You might be under the impression that the heart of the Kern County oil industry beats in the 11,000-acre field of pumpjacks just north of Bakersfield — Chevron Corp.'s Kern River Oil Field.
Or perhaps you're of the opinion that the heartbeat emanates from the 13,000-acre field that justifies the existence of the city of Taft — Midway-Sunset, a domain shared by Chevron and Aera Energy.
Or maybe you believe the essence of Kern County oil lies in another local field among the dozen, both tiny and vast, in this, California's richest oil region.
You'd be mistaken in all cases. The lifeblood of the Kern County oil industry is Buck Owens Boulevard and the narrow, gravel-edged roads immediately west, where thousands of Bakersfield men and women — most of them, it sometimes seems, in white half-ton pickups — labor daily at the many service companies that keep the pumpjacks pumping, the refineries refining and the pipelines piping.
They work in welding shops, pipe-perforating shops, diesel mechanic stations, steel fabrication operations and scores of other auxiliary but essential businesses that overlay the declining but still productive 128-million-barrel Fruitvale Oil Field.
And so it has been since long before Buck Owens Boulevard was Buck Owens Boulevard, long before the country music hitmaker, "Hee Haw" star and community benefactor built his radio empire headquarters on adjacent Sillect Road and, later, his Crystal Palace museum and dinner club next door, on what was then Pierce Road.
This part of Bakersfield, Census Tract 5.07, described on maps as San Lauren, is much more a commercial and industrial area than residential, but a modest population of 3,676 occupies 1,341 early 2000s-era housing units, almost all to the west of Buck Owens Boulevard, nearer Fruitvale Avenue.
No, Tract 5.07 is all about oil, specifically the business of maintaining the equipment that extracts it, and feeding, clothing and fueling the people who make that happen. Its most prominent street is named for a man who rose to fame by entertaining those very men and women starting in 1952 — not coincidentally, a year close to the Fruitvale Oil Field's height of production.
When it came to street-name notoriety, turn-of-the-previous-century alfalfa farmer Charles Clarence Pierce didn't stand a chance against Buck Owens. The street was renamed for the "Act Naturally" singer in November 1998; Owens in turn honored Pierce with a plaque at his Crystal Palace.
But Owens' Old West-themed concert venue did more than that. Completed in 1999, the Palace's opening ignited a commercial gentrification that is slowly transforming the south end of B.O.B., as it's known to the locals, from a freeway frontage road lined with industrial operations to a Disneyland-lite of recreational and entertainment venues. They include The BLVD (restaurant, three full-service bars, bowling lanes, laser tag, a ropes course, an arcade and more); Temblor Brewing (live music, live comedy, art shows); Flight, Fit & Fun (trampoline park and kids' indoor play venue); Track House (indoor kart racing, known as Bakersfield Karting Experience under previous owners); and Scare Valley (haunted-house attraction, previously Talladega Frights).
The entertainment-oriented businesses are in no danger of driving out the industrial operations, however — at least not in this century. And that's fine with the workers at those industrial operations.
The story of Zingo's, the landmark truck stop cafe, with attached saloon, a quarter-mile up the road from the Crystal Palace, drives home that point.
Zingo's, with its comically distinctive neon sign and catchy but wholly invented name, was built in 1965 at 3201 Pierce Road to be in close proximity to the new 99 freeway. For years, it was open 24 hours to cater to the round-the-clock schedules of long-haul truckers.
"You had trucks parking on that side of it and trucks parking on that side," said John Diehl, a retired truck driver who has been eating lunch at Zingo's three or four times a week for 50 years.
He pointed first to the south side of the cafe, where the Holiday Inn Express, a relative newcomer, now stands, and then pointed north. "At 3 o'clock in the morning things were jumping out here."
When its longtime owners, the husband and wife team of Debbie, 64, and Gil Edmondson, 79, died this month — within 10 days of each other — some may have wondered if Zingo's had fried its last patty melt. Not a chance. Debbie's daughter Lindy Humphrey and son-in-law Robert are pressing on with enthusiasm, and Christy Ferguson, who runs the Boss Cocktail Lounge, attached in back, says she just signed a new, 10-year lease.
