Dear Bay Area,
Welcome to Wasco.
You may never have heard of this city of 25,000 in the San Joaquin Valley. You probably can’t pronounce it (it’s WAW-skoh).
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But you and Wasco share a future.
You could be connected – at least temporarily – by the most expensive infrastructure project in state history.
Your Wasco connection is a byproduct of problems with high-speed rail’s first phase, from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The financial and engineering challenges of tunneling the Tehachapi Mountains have delayed construction to L.A. And the project is short $2 billion to get as far as Bakersfield, the hometown of U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a fierce opponent of funding high-speed rail.
Unless the money materializes, high-speed rail could start by connecting the Silicon Valley to the Central Valley – from San Jose to a temporary station in Wasco, 24 miles northwest of Bakersfield.
Wasco might seem too small to play such a big transportation role. But when you visit, I hope you’ll agree with me that a fast train from America’s wealthiest metropolitan area to the best darn town in northern Kern County is kismet.
Wasco will be ready for Bay Area arrivals. The town is expert at processing heavy volumes of visitors; the Wasco State Prison, which accounts for about 5,000 of the town’s people, is a “reception center” for people entering the state prison system. You can start preparing for your visit by listening to country songs, from Merle Haggard’s “Radiator Man from Wasco” to Jaime Wyatt’s “Wasco,” about picking up her boyfriend from prison.
This time of year, you’ll be greeted in Wasco by spectacular views of coastal mountains to the west, the Sierra to the east, and blossoming almond trees. If you arrive hungry, you’ll find stick-to-your-ribs options that can be hard to find in San Francisco. Head first to Hoyett’s Sandwich Shop, a centerpiece of Wasco life since 1948, with terrific char burgers and chili. If Hoyett’s is closed, it’s a short stroll to Teresa’s for chile verde or to La Canasta for shrimp cocktail.
Bring your bike: the city is adding lanes. Or walk: Wasco’s new meandering sidewalks make the city more pedestrian-friendly. While Uber and Lyft won’t work here, the city’s Dial-A-Ride service will take you anywhere within Wasco’s 9.4-square-mile city limits for $1.75, and outside town – paved roads only, please – for $2.
No stop in Wasco is complete without a visit to the Wasco Union High School auditorium. The 1928 Renaissance Revival structure, one of California’s most beautiful buildings, is on the National Register of Historic Places. And Wasco is great at putting on special events, like the spectacular Festival of Roses in September. But Bay Area types also will enjoy the slower pace. The local parks are large and leafy. For $1, you can swim all day in the public pool.
If you need a hotel, there’s a new Best Western. But why not buy? For just $189,000, you can get a four-bedroom, two-bath home with a two-car garage.
Wasco’s central location also makes it a great starting point for trips around the region. In the Wasco vicinity, you can watch dragstrip racing in Famoso, raft the Kern River, or rent a houseboat on Lake Success. Or you can hire a limo to take you to Paso Robles wine country.
If you drop by City Hall, you’ll discover one irony about the potential Bay-to-Wasco connection: The city officially opposes high-speed rail, because of concerns that businesses in its path will have to relocate.
But I’m hoping things work out and, before long, you Bay Area folks will be dancing at Mr. and Mrs. Nightclub. When you step outside for some air, you’ll see how the lights on Wasco’s beautiful water tower change color with the seasons. The tower bears the city logo, featuring a rose and Wasco’s welcoming motto, one big enough for all California: “Grow With Us.”
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at email@example.com.