The Almond Festival is dead, and we're not nuts about it
September 17, 2012
This was Oakley Almond Festival weekend, or rather it would have been if there were a festival. For the first time since we helped get the festival off the ground in 1990, the Oakley Chamber of Commerce decided to cancel it for what can charitably be described as a lack of funds, but looks an awful lot more like lack of interest. Not that they can be criticized for that; having spent the better part of a decade involved in the festival one way or another, we understand the time commitment it takes to do things right, and even when everything comes off according to plan there are still plenty of critics willing to tell you how badly they think you screwed up. That just comes with the territory.
But despite the naysayers, we and other hardworking volunteers continued to put on the show year after year 22 of them, for those who are counting because we believed in the community spirit the festival generated. It was never about the money earned, because the festival never generated more than enough to pay expenses and seed itself for the following year. When it was free admission, people came with their families and spent the day and had a great time. They spent what they felt they could afford on food, merchandise and souvenirs.
After Roni turned over the reins as chairwoman in 1995, a new leadership crew saw fit to charge admission so the festival could bring in a carnival and big-name entertainment. It was still the Almond Festival, but it started to lose that small-town friendly atmosphere it once had. Soon it was all about the money and how much could be made to pay for the chamber's operations. A profitable year was no longer seen as a couple thousand dollars, but rather tens of thousands. The bar was set so high that when it failed to meet those expectations, people who worked to put on the show decided it wasn't worth the bother, particularly when the bigger budget production actually lost money, as chamber officials say it did in 2011. Not hard to believe, as we were there for that last show and saw how sparsely attended it was.
Can you blame the community for its lack of support? The very same people who complain the loudest about what the festival had become are the same people who missed what it once was a free show that provided a fun place to gather with friends and family. It wasn't about trying to have the biggest show in the area with the biggest entertainment, because the Almond Festival was never going to compete on that level. Yet rather than try to be true to the festival's roots, the chamber let it dwindle away until this year when it was too late to fix things. In debt and with a demoralized crew, the chamber decided to take the year off with the promise that it would team up with the city of Oakley next year to provide a bigger and better festival.
Perhaps that will happen, or perhaps it won't. Almost certainly there will be a renewed attempt to turn the Almond Festival into something it's not, and the result will be an even more expensive venue that provides even less of the community spirit that launched the festival so many years ago. We would hate to see it die because it had been a part of our lives for nearly as long as we have lived in this community. But times change and people change, and for this year at least there will be no parades or dance groups or karaoke performers on the stage in O'Hara Park this week. There will be no chocolate coated almonds or frozen lemonade or tri-tip sandwiches served from the Lions Club booth. There will be no classic car show or carnival games or local businesses handing out pamphlets or entries for free drawings.
It's just another quiet weekend in little old Oakley, the town that once knew how to have fun.
Forced to find other ways to entertain ourselves this month, we have turned to the one place that seems to reward us in new ways each time we explore it, and that is the Delta. The price of admission is a mere $5 for bridge money and whatever gas we consume as we venture farther afield each time in an effort to learn more about the area we call home.
Labor Day weekend provided us with a rare opportunity for adventure. While Ben went with his friends to Sacramento for the 3-day SacAnime convention, Roni and Glenn were left alone to do whatever. That is more time we've had on our own than in the past 18 years combined, so we were quite excited about the possibilities. We could take a vacation together somewhere. Tahoe? Monterey? Oregon? It would only be for a night, but why not? We found the answer to that question in ourselves, when Roni had reservations about wandering too far from home while Ben was off alone in Sacramento. It was his first time away from home in another city. What if something happened and he needed us to come to his rescue? We didn't want to be so far away that we couldn't reach him in an hour or two.
The other problem was less one of emotion and more one of practicality; Labor Day weekend is a tough time to make accommodations on short notice. Oh, we'd had months to plan for this weekend. Ben had known since at least February that he was going to rent a hotel with several friends for convention weekend. We just kept putting off a decision on our plans until it was too late, deciding that we'd just "play it by ear" wherever we decided to go.
So it was that we set out for Sacramento on Friday morning with Ben and two of his friends in the back seat, bound for the Red Lion Inn. Ben may have figured out how to split the cost on two nights in a hotel, but he still needed someone with a car to get him there. Enter Mom and her Toyota Corolla. The rooms at the convention site a couple of blocks away booked up long ago, but the Red Lion offered similar rates and a shuttle bus the kids could take to get to the show. Five of them went in on a $250 room, so it worked out pretty well to share the cost. Ben had set aside a couple hundred dollars of his own to spend on food and souvenirs during the weekend. We only hoped that he wouldn't blow through it in the first 10 minutes.
