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Coming Home to a Smell

Krissy Clark

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The Feedlot Up Close
(Krissy Clark)
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The little town of Coalinga is almost exactly half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco, in the country's most productive agricultural valley. But neither food nor the funny name are what the town is known for.

Coalinga is also not known for the giant, prehistoric fossil-the upper jaw bone of a mastodon found in the hills outside of town.

"That's his eye socket," explains Stephanie McHaney, curator of the local history museum. "His eye socket is 28 inches round. So it's bigger than most everybody's head! They were all over the place. It was nothing to have them be roaming back and forth. I wouldn't have wanted to run into them, but you know."

McHaney likes to show off this jawbone, and many other things the town is not known for, on her museum tour. These things include an extensive collection of famous peoples' shoes: Ronald Reagan, Loni Anderson, Ann Landers, Pat Boone; a complete set of bedroom furniture from a defunct whorehouse. "The women of the night is the way I put it," McHaney says.

There are still more things Coalinga is not known for: lovely sunsets, the country's first female police chief, and the fact that a man named Jack Tarrington used to ride around town on his motorcycle with a pet mountain lion on the back. Coalinga is not known for any of this.

The thing Coalinga is known for becomes inescapable to anyone driving this section of Interstate 5. It hits you like a wall. Fierce. Haunting. First it hits your nose, then it lingers on your tongue. Like something died in your mouth, and then rotted.

Above all else, Coalinga is known for its smell.

"Yeah it doesn't bother me actually," says John Harris, the man behind this smell. "It doesn't really smell bad," he insists.

Harris farms 14,000 acres in this valley: garlic, broccoli, pomegranates. They grow tomatoes for Heinz Ketchup. Harris also owns a popular steak house and hotel. But I'm here for a tour of his cattle feedlot. It's the largest on the West Coast.

"Probably about 100,000 here right now," he says, as we drive past pen after pen of steers, lined shoulder to shoulder along feeding troughs. The animals are everywhere. Perched on mountains of manure, arching their tails, chewing their corn and malt dinners.

This is where the smell comes from: a fierce blend of feed, sweat, and shit. People who drive past it have been known to call it "Cowschwitz."

"That's the freeway there," he points. "It'd probably be better if we didn't have it on the freeway, but that's kind of how it worked out."

Harris says there's plenty of room for the cattle here. He's had animal welfare consultants help on design. "We think as long as we're very humane in the production process, and the harvesting process. There's nothing wrong with it."

And if you like In-N-Out burgers, you might agree. Harris Ranch is a major supplier.

As for the smell, Harris thinks it keeps sleepy drivers awake on this long straight stretch of highway. He lives 100 miles away from the feedlot, and flies to work in a little Cessna.


The prevailing winds in this valley blow from the northwest to the southeast, away from the town of Coalinga, right past the Harris Ranch steak house, and toward Huron, Calif. "Like in the night sometimes, when I go to the store, it smells. But," Francis Anguis shrugs, "You can't do anything about it. So we got to smell it."

Anguis and her neighbor Lola Gaxiola have lived in Huron most of their lives. They talk about their town's stereotypes around Gaxiola's kitchen table: Chollos, drug addicts, farm workers fresh from Mexico. While Coalinga is mostly white, Huron is 98 percent Hispanic. An estimated 90 percent are undocumented.

Anguis grew up in Huron, and worked in the farm fields around here for 45 years, since she was eight years old. Her husband, who is undocumented, brands cattle in a feedlot. Not at John Harris's but at another nearby. So she knows that smell well.

"Yeah, he has his clothes in a bag," she laughs. "Because he doesn't want to bring the smell home. So he takes off his clothes over there, and then he comes home, takes a shower and changes again." Anguis and Gaxiola are pretty much used to the smell. They say it's actually improved in the last few years. It's still a shock to their friend Ricardo Hernandez. He came here recently from Sonora, Mexico.

"Yo piense que yo," he says. Gaxiola and Anguis think this is very funny. "The first time he smelled it, he thought it was him!" Gaxiola explains. "That he had stepped on something from the dogs, you know."

Hernandez says the smells he remembers from his home town in Mexico are strawberry-scented votive candles. And the violet perfume of his girlfriend, Yolanda. He tugs on a small glass dolphin around his neck. Yolanda loves dolphins. I ask if Ricardo has plans to go back to Mexico eventually.

