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Planet Bakersfield

I wanted to go where bugs still smash against your windshield. I wanted to go as far from L.A. as a tank of gas would take me and back. And I wanted to be in a place where I could feel the distance of time. In other words, I was going to Bakersfield. Not that the San Joaquin Valley’s “All American City” is a time warp or a town where people are somehow more “real”; the Bakersfield of the Okie diaspora, of Beer Can Hill and Oildale honky-tonks, became a mirage of small-town life long ago.

It’s not even the same Bakersfield that my wife, Sandra, and I used to visit at the beginning of 10 years of quick getaways — friendly Farmer John’s Pancake House is gone, so is the Eden Rock Café. Ethel Beeson, owner of the legendary Old Corral Café honky-tonk, has passed on, the welcoming Bakersfield sign that arced across Union Avenue for half a century has been taken down, and people from L.A. no longer talk up the town’s thrift stores. Even that Costco of drugs, hookers and guns, the Rancho Bakersfield motel, is now a sober-living complex called Restoration Village.

Still, as you approach Bakersfield from L.A., you’re pricked by a warm, Demerol-y feeling of returning to something like home. Green fields and fruit stands surround the flat road and its overgrown islands of oleander and wild mustard. This isn’t the way I first came into Bakersfield 40 years ago, when my family was moving east. We were trying to make it from Modesto to Barstow by nightfall and didn’t stay here long. My parents kept joking about The Grapes of Wrath on account of the Okies and because our car would break down whenever it rained; to me the town’s northern outskirts looked like another planet — an endless wasteland of bare hills and oil fields.

Some of Bakersfield’s old-time amenities mercifully remain, including the communal dining tables and powerful gin and tonics of Basque restaurants located on the industrial east side. Our favorite is the Noriega Hotel, but it’s not always easy to be punctual for its strictly observed mealtimes. In fact, Sandra and I missed the noon lunch sign-up the other week, and so we walked across the street to the Pyrenees Cafe.

Most people eat in the café’s hospitable bar, which is crowded with loud-talking men in straw cowboy hats playing dice games. The food’s more American than Basque, leaning heavily on fried chicken and French fries, but it’s fresh and hearty, and a needed break from the carne mysterioso of I-5 fast-food stops. Two young waitresses sported black T-shirts (“Punk Rock” and a skunk image labeled “Cat”), and we thought maybe the pair represented Bakersfield’s alt vanguard until they told us they’d been purchased at Sears and Mervyn’s.

The packaging of attitude into T-shirts and tattoos is everything in Los Angeles, and I’d assumed it would be no different in Bakersfield, which is desperately trying to recapture some of its glory days as a nexus of agriculture, oil, water and, of course, country & western music. This visit, Sandra and I stayed at the Best Western motel that sits right off Highway 99 next to Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace. The motel — whose prices, we were told while soaking in a crowded Jacuzzi, fluctuate wildly according to whatever car races and conventions are in town — is not officially connected to Owens, but serves as the logical place for fans making their haj to the old Texan’s concerts. The Best Western is a great place to watch the faithful arrive in Western attire, their Cadillacs fitted with back-seat garment poles bending with taffeta dresses and yoked jackets.

Owens performs nearly every Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m., and admission is a democratic $6 for the 90-minute dinner show, during which the 73-year-old crooner of “Act Natural” and “Cryin’ Time” takes requests, dances with patrons and cracks wise. His palace is like a small Autry Museum — hokey façades of jails and saloons, along with display cases of Owens artifacts and a small gift shop. It’s a one-man Grand Ole Opry in a town that always stood in defiant opposition to Nashville.

The Crystal Palace’s photographs of Owens provide black-and-white glimpses of what Bakersfield looked like before it began dying in 1963, when Highway 99 stopped running through the middle of town along Union Avenue. (Owens bought the famed Bakersfield sign and attached it to his palace.) Today the once neon-pulsing avenue is a Felliniesque strada of ruined buildings, abandoned motels and prostitutes. On the way home we stopped at the avenue’s Palms Sub-Bourbon Liquors, drawn to its name, gaudy tropical paint job, jammed parking lot and oil-drum barbecue stand. We were looking for a Bakersfield souvenir. Once inside the darkened store, we asked if there were any T-shirts for sale, something of the town we could bring back and show off to our friends in L.A. The kids behind the counter shook their heads no and smiled, looking at us as though we were from another planet.