A few days ago, I drove back from San Diego to my home in Nevada City. It’s a nine hour drive with traffic, so I decided to stop halfway: in Kettleman City. I exited the off ramp and navigated myself to the parking lot of the Quality Inn. A very kind Indian lady welcomed me, took my credit card and gave me a key. The Quality Inn in Kettleman City is really more of a motel: low two story long buildings built around a parking lot.
I parked close to my room, climbed up to the second floor and found the usual kind of situation: double bed, TV, mass produced print on the wall, tiny sealed bottles of shampoo, conditioner, etc. in the bathroom. You get the picture. It was a room. You could sleep there. But as plastic fruit is the real fruit, so this room was to a real home that felt lived in. Such are hotels. After relaxing on the bed for a few minutes, I felt the desire for something more alive. So I decided to take … a stroll.
I walked across the asphalt that was cracked and broken in many places. I jumped off a small wall into an area of nondescript gravel, broken concrete and lifelessness. I walked across some more concrete, down past more cinder block walls and finally I came to a pedestrian crossing. It was some kind of major road going from the freeway to somewhere in the middle of nowhere. I waited for the little red man to become green, and walked across into another big parking lot to Bravo Farms: a one stop shopping destination for travelers like me. This is a long building built to imitate the look of early frontier towns. Inside, they sell all the kinds of things the tourists might like. Everything I noticed was a replica of something else: a horse shoe, but made of plastic, a whale, but about 18 inches long in a bright neon color, honey, but not really entirely the product of bees, more of a syrupy, high glucose corn syrup kind of situation with some undisclosed amount of honey in it.
Everybody wandering around this place look lost and confused: empty, staring eyes, a hunger which I suspected all of this bric-a-brac would never satisfy. Of course, I was just recovering from five hours of straight sitting in a car and probably so were they. So no one was at their best.
High up on the wall was suspended a large picture, maybe four by five feet, of a mountain stream. It was what you would call a nature picture, clearly shot far away in the wilderness somewhere. It had been shot on a fast shutter speed, so the water was frozen into tiny drops that almost seem to extend out of the frame towards you. The rocks were glistening wet and surrounded by wild flowers. Clearly somebody in corporate HQ had done a good job of brightening the colors to make it look even wetter, even brighter, even more Mary Poppins-y. I looked at this bright picture of the mountain stream shot far away from everywhere and I looked back at my fellow wanderers shuffling between aisles of merchandise and then it hit me. I am no longer on Planet Earth in its original state. This is a kind of purgatory, where everything is a plastic replica of its real life counterpart.
Faced with such depressing thought, I turned to the time tested remedy for overtired people when the world looks gray: ice cream. They had a long display featuring every kind of flavor under the sun. A tall young man, no more than 20, looked back at me from behind the counter. His skin looked almost gray. His face was expressionless.
“kuyahepya.” He mumbled.
“Excuse me?” I asked. “I didn’t quite catch it.”
“Can I help you?” He repeated more slowly now in a dull monotone, that was almost menacing.
“I think I’ll try the strawberry cheesecake,” I said, with slightly forced cheerfulness, pointing to stainless steel vat of ice-creamy-looking stuff, with a glossy laminated picture above it of fresh Fresh, FRESH!!!!! strawberries atop a very very homemade looking cheesecake.
Once again, the little picture looked so real, so bright, so mouthwatering, so … real.
Suddenly I felt a sense of mission alight within me. Priding myself on my ability to lift people’s spirits even under trying circumstances. I reached out to him with my brightest, deepest, happiest smile.
“So,” I asked rather as one might greet a family member on Christmas morning. “How is it for you living here in Kettleman City?”
“All right, I guess,” he mumbled. “Not much going on.”
“Yes, indeed,” I said brightly. “Well, is this what you love in life or is there something else you’re passionate about?” Sometimes I like to ask that question of people selling ice cream or waiting tables or something because people sometimes appreciate a little curiosity pointed at what’s really meaningful to them.
“Nuh,” he replied. “I just do this.”
As I wandered out of the store with my little cup and my little plastic spoon, I took my first taste. It didn’t taste anything like cheesecake or strawberries or any of the ingredients that might go into such things. It seems to be more of another artificial replication of life, than life itself. It tasted of chemicals and artificial sweetener and syrupy, smushy, mushy goo that will satisfy you so long as the last contact you had with real food was some years ago. I was tempted to throw it away. But having invested $4.99, and being a frugal kind of fellow, I ate it anyway. I walked back across the cracked tarmac, the cracked concrete. I don’t think I saw one living, growing thing in the entire journey from the ice cream purchase back to my room.
When I got to my hotel room, I realized it was a little too early to go to sleep, but a little too late to crank up the computer. So I did the done thing under such circumstances: I switched on the television. It had a remote, which I used to flip through all 67 channels. Having found absolutely nothing but violence, commercials and bad news, I realized I must have gone through it too quickly with an unforgiving, depressed disposition. So I flipped back through them in reverse order, this time more slowly. Sadly, I had not glossed over anything.
