The Chalice and the Burger

Adela and I were calling it a road trip, mainly because it made driving three hundred miles down through Central Valley in a car without air conditioning seem much more glamorous.
“Like Thelma and Louise,” my fellow pseudo-American mom enthused.
“Or Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo, or even Sal and Dean,” I suggested, thinking more of the extra curricular possibilities of the long drive back without our thirteen year old boys.
We were dropping our kids at skate camp in the southern Sierra Nevada on 4th of July weekend and we were ready for pretty much anything; we’d paid the AAA a pretty penny for a premium membership and knew we could get a tow for at least a hundred miles if the Honda happened to give up the ghost.

We weren’t far past Orinda when our “Free Palestine” and “No War On Iran” bumper stickers began to draw attention to our otherwise lo-pro ride. Several times mini-vans paced alongside us and slab-faced white women scrutinized us with meanly scrunched up eyes, as if to say “ We’ll recognize you bitches if you show up at Dennys”.

“Did you bring your card?” I asked Adela, envisioning the slabby ones calling the cops to alert them to hippy moms in the vicinity. “Of course!” she laughed as she raised her eyebrows in that fierce Czech way of hers, intimidating those provincial ladies who floored their Town and Country and sped off towards Modesto.

Modesto reminded me of the story of a more inspiring matron, Florence Owens Thompson, the famous Migrant Mother that Dorethea Lange photographed during the Great Depression. Florence was 32 yrs old when Ms. Lange spotted her sitting in the back of her truck with her seven fatherless children. Her portrait was so poignant that it not only became the emblematic image of that dreary era but also made Lange’s reputation as a documentary photographer. For years nobody knew the identity or fate of this sad and beautiful mama, but then in the 70’s Florence came forward and told her story: she was born on an Oklahoma reservation and drove out West with her husband in search of work, he died while she was carrying their seventh child. To feed her children Florence picked cotton and anything else, including peas, which was what she was picking in Nipomo, when her famous portrait was taken. I heard a crackly audio recording of Florence on the internet where she told of how she’d ended up in Modesto and landed a janitorial job at the new hospital where she worked sixteen hour days for eight years straight. For decades she had remained anonymous because she didn’t want to shame her children with their poverty. There was some bitterness over the fact that Lange had never recompensed Flo for the use of her image which is world-famous, but most importantly Mrs Owens lived eighty years, a grand old lady, happy in her mobile home, loved and cherished by her children.

What I remembered most from the recording was how Flo spoke of the other children at the pea-picking farm in Nipomo, “They all crowded round and asked if they could eat with us” she recalled,” I fed them all out of the pot, they were starving.”

Speaking of starving, our boys were howling hungry by the time we hit Chowchilla on that pot-holed two lane blacktop, Route 99. We ate at Carls Jr much to the kids’ delight, everybody else munched burgers while I slurped up Chili Cheese Fries which looked for all the world like dog food and chips. Our sons share the burden of foreign-born mothers but in Chowchilla those unfamiliar accents of ours worked like a charm and the obliging counterboy made a fresh pot of coffee for us. Why is it Carls Jr and not Carl Jr? something curious that I can’t be bothered to research, but it is noted in the hinterland of my brain where I store similarly useless information — like the fact that these franchised businesses are the cultural simulacra that I was once thrilled to read about in Baudrillard’s Travels In America. It all seems passé now, but truly, the homogenous attributes which link a disparate population with symbols and semantic underpinning are plain to see out here and even we San Franciscan sophisticates know the constituent meaning of a combo! There was a beautiful Indian girl with long loose brown hair who came in. She acknowledged us with a smile and began to text with a tranquil expression. The other interesting-looking customer was a Latino, clean-shaven and smart in his polished cowboy boots and pristine straw cowboy hat. He also sat in a booth but didn’t look at us, he seemed correct and humble and made me feel kind of sad.

As dusk came down and the headlights came on, the preservatives or the karmic contamination of that cheap burger meat got me thinking about the darker realities of these country towns strung out through the valley. The Norteno/Sudeno gang wars, the crystal meth culture, the scary aberrant social crimes committed out here in the dusty strip mall neon church land that upsets the urban sensibility so much. Parents still shiver at the cold calculated ransom desires of three middle-class white boys who hijacked a busload of schoolkids in Chowchilla in the 70’s. More recently the unassuming Tracy, Merced and Modesto have raised profoundly horrible murderers like the dreadful Melissa Huckaby, Cary Stayner and Scott Peterson. Its true that these crimes happen in big cities too but somehow the ordinariness of tract home settlements under the big sky seems to magnify the human horror.

