It's Not Too Hot for a Thrifting Trip to Tulare, California's Irrigation Riviera

A mural on the side of a convenience store celebrates multiculturalism.EXPAND
A mural on the side of a convenience store celebrates multiculturalism.
Dan Johnson

Introducing California’s next great vacation destination: the Central Valley.

Top-tier travel writers have carelessly neglected 18,000 square miles of horizontal majesty. Most tastemakers privilege wine-soaked evenings in Napa and weekends at plush Tahoe chalets. Others yearn for the hip Ojai vortex or the sunburned water sports of Havasu.

As for me, I’ll take a few nights in Tulare. Say it with me: Two Larry.

The humble town of 60,000, nestled in a nook along Highway 99 between Bakersfield and Fresno, is the sort of place many will only ever know as a seven-exit blur whizzing past their car windows at 75 miles per hour.

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There are no opulent resorts here. No celebrities have carved out amenity-soaked ranches where they can play cowboy for three weeks a year. There are no palm-lined beaches from which to Instagram perfectly filtered snapshots of a sunset adorned with obnoxious hashtags.

Instead, visitors to Tulare can look forward to a dose of much-needed reality.

This is a place where you can rediscover a California identity caught between culture and ecology. This is a town that reminds those with a nasty knack for reductionism that there is no such thing as simple. This is a place with ordinary delights that reverberate in the deepest depths of Americanness.

If this isn’t enticing enough, let me just add this bit of incentive: Tulare has the best collection of thrift stores I’ve ever perused in California.

We first stumbled into town on a whim earlier this year. We were jacked out of our minds on the ultra-dose of white-knuckle terror and spine-tingling adrenaline that comes from driving a lightweight Toyota Prius with balding tires over the Grapevine during a gale-force Southern California superstorm.

As the survival hormones gave way to exhaustion, we found ourselves in an anonymous, quasi-industrial space on the south side of Tulare. Roll-down doors hide a host of auto parts businesses and award-winning craft beer upstart Kaweah Brewing, which opens on Fridays and Saturdays for regular tap pours and limited-edition, cask-aged pleasures.

Across from Kaweah, in an unassuming storefront, is Finds Divine — a true treasure of Tulare secondhand commerce.

Longtime neighbors and business partners Jennifer and Carol run a polished consignment operation that helps locals liquidate excess possessions. Pleasant to a fault, the ladies facilitate a collection of alluring castoffs.

On the wall was a collection of handmade, American leather Western belts hanging still and seductive like a rack of snakeskins. As soon as I saw the computer-printed barcode price tags, I knew the jig was up and I’d be paying out the nose for any one of them. Even when I locked eyes on the sign advertising “Belts: $2.50,” my mind automatically read it as $250.

Years of trawling Los Angeles–area thrift stores, where even the most degraded article of clothing can carry an absurd price, have a way of desensitizing us. In Tulare, however, they’re putting the thrift back in thrift stores.

I bought five belts for a grand total of $12.50. My girlfriend found a $3 Farrah Fawcett T-shirt made from a rare (and valuable) ’70s decal. We hemmed and hawed over a $40 mirror they could have asked five times as much for.

As we left to hit the road north, the ladies casually said, “Oh, are you going to go to the other stores in town?”

What ensued over the next four hours was a marathon of thrifting gluttony. Store after store beckoned us with an intoxicating abundance of used kitsch and craft. 

Cotton boll glasswear, a $3 camel hair Montgomery Ward sport coat, ’70s polyester dress shirts, a Statue of Liberty centennial commemorative belt buckle and a JEB Stuart ceramic decanter à la the John Waters episode of The Simpsons: This was the substance of an immense haul.

On the way out of town, we popped into one of many faith-based thrift stores, where I picked up a copy of Marc Reisner’s nonfiction Western water epic, Cadillac Desert, for 50 cents.

If you had to pick one book to define the Central Valley and the Bible wasn’t available, Cadillac Desert would be the natural choice. Reisner’s exhaustive history chronicles the story of water access west of the 100th meridian. Here arid climate has goaded ambitious farmers into advocating (and agonizing over) massive federally financed projects to harness and distribute available water.

Don’t be fooled by the yawning expanse of fertile land or the wilting summer heat or the wind-born “Tulare Dust” Merle Haggard sang about. Tulare is a town held afloat by the elemental forces of water.

The word Tulare itself is an etymological borrow from the Aztec noun for bulrushes. The marshes of nearby Lake Tulare’s fickle expanse of Sierra runoff defined the region when the city’s founder, the Southern Pacific Railroad, passed through in 1872.

Subsequently, a series of privately financed irrigation projects and the Bureau of Reclamation’s vast, region-shifting Central Valley Project brought enough water to convert the Tulare area, with its fertile topsoil, into one of the top agriculture producing districts in the country.

Here on the banks of the Friant-Kern Canal, the centrality of water is not up for debate. What is up for debate is government intervention in any other capacity than providing water no questions asked.

