Re-creating Old Orange County

You pay for a couple of hours of parking in the farthest-flung lot at Irvine Valley College. That's probably a little more time than you'll need, but you've never done this before, and you can't be sure how long it's going to take. Anyway, it costs only 50 cents. Your car is the only one in the lot, and you're alone as you get out and walk toward the edge of the asphalt, watching your shadow catch up and then pass you as you stroll past a light pole. Resolutely, you step up a concrete curb, take two quick strides over a strip of well-kept lawn, and then sink your left foot into old Orange County—that is, an old orange grove.

Immediately comes the sweet chirping of a bird. It kind of catches you by surprise. You excitedly allow yourself to wonder whether the trill of these notes might constitute some kind of sign, some natural-world or spiritual-realm acknowledgment of your transition between two eras. But you quickly check yourself, a little embarrassed, substituting that miracle with more practical explanations. Like coincidence. Or wish fulfillment. You heard the bird because you were listening harder, and it seemed significant because you were waiting for something to feel different. Yeah, that must be it because as you listen now, you can hear all the other sounds—well, you can hear cars whooshing from every direction, along Jeffrey and Barranca and Irvine Center Drive and the San Diego and Santa Ana freeways. There are no other sounds.

You're going for a walk through an orange grove in Orange County, and the idea seems so unusual that after several steps, you take a look back to see how far from the familiar you've gone. Of course, the parking lot is only 10 or 15 yards away. But already, you get a fresh perspective on the lone eucalyptus tree that soars out of the desolate pavement. You can see that it once belonged to a line of eucalyptus that still cuts across the orange grove. The parking-lot tree is a remnant of a former windbreak that survived only because it happened to fit a landscaper's mood.

And then you move forward, farther into the grove. Or is it backward, since you're headed for old Orange County? It's just past sunset, but only because of the hills off to the west that create this shallow valley. You know the sun is still shining on the land beyond them because, even here, the sky is still blue, though fading fast. This peculiar lighting silhouettes the orange trees around you, even as it draws an eerie pastel glow from their fruit, which is two-toned—golden on the sun side, green on the side nearest the tree.

It feels great to feel the dirt give way to your feet, to hear it crunch beneath the crackle of leaves. The temperature gives the ground a little extra resistance. The air is nippy, just short of real cold. You wouldn't mind coming across an old smudge pot about now, even though you know how bad for the air they were. You wonder whether they would be needed on a late-autumn evening like this one, whether it's going to freeze tonight. You realize that, years ago, a farmer tending this same orchard was wondering the same thing on a night like this—maybe on the anniversary of this very night. You stop walking, stand there with the trees surrounding you, and imagine the groves stretching out, almost uninterrupted, all the way to Riverside. It seems like such a grand and lonely thing.

You start walking again, and the spell is broken. You've reached a clearing rutted with tire tracks. The makeshift road seems a bit lonely itself, but not grandly so. You know it doesn't really go anywhere, certainly not to Riverside. A few more steps and you see it reaches only to a not-too-distant parking lot—or are those lights over a campus tennis court? The rush of cars on the surrounding streets seems louder than ever. And now the loneliness is a still different kind, the kind that makes you feel like a stranger, and vulnerable.

Of course, you're not alone out here. There's a 6-inch hole in a mound of earth, a den that's been burrowed beneath a tree. There are lots of them. They look like mouths startled open, and you wonder if whatever is inside—a rabbit, a squirrel, a fox, maybe, or a big-ass gopher—is scared or angry to have you walking around. The chirps and tweets of the birds abruptly stop—maybe because they've picked up on these emotions. More likely it's because—as you suddenly realize—it's gotten much darker. After a moment of silence—relative, anyway, because the surrounding roads are still roaring—the crickets kick in. It's as if they've been waiting courteously for the birds to finish the day shift.

You walk along, passing a few dead trees, their whitish wood glowing ghostly amid the darkness of the living trees. The earth is soft now, and that seems strange because there's been no rain in weeks. Then you sheepishly remember you've been stepping over irrigation hoses all along. Deeper into the grove you go. Now there is no sign of modern civilization's lights. There are power lines, though you guess they were part of the old Orange County landscape, too. Mostly, you notice the glorious horizon, which burns bright red, alternately evoking thoughts of the awesomeness of heaven and hell and just plain planet Earth. It strikes you that no other people are out here. That's perhaps the strangest thing. Because this is the city. The traffic won't let you forget that. But here, on this parcel, the population remains rurally low-density.

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