We dropped off the happy conventioneers and made our way home along Highway 160 because Glenn had to be back for work by 2:30. That gave us just enough time to stop for lunch in Walnut Grove, at a place we'd been told about by one of our friends, called Giusti's. We had been advised to go there on a Wednesday to enjoy 2-for-1 lobster night. We figured that might not be the best time to try it, given the huge crowds. Friday around lunch hour seemed more promising. But we were surprised to find many cars lining the levee road when we arrived, all of them belonging to restaurant patrons.
The restaurant is an unassuming building built on the north fork of the Mokelumne River. In fact, some reviewers have said it resembles a falling-down barn, which isn't too far off the mark. The menu is simple and posted on the wall, written in pen on mirrors above each table. For $12 to $17 you can find salmon steaks and seafood salads, hamburgers, clam chowder and more. We enjoyed our calamari and grilled prawns, then ventured outside onto the boat dock to take in the view of the river. Fig trees and blackberries line the banks, and a handful of boaters made their way along the water to where the Miller Ferry swing bridge tender awaited their call to open the bridge. We wished we had longer to linger, but we had to get back on the road because we were already late getting home.
On the remainder of the drive home we decided that it would be a fun project to try to identify and visit all the bridges in the Delta region. Not all in one weekend, of course, but we could get a good start on our project with the two days we would have available.
Saturday morning arrived and we still weren't sure what we wanted to do. Should we head out for the day, plan on spending the night somewhere, or just stay home? The third idea sounded very appealing because we have been on the go a lot this summer and could definitely make use of a day just to relax. But relaxation comes in many forms, and ours seems to be taking road trips. So we threw a few things in an overnight bag, left a heaping bowl of food and water for the kitties, and headed out for our Delta drive, our only plan being to drive north.
"North" took us up Highway 160 through Isleton, where we pulled off the road to get the first of our day's bridge photos at the freshly repainted Isleton Bridge. Caltrans has been painting some of the main bridges along Highway 160 since last November and Isleton was the last to get a new coat. It practically glows now.
We continued along 160 until we reached Ryde, where we took a slight detour onto Highway 220 on Grand Island. We wanted to find the old Beaver Union Elementary School that we had first learned about during our July visit to the Delta Pear Fair. It was there that we encountered an information booth for The Grand Island Mission Project, a volunteer group that purchased the school property with plans to refurbish it into a mission and conference center. They certainly have their work cut out for them. The school has been abandoned for decades and had become a repository for junk and a haven for vagrants. Nature had run its course and the property was overgrown with berry brambles and untended shrubs and fruit trees. The property has been cleaned up extensively since then, and we had missed out on a couple of opportunities to see it during the group's fundraising events. We pulled up at the gate to the parking lot and strolled around the outside of the old school to take our few photos. As we were leaving we encountered a couple of men who had driven up after us and were fixing on checking out the school's interior. They were "urban explorers" who like to venture inside abandoned buildings and photograph them. These guys had apparently been inside the school already, before all the debris that lined the gymnasium had been removed. They seemed disappointed when we told them the place was being renovated.
Our next stop was Walnut Grove, which sometimes feels like a second home to us. Seeing it twice in as many days only reaffirmed that notion. We meandered around the south end of town along Old Walnut Grove-Thornton Road to the Walnut Grove Marina and drove along the levee access road to get some pictures of the boats below. Roni noticed a heron in the water and so she stalked it past the vehicle gate on the levee, hoping to get a good photo with her Nikon D5100. The heron was too far away to photograph well, but we did have a grand view of one of the tallest of the Walnut Grove radio towers anchored in a corn field to the other side of the levee.
Walnut Grove Road took us east over the Miller Ferry Bridge and eventually into the small farming community of Thornton. This wasn't exactly to our north, but it was true to our plan of having no plan for where we would travel. It was getting on toward lunch hour and we were beginning to think about where we could grab a bite to eat. There didn't seem to be much in Thornton, but we were getting close to Lodi. We headed south a bit, paralleling Interstate 5, until the road curved east again and became West Peltier Road. This took us into the heart of Lodi wine country, and it was tempting to stop at one of the many boutique wineries along the route.
But we had our sights set on someplace else, which happened to be Lockeford. We'd been there last fall to buy sausages from the Lockeford Meat & Sausage Co., and remembering how good they were, we decided to restock our freezer. The store was so busy that we had to wait outside the doors for a few minutes before we were finally able to make our way to the counter and pick form the selection of fresh meats as if we were filling up a bakery box at a doughnut shop: "We'll take one of the cajun, two of the Hawaiian style, two jalapeno, three smoked Dakota links, one bavarian, a pound of breakfast links..." Before we knew it we'd spent $37 on enough meat to last us a month or maybe just a week once we got it home and started our nonstop sausage festival.
