The biggest of the small towns. That’s the only way I can think to describe Modesto, California. Known primarily for agriculture and the birth of George Lucas, among other less savory statistics, Modesto doesn’t exactly receive love letters from those who grew up here.  

But, with the rise and long-awaited fall of COVID-19, I’m not especially eager to pack my bags and kiss the farmland goodbye. Despite increasing vaccinations and gradual reopenings, I’m wary to leave the bubble and travel into COVID uncertainty.

In a time where I couldn’t stroll the streets of Santa Cruz or take a road trip to Southern California to see my brother, I began to see Modesto in a new light. I started laughing when a tractor pulled in front of me on country roads by my house. I started admiring the fields of almonds. I started to chip away at the memory-stained sights of my town, and looked around through the fresh eyes of the vacationer that I longed to be.

You’ll see an element of this picture from just about any direction you turn in Modesto — some piece of abandoned farm equipment, a barn, and the Sierras and Coastal Range that surround the Central Valley. In my younger years, these mountains made me feel trapped, surrounded — they were a barrier facing those who wanted out of the valley. Today, they’re reliable and a comfort, peeking through even the worst air quality.

In case you don’t remember the Splasher the Frog commercials, this reminder serves to deter residents or guests from taking a swim in the canals that run through the town. Canal swimming is frowned upon as no one knows what’s in that water, and it’s easy to get stuck on something you don’t even know is there. My grandfather once told me about afternoons he spent swimming in the canals with his buddies in high school, and I understood why those reminders were needed.

Every now and then, Modestians see big rigs passing through town alongside farm trucks and trailers, which leave potholes along the back roads that no city official bothers to worry about. These lonely roads are driven either at high speeds, risking the loss of a part, or with caution, as drivers dodge every shadow that may lead to an unwelcome bump. Yes, I made this mistake twice. Yes, now my car only has three hubcaps.  

Modesto has a surprising amount of train activity. My stance on Modesto trains may be slightly different from those of other residents, but living less than a mile from Modesto Amtrak makes me an expert on the coming and goings of trains. After all, I’m the one who hears the train horn echo at midnight when there’s something — or someone — on the tracks.

I’ve been passing by this barn for years, and its new embellishment, “Keep Out,” is a clear message to visitors. I’m not sure if I want the backstory on this added accessory to the barn, but I’m sure a visitor in Modesto would get a kick out of the local flavor.

One of the views most associated with the Central Valley, the farms that make the world go ‘round — or at least contribute to one quarter of the United States’ food supply. To get just about anywhere, we Modestians drive past fields of grass for grazing cattle, stalks of corn, or endless rows of almond and walnut trees. This is the view I missed when I lived in Santa Cruz.