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Driving far away to find a sense of home

The Bakersfield arch on Sillect Avenue is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the city.
The Bakersfield arch on Sillect Avenue is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the city. cdobstaff@thetribunenews.com

We all have times in our lives where we just need to escape to somewhere else. Even living in a region as alluring and brimming with potential discoveries as the Central Coast, it’s inevitable that we’ll begin to feel a bit claustrophobic. And the perfect cure, of course, is a road trip.

Whether it’s an overnight jaunt or an expansive, weeklong trek, a getaway behind the wheel to an unfamiliar locale is just the ticket to relieving those bothersome homemade blues. So a few weeks ago, I packed up my duffel bag, hopped into the car with my friend, navigator and partner in crime, and set out on the open road.

To Bakersfield.

I’m still relatively new to the Golden State, and my only experience in the Central Valley has been a quick stop for gas during the final leg of my initial trip out west. But my knowledge of Bakersfield has been colored by tales from those who grew up in the area, as well as those just passing through.

And not many of those stories have been, well, positive. The city gets a bad rap, what with the poor air quality and blistering hot days, the crime stories and proliferation of just about every unhealthy food option one could imagine.

But you know what? I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, aka “Murdertown, USA” — a former steel empire with its glory days firmly in the rearview mirror and mob connections that still seep into the headlines.

So all the negative talk of Bakersfield wasn’t going to deter me from trying to enjoy the city Buck Owens loved so much that he built a palace there.

My friend and I hopped on Highway 58 and began chugging east. And as the dazzling green hills of San Luis Obispo County turned into desolate towns such as Buttonwillow (home to a 320-acre hazardous waste dump), believe it or not, I was actually getting excited.

Sometimes living in a spot people ceaselessly label “The Happiest Place on Earth” can be just a little draining. I wanted to see someplace rugged, someplace different — and I could tell before even seeing a Bakersfield sign that that’s exactly what I would get when we arrived.

The city itself provided plenty of entertainment. We grabbed a couple beers at the impressive Temblor Brewing Co. (how could one, on a trip like this, pass up an IPA called Streets of Bakersfield?) and made our way downtown to catch the Bakersfield Condors minor league hockey team, where we ate overpriced nachos and cheered louder for the between-period fan shenanigans than the game itself.

After piling out of the arena, we met up with some of my navigator’s friends and found ourselves at a karaoke bar. Somewhere between a rousing performance of OutKast’s 2003 earworm “Hey Ya” by what looked like a former high school offensive lineman turned banker, I found myself chatting with a young woman who was a native of the area. She recently embarked on the nerve-racking adventure that is homeownership, and I had to ask her what it was that kept her anchored in Bakersfield.

“I like it. I can understand why other people don’t, but this has always been home,” she explained. She was firm in what she said, with little regret about her decision to stay put.

And I respect that. Although I may have chosen a different path and skipped out of the Midwest at the first possible chance, for some, the family ties and allure of home are just too strong. So we can poke fun at cities like Bakersfield and Youngstown because they definitely have their drawbacks, but we also need to remember that there are those who truly feel a connection to these cities, and for them home is no joke.

The next day, as we drove over the Cuesta Grade and back into San Luis Obispo, I felt a sense of relief. Not because I had “escaped” Bakersfield. In fact, I’m already planning a return trip. My relief came because that sense of claustrophobia I had felt was gone. The road trip had done its job, and I was happy to be returning to my home on the Central Coast.

Chris Dobstaff is a copy editor and designer at The Tribune: 805-781-7913

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