"No," Gaxiola translates. "He's not planning to leave. He's comfortable here."

I ask if his girlfriend plans to leave Mexico, and join him here, eventually. Hernandez sits very still for a while, and then shakes his head. No. They talk on the phone everyday though. He can tell her about the smell that sometimes blows around his new home.


Pleasant Valley State Prison opened for business in Coalinga in 1994, during California's prison boom. In 2005, the Coalinga State Mental Hospital opened next door. Town officials wanted the well-paying jobs and federal funding that came with the prisons. Now, like a lot of state facilities, Pleasant Valley has more inmates than they know what to do with. They're at more than twice capacity.

"You know some people call us animals, whatever. I know a lot of people in society look at us like that," says Saiyez Ahmed, an inmate originally from Fiji. "When you have any kind of group, animals, people, whatever, and you confine them to one little area, you're not going to have any positive kind of things. There's always going to be something negative coming out of it."

Ahmed and his fellow prisoners know as much about Coalinga as the passing motorists.

"About 5:30, 5:40, for some reason the scent just comes right about that time. So you go to chow smelling cow shit."

"It's not!" interrupts another inmate, Joseph Morlen. He was a truck driver before he came to prison. "What it is is feed. I used to haul to Harris Ranch. To their feed lot. Everbody thinks it's the crap. That's part of it, but what it is is the feed more than anything else."

The smell inspires jokes and passionate debate among the inmates I talk to. The smell reminds Dwaine Ray of home. "I'm from Texas, and to me, there's nothing better than sitting on the porch at seven o'clock in the morning, drinking a cup of coffee, and smelling some cow crap. So it don't bother me one bit."

Morlen looks at Ray and laughs. "You're sick," he says.

All four of these men are serving life sentences. All but one, as part of the three strikes law, which, incidentally, was written by this area's local congressman.

"I got incarcerated when I was kind of young, like 18," says Patrick McCaulley. He's 38 now. "I was still like a kid when I came to jail. But you know, I think each prison helps you build that character, and helps you build your mental capability for dealing with stress and pressure."

"And it's due a lot to the over crowdedness," Ray adds. "Especially around Christmas time, you know people get depressed."

Dwayne says what keeps him positive is brainstorming ways to try to help the community on the outside. He knows how much he the other inmates cost the state. He wants to give something back. He's got a list of proposals he says he's already written up for the prison administration, like bake-sales. "To benefit a family who's lost their home, or don't have food, don't have clothes or something. I'd be willing to donate, I know a lot of other people around here, you know, every time they get paid, they might want to go put a dollar or two in there."

Actually, some inmates are already helping Coalinga in very direct ways. A prisoner fire-crew is often the first to respond to the many car accidents on I-5.


At the Pit Stop bar in Coalinga, you can't really smell the smell unless the wind is just right. But Shannon, the bartender, still uses it as a reference point.

"I would talk to my friends, and they'd never heard of Coalinga, so I'd go, you know the stinky place on the freeway, off of 5, and they'd go, 'Oh yeah!' So they knew abouts where I lived."

Shannon's friend, Shay-Lynn, just moved to town a few years ago, to go to the Junior College here. "Once you stop here, you kind of get stuck," she says. Her friends nod. "It grows on you. You get here, you get involved in things, and then you can't afford to live anywhere else cause it's so cheap to live here." Shannon goes on, "It's a really small town mentality. Everybody knows each other. Everybody likes to get in everybody's business."

But it becomes clear that everybody does not get in everybody's business around here. I ask the girls if they ever visit the prison, which makes up almost half Coalinga's population. "They come around and they clean, do the yard work around. They're in their orange jump suits and stuff." But that's about all she knows about the prison, she says.

I ask about Shannon and her friends about their neighboring town, Huron, where the farm-workers live. "I've never been over there" says one. "No idea. I hear it's not good--like it's scary."

In fact, like a lot of America, here in Coalinga, different groups keep pretty much to themselves. One of the only things that does seem to connect everyone here is the smell of this place.

It's pervasive. Everyone shares it. Some of the locals call it the smell of money. Some call it disgusting. Some call it part of country living. Whether you like it or hate it, it's an honest smell, a by-product of the hamburger joints that line the highway. And, Shannon the bartender tells me, you stop noticing it after a while. "It takes a few months," she says.

  • Music Bridge:
    Artist: Tom Verlaine
    CD: Around (Thrill Jockey)


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