All up and down the Central Valley, “Dams Not Trains” has become a mantra of rebellion. Phase one of the proposed $68 billion project to bring high-speed rail to California is slated to mirror Highway 99 on its jaunt between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

For local youths and listless adults, the possibility of escaping town at 250 miles per hour has an obvious appeal. Yet vocal proponents have yet to craft a slogan as potent as the big farmers who clearly harbor robust objections to the project.

Beyond the obvious eminent-domain implications of running a rail line through a privately held agricultural region, there’s this prickly issue of groundwater. The produce that fuels the Central Valley’s economy relies on both aqueduct water and subterranean hydrology. A survey released by the United States Geological Survey last year estimated that 60 million acre-feet of Central Valley groundwater has been depleted since 1960.

No region in the Central Valley has seen more loss in groundwater than the Tulare Basin, where the earth itself literally sags above a diminishing water table while farmers sink deeper wells to contend with the recent exceptional drought.

Despite the pugnacious chastisements of “global warming alarmists” by Tulare congressman (and high-speed rail opponent) Devin Nunes, his constituents appear to be hedging their bets against future climatic events by pushing for more water storage.

Unlike the local aquifers, where prospects for renewing the groundwater stores that took 20,000 years to accumulate are grim, the Tulare thrift store junket has a much greater “recharge rate.”

Sociologically speaking, Tulare has ideal conditions for secondhand stores. Low-cost local vintage outlets are beneficiaries of a process you’ll see in traditional-minded communities across the country. Old-timers who value self-sufficiency are loath to leave the places they’ve called home for decades. These modern homesteaders hold long-stashed deposits of yesteryear’s gems that will eventually hit the racks.

Then there’s the omnipresent retail wars that pit mom-and-pop Main Street operations against recently installed corporate stores. A strip of bustling big-box stores in nearby Visalia and outlets along Highway 99 in Tulare suggest a town whose people are reimagining their material identity via commerce. With that changeover comes a conveyor belt by which new Merona and Banana Republic clothing enters closets while old Pendleton and H Bar C items end up as donations. 

Belt buckle haulEXPAND
Belt buckle haul
Dan Johnson

Sixty days after our first visit, we rolled back into Tulare to plumb the rejuvenated depths of thrift outlets in and around the historic downtown. We found a plenitude of inexpensive belt buckles and Western snap shirts, a glorious Neiman Marcus woman’s dress suit and $30 clogs, a vintage rubberized ’60s hunting rain jacket (for a dollar!), 10 iconic belt buckles, and an unlikely collection of Henry Miller and Thomas Pynchon hardbacks.

The skeptical reader may be harboring an idea that places like Tulare are mere outposts in the cultural backwater primed for exploitation. I dare you to spend a weekend there and still defend that notion.

Tulare is not some sideshow. It’s a scene in the main act of 21st-century American life where a vast network of contradictory social phenomena, histories and resource battles collide in a web of complexity. Thrift opportunities aside, the true attraction in Tulare is a city struggling to reconcile itself to dynamic realities.

It’s Peter Murphy playing a Friday/Saturday double bill at the fairgrounds with Sprint Car races as an opening act

It’s a landlocked city with a fetish for freshwater and a civic park named after Elmo Zumwalt, the Tularean who reinvented the modern American navy.

It’s a mural on the side of a convenience store celebrating multiculturalism as a bedrock American value mere miles from a residential street where Latino children parade home in front of a house proudly waving the Confederate battle flag.

It’s a place where the clerk at a Christian secondhand store will compare the surrounding natural habitat to the Sea of Galilee before lamenting Palestine’s fate.

It’s chile rellenos and a cavelike bar beneath the vintage ’50s sign at Vejar’s. It’s Spanish-speaking Catholic priests and Sunday best–clad parishioners chowing down on mariscos plates across the street at Las Playas.

It’s heads bowed in prayer at breakfast in a side room at local billboard sensation Apple Annie’s. It’s a ceiling-rigged model train zooming past murals of John Lennon and Elvis Presley while the penitent proclaim that “this is the last generation ... there’s no rules against anything … it’s all mixed up,” before they bless President Trump and dig into high-fructose corn syrup–soaked pancakes.

Yup, they've got it.EXPAND
Yup, they've got it.

Most fondly, it’s people like Bud and Betty, who run Betty J’s secondhand store on K Street, whose freshly stocked estate sale inventory of knickknacks, clothing and memorabilia is just a good excuse to pursue Bud’s real interest: “bullshittin’.”

The man likes to gab about his Kansas roots, his hard-labor upbringing, the welding business he gave up after his bypass, the prospects for the day’s weather and the time Betty got her photo taken with Huell Howser.

The bullshittin’ eschews the evangelical impulse of our time, where everyone has a cause and apocalyptic visions of a disastrous future inspire us to proselytize those we meet in a quest for ideological purity.

Amidst the rich fields of Tulare, you’ll find a host of people like Bud and Betty, who are not necessarily in the business of determining how exactly we may disagree.

In conversation, you’re invited to partake in the lost practice of planting seeds of good will. Water the crop with a sometimes-scarce resource called courtesy and you may just reap a harvest of compromise.

It’s a rare attraction in this day and age — one you can see for yourself by booking a trip to California’s Irrigation Riviera today.


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