We drove through the night and climbing out of Fresno into the dark mountains we finally found the Humming Bird cabins where the owner, true to her word, had left Cabin Two open for us. We woke to the smell of a joint being smoked around the side of our cabin. It was the friendly breakfast chef from the Humming Bird Café getting baked mid-shift. He loved Adela’s bumper stickers and filled us in on most of his life: he was a Kosovo/Gulf War vet, a father of four, and had a gimpy leg from dirt bike riding, its true to say his cooking wasn’t nearly as good as his stories.

After a greasy breakfast the boys were twitching to sign in at camp, throw their bedrolls and backpacks in their cabin and get skating. Suddenly childless, we moms spent the afternoon high up in Kings Canyon, swimming with the holidaymakers at Hume Lake, getting lost in a vast encampment of Christian Schools and marveling at the massive sequoias named inappropriately after army generals.
Only half done with our road trip we took the downward road back towards the valley as the afternoon wore on, it was still hot as we pulled into yet another Carls Jr, this time in a run-down Fresno suburb. There was no real sense of Independence Day celebrations here except for a stall in the parking lot selling fireworks and business looked slow. Mercifully there were none of those unfriendly white ladies to be seen on this side of town, just pleasantly indifferent Latinos who took little notice of us burger-munching stonermoms.

So much for the burgers, but what about the Chalice?

We had packed light, I only had my toothbrush, a spare pair of knickers, my swim-suit and a copy of The Chalice and the Blade, self-banned from reading fiction, I’d brought along Riane Eisler’s classic. Eisler’s theory is that our prehistory and early cultural development was characterized by lovely partnership societies, violence came in with the dominator cultures which have held sway up ever since. When The Chalice and the Blade was first published thirty years ago the endemic prehistoric cult of the Great Goddess was not acknowledged, but Eisler’s painstaking research and multi-disciplinary approach brought our peaceful, artistic, nurturing Neolithic age back into sight, our paradise lost. Much as  Orwell’s Ministry of Truth rewrote history in 1984 so did the conquering dominator tribes: the Goddess was replaced with fearful war-hungry man gods, at best the Great Mother was turned into a consort deity. This is how our natural gender equality was destroyed, women became second to men and this perverse trajectory of human culture has led us directly here.

Out of kilter, the burger and the blade rule us, our meat-eating is eroding the environment faster than our fossil fuel consumption and our war lust is so deeply ingrained to deny it is heresy to most.

As the land falls away, the warm air pours over us, the clear night sky is illuminated sporadically by momentary flashes of the municipal fireworks of the tiny valley towns. Mothers heading home dream of a magical paradigm shift that allows us to partner with fathers again.

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6 Responses to The Chalice and the Burger

  1. rachel says:

    Your writing is so wonderful to read. I enjoyed that very very very much!

    • Billee Sharp says:

      thank you Rachel, you and I might be Florence Owens Thompson’s biggest fans. She always struck me as so beautiful when I read that she was born “in a teepee”- her own words I realized she was a Native American despite her proper English name.

  2. geoff greentree says:

    Once again a lovely and poignant piece Billee. I was last that way over 20 years ago; it all came flooding back, Bakersfield and the flatlands, then wending up King’s Canyon to the Stagg (Sequioa) tree, sitting in its roots all night long. Another life, another dream, many thanks.

    • Billee Sharp says:

      Kings Canyon and the Sequioa groves are incredible, as we were driving back via Hume Lake – which is high up, great for swimming and I think manmade, we pulled over at an incredible vantage point. The view just left us speechless! When Adela & her husb went back to pick the skaters up they went to the Crystal Cave which they said was amazing – deep underground, used by the Natives in extreme hot and cold conditions ( its stable temp is around 50) and naturally their ritual purposes. We’ll go there if you come out and visit with Ananda! Thanks for reading Geoff!

  3. J, Sellman (Dad) says:

    It goes to the heart of it, and mine, beautiful.

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