I forgot to tell you one thing, which I’ll mention now. I was on my way home from the Transformational Leadership Council where my friend, Daniel Schmachtenberger had been a speaker. [I interviewed him recently for a podcast, listen to it here].
Daniel had spoken quite eloquently and shockingly about the way that it is primarily market forces and the need to compete in the marketplace that drives the destruction of the natural world, and all the things that future generations might otherwise enjoy. Everyone has the attitude, “I love the forest. I want to sustain the forest. But I’m just cutting down one tree. It won’t make any difference. I have to, I need the money.” Get 8 billion people doing that, and you’ve got no forest. So I went to sleep that night realizing that everything Daniel had warned us about: the impact of commercialization upon everything that is natural, was being played out right before my very eyes here in Kettleman City. It was a kind of a dramatic enactment, a warning of what the whole world would become if we don’t do something.
If not you and me, then who? We are heading in a direction where the only reference point that people have for a mountain stream is a glossy photoshopped poster on the wall, or an image you can pull up on your iphone. The only thing that people know about horseshoes, whales, or honey, is a cheapened artificial imitation.
I slept that night, sometimes woken up by the loud and clanky air conditioning, which did not feel like to my lungs anything like the memory of the fresh air which the image of that mountain stream evoked.
I did my morning practice and then descended back down to the front office for their free cooked breakfast. “Yummy,” I thought. But once again, everything was a plastic imitation of it’s original, real counterpart. The waffle mix was a kind of gluey paste that patrons were encouraged to pour into the iron. The oatmeal seemed something akin to the chemicals you use to strip wallpaper. There were large plump oranges, which looked just too perfectly what an orange should look like, if all oranges were perfect. I was not fooled. I decided that I would settle on the eggs. I got my styrofoam plate and my plastic knife and fork (all that was available) and prepared to shovel eggs from metal serving dish to plate. But then they also seemed suspicious, also indicative of being the product of a factory more than a chicken. “Excuse me,” I asked my Indian hostess, “I wanted to ask about the eggs. Did you really scramble these eggs, like from actual eggs…or is this…”
“No,” she beamed at me, before I had finished my sentence. “These are coming as prepared mix from a packet.” She said it like it was extra special, superior, enhanced. American quality! I feared as much.
Everything, every last tiny thing, even the plates and knives and the forks, were all factory made replicas of real things. They only prove themselves to be acceptable, relative to the time that has elapsed since you experienced life in its original state for real. I walked back through the reception, hunger not satisfied, but self preservation still intact. I was greeted by the patriarch of the establishment: an Indian man in his 50s. He grinned so broadly from ear to ear, his eyes shone so brightly, it was as though he was ripping a tear in a screen onto which a black and white movie was projected, and radiating color through it.
“Good morning” he beamed exuberantly, “How are you?”
“Thank you, great,” I replied. I was referring more to my life as a whole, big picture, than to this specific morning. “Are you from India?”
Although it had seemed impossible a moment before, he grinned even more broadly, like his jaw was about to dislocate, and drop to the floor.
“Yes!” he said with tremendous pride and satisfaction, “I come from Gujarat.”
“Wonderful,” I said, “what brings you here?”
“Family!!” he thundered as though he was going to burst into song. “I am here with my family.”
“I see, and tell me, do you eat the American food, or do you eat Indian food?”
“Oh,” he said, “my wife…” he said the word ‘wife’ in such reverential tones that it appeared to be a religious reference. “…she cooks the most delicious Indian food that anyone could ever taste.” This man had clearly somehow found a way to create his own little cocoon of heaven in purgatory.
Later I did go back to my room, and switched on the computer to finish some work on a chapter of a book I am working on for a client. It was getting close to check out time, and I was not done. I stepped out onto the passageway that went along in front of the rooms and saw my Indian host again out in the parking lot, busy instructing an employee.
“Excuse me,” I asked. He stopped for a moment, and looked up at me again with that immense grin, laser beams of love pouring from his eyes. “Yes,” he said, “Ask me anything!” He spread his arms wide, to emphasize that he really meant ‘anything.’
“I was wondering if I could check out a little later than the regular time.”
He opened his eyes even more broadly, in an expression of rapture. “Yes” he said, “yes, yes, yes! You may have one more hour.”
I drove away from Kettleman Ranch that day with several important takeaways.
First, I had experienced a vivid warning about the direction life is going for all of us, unless we reclaim our loyalty to the living earth.
But second, even as the concrete jungle closes in on the natural world a little more every day. I learned from my host the art of squeezing drops of joy even out seemingly dried up fruit.
“My wife…she cooks the most delicious Indian food… my family. Yes…Yes…YES!!!!”