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  • Randy Pench / Bee file, 2012

    Highway 99, seen in Elk Grove, is the spine of the Central Valley and evokes its past. Other regions lure tourism with yard sales along their freeways.

  • David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and award-winning author of books including "Epitaph for a Peach" and "Wisdom of the Last Farmer.

Viewpoints: Imagine a giant yard sale running along Hwy. 99

Published: Sunday, Apr. 28, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 5E
Last Modified: Sunday, Apr. 28, 2013 - 7:28 am

Imagine a caravan of buyers, many from out of the area, flocking to our Valley for Americana gold. Imagine thousands of yard sales and swap meets flourishing for a week along Highway 99 as it winds through our Valley. Imagine a Valley-wide festival, celebrating who we are, sharing (and profiting) from our junk. Welcome to my dream of the "Great Highway 99 Yard Sale Trail."

A river of asphalt connects the small towns of our Valley. Millions of people travel it, often passing through our communities and trying not to stop. I want to give them an excuse to take an exit into another world and celebrate real people.

Highway 99 stretches from Bakersfield to Redding, about a 500-mile journey that wanders through farmland, rural communities and a few large cities of California's Central Valley. But it's the exits and small towns that can provide hidden gems. Along this artery, every community can host a site for their local vendors. Combined with weekend festivals, they celebrate local foods, down-home cooking and attract thousands who come in search of discovering that diamond in the rough.

Models already exist. One of the largest is the 127 Corridor Sale, billed as the "World's Longest Yard Sale." It's held every August along Highway 127 that runs north to south from Michigan to Alabama for more than 690 miles. Thousands clean out their closets and barns and set up in their front yards along the roadside.

Michigan has its own U.S. 12 Heritage Trail, dubbed "The Longest Garage Sale." Every May, Tennessee celebrates its TN52 Tourist Trail, running along the Tennessee-Kentucky border and for three days, 800 vendors set up shop.

Our Highway 99 links the cultural geography of the Valley. From the 1930s, families first entered our lands along this road. Some portions retain the original character, at times called Golden State or Business 99, where drivers can recognize the old motels and gas stations, the shady trees where overheated cars parked or roadside stops when families stopped to picnic. Giant Orange stands once dotted the landscape. Highway 99 remains the Valley's main street and it's time to reacquaint ourselves with a shared past.

For a few days, this thoroughfare can return to glory days along with slower rhythms. A yard sale festival is not about speed but moseying along, branching out to explore the little towns and side streets, following homemade sales signs.

A culture of inclusion is celebrated; we introduce ourselves to each other and attract others by being who we are: working-class and everyday people with authentic collectibles – and some junk. Some will be embarrassed by our flea-market image; but we aren't San Francisco or Los Angeles, and we shouldn't try to be. Our own gold survives here in this Valley, found in the stuff we have and the people who keep it.

Stories can shine during this treasure hunt. The origins of objects and how they were once used provide authenticity. Sharing the back-story connects the object with the human drama of life. The journey of a piece of furniture; the meaning of an old, discarded toy; the hands that once touched a kitchen tool; the harvests embedded in a rusting piece of farm equipment; all these can elevate a simple object to something of significance. Collectibles acquire special value with story.

Yard-sale deal making will be recast as an extreme sport. Hunters passionate for bargains will be matched against expert sellers, bartering as both an art and science. We will return to an era of face-to-face exchanges, no online shopping or auctions. The joy of the hunt and the shopping experience renewed because of the human dimension.

Reality TV already understands this with its antique and swap meet shows. One program called "American Pickers" examines the antique business of searching in rural and backwoods areas for hidden gems. In "Flea Market Flip," contestants search for bargains to flip; they buy cheap, then clean up or repair and sell for profit. We already have these gems. Let's share these secrets as we build social and economic capital and welcome visitors traversing the back roads in search of hidden fortunes – which may be the people themselves.

Community events with local music and arts will add flavor. The Valley's folk arts have yet to establish an identity. Other regions such as the North Carolina Arts Trail honor local musicians, artists, and writers.

This can quickly evolve into a local and regional food adventure. Our ethnic diversity can be celebrated in food wagons, small coffee shops and restaurants, along with community organizations that honor the cuisine of people. Depending on the time of the year, local farm produce can share tables with antiques.

Elected officials and chambers of commerce will have to buy into our Highway 99 legacy. City and county governments will need to coordinate activities with tourism bureaus and existing vendors. Cooperation will be required as we promote a regional identity and support alternative economic development.

A Highway 99 yard sale trail can provide us with an opportunity of self-discovery. We have something of interest, legitimized by outsiders. We remain gems in the rough as our junk becomes treasures. We offer a different world here, a good culture shock for California. And we can make a little money, too.

David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and award-winning author of books including "Epitaph for a Peach" and "Wisdom of the Last Farmer.

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