Photograph by Alastair Bland
FIG BASKET: The author's bike brimeth over.
The Great Fig Hunt
Four years later, our writer sets out to recreate his 2004 'geography of abundance' bike tour of California, one fig at a time
By Alastair Bland
The smell of the Central Valley, the length of the road, the sweetness of unfettered youth and the endless abundance of figs: I still relive those days like it was last month, but, alas, how the years have flown! I was just 25 when I set out upon my bicycle in 2004 with little more than a sleeping bag and a map of the state, my eyes peeled for the autumn fruits that would sustain me for many weeks as I traveled the length of California, eating only that which I found or foraged.
Today, those echoes meld into a remembered two-month span of golden sunlight and a sheer exuberance for life. I manage to overlook the dark times: the bull that nearly trampled me while I slept, the vile slums of Los Angeles, the vagrant near Chico who threatened to brain me with a crowbar and the crushing misery of the Central Valley heat. To the contrary, I have mostly only remembered the figs.
They're what drew me out on the road again this August. I left home with a sleeping bag and tarp on the rear rack of my bicycle, with my travel panniers filled with the basic tools of the simple life, and I aimed for the delta's Brannon Island, precisely where I began my journey four years ago. Brannan Island, home to a state park campground and an uncanny number of fig trees around its levee-lined perimeter, is the premier destination for those pursuing the noble sport of fig hunting.
I was encouraged to find that, although I was out of practice, I had not lost my touch; the old magic was still there. As I pedaled, I scanned the roadsides, and the slightest sprig of fig foliage visible over the roof of a barn would reveal the presence of a tree that the common man couldn't have detected. And I could still identify a fig tree a quarter mile away by its thickly textured appearance and the jungly pattern of outward growth common to many feral figs. Nor had I lost my olfactory powers, and more than once I caught a whiff of that thick haylike odor before catching sight of the fig tree itself, furtively growing among the roadside shrubbery. Yep, I thought, this old dog's got some kick in him yet!
The hunt was good that first day. I struck about a tree per two miles, and I only selected the best figs—those so ripe their skins were taut under their own sagging weight, the sort so soft and jammy that they never reach grocery stores—and after 15 miles of riding, my basket was brimming with fruit. A common misperception about figs holds that there are two varieties: black and green. Actually, there are hundreds: purple, brown, yellow, red, striped like the Kremlin steeples, thin-skinned, thick-skinned, pink inside, magenta inside, figs the size of Bartlett pears and countless combinations in between.
I also rediscovered that day how the avid fig hunter disapproves of all trees but the fig tree. I snorted at apples, oranges, plums and other such fruits of the year-round grocery aisle. I even cast judgment upon the people who lived in each house I passed by their yards. Obviously, those with no trees at all were managed by hopelessly lost souls. Those with nonfruit trees were fools. Those with apple trees, social conformists. Walnuts, boring. Lemons, spare me. Mulberries I condone, but likely the fruit all goes to waste, and thus—idiots.
I also rediscovered some of the ugly points of fig hunting. The heat was oppressive, and I passed the afternoon in a shady park in the dismally slow town of Isleton. I only returned to camp at dusk, when the delta air was balmy—and swarming with insects. I settled in at a picnic table and, before dinner, picked the bugs from my eyes. I ate figs stuffed with cheese, then went to sleep among dust, grime and ants. The mosquitoes came out around midnight. I had no repellant, and they feasted.
The sun rose the next day from a brilliant scarlet flood over the eastward horizon, but it boded only of the blistering heat to come. I loaded up on Kadota figs west of Lodi and passed through several smaller towns. Northeast of Lodi, the earth began to roll. A subtle change at first, my legs felt it, then my eyes caught it. Bluffs grew at the roadsides and quickly the flat manure lands of the valley transformed into lolling hills of chaparral and oak trees, and scattered pines told of the jagged high country ahead.
