The beloved and timeless heroine Dorothy Gale learns an important life lesson when she travels to Oz and back: “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again,” Dorothy says, “I won’t look any further than my own backyard.” It’s wisdom from the Wizard.
For more than 30 years, while living in Tehachapi, I considered Bakersfield my backyard. My family and I thought of Bakersfield as “the big city.” We drove to Bakersfield for its many amenities: for major grocery shopping, for orthodontia, for the Amtrak station, for the mall (in the dark days before Amazon), for movies (in the dark days before Tehachapi had a movie theater), for FLICS at the Fox (even after Tehachapi opened a small four-plex), for the Beale Library, and for educational and cultural events at CSUB.
I never thought of Bakersfield as a place to vacation, however, until I moved a bit further away from it. I also never thought I would miss Bakersfield, until it became a two-hour drive to get there.
My husband and I recently had several weekend commitments in Bakersfield, and so I decided to turn those commitments into a small getaway for us. I did something I have always wanted to do: I booked us a room at the Padre Hotel.
If you’re like us, the Padre Hotel is one of those landmarks that you take for granted. You see it all the time, and maybe you’ve had brunch there, but you never stay the night there, because you live close by. It is iconic, yet habitually overlooked. I am happy to report after our stay that the Padre is a classy joint. A room there costs more than a motel room might, but it’s worth it. The staff was lovely. Our room was impeccable, luxurious without overdoing it. We stayed on the top floor (the eighth), so the views at night were impressive. We even stopped for a drink on the second-floor rooftop before retiring, pretending we were a cool couple. Actually it was cool, so we sat close to a heat lamp. We didn’t run into anyone we knew, so we felt like actual tourists in a city we knew well.
Because when you look at a familiar town with the eyes of a tourist, you see a lot of qualities to appreciate. For example, Bakersfield has never had a lot of options for a couple of vegetarians — well, one vegetarian and one vegan husband — but on this visit we discovered a wonderful spot for lunch, called The Hen’s Roost. Its hours of operation are limited, but the food is as good as any vegan restaurant we’ve been to in bigger cities. The staff was knowledgeable and personable, as well as simultaneously practical and idealistic. We hope The Hen’s Roost grows both in business and in reputation, because it’s a delicious and interesting addition to the Bakersfield dining scene. As tourists, we would make a special trip to dine there again.
We managed to honor all of our weekend commitments, and we still had time to see a couple of movies. Here I must mention that Maya Cinemas offers, along with a selection of blockbusters, the kind of independent films that rarely come to smaller towns, and that we usually don’t get to see before the Oscars. The Maya is one more reason to point out the virtues of hometown tourism.
Bakersfield has a sketchy reputation in some quarters, and is often the butt of snobby California jokes. We’ve all heard them. Certainly Bakersfield has its drawbacks, as any city does. But Bakersfield has a big personality, and a big heart. It’s a pretty welcoming place to return to when you’ve been away for a while. I know that most Bakersfield residents could come up with a list of things to do and sights to see that would easily fill a weekend tourist’s schedule: Buck Owens' Crystal Palace and adjacent big "Bakersfield" sign, Old Town Kern and the Park at River Walk come to mind.
There’s hometown pride in Bakersfield, and also a lot of underappreciated jewels, like its newspaper, which I say with absolutely no bias. Sometimes you have to leave a place and return as a tourist to understand its charm and spirit. And like Dorothy, you may find your heart’s desire right in your own backyard, even without that fantastical trip to Oz. As Dorothy says, “There’s no place like home!” Another teachable moment.