Still, despite having just collected enough sausage to fill the ice chest we just happened to have brought with us, none of the meat was cooked and wouldn't help us with our lunch search. We were right across the street from the Country Cafe, so we popped in there for a quick, cheap meal amid the walls filled with cowboy decor.
With food in our bellies, we headed back the way we'd come, hoping to find more photo opportunities. Part of the purpose for our trip was to find Delta-themed photos to enter into an upcoming art show the Delta Science Center was sponsoring at the Lynn House Gallery in Antioch. Roni had a few entries lined up from other photographers, but she wanted to make sure to have enough photos in reserve to fill any remaining spots in the gallery. We thought a place to find wildlife would be fun. We first looked for a place called Stone Lakes Wildlife Refuge along Hood-Franklin Road near the town of Hood. We were disappointed to find the refuge dry for the summer and thus devoid of any birds. But we weren't too far from the Cosumnes River Preserve, so we went there instead.
It was the first chance we had to take a walk together at the preserve; on previous visits we took the trail independent of one another. We first stopped in one of the parking lots so Roni could photograph an egret hunting for food near the water. After giving up on that quest, realizing the bird was still too far away to photograph well, we went into the preserve and followed the loop trail over the river and through the woods, picking blackberries and photographing whatever looked interesting. We spent more than two hours there, which was about as much as Roni's sore knee could handle.
We started heading for home after that, realizing that the idea of spending the night somewhere seemed sort of silly when lodging was priced at a premium due to the holiday weekend and we were just an hour from our own house. We stopped for ice cream at Mel's Mocha in Walnut Grove and then followed Highway 160 south until we found a little beach south of Rio Vista where we could stop and watch the sunset. It was a beautiful evening, and we felt lucky to have been able to enjoy it the way we had.
Following a day of adventure Saturday, we thought Sunday would be a leisurely relax-at-home day. Ben was due back from his convention, and although we didn't have to pick him up from Sacramento, we weren't sure what time he would be coming home. At least he had a house key with him. Our Saturday drive had put us in the mood for exploration, however, and so it probably should have been expected that we would hit the road again to continue our photo trek.
This time we decided to head east rather than north. That drive took us on Highway 4, which brought us into San Joaquin County where not much happens that isn't related to farming in some way. Once we passed Discovery Bay there were miles of vacant fields that in the spring are normally filled with asparagus. Rows of corn stalks were busy turning a golden brown under the late summer sun, and harvesters were scooping up tomatoes by the truckload.
We crossed the Middle River Bridge and decided to stop at the Union Point restaurant just on the other side so we could hop out and get a few photos. The swing bridge, like many of the others in the Delta, is currently undergoing upgrade work. Contractors have attached a maze of scaffolding to its west end and placed concrete barricades along either side of the traffic deck, so the bridge wasn't quite as photogenic as it normally is. But seeing as we had never been inside Union Point, we thought it would be fun to check the place out anyway.
Union Point is a popular destination for boaters. While car-bound visitors are more than welcome to stop in, the restaurant clearly understands the majority of its customers and caters to them with a massive boat dock off Middle River. For us, the dock was a convenient spot to stroll out from shore to get our photos and observe the weekend traffic out on the water. Folks on jet skis, small aluminum fishing boats and fancy yachts with sound systems that could have put a small concert hall to shame zipped past on the calm waves. When we arrived at the restaurant there were no boats tied up at the dock, but within an hour the place became packed as people cruised in for lunch.
Up the gangplank is a restaurant and bar on stilts, sporting an outdoor deck where you can take your drinks or your meal and enjoy the view. We ordered a plate of garlic bread and sat for a bit to contemplate the day. It really made us long for a boat of our own. There are a few marinas in our area that rent them by the half or full day, and now we are eager to do so and spend an afternoon cruising the Delta.
But for this day, at least, we were stuck in our car. No problem, as we decided to head south from Highway 4 on Tracy Boulevard to an unpaved levee trail called Klien Road that runs along Middle River's southern bank. The river here is just a few miles upstream from Union Point, but the two spots are like night and day. Whereas Union Point was surrounded by wide, well maintained channels, the section of river we were on now was narrow, shallow and infested with water weeds. As such, few boaters would dare attempt to navigate it. This and the fact that the river winds through sparsely populated farmland makes it the perfect habitat for shy egrets and other wildlife.
Roni, ever on her quest for the perfect egret photo, started tracking one we saw amid the trees in the river. But true to form, each time we got close and she stopped the car to set up her shot, the bird would rise from its perch and fly a few hundred yards up the river. It was like it was taunting us. The deeper we drove along the levee road, the more critters we found. Suddenly Roni noticed an unusual gray colored bird perched in a dead tree. Even though we were close enough that an egret would have been spooked, this bird merely sat there, making unusual motions with its throat. We would later learn that this was a cormorant, and although we had seen them before at the Big Break Regional Shoreline near us, we had never seen one this close up.
