nice. We have time to look around, and we don’t need a big house anymore. I’m kind of looking forward to it to tell you the truth. Just a little garden to take care of.”

John shook his head. “I still can’t get used to this.”

“Oh, it’ll be all right. You know, there are a lot of new jobs here” mother said while trying to sound positive. “Your friend Jim is working at Westinghouse. And remember FMC? They used to make cans for all the canneries? Now they’re making tanks for the army. With your service experience you’d be a shoe in.”

“I didn’t come back here to work in a factory,” John declined. “I always liked the openness here, and I am not liking this,” he said as he nodded toward the construction site.

“Are you going to leave us again?” mother asked mournfully.

John took another drag and exhaled. “Don’t know what I’m going to do yet.”

Mother put her hands on her hips. “And when did you take up smoking?”

“In the service. Guys who smoke get a cigarette break.”

“The doctors say it was cigarettes that caused your father’s health problems.”

John dropped the cigarette butt and crushed it into the dirt with his boot. “I don’t smoke that much.”

“I don’t want the same thing to happen to you.”

“When did cigarettes become bad for you all of a sudden?”

“Everything is changing,” mother pointed out. “I can remember when they built the hangar at Moffett Field. It was so big you could see it from miles away, but the land is filling up. Now you can’t see across the valley the way you used to.”

John watched the activity at the construction site resentfully and thought of the formerly open land that was about to be closed off, built upon, and occupied by strangers. “Can’t believe this is all going to be gone.”

“Sorry you feel that way, son. We didn’t think you’d take it this so hard.”

“Because I didn’t see this coming,” John said with some anger. “Would you have done the same thing if I was here?”

“I don’t know, but you would’ve been part of the conversation. What would you have done? Or said?”

“I would’ve tried to hold onto the farm. This is ours.”

“But how would you have kept it going? You never ran things. You don’t know what that’s like. It’s a lot of responsibility, all the harvesting, and bringing to market.”

“I took part in all of that,” John reminded. “I picked a lot of fruit and loaded a lot of crates over the years.”

“But it’s different when you’re in charge. There are bills, expenses, employees to pay, equipment to maintain, loans to pay off, taxes, rising costs.”

“I would’ve at least tried,” John insisted.

“But for how long? Especially with every other farm and orchard selling to developers and builders. It just feels inevitable.”

John looked back at the construction site. “I suppose you’re right,” he relented cynically. “I think it all started when they built those high end department store on Stevens Creek.”

“I don’t think they’re so bad,” mother replied. “Just the other day I bought a new dress from The Emporium. Your father said it makes look like a million dollars,” she smiled.

“You too, eh?”

“Well, sometimes you want nice things.”

“Hart’s has nice things.”

“Yeah, but the new stores are bigger, and have parking.”

“The valley is all about growing food for the people,” John asserted, “especially for the city people who don’t know how to farm. They depend on us. We don’t need to be like San Francisco.”

“Well I don’t think we’ll ever get that big, but we do have more businesses and industry here now, and all those new workers need places to live and shop.”

“But do you like what’s going on here?” John asked as he glared at the construction site.

Mother sighed. “I’m too old to fight it.”

“So it’s just me?”

“Like I said, you always were a restless child. As soon as you could walk you were off and running. You must have roamed over every square inch of this valley.”

“And someday there’ll be nowhere to run around or fish or hunt,” John said dejectedly.

Mother came up right next to John. “You know, we were never sure if you were going to come back home or not. It’s just your wandering ways.” She put her arm around him. “So what are you going to do next?”

John took a long look around at their property as he put his arm around his mother. “Think I’ll go over to Phil’s and see what he’s doing.” He looked at her pleadingly. “Can I take the Dodge?”

“Keys are in the usual place.”


John cruised along the two lane blacktop in a 1953 Dodge Coronet. Phil sat on the passenger side of the front seat. Rows of fruiting trees, plums, cherries, apricots, and almonds, bordered either side of the street, interspersed with plowed fields, at the end of which were old Victorian era farmhouses. A line of wire strung telephone poles were on one side of the street.

“Nice to have you back,” Phil began. “You must have missed home.”

