The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

The second in a series of occasional posts about tripping along U.S. Highway 395.

To explore Highway 395, you first have to get to 395. We’ll be picking up 395 at Sonora Junction, at the terminus of Highway 108, just east of a twisting descent from the Sonora Pass.

We’re eastbound cutting across the width of California’s Central Valley from San Jose, where we left our dog Lexi in our son’s care.

California’s Central Valley. Driving its length, from north to south, can be drudgery, a slog that carries you past miles upon miles of orchards, vineyards and farmland. What might start as a pleasant bucolic drive can quickly become mind numbing. There’s little of the allure you find in Midwest farm country, where the miles of cornfields and soybean fields are interrupted by small town charm, occasional road houses, and barns adorned with colorful quilt designs. Highway 5 along the length of the valley is a protracted scream of unsightly agri-business.

The eastbound drive, the one we’re taking, can be a pleasant one. That is, once the clutter, the traffic and the commercial crap of the Bay Area has been left behind. The problem is, the clutter, the traffic and the commercial crap are all making their way east, spreading like a concrete and steel fungus.

From San Jose, we negotiate a web of South Bay freeways. Highway 101 to 680 to 580.

Eastbound 580 passes through the Livermore Valley. It’s wine country but you wouldn’t know it from the highway. From 580 you only get hints of a wine region; signs that point to wineries off on the far slopes, or a quick glimpse of a vineyard now and then. What you mostly see is a procession of shopping malls, auto malls, tract houses and some gaudy mcmansions scattered around the distant hills. And cars. Plenty of cars. This is the main artery from the outer banks of the East Bay to Silicon Valley. Hit it at a bad time and you’ll wish you’d brought with you the two P’s – patience and provisions. Add a hot August, 90 degree, Friday afternoon getaway day and you’re truly fucked.

Cora and I are getting away on a Saturday morning. There’s no traffic and we breeze past the overdeveloped, commercial ugliness and up and over the Diablo Range and the miles and miles of wind turbines that stand like battalions of aliens, escaped from the imagination of H.G. Wells.

Our first stop on the trip is in Tracy, just east of Livermore and the Diablo Range.


It’s 1878, and the future town of Tracy, California consists of a shack and a railroad switchman, whose job it is to operate the switch that sends trains to their appointed destinations. Over time, the switch operation will expand to a rail yard, two roundhouses, a maintenance facility, produce and freight docks and a passenger station. The railroad operation will spawn the new town which will be named after Lathrop J. Tracy, a grain merchant, railroad big shot, and, according to some accounts, a distant cousin of Leland Stanford, famous for founding the university that bears his name and infamous for being one of the famed Robber Barons of the Gilded Age.

Over time the reign of the rails is handed over to agriculture. Canning tomatoes are king for a time, until nuts become the major crop in the Tracy area.


For a relatively small town, Tracy’s history has had some darker moments of note.

In the 1970’s Tracy became known for some nuts that don’t fall from trees. These nuts were of a different sort, an evil sort. A short documentary titled California Reich gave the area some unwanted notoriety as a headquarters for the American Nazi Party.

It was during the late 1970’s that Linda and I were leaving San Francisco for a long weekend in the Gold Country. The drive would take us through the valley, through Tracy. We’d watched California Reich and the notion of going through Tracy gave us some moments of pause. Moments of pause because Linda was Chinese-American. Now, we knew full well that the local Nazis made up only a fringe of Tracy’s population, but we also knew full well that one only has to meet the wrong person, in the wrong mood, at the wrong time and place for things to go south, so we made the conscious decision to drive straight through town. There would be no pit stops for the bathroom, gas, food, photos or strolling main street. I’ll admit to some relief once Tracy was behind us. Tracy has long since put the Nazis behind it. It’s currently a very diverse community.

In 1969, an estimated 300,000 rock fans, in various states of sobriety, drunkenness and hallucination descended on the nearby Altamont Speedway for a free concert featuring some heavy hitters that included, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and the Rolling Stones.

Early on, it was hardly the West Coast Woodstock love-in that the promoters had hoped it would be. The event had been marred by thefts, acts of violence and three deaths that were deemed accidental. Things only got worse when the Stones thought it would be a fantastic idea to hire a criminal motorcycle gang, the Hell’s Angels, to provide a little stage security, and that, at the paltry cost of $500 dollars worth of beer. As Mick Jagger sang Under My Thumb, a group of Hell’s Angels beat and stabbed 18 year old Meredith Curly Hunter, Jr, to death.

