It doesn’t get better than driving up the 99. I feel like I can do the drive with my eyes closed. The valley is my home and valley people are my people.

Heading north, I flew past Delano, Tulare, Visalia, Fresno, Merced and Modesto, resisting the temptation to turn west and surrender to the I-5 death march. Ninety-nine seems like a vacation compared to the 5, which is more like work.

I was headed north for my mom’s 92nd birthday. Courtney, her youngest, was throwing her a party which Mom said she didn’t want, but paella, roasted vegetables and a giant chocolate cake had her whistling a different tune.

The tune got sweeter with people fussing over her, not that they usually don’t, but birthdays call for a double helping.

“Thanks to my family and the people here who I wish were my family,” said Mom in her toast, before blowing out four candles, “four” because most of us aspire to age backwards.

***

My route took me through Stockton where the 99 meets the 12.

“Dad, the 12 goes through the Delta,” Thomas said. “Try it, it’s beautiful. You won’t be sorry.”

The delta is another thing to love about the valley. Formed “by the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, the delta has existed for about 10,000 years — since the end of the last Ice Age —and covers about 1,100 square miles including both land and water.”

I managed to miss my turn in Stockton and lurched off course. That takes some doing with GPS but I was up to the task. Valley towns are similar and if you’re comfortable in one, you’re at home in the rest.

I was low on gas so I pulled into a mini mart in a part of Stockton that was both textured and gritty but I pride myself on textured and gritty. I’m with the people, of the people and about the people.

My card didn’t work at the pump so I was instructed to go inside and pay which I did, giving my card to the grizzled man behind the register.

“I’ll take $50 on No. 2,” I said.

He nodded, I returned to the pump and I stood vigilant until it clicked off at $46.10. I tried squeezing another $3.90 from the pump, but it kept stopping, an indication that the tank was full and if I insisted on pulling the handle, gas would soon be running down my leg and into my handsome, tan driving shoes.

I wanted to make sure I was going to receive my full refund of $3.90, so I began walking to the front door of the mini mart. Twenty feet from the door, I heard what sounded like a machine gun in the distance. I turned my neck toward the sound,  stiff as it was, as if I were a pigeon who had heard the screech of a fast descending red-tailed hawk

An imagination is a terrible thing to waste and I didn’t waste it. I rifled through various scenarios, some of which included high adventure. I decided that although the attendant had not said that the unused portion of the sale would go back on my card, he had implied it. Sometimes a man’s implication is his word.

I returned to my car and as I opened the door, an older gentleman pulled up and asked for directions to a street in Stockton. I told him I was new to the city but that I would look on my GPS to pinpoint where the street was. When I was unable to pinpoint it, he gave me the “I appreciate it but life is too short look” and we exchanged pleasantries and we were both on our way.

The delta was stunning, the party couldn’t have been better and the drive though Stockton was worth every penny of the $3.90, should it have cost that.

Herb Benham is a columnist for the Bakersfield Californian and can be reached at hbenham@bakersfield.com or (661) 395-7279.

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