“I’m going to be missing it more.”

“Are you leaving again?”

“My parents are selling the farm.”

“Oh no. All of it?”

“All twenty five acres.”

“I didn’t know they were looking to sell.”

“I just found out myself.” They approached an intersection and came to a stop. A produce stand was at one corner. John looked down either direction, then turned left onto the cross street. More orchards and farms lined the street.

“Getting one last look before it’s all gone?” Phil asked.

“I suppose,” John said dismally.

“Say, why don’t we grab some beers and head down to Almaden? We’ll go for a hike, maybe even do some fishing. You’ll feel better.”

“A hike sounds good. Maybe it’ll clear my head.” They drove along further.

“I don’t know what to say,” Phil finally said.

“I’m still in shock myself,” John admitted. “This changes everything.” He pondered his future and wondered where his next path was.

“My parents are talking about selling.”

“Really.”

“It’s the taxes,” Phil explained. “They don’t think they’ll be able to hold on much longer.”

“What are you all going to do?”

“My parents are thinking about buying land out near Gilroy or Hollister, maybe even all the way out to the San Joaquin Valley.”

“They want to move away?”

“They’re growers, only life they know.”

“How about you?”

“Well, this is the only home I know. If we sell I’ll have to find a job. I’ll see how it goes. How about you?”

“Haven’t decided.” They came to another intersection. A flashing red light was strung over its center. John tuned right and parked in front of a liquor store, a wide nineteenth century era white wooden building. They walked in and got a six pack of Falstaff beer from a refrigerated case. They went to the front counter.

rvilleliquors

“My friend here just got back into town,” Phil said to the middle aged woman behind the counter.

Oh, glad to be back?” the woman asked John. “My home has been sold to developers,” John answered.

The woman’s expression saddened. “Well that’s too bad,” she consoled. “That’s been happening all over.

“At least this old place is still here,” Phil added cheerfully.

“Don’t know for how much longer though,” the woman said. “The planning department want to turn Almaden Road out there into an expressway!”

“That could bring in more business,” Phil pointed out.

“It’ll put us out of business because the expressway will go over all of this,” the woman said with arms held out.

“Why do they have to put it right here?” Phil questioned. “Can’t they pave around you?”

“No can do,” the woman answered. “If they expand the road the other way it’ll fall into the river. Their mind is made up.”

“Can’t you fight it?” John asked.

“They’ll use eminent domain. The best we can hope for is a good price on the land. I also heard they’re going to build a new shopping center down at Almaden and Kooser.”

“Well there goes the south valley,” John said exasperatedly.

“Everyone is fleeing downtown for the suburbs,” the woman said.

“Suburbs that haven’t been built yet,” John added.

“They’re building them as fast as they can,” the woman informed. “And I’ll be glad to be gone when they do.”

“I can’t imagine the valley without places like this,” Phil said. “This is a landmark.”

“It sure was,” the woman said wistfully. “Back when this was a saloon, this was the only stop between San Jose and Almaden where you could come in and wet your whistle. Now San Jose is swallowing the whole place up. Can’t wait to get out.”

“That’s got to hurt,” Phil sympathized.

“Breaks my heart,” the woman said sorrowfully. “All the old families that grew and farmed in this valley are selling out and leaving. In ten years I’m not going to recognize my hometown.”

“Where are you going to go?” John asked.

The woman leaned forward onto the counter. “My husband and I have a beach cottage down in Capitola. That’s where we’ll be.”

“Sure won’t be the same here without Robertsville Liquors,” Phil said.

“No it won’t,” the woman shook her head. “Never thought I’d see the day.”


John and Phil paid for the beer and a couple of sandwiches, then got back into the Dodge and drove south on Almaden Road. They passed more orchards, some cornfields, an occasional market, and an old, Spanish designed elementary school.

“So they’re really going to widen this street,” Phil wondered. “Can’t imagine what that’s going to look like.”

“Guess we’re going to find out,” John replied.

“Who decides these things? Nobody asked us.”

“Somebody higher up on the totem pole.”

“Yeah, much higher,” Phil said. “I thought we were safe from all that. People need to eat, and we supply that.”

