The Fog of Progress

January 17, 1982
Selfie in a library parking lot, Southwest Bakersfield, 1982

Bakersfield is famous for its tule fog. It’s literally a low flying cloud that just can’t escape the ground. Lots of people die in automobile accidents during the fog season, but growing up there, I loved it. Fog days!

Fog is a powerful metaphor, and random google searching brought a short summary lecture on YouTube to my attention. The fog of progress, a final lecture in an online class on machine learning and neural networks, describes why it is so difficult to predict the future in quite meticulous and scientific terms.

It occurs to me, though, that it’s just as difficult to see through the fog of progress to understand the past.

Looking through some more of the “Songs from the Valley Towns” photographs, I started scratching my head trying to figure out where I took a particular photograph. It isn’t one of my favorites from the series, but I distinctly remember trying to make it work (visually) but thinking of it as a failure. Intellectually though, it’s a new favorite.

King Lumber Company
King Lumber Company, McFarland, CA March 1993

The project I undertook in the early 90s to photograph odd bits of landscape in the Central Valley was inspired by a musician friend, Scott Sturdevant (a.k.a Slim the Drifter) who recorded a cassette called “Songs from the Valley Towns.” Most people thought of the valley disparagingly (as far back as 1873, it turns out), but when Scott looked around he saw the hopes and dreams of the people who lived there. I saw those same hopes and dreams in the landscape. When dreams are in ruins, it’s hard to see them through the fog. There are a lot of ruins along Highway 99.

This photograph was one of the first I can identify from the series. I drove up Highway 99 from Bakersfield to the first real exit worth getting off at, which might have been McFarland— yes, the same McFarland immortalized by Kevin Costner in the 2015 track movie. I remembered vaguely, revisiting this one, that it was King Lumber Company (hard to forget, given the “crown” cut in the sign.) Nothing much remained but the “Co.” One of the great innovations, in my opinion, of photography in the 21st century is GPS data. It’s hard to remember where you actually took photographs as the fog of years rolls in.

King Lumber was a big clue, it turns out. Looking further into it turned up this photo from Bakersfield, captioned as being a location on Union Avenue (old Highway 99, actually) from 1911:

c45f637ba573b371bf77b43b9a98dd96A bit more research turned up that King Lumber was founded by twin brothers Everett and Elmore King, circa 1904.

Elmore-King The California Lumber Merchant from April 1, 1923 tells a story of Elmore King slipping out of a posh dinner to exchange clothes with the chef, in order to confront his host and demand payment up front for dinner.

His lumber empire grew to be huge. He founded a brick company as well, and I found notices that he became an importer of straw hats, clearly a great opportunity given the Bakersfield sun.

The trade publications also noted that he loved to play golf, and there are multiple references to his performance as a golfer. He expanded King Lumber to at least five different locations up and down the valley.

I located the address of the McFarland location from an old ad from 1961. This is what it looks like now, courtesy of Google street view:

KIng Lumber McFarland

The telephone poles are still there, and Highway 99, but not much else. King was the founder of a huge empire that is now largely gone. One thing seems to have survived from the King empire, at least in spirit. Although it’s a different organization from the Kern River Country Club King helped found (which died in 1935) The Bakersfield Country Club is located on the same spot.

Bakersfield Country Club is the area’s most exclusive golf club offering a limited number of full equity memberships and non-equity tennis and social memberships. It has a friendly tradition that started with its founding members. These were families with great pride and values born out of the farmlands and oil fields surrounding Bakersfield. These same values and friendliness have survived into second and third generation memberships since the inception of Bakersfield Country Club. There are many golf, tennis, and social events that keep the calendar busy year round.

I visited the Bakersfield Country Club once around the time that the photograph at the top of this post was taken, somewhere between 1980-82. The club is located near the Kern River, next to Lake Ming in a fairly deep valley, traversed by Alfred Harrell Highway. In the early years, the highway lead right to the golf course that the King brothers were instrumental in founding. Elmore King contributed redwood saplings from Eureka to the project. But when I was there, the highway ran from the bluffs on Panorama Heights to Highway 178, the Kern Canyon Highway. Notably, the county dump sat midway between, with oil fields on the other side of the river to the north, where my father worked until he retired in late 1982.

I wasn’t a member of the country club, but the lumber and hardware store where I worked, Sackett and Peters, threw a Christmas party there. I remember that party well, because it was the first and last time they ever booked the country club in the fog season. Down in the river basin, the fog was about a hundred times worse than it was in the city. By the time we stumbled out of the party around 2am, the fog was so thick that you couldn’t, without exaggeration, see the end of your own car from the driver’s seat.

Most people gave up and slept in the parking lot. However, my girlfriend Lisa and I braved it, along with Jim Powell, a nursery salesman and good friend of mine. Lisa and I were in my old Ford, and Jim had a small pick-up truck. It seemed like it took around an hour to locate the exit to the parking lot. I was reduced to driving with my door open, following the curb around the perimeter. Jim followed my tail lights, because my car was lower to the ground and it was easier to see the curb. When we got out of the parking lot (the toughest challenge of the night) the road up to Alfred Harrell Highway was easier; as you got higher, the visibility improved slightly.

Jim and I parted ways at the highway. I remember trying to convince him not to go his normal route back to his house in Panorama Heights (because the road dipped down lower from there), but he decided to brave it anyway. I turned left, toward the relative safety of the mountains. Jim headed towards the dump. I knew those roads like the back of my hand and felt like even if I couldn’t see, I could still drive them, and I’m sure Jim felt that same confidence of youth. Lisa and I made it home fine, as did Jim.

It dawned on me, as I went through the trouble of remembering this foggy story, and using arcane resources to locate addresses lost decades ago, that “the fog of progress” works both ways. While we are in constant danger, moving forward, of hitting the car that rides just ahead of us, we also flirt with the problem of running into the cars we used to be in, colliding with the past just as surely as we might crash into the future. After all, today is yesterday.

Oddly enough, this also implies the rota fortune, a distinctly medieval, rather than progressive, concept.