Today, Tracy is far from the small agricultural town that I remember passing through as a child, or as a young adult. It’s been snagged into the net of the Greater Bay Area. The Tracy area became the destination for escapees from the high prices of the Bay Area. Trade offs were involved. People traded untenable Bay Area housing costs for an affordable home and a hellish commute to their jobs in Silicon Valley.

And Tracy? It traded its small town soul, as it allowed itself to be overrun by tract housing, apartment complexes, shopping malls and all the tinny tackiness that comes with growth. The orchards are still there but they’ve been marginalized by the mega-sized, flat top buildings with multiple loading docks on sprawling concrete acres that characterize the distribution and fulfillment centers planted there by Amazon, Home Depot, Safeway, Ryder and FedEx.

As we approach Tracy, I have a destination in mind. I’m on a halo-halo hunt for Cora.

What’s halo-halo?

It’s a Filipino dessert that’s made of shaved ice and the kitchen sink. Once the shaved ice is in the cup, the possible add-ins seem endless, and, to anyone not versed in Filipino tastes, downright confusing. There’s:
Sugar palm (kaong)
Sweetened saba banana
Mango slices
Sweet beans
Macapuno (coconut sport)
Ube (purple yam)
Leche flan
Ice cream

I’ve come to learn that among the halo-halo cognoscenti, the dessert is sort of like barbecue, chili and pizza, in that everyone seems to have a very strong opinion on who makes the best and what should be included or left out. Who was cuter? Ginger or Mary Ann? I wouldn’t be stunned to learn that the halo halo debate has led to bar fight fatalities.

I’m headed for Ellis Creamery, one of Tracy’s hidden gems; so hidden you could almost classify it as a speakeasy. On a street lined with a mattress store, a Costco, a couple of motels, a Texas Roadhouse, a Five Guys and assorted fat vats, is a National gas station with a sketchy looking convenience store that’s tucked between an RV center and a Black Bear Diner.

If you’re expecting a storefront with a display of Filipino delights then you’ll probably utter a “what the hell,” and drive on. You have to get out of your car, go into the convenience store and make your way to a far corner in the back of the store. There you’ll find a counter, a small display case and a back room that houses a bakery and an ice cream making enterprise. You’ve arrived at the halo halo holy grail. Size does not matter here. Ellis Creamery may be small and hidden but it has a wide Bay Area following.

Cora is part of the halo-halo cognoscenti. Some might use the term snob, but I won’t. After all, I have to share quarters with her. I bought Cora a halo-halo from a local shop in Hercules once. She denounced it as ersatz. “This isn’t real halo-halo,” she railed. She was outraged enough that I was afraid she would drive down to the little shop and give the proprietor, a pleasant young woman, a halo-halo dressing down.

At Ellis, she approaches the girl at the counter with an air of skepticism, expecting that she’ll get another cup of fakery. “What do you put in your halo-halo?” she asked.

The girl rattled off the ingredients. Cora considered for a moment and ordered.

“Do you want it with ice cream?”

“Of course.”

While the girl assembled Cora’s halo-halo (one doesn’t make halo-halo. With so many working parts, halo-halo is assembled) I watch a woman, the co-owner, fill the display case with baked goods. I ask her if they have empanadas today.

“Not yet. They’re still baking.”

My bad luck.

Back at the car, Cora digs in while I wait anxiously for the verdict. “Very good. Try it.” I’m relieved, as if I was the one who put it together.

I’ve always turned my nose up at halo-halo. I’m down with a simple banana split, but halo-halo has always seemed to have too much stuff; stuff that I’ve never heard of.

“C’mon, try it. It’s very good,” she cajoles.

She offers the spoon that holds a little bit of some of part of everything. There’s so much going on that you’d need a ladle to actually get some of everything.

I taste, as if I’m being offered a spoonful of iguana guts.

My eyes light up. “Oh my god, that is so fucking good! More!”

If we weren’t already on the highway headed for Manteca I’d turn around and get one for myself. It’s enough that she spoon feeds me as I drive. Well, okay, it’s not enough. But it’ll have to do.

Just fifteen miles east of Tracy is Manteca, where the tips of the Bay Area’s tentacles can be seen reaching into another community A sprouting tract development is a portent that Manteca will soon become another Bay Area bedroom community. It’s a 60 mile drive from Manteca to Fremont and the Silicon Valley. At rush hour it’s the voyage of the damned.