“California is a big state with a lot of agriculture. They’ll find a place.”

“Just wish they asked us.”

They passed a roadhouse tavern as they drove further into the south valley. The fruit trees began to give way to ranches and open fields. The straight road started to wind around knolls and climbed into the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The farms and ranches became sparse and gave way to forest and black oaks, bay laurels, madrones, and various firs. John lit up a cigarette as the road weaved higher into the mountains and gradually curved to the right. A creek appeared below the left side of the road.

They came to a turnout and John parked the Dodge. They got out of the car and crossed the road as John dropped his cigarette butt and stepped on it. They took in the surroundings as they entered the trail head and crossed into the woods.

“When was the last time you were down here?” Phil asked.

“Before I left home,” John answered. “At least this looks the same.” His mood improved as they hiked further into the thicket of trees. His worries dispersed into the natural surroundings as he fell into a more primordial conscious. The trees blocked out some of the sun and he felt a little cooler. They got through the trees and came to a reservoir. The late afternoon sun reflected brightly off the surface of the water.

“Well this looks as good a place as any to drink some beers,” Phil said. He set the six pack on a large rock along with a small paper sack. He pulled a church key from his pocket, opened two bottles, and handed one to John. “Glad to have you back, my friend,” Phil said as he raised his bottle in a toast.

John clinked his bottle against Phil’s. “About time, eh?” They both took a drink.

“Some of us were wondering if you were ever going to come back. We figured you were on some kind of adventure. You know how it is growing up here, every direction you look there’s mountains. Kind of makes the world seem small.” Phil reached into the paper sack and pulled out a cellophane wrapped sandwich. “You want your sandwich?”

“Later.” John wandered around the edge of the water as he considered what Phil had said. He remembered thinking the same thing when he was growing up but had never expressed it. He wondered if all he ever wanted was to see what was on the other side of the mountains, and then asked himself if he wanted to remain on the other side now that home as he knew it was about to end. As he pondered he spotted a hawk in the far sky, and followed its hovering flight path.

“No way they build up here,” Phil broke the silence. “Too far away from everything.” He took the last bite of his sandwich. “At least some things don’t change.”

John watched the hawk as it circled in the distance. “Things won’t be the same, whether I stay or leave.”

“Well I’m going to stick it out for the time being. The valley is still a good place to live. Even if we sell the farm I can find a job here, and there’s a lot more than there used to be.”

Neither spoke for a moment.

“But I do know some people that are leaving,” Phil continued. “They just can’t compete. And now my sister want to go to college up in Berkeley. If she does I can’t imagine her coming back here to live the farm life, assuming we still have it by then.” Phil took another drink as he moved closer to the water next to John. “At least you don’t have to worry about being drafted now that you’ve done your time. Weren’t you stationed in South Vietnam?”

“South Korea.”

“Oh, Vietnam is what I keep hearing on the news. Maybe the Army will come after me if that builds up.”

“We’re only there to support their government against the Communists,” John informed. “At least that’s what they told us.”

“You were in that part of the world. What do you think?”

“It’s been over since I was there. A lot has changed.”

They looked down toward the water line. “You mean since the president was shot?”

A memory of shared trauma was triggered. “Everything is on edge now,” John dreaded. “Hard to tell what’s going to happen next.”

“Well, whatever the future holds, we sure had some good times,” Phil said affectionately.

John thought back to their growing years. He felt a yearning for that time, a sorrow over its passing, and frustration that he wasn’t more appreciative for what he had. He then saw his varied past in its entirety. “I may not know what the future holds, I don’t even know if I’m going to stay here or not, and maybe everything I remember from home as I knew it is going to disappear. But I do know where I came from, where we came from, and no one can take that away from us,” he stated proudly.

“Amen, brother.”

John held up his beer. “To our little Eden.” Phil toasted along with him as they looked out across the water.

almadenres1

©2015 Robert Kirkendall

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26 thoughts on “Almaden

    1. It sure has! I grew up in Santa Teresa (later called Blossom Valley) from the ’70’s to the mid ’80’s, and the little bits of farmland that were still around the neighborhood back then are all gone.