"The customers and the employees have been a part of our family for a lot of years," said Lindy Humphrey, whose mother started at Zingo's as a waitress in 1986, married regular customer Gil Edmondson a few years later, and bought the place in 1996. Lindy, whose sister Heather and aunts Roxanne and Elaine are still Zingo's waitresses, said she will "keep it going in my mom and Gil's memory."
"We have our regulars that come in almost daily," said Robert Humphrey. "We'll keep feeding them. We have people from out of state, out of the country, who come here every time they're passing through, and there's a reason. Along with the Crystal Palace, we're the most recognizable place on the street."
Merle Haggard loved the place, Lindy noted, gesturing to the framed, autographed photo of Bakersfield's other great country music legend hanging on the wall behind the cash register. "He gave it to my mom," Lindy said. "He'd always have either the biscuits and gravy or the chicken fried steak."
Buck Owens Boulevard may lie at one of those cultural crossroads where new Bakersfield meets old, but old isn't going anywhere.
Businesses on the five-lane boulevard, with its iconic, adjacent Bakersfield arch, dilapidated old mom-and-pop businesses and modern office buildings, live in commercial harmony, with a few incongruous exceptions.
Pierce Road brought together entertainment and industrial businesses decades before Owens shifted his operations from Oildale's North Chester Avenue to the freeway frontage. The 99 Drive-In, on the north end of the road, provided the quintessential high school dating experience to thousands of Bakersfield kids over four decades. (A mini-storage facility is there now.)
"It was a great place for a teenager," said Steve Lewis, a supervisor at nearby Howard Supply, which deals in oil field and other industrial equipment. He has been with the company 17 years but has worked in the B.O.B.-Pierce Road area most of his life.
"You had Jay's Coffee Shop, you had the 99 Drive-In," he said. "There was plenty to do." Such as ...
Right next door to Howard Supply was a barber shop called Harley's, and in the back room an oil field roughneck or forklift jockey could get his hair cut by a young woman working without the constraints of a shirt, blouse or bra. Topless — just a pair of Daisy Dukes.
"I went in there one day and got a haircut and she offered me a beer. I said, 'Aw, I can't, I've got to go back to work.' She said, 'Well, you can come back after work,' and so I did."
The topless barber shop has closed down — Howard Supply's management staff took it for office space years ago — but that particular type of entertainment is still around, and considerably more exposed. The Teaser Pleaser, a strip club gallingly positioned catty-corner from Flight, Fit & Fun's giant kiddie bounce-house, serves that clientele.
"This place is the epiphany of the most ridiculous location on planet earth," customer Ed Alba, perhaps meaning "epitome," wrote in an online review of the club.
Another strip club, the Exotic Kitty, situated on adjacent Sillect Road, sits in an equally incongruous location, next to a veterinary clinic.
Then, on the cultural and economic flip side, is the out-of-place, multiple-story, soon-to-open headquarters of Kern Health Systems, which for reasons perhaps only the Bakersfield Planning Department can explain, crowds the north half of the Bakersfield sign so closely, the signature arch is all but invisible from southbound 99, practically until drivers are passing it.
Nudie bars and ill-matched architecture aside, the blue collar workers of Buck Owens Boulevard like the street's changing nature.
"What's good for us is good for them," said Nate Hobson, Howard Supply's branch manager. "When oil prices are good, it's good for those businesses, too. It lifts everybody up. It's also nice to have another place to take a customer to lunch."
"It all fits together," said Joshua Tiger, district manager of the Boot Barn. "The Crystal Palace, Zingo's — they cater to the same people we do. Our customer is Bakersfield, the farmworkers, the oil field workers, the country folk. But it's great to see new development bring a little more life to the area. It's not all necessarily the same culture, but the legacy of Buck Owens Boulevard will always be there."
Red Simpson, the late, great Bakersfield Sound songwriter and 1960s truck-drivin’-song recording artist, would surely have something Okily poignant to say here. It would undoubtedly involve girls, trucks and chicken fried steak — themes that will be part of the Pierce Road/Buck Owens Boulevard legacy for as long as America runs on diesel.