This town is dying.
Head west from the 5,
through barren lands and tumbleweed,
into the kingdom of the pumpjacks and abandoned houses.
It is dry and the wind is raw.
The Temblor Range broods in the distance;
a vulture circles the roadkill on Highway 119.
Soon you enter this sad place,
built on oil, hope and grit,
named for a hefty ex-president.
A downtown that once hummed is quiet now,
so quiet that a single car passing is a major event.
The shops are mostly empty, the sidewalks deserted.
Ghosts of commerce haunt these streets —
the shuttered bank branch,
the extinct car dealer,
junk shops open two days a week,
the drugstore whose shelves are covered with dust.
Hell, we don’t even have a hospital here.
Shadows of late afternoon fall on the taqueria,
its neon flickering dimly as an insect comes to rest.
At night, mysterious lights twinkle
from the Midway-Sunset.
Stars fell on Alabama, the old song goes.
But here they stay cold and high;
West Kern is far from heaven.
My father was an oil worker, and so am I.
My friends have left for Bakersfield,
with its malls and subdivisions.
They don’t want to live in a place that time forgot.
This town is dying, but it’s still home to me.
If history appeals, come ride along.
There is Elk Hills, part of a scandal tainting Harding.
The Lakeview Gusher, 1910, America’s biggest strike;
just a small stone plaque now, surrounded by
broken bottles, rusted pipes and rotting timber.
Countless billions have been siphoned from here,
but what was left behind?
You can drive right into the fields, just don’t inhale.
We have a witches’ brew — poison gases, mists and pesticides.
What the oil hasn’t finished, the cotton will.
A bitter wind blows through this land.