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  1. I like your story I was there we had a raspberry farm next to the trout farm in Almaden across the street from Wilkins market it was too far out in the sticks so my mom wanted to move to Willow Glen so that’s where he moved to in 1962 we couldn’t make any money selling raspberries so we plowed them under and I remember robertsville liquor store my dad used to stop there on the way home from work remember the trout farm and Wilkins market and club Almaden and if you swim in the deep pool you get polio used to be able to go upstairs and watch the Disney movies and then they had the arcade downstairs and then there was a quicksilver mine I grew up with the toelbars and Richard Fisher they had the poultry farm next to Del webs development I can go on a 9 I’ll never forget it was a great place to grow up

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  2. Great story! My 68 year experience of living in California started in the Southern California citrus orchards some of which my Mothers father owned. We moved to Santa Clara Valley in December 61 and moved into a new home built on an old apricot orchard off Blossom Hill Road between Leigh and Union. Our home was on the mountain side of the road and was just high enough to view the valley just above the trees. During springs we were able to see all of the different colored orchards all the way over to the East foothills.
    I now live in Watsonville apple orchards on a piece of Commercial Ag. Zoned property. No development here ever.

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    1. I know exactly that stretch of Blossom Hill Rd. That was one spot where you could see the blooming fruit trees. It’s amazing how much agriculture there used to be in LA and the Bay Area. But at least Watsonville still has farms and orchards. I live in Santa Cruz so I’m not too far away from all that. Glad you liked my story!

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  3. Came here via Christian’s blog, enjoyed reading your story.I stay in another part of the world where we are right now going through what’s happening in your story. Can completely relate and it does not feel good. Will miss our old farms and localities when the new developments happen. And you write really well, very well crafted dialogue!

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    1. Thanks, Bharti! Glad you came across my story. With California in its fourth year of drought I can’t help but think the reverse is going to happen here. A lot of water intensive crops are grown in the southern part of the state and I don’t know how tat can be maintained.

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  4. Thank you Robert — I enjoyed your memories; they brought back a flood of my own…I was born in Palo Alto in the 1940’s — good grief, I am officially old — and my grandparents both had farms, one in Menlo Park and the other in Sunnyvale. My ex’s grandfather was a major apricot farmer in Mt. View. I remember when the whole valley was orchards and going to downtown San Jose was a big deal (second only to “the City”).

    When I was a kid, we used to drive down the old El Camino Real from the Peninsula, head over on a two lane road to Saratoga and stop for an ice cream before joining the long, long, hot trek with all the overheating cars to Santa Cruz. Sometimes it felt like it took all day to get to the beach and boardwalk — but it was always worth it!

    Thanks again — Carla at justmecoloringoutsidethelines.com

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    1. You’re welcome, Carla! I always enjoy reading and hearing people’s fond memories of the Valley of Heart’s Delight. My family didn’t move to San Jose until 1970 (right after my birth), and I grew up in the opposite corner of the valley from where you did, Blossom Valley (IBM opened a plant there in the early 50’s). There were some orchards and farms left at the time we arrived, but they all got built upon as I was growing up and were largely gone by the 90’s. I eventually made my way to Santa Cruz about 20 years ago.
      One could write a Rip Van Winkle-like story about the valley. The main character falls asleep in a plum orchard, and wakes up in a microchip clean room. 😀
      Thanks for reading!

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  5. Got sidetracked, reading your stories Robert. I’m a 5th-generation born in San Benito County. Grew up in Markleeville, though. Not many buckaroos or apricot orchardists left in my family, but I do know where I came from. Great writing!

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Charli! My dad used to live in Hollister so I’ve spent some time in San Benito Co. Beautiful country out there, and it gets the breeze from Monterey Bay. San Jose used to have a lot of apricot orchards, many on the east side where Eastridge Mall is now.

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      1. I remember how the fog would creep in and burn off in the breeze. We ranched up around Paicines, and Tres Pinos. So much lost to development. I think the family’s apricot orchards are still operating, but Hollister was once surrounded by them.

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  6. Wow, really brought back memories, I moved to Los Gatos in January of 1980, was around long enough to say, I remember when that was all orchards. Bittersweet, I miss California so very much.

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