Manteca has a tenuous, slipping grip on its rural personality, as fulfillment centers have begun to grow like thorny weeds amongst the vast almond orchards. Lowes has opened a distribution center that serves all of Northern California. Amazon’s 764,000 square foot fulfillment center is Manteca’s largest employer.

Like a shifting army that attracts peddlers, opportunists and prostitutes, the Amazons and Lowes will attract their own camp followers. Wherever corporate America shows up, Mickie D, Wendy, the chicken colonel and all the other junk food and chain emporiums won’t be far behind. I can’t imagine what the old timers and the small family farmers think when they see concrete poured and girders going up.

The eastern reaches of Manteca are a welcome sight. The remnants of the garish venality of the Bay Area’s mall hell is being replaced by roadside farm stands selling local produce, and, the multi-lane highways have given way to two lane Highway 120.

The population here is over 47% Hispanic, as evidenced by the small Mexican food joints, taco trucks and bodegas that dot the two lane highway. It’s not uncommon to hear the rollicking accordion notes and drum beats of a Norteño song being pumped from an old pickup or a tricked out Chevy Impala – or even a Toyota sedan. Out here Spanish isn’t necessarily a second language. It might be like, a one and a half, or one and a quarter language and much of the signage is either bilingual or in Spanish. I know some of my fellow Muricans wouldn’t be happy about that, but I think it’s pretty damn cool. It’s, you know, that melting pot thing.

We’ve reached Oakdale and the orchards begin to give way to ranchland. With western wear shops, feed and tack shops, and rough hewn, divey looking taverns, Oakdale could be mistaken for a town in Wyoming – less the drive thru liquor stores of course.

Oakdale holds its cowboy mystique closely, having been dubbed by some bygone city fathers as “the cowboy capital of the world.” Cody, Wyoming and just about any dusty cow town in Oklahoma or Texas might object, but Oakdale makes its case based on having hosted the first outdoor rodeo in the western United States, as well as being home to a lot of cowboy shit, and, of course cow shit and horse shit.

We’re east of Oakdale now and the road and scenery have changed suddenly. It’s almost as if we’ve driven through a portal. The land is no longer table flat as we start to gain altitude towards the Sierra foothills and the Gold Country.

The two lane road undulates; a stretch of uphill followed by a short steep drop. Flatlands and farm lands are far behind and we’re going through a rolling land of brown hills, pocked with oak groves and outcroppings of a black volcanic rock called latite. The outcroppings are the remains of volcanic activity that occurred millions of years ago.

The roller coaster rise and decline of Highway 108 takes us to a junction with Kennedy Road, which leads to the little town of Knights Ferry.


It’s the spring of 1849. A little over a year before, in January of 1848, a carpenter, wheelwright and rancher named John Marshall discovered gold at John Sutter’s mill near the future site of the town of Coloma. The rush for California gold has begun and 80 miles to the south, a man named William Knight, who holds a curious combination of occupations, physician and fur trader, partners with a local, James Vantine, The two men salvage an old whaling boat and set up a ferry business across the Stanislaus River.

With the success of the ferry, Knight and Vantine expand their enterprise to include a hotel and trading post. It’s the beginning of a new town, a new town that Dr. Knight would bear only brief witness to, as he is shot to death in a gunfight on November 9, 1849.

The town would continue to prosper and in 1862, Knights Ferry becomes the county seat of Stanislaus County until that title is later assumed by Modesto.


Knights Ferry remains as a small community with visible ties to the gold rush heyday. There’s an old fire station, a covered bridge and a general store that’s been in operation for over a century.

This drive always brings me back to my childhood, when my dad took me  camping at Calaveras Big Trees. When you’re a kid, the end of the seemingly endless, “are we there yet,” drive is often found in a familiar feature that marks the approach of “there.” For me, those oak groves and black outcroppings always signify a gateway to the Motherload Country, one of my favorite regions in California.

Our next stop on the way to Bridgeport is Chinese Camp.

5 thoughts on “THE U.S. 395 CHRONICLES: From Halo Halo To The Motherload

    1. Paul says:

      Thank you Mr. M.

  1. Anne Sandler says:

    Paul, I love your writing, and I especially enjoyed this. I’ve been on all the roads and through the towns you mentioned. I felt like I was with you and Cora.

    1. Paul says:

      Thank you so much Anne. Glad that I can make such an impression.

  2. Toonsarah says:

    When I read one of your ‘on the road’ posts I always feel as if I were there in the car with you, and this one is no exception. Now, if only you coukd arrange for your readers to taste the halo-halo 😄

Would love to hear from you

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