I stayed that night with a friend and winemaker in El Dorado County. On my trip of four years ago, I had enthusiastically fermented my own wine in a plastic Nalgene bottle and got satisfactorily drunk several times. I have since matured into a gentleman with expensive tastes, and we drank fine beer and Pinot Noir that evening. We ate wild rice, pasta and figs wrapped in prosciutto, and we discussed real estate.
With a gift the next morning of two bottles from Toogood Winery, I departed for the high country and would see no more figs for days of riding. The foothill country changed just as fast as I pedaled. The agricultural elements were buried by pine forests, and through the trees I saw the bald peaks and sheer cliffs of the Desolation Wilderness to the north, and Mark Twain's favorite lake and my evening's goal—Tahoe—lay somewhere beyond those summits.
A cyclist burns an average of 45 calories per mile, I have read. Carrying 35 pounds of gear and going uphill must nearly double that rate, and by mile 60 my granola breakfast had burned through and I was desperately hungry, thousands of calories in the hole. Each store I saw on Highway 88 was closed. I climbed over one high pass after another, finally dropping into the town of Meyers where I stumbled into a supermarket. I bought dinner—whole wheat bread and sandwich makings—before I attacked Luther Pass. Still, as I circled Lake Tahoe's west shore, I faced another 600-foot climb. At last, gravity drew me down the final miles and I made it to Sugar Pine Point State Park before dark. I drank a bottle of Primitivo, ate nine salmon sandwiches and expired for the night.
I explored the High Sierras for several days, but the call to duty soon brought me back to lower elevations. Fig season, after all, wouldn't last forever. I smacked my lips in anticipation of breakfast as I sailed at almost 40 mph down Highway 4, yet my heart sank as the mountains vanished. First the craggy cirques disappeared. Then the pines of bear country transitioned into the chaparral of tick country. When I arrived in the Gold Rush town of Murphys, the sweltering heat assured me that the change was complete; I was back in the Central Valley, for better or worse.
I camped again at a friend's winery in the region, just north of Plymouth, where I was left with 10 opened bottles from the day's tastings. Nighttime in the Central Valley is a great swindle; the air is so cool and silent, and the stars above speak of tranquility the world round. Drinking wine on a comfortable patio furthers the deception and makes one forget that the sun will rise again, and I was momentarily deceived into thinking here was heaven. In fact, the sun was prowling behind the earth, mobilizing for another day of hell. She rose at dawn, and that's when I decided I would ride to Napa and Sonoma for relief. I arrived that evening in the midst of a terrible heat wave; there would be no relief.
For several days I bore the weather and rampaged about the country, devouring the figs, laying waste to the crop and taking note of feral trees for future pillages. I stuffed myself to the gills, camping each night at Napa Valley State Park. I paid homage to my former years, too, by dabbling in the infamous craft of making road wine—sort of.
I started with a ready bottle of Simi Winery 2007 Sauvignon Blanc. This lightly acidic wine, with delicate notes of citrus, tropical fruit, spice and all that drivel, can be improved by adding fresh Calimyrna figs. I transferred the wine into my wide-mouthed water bottle and added eight smashed fruits and a day later enjoyed the result—a robust and tawny beverage with an earthy sweetness and flavors of oak, pine, mead and, well, figs. I drank the last of it on the ferry home from Vallejo to San Francisco.
Figs. Something about this inverted flower of a fruit holds mysterious powers over my imagination. My carnal instincts say it's the taste and texture, but my wiser side tells me it's something more essential, a combination of lore, biology, history and geography. It's the durability of the trees, certainly, which will sprout in the driest, stoniest places, with an affinity for European castles, and it's their productivity too, as they'll generate perfect fruit for three months of the year and live, though neglected, for centuries.
By now I've conquered the state and eaten 10,000, yet my fascination persists. I learned this September that trying to relive fig-hunting adventures of the past doesn't quite work; journeys are most golden in memory. But I will surely be compelled someday to again brave the Central Valley heat for another taste. For the fig is a sweet blessing, but, so it seems, it's also my bitterest curse.
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