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Books
A Haunting Portrait of the Valley

Reviewed by Howard Lachtman

Adventure. You know where to find it, if only in your imagination.

You've haggled in the bazaars at Katmandu, heard the temple bells at Mandalay, risked the waves at Pitcairn Island, ridden a non-stop camel through Timbuktu and perhaps even taken a glass of Perrier among smugglers, secret agents and visiting schoolteachess from Omaha at Rick's Cafe in Casablanca.

What will you do for an encore? Where will adventure lead you next?

"I'm traveling the San Joaquin Valley, north to south, start to finish." one intrepid
explorer told me recently, without so much of a wink or leer to undercut the premise of his new adventure.

"Yes, I said doubtfully, "but I would have thought that someone like you would rather do, I don't know - Pango Pango. Or perhaps, the Nile by paddle-wheel?"

"Done it long ago," the traveler said crisply, as if Karnak and Abu Sinbel were merely way
stations on the road that led him to Stockton. "No, this time I'm going after something
bigger, something truly unique, something no one else I know of has ever done or even thought of doing."

He leaned forward in a conspiratorial manner and lowered his voice as if to make sure we
wouldn't be overheard, "The Valley, you see. I'm going to do it. All of it."

"It’s a little hard for me to see it the way you do," I confessed with a grin. "I don't quite
follow what you're after, what draws you here."

He nodded at me, as if my puzzlement was something to be expected. And something to be tolerated.

"No wonder. After all, we always take for granted what is in our own backyard. How many of you Californians can boast of going the length of the greatest, most fertile, most
culturally diverse valley in America? You don't even know what you've got here."

His last word hit home.

To begin with, I thought, what is need isn't a map but a book - an excursive book about the San Joaquin Valley whose words and pictures would offer a blueprint of perspective explorers.

It might begin, like my friend, in the shadow of Shasta and her sister Lassen. It would
continue down through Sacramento, Stockton and points south until, laden with local color
and a real sense of the interior journey, it ran up against the wall of the Tehachapi’s.
Journeys end.

In such a book we would not be in a hurry. Instead we would make good use of our eyes and ears. We, too, would be more than those travelers who measure their progress by map, clock and fuel tank. We would be interpretures. At the end, we would have gone from the snow country to the desert, from impatience to get on to the next place to the reward of understanding where we had been. At that point we might even discover the California Heartland is something more than the sum of a few large cities, many small towns and isolated farms which sit on the vast, level plains of the valley floor.

No book has done that much yet. But there is there is one who shows in part how it might be done.

"The San Joaquin Valley." with text by Nick Zachreson and photographs by Richard Hammond, was published in Visalia and is being distributed by Santa Cruz's Western Tanager Press.

It is one of my favorite Valley books because it goes in search, as author Zachreson says,
"of something close and recognizable. To tell the Valley's geography, crops, and climate, its length and breadth in miles - all this somehow fails to convey the fact of it on the eye and imagination."

The imagination of the writer, teamed with the eye of the photographer, has resulted in this classic black-and-white study of the land and its people. No book has captured the back roads and ordinary lives of the Valley better than this one, through the "California primitive" portrait it offers is certainly as studied and stylized as any more sophisticated coffee table book.

The more glamorous version of the Valley would show us a kind of Happy Valley, all green fields and smiling faces under an omnipresent sun, a paradise lush with color and quaint "Californianos"

Zachreson and Hammond will have none of it. Their Valley exists off the beaten track. It is filled with images of rugged individuals, pastoral silences and ghostly ruins. The landscape is bleakly beautiful, sometimes eloquently desolate and spaciously enough to engage the most restless eye, the most searching imagination.

Here are photos of olive and lettuce harvesters, herds of sheep and grazing cattle, barbed wire fences and tractor dust, sagging silos and oil pumps standing like sentinels.

To complement these haunting portraits, Zachreson has created prose as elemental and evocative as the photographer's art. He is not writing a treatise on Valley like more than Hammond has compiled a portfolio of impressionistic snapshots. Instead he gives us a collection of Valley flavored vignettes and yarns, each kited to a specific picture and intended to articulate whatever that picture leaves unspoken. We hear the voice of pickers, truckers, farmers, small town merchants and idlers, oil men and country songwriters and a sense of history past and passing.

Such work inspires our pilgrimages. It provides a new vision of the Valley, one that is both startlingly original and gratifyingly familiar. If Hammond's camera work is reminiscent of an Andrew Wyeth landscape, Zachreson's prose recalls the simple, iconic, poignant, idiomatically exact John Steinbeck of "The Long Valley."

You can recognize "The San Joaquin Valley" by the crooked silo on its cover. A note tells us it stands in the Tulare Lake basin near the town of Stratford. Built in 1920 by cattlemen and used briefly to store silage, it has been abandoned for over 60 years. It has now become the Valley's own version of the leaning tower of Pisa. Looking at that silo, you wonder why it hasn't fallen in all these years. You have the feeling it will still be standing when San Francisco is under water and New York is a forgotten city. There is a permanence about such transitory monuments that colors their photos and legends. You meet it everywhere in these pages.

The next time a visitor ask you to tell him what the Valley is like - once you get off the highway and into the places where fast food franchises and video games are still unknown - you pretend to know. Or you can hand him this book without comment.