February in California.

Last weekend, we visited friends in Sacramento. Nearing the city limits, I was surprised to see the population was around 500,000. Sacramento, Fresno has you beat with 600,000-plus. How did you let that happen?

Drive 99 or I-5? It feels like a spiritual decision where you are wrestling for the soul of California and examining the health of your own. We chose 99 on the way up.

Tulare, Visalia, Kingsburg, Selma, Fresno, Madera, Merced, Turlock, Modesto, Manteca and Stockton are more swollen than we remember as children but they are still valley-strong. Though farms have given way to car dealerships, the route seems friendlier than I-5, which is more transactional and less about the journey than the destination.

We gathered for the Super Bowl because that’s what people do. We ate French dip sandwiches made with beef chuck braised in beer; turkey chili simmered in a slow cooker; pickled cauliflower and carrots; and a splendid, homegrown veggie tray packed with broccoli, romanesco, radicchio, pickled fennel and Brussels sprouts with a herb-yogurt dip that put it over the top.

We laughed, watched football and felt the communal warmth available on Super Bowl Sunday everywhere.

We left for Bakersfield at 6 a.m. Monday. Before getting too deep on I-5, we stopped at Starbucks for coffee, a blueberry muffin and oatmeal. What did people do before Starbucks? I don’t suppose they died of hunger or thirst, and somehow they fashioned meaningful lives, but how they did so was heroic even by American standards.

Sunrise is a good time for I-5. Especially on a cold, clear, windy February day when the foothills toward the coast are greenish blue and the eastern Sierra is snow-capped. Five is a good platform from which to see both.

February, sometimes gray, not yet spring and shorter than short, has a mixed reputation and can be hard to get a handle on. However, on a cold, clear morning, with wind blowing through the palm trees and rippling the ankle-high grasses, it seemed promising, important and on the verge of something big.

“Promising” was the pavement, smooth as gray glass but grippy as a new leather grip on a tennis racquet.

“Important” was the glittering blue aqueduct alternating between the left and right sides of the highway.

“Something big” were the piles of tumbleweeds, flocks of crows and stands of dusty eucalyptus.

Although the state bird might be the California quail and the redwood the state tree, not in the valley. Here and on I-5, it’s the crow, the eucalyptus and tumbleweeds (as the state bush).

When the kids were young, we played a game called "count the red-tailed hawks on the fence posts." There were always some, but it would have been better to have counted the crows. Everybody would have won.

We went by Panoche Road. Pa-nosh is melodic and makes you feel as if you might have a gift for languages other than your native tongue. I hadn’t realized panoche was a coarse grade of sugar made in Mexico.

Mary McCaslin’s “Pass Me By” shuffled through on iTunes:

“Won’t you look at what came down the road today.

“Wanting me to be one more mistake to make.

“A bridge to burn to get to somebody new.

“Hey, pass me by, if you’re only passing through.”

Along with the tumbleweeds, crows and eucalyptus, McCaslin’s voice belongs to the valley, California and the wide-open spirit of this place.

California has taken some hits lately. Come in for criticism, some probably warranted, but on a clear, cold February day with the almond blossoms around the corner and the thrill of a new crop of tumbleweeds underfoot, it is possible to remember the California that drew us here, warmed our bones and made us think there was no better place to be.

It’s a desolate, maddening and magnificent place to live. “Look at what came down the road today.” Soon “what” will be the glory of March, April and May. Don’t pass me by because we’re only passing through.

Contact The Californian’s Herb Benham at 661-395-7279 or hbenham@bakersfield.com. His column appears on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays; the views expressed are his own.

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