TRAVER – Shame on me for shirking my journalistic duty and failing before now to stop at Bravo Farms, the quintessence of roadside attractions along Highway 99.
I don't know what kept me from pulling in for a respite. Lord knows I've been to smaller and more obscure outposts on that lonely ribbon of highway in this great land of ours lo these past 16 months.
Maybe it's just that I don't respond well to the hard sell. A sign or two along the freeway is one thing; bombarding travelers with cutesy come-ons every quarter-mile is quite another.
So, for several years, I've pumped the gas pedal and blown on through Traver and the rest of Tulare County, actually looking forward to stopping in Fresno a half-hour north.
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But on a recent trip, I was making good time heading home from Southern California and thought, "What the hey?" Or maybe it was just the series of increasingly annoying signs, so beseeching, that eventually wore down my defenses.
U Got to Stop
Stop and Be Amused, Really
Please, Please Stop
Why Not Stop?
OK, all right already, I'll stop.
From the road, Bravo Farms doesn't look like the grandiose pit stop about which Yelpsters rave. From that vantage point, going 70 mph, you just see a stained-redwood structure. When you pull into the parking lot, you see it stretches from a Shell station at the south end to the cheese-making plant at north, with banners touting antiques, souvenirs, wine, barbecue and more.
But the full effect does not hit until you actually enter and walk around.
Walk past the glassed-in cheese-making operation, silent on a Friday afternoon, past the expansive gift shop with every kind of tacky toy and gewgaw, past the food court and bar featuring every newly manufactured old sign (Dad's, the root beer; the Mobile station's flying red horse; Atlas Prager, the beer).
Only then do you realize just how all-encompassing the site is, how much diverse entertainment one place can cram into what looks like a small space. You pass a billiards room, a shooting range, a petting zoo and come to a large courtyard with a barbecue pit, rows of picnic tables and a seven-story treehouse.
Somebody obviously put in a lot of work just to ensnare tourists. I'm greatly impressed, but also slightly repelled. Turns out, I'm not the only person who had some hesitancy about stopping.
John Pence, a trucker from West Mansfield, Ohio, drives on Highway 99 down to Bakersfield at least twice a month. He hadn't stopped at Bravo until now. Between bites of a fish sandwich and home fries, Pence weighed in.
"Yes, I've seen the signs," he says, chuckling. "I decided it was time to have a little break. I still have time to make my delivery. But this actually is pretty good. Sure, I'll stop again."
Once you've captured the jaded-trucker demographic, you know you've truly arrived as a roadside attraction.
Bravo Farms even appeals to college students, another hard-to-please cohort.
Lani Ashida, a UCLA student from Fresno, has stopped at Bravo twice now with her father, Barton, while heading home for long weekends. She stood on the wooden sidewalks encircling the courtyard and took a 360-degree photo with her iPhone.
"It's such a cute place," she said. "It's so different from anything else in this area. It kind of takes you to another world, almost. It's a nice break from the road. My dad and I didn't even make it to this part of the place last time. It's crazy how big this is."
Fresno may be just 26 miles north, but Ashida had never heard of Bravo, which opened in 1979 as a Tulare County dairy and morphed into a cheese plant and morphed even more in the last decade as a roadside stop.
But her dad had remembered the name – and not in a positive way.
"I remember the name from when they recalled all that cheese back a while, and when I think the gas station burned down or something," he said. "But this is quite a place. I like it."
Judging by folks spearing toothpicks into free cheese samples, it's safe to assume that most visitors were unaware of the 2010 E. coli scare that shut down the cheese-making facility for two months after 33 people were sickened. Either that, or the lure of free cheese was simply too overpowering.
Until the outbreak, Bravo had won awards at the 2010 American Cheese Society competition for its Silver Mountain cheddar and Bravo Bl'u. Since the scare, Bravo's partners have split, according to the Fresno Bee, with founding cheese maker Bill Boersma starting a new company, 9th Street Cheese in nearby Fowler, and former partner Jonathan Van Ryn taking over the Bravo restaurants and attractions.
Yes, attractions, plural.
Van Ryn is building a second roadside attraction, this time in Kettleman City, off Interstate 5. The 500-foot-long complex, scheduled to open this summer, promises many of the same features as at the Traver site, according to gift shop manager Nick Azar.
So, yes, it'll probably be worth a stop. At least, that's what the signs will no doubt tell you.
BRAVO FARMS CHEESE FACTORY
Where: 6005 Highway 99 in Traver, 26 miles south of Fresno
Hours: Open daily, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
More information: (559) 897-5762, www.bravo farmstraver.com Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.