Photos and text by Cheryl Levitan
More than four months have passed since our world dramatically shrank. Although the conse-quences of sheltering in place imposed different burdens on each of us, everyone’s life was upended. At first, it seemed as if we had much to do; just finding toilet paper was a feat akin
to climbing Everest. But our calendars, devoid of commitments, sent a very different message. Activities that once provided structure to our days were now gone. It brought a momentary sigh of relief, free of the obligations that we hadn’t relished. But it wasn’t long before the sinfull laziness from wearing pajamas all day wore thin.
Compiling a list of household projects followed. I tackled the yard to such an extent that Dean and the neighbors began referring to me as the “groundskeeper.” While I was busy, life still felt empty without the ability to seek out new people and cultures while discovering a destination’s hidden treasures.
One day, it dawned on me that actual travel wasn’t required to fulfill my need for wanderlust. I required an attitude adjustment in order to see the world around me with new eyes … and my feet. How many potentially interesting places had I driven past just to walk or climb miles on equipment at the gym? Fitness and exploration were not mutually exclusive; they could be achieved by rediscovering the town I lived in, not the one I couldn’t travel to.
Dean and I began by walking from home to our ATM and back — about 2 miles. Not an impressive feat given our typical workouts or the walking we would do while traveling. Yet we had fun chatting about what we passed and felt a sense of accomplishment once done.
Moderately paced walks quickly morphed into labyrinth power walks in and out of neighborhoods, each covering a distance of 6-7 miles. Along the way, we ran into people we hadn’t seen in years and met new ones as starved for human contact as we were. No longer home alone streaming shows on TV, we now had all the social contact we had been craving right outside our door. Once all areas walkable from home were exhausted, we drove to other quadrants of town and parked just as we would at a trailhead to embark on a day hike.
When traveling, walking had always been our chosen mode of transport as the best way to experience a city’s culture. It’s embarrassing to admit that it took a pandemic to get us to do it in our own city. We discovered parks (there are 38 in Visalia!) and entire neighborhoods that we never knew existed as we rediscovered places that we hadn’t visited in years.
Plaza Park’s goose-like muscovy ducks with their bizarre red facial caruncles and model sailboats skimming along the pond brought back memories with our children there many years ago. The bevy of yard signs was quite a revelation: some to encourage, others to celebrate and so many to thank front-line workers and first responders. Childrens’ sidewalk chalk creations and construction paper designs adorned driveways and windows; one neighborhood had stuffed bears in the trees.
And the rock art! We found creatively painted rocks along every ponding basin walkway and in almost every neighborhood. Some were meant for trading, others to stay in place, and a few here and there were placed to be found, posted on Instagram and then “hidden” elsewhere to start the cycle anew. There were rocks having more interactive travel experiences than we were!
And my own landscaping projects? Those were matched and bested all over town. Creativity, kindness, caring, pride of ownership, ingenuity, resilience — that’s what we saw every time we took to the streets of Visalia.
One discovery was by far the most surprising. After years of dancing at the former Sons of Italy Hall (now Bella Vita Venue), it took this health crisis to discover the history that sat right outside — the Members Memory Lane. Begun nationally in 1905, the Order of the Sons of Italy was formed to assist Italians during the immigration boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Founded in 1927, Visalia’s lodge was the largest in the country by the 1970s, with a membership of more than 700. The present building was erected in 1975, with a sidewalk and fence added in the 1980s. Bronze plaques were attached to the brick fence posts and engraved marble stones imbedded in the sidewalk to commemorate the lodge’s prominent families and leaders.
Reading those is like visiting Visalia’s own ancestry.com; for us, it was also a walk down memory lane. The panel for John Fatica, lodge president in 1958, made us remember his son, our very first friend after we moved to Visalia in the early ’80s. The one for Andy and Stella Vaccaro listed their four children (including eldest son Joe, owner of Little Italy). Joe hadn’t realized that he was “on the fence” until we showed him a photo. Vito Giotta (lodge president in 1957) emigrated from Putignano (one of Visalia’s two sister cities) as a child and later fathered Pete Giotta. Each is listed there along with their children. We remember Pete, now deceased, as the spirited man in charge of the kitchen during our formal catered dances, loudly calling out for those who wanted a sugar-free dessert to please raise their hands.If you’re interested in beginning your own travels through Visalia’s parks, neighborhoods and trails, visit visalia.city for a map. I promise that you will find much to surprise and inspire you.
As the weeks went by, we ventured farther, driving to Lake Kaweah and Three Rivers. With both the lake and national parks closed, we appreciated the quiet, calm road. But the empty parking lot and taped-off benches at Reimer’s Candies was bizarre. Spying an open door marked “pickups” was evidence that the world had not ended (and reinforced my belief that ice cream and candy shops are definitely “essential services”). Soon, we had a few scoops and some salted caramel chocolates to sweeten the journey.
A short distance up the road, I was able to try something never considered before — walking along the Pumpkin Hollow Bridge, located on a curve in the road across from the popular Gateway Restaurant. A pedestrian wouldn’t normally stand a chance against the onslaught of vehicles headed to the big trees. Constructed in 1922 to allow better access to the Sequoias, the bridge’s “modern” styling was chosen to demar-cate it from the more rustic ones within the park. The din of river water rushing over rocks and clean crisp air (rather than road noise and car exhaust) harkened back to a time when the bridge was new.
Spurred to travel more, we chose to visit Springville via Route 65 through Exeter and 190 east past the earthen dam at Lake Success. Our goal was to investigate the old wooden water flume about 9 miles out of town (just shy of Camp Nelson). Built in 1908 to create hydroelectric power to meet Tulare County’s growing need for agricultural irrigation, it also supplied water to Springville. Repairs over the years replaced some original open wooden troughs with enclosed pipes. Damage from the 2009 Power Fire shut the flume, forcing Springville to pump water from the Tule River. Repaired in 2011, the flume was damaged again by the 2017 Pier Fire and is no longer operational. Wrapping around the Sierra Nevada foothills like some elongated water slide, it’s the older wooden structure that crosses 190. Just before that, Lower Coffee Camp (a misnomer since there’s no camping) allows visitors to experience the power and beauty of the Tule River. Those lucky enough to snag one of the 19 parking spots can spend the day cooling off in the water and having a picnic. Don’t forget water shoes, flotation devices and reinforced shorts if you opt to try the natural rock slides.