It was about the same time we were wrapping up with the cormorant that we got a call from Ben saying that he had returned home from Sacramento.
"Where are you guys?" he asked.
"Somewhere between Tracy and Stockton," Glenn told him, "why?"
There was a long pause before Ben replied, "Really? I'm locked out of the house because I don't have my key!"
Roni told him to make himself comfortable on the back patio and that we'd be home as soon as we could. Of course, that would be at least a couple of hours, given that we were nowhere close to Stockton yet and couldn't turn off this levee road we were on until we reached its end. Fortunately, he called us back a few minutes later to let us know he had found a way inside. By a stroke of luck for him (and shortsightedness on our part) we had left a door open. Good thing he had discovered it before someone else did.
Our levee drive ended near French Camp, which connected us with Interstate 5. From there we drove into Stockton with the hope of finding a place to view the cargo ships anchored at the Port of Stockton. What we discovered is that the port is mostly inaccessible, hidden behind barbed wire fences, freight cars, industrial buildings and security checkpoints. It can be seen from the north side of the docks in Stockton's downtown, but we didn't figure this out while we were there. We drove aimlessly through the sparkling new waterfront area with its convention center and minor league baseball park, taking a gander at the hyacinth-clogged marina while stuck at a traffic light.
But by now we had spent a couple of days shooting photos and figured missing out on the ships in the port wasn't going to make or break our weekend. We headed home on Highway 4, stopping at the Old River Bridge just east of Discovery Bay for one last series of bridge photos. When we pulled up near the bridge there was some sort of commotion going on. A man in a police uniform, gun holster at his hip, went racing along the levee away from the bridge. He was joined in a nearby field by another officer, a woman, and together they started looking inside an irrigation canal. A few curious fishermen abandoned their fishing spots to see what was going on.
Our first thought was maybe we didn't want to go where there were people running around with guns. But our journalist instincts got the better of us, so we walked up the levee with cameras in hand to get the scoop. The way the officers were combing the canal made us wonder if someone had gone missing there. It happens. We called down to a fisherman who seemed mostly oblivious to the action as he went about checking his line. "What's all the commotion about?"
He turned and said, "They're after some guy who didn't have his fishing license. He took off running thataway." Then he laughed and said, "I'm sure glad I paid my $17."
Convinced now that we weren't likely to be shot accidentally, we took our photos of the Old River Bridge and continued on our way. We stopped in Discovery Bay for lunch at a sushi restaurant, satisfying Roni's craving for seafood after all the time we'd spent on the water.
While we had bolstered our collection of Delta stock photos, Roni was still very nervous about the upcoming art show that opened Sept. 8 at the Lynn House Gallery. The Delta Science Center had teamed up with the Sierra Club to present a few dozen photos and paintings in the gallery with a nature theme. DSC's goal was to get photo submissions from area photographers to provide images for the center's 2013 Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Educational Resource Calendar, and despite having advertised the show for a couple of months she hadn't received as many submissions as she hoped. We spend a day combing through our collection and singling out images that we would want to make up into 11x14" prints for framing. With room for 60 photos, we hoped we wouldn't have to print too many.
Last month we renewed our long dormant Costco membership specifically because of their great prices on photo enlargements. We put the membership to use the week before the art show as we racked up a couple hundred dollars in enlargements and frames. In some cases it was the first time we had made any professional quality prints from our digital cameras, and we were generally pleased with the results.
Meanwhile, a few other photographers came through. As the deadline for submissions arrived, many procrastinators brought their works to the Lynn House in person. Other pictures arrived by email. It looked like Roni would have no trouble filling the exhibit, so a few of the enlargements we'd made remained in our personal collection. Always better to have too many than not enough.
The day of the gallery show opening we dressed up a little more than normal. Roni wore a white skirt with blue top. Glenn chose a nice pair of his work slacks and a dress shirt. Ben wore his jeans and a Pikachu hat he'd bought at SacAnime. Okay, so two of us dressed up. We arrived at the opening around 2 p.m. for the chance to mingle with art lovers, photographers and to partake in the meat and cheese trays the gallery brought in for refreshments.
The show was confined to the first floor of the two-story Lynn House. It was a hot day, so the couple dozen people who turned out spent much of their time hanging out by the open doors or on the front porch. Glenn and Roni together had perhaps a dozen prints on display, including some of the bridges and water scenes we'd taken during our Labor Day weekend travels. It was a lovely venue for an art show, and while it might not have been mobbed with crowds, it was nonetheless encouraging that some people showed an interest in the subject matter.
If you want to see the show in person, the Lynn House is open Wednesdays and Saturdays from 1 to 4 p.m. The show runs through Sept. 29.