Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Gone Home

Trekking a San Jose road with ghosts of livestock, diners and John Denver
GAITED COMMUNITY: Umbarger Road in San Jose was once the place to be for equestrians and cowboys. Photo by Gary Singh

This time, the Tao of synchronicity emerged in connection with the classic San Jose thoroughfare of forgotten suburbia: Umbarger Road.

First of all, I, the Urban Blight Exploration Junkie, cannot walk down Umbarger behind the county fairgrounds without channeling a matrix of history. A more standard historian might explain in no crazy terms that David Umbarger was one of the original forty-niners that came west looking for gold and that his descendants eventually sold portions of the family's massive acreage to the Santa Clara County Fair Association.

The Blight Junkie is more of a poet with a propensity for mongrelized East-West perspectives, so instead of simply recalling the ghost of David Umbarger, I would need to say, "Chuang Tzu, otherwise known as the Groucho Marx of Taoist philosophy, recently founded the one-man Umbarger Road Industrial Wasteland Neighborhood Association." Then I would reveal how I followed the Tao, disregarded Western concepts of linear time, planned nothing and wound up with a killer column.

But before I could even get started, a mind-blowing synchronicity emerged from nowhere. On Thanksgiving, I took a quick jaunt down Umbarger and its side alleys, replete with horse manure, dead forklifts, junkyard dogs, rusted barbed wire, corrugated sheet metal, decades-old mobile home parks, transmission shops and other crumbling bastions of industry.

Walking along the southern perimeter of the fairgrounds, I could almost time warp to decades ago when this corner of the property featured livestock exhibitions and a serious equestrian operation. Nearby motels on Monterey Highway included the Purple Sage and the Wagon Wheel. Yet despite this glorious panorama of blighted spacetime, my narrative still wasn't complete; it needed some bad John Denver songs in a roadside diner.

Thanks to Tori Eakes, I was given exactly that.

The day after Thanksgiving, while standing there at Fil Maresca's parking lot sale, Eakes asked me out of the blue if I'd ever written about Umbarger Road. I'm not making this up. I hadn't seen Eakes in years and she didn't know I'd traversed that street a day earlier. Apparently the Tao was working with me, not against me. At this point, synchronicities happen to me so often, I consider them a part of nature.

Later that evening, Eakes told me about The Spur Restaurant, a cowboy dive in the '70s, located down Monterey Highway with jukeboxes on the tables and unsightly slabs of chicken fried steak. John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" was always playing, as was "Me and Mrs. Jones" by Billy Paul— so much so that the server would throw quarters at patrons, hoping they'd put on a different tune. A big Western mural graced the wall.

"The mashed potatoes had no flavor and the gravy was just to help you slide them down," Eakes said. "The green beans were always soggy. It was just classic, but it was always busy and a lot of people that boarded the horses at the fairgrounds would go there and congregate. It was a little Country-Western sort of [place], where what's left of cowboys hung out, and it had this huge dirt parking lot in the back and it was so cool."

Across town, Eastridge had just opened a few years earlier. At the time, JCPenny had a Western section that sold saddles, bridles, horse blankets and cowboy boots. The equestrian community thrived at the fairgrounds. It was a raging scene.

"There was a bunch of stalls back there, most of them were cinder block, which is really good if you have a horse because they can't chew on it like they can on the wood. No one wanted the wood ones," Eakes said. "It was $5 a month to rent a stall. And we rented a stall for each horse and a stall for storing food, grain and tack. And people would hang out there and party all the time."

Pulled along by the Tao, I was back out on Umbarger the following day with a heightened sense of awareness. I didn't need a horse; a Lyft bike was much cheaper. The Spur was now Southern Kitchen, of course, and John Denver was stuck in my head, taking me home.