We left Yosemite from the south on Route 41 because we wanted to see the sequoias at Wawona. Having seen them we made for the expressway, Route 99, to head back to our friends’ house outside Sacramento. The place to pick up 99, according to our map, was at the small town of Madera, so to Madera we went.
The California roads are so badly signposted, though, you can drive right through Madera and out the other side without having any clue where to pick up 99. We did just that. Then, realizing our mistake, we doubled back. Still no clue where Route 99 was. At this point my masculine faith in maps crumbled, and I yielded to my wife’s suggestion that we just stop and ask directions. So I pulled over to where a guy was fixing his pickup truck. “Through town, go left,” was all I could get out of him, in poor English with a thick Spanish accent. At a red light, I rolled down a window and called out to the lady stopped next to us, to clarify matters. She couldn’t understand our queries at all, could only smile and shrug helplessly. I don’t believe she understood one word of English. The next person we asked did better, though it was still a linguistic struggle.
I started to notice that the store signs and notices in the center of Madera (where we now were) were mostly in Spanish. At this point I was overcome by a rather creepy—and, I acknowlege, highly Politically Incorrect—feeling; one rather like the feeling Brooke Adams got in Invasion of the Body Snatchers when she realized that everyone she knew had been replaced by pod people. Bear in mind, please, that Madera is in northern, or at any rate north-central, California, 350 miles from the Mexican border. Yet three random stops of townspeople turned up no one fluent in English, and one person without a single word of our nation’s language.
This was one of those moments when suddenly, after dozing inattentive through years of some slow social development, you realize with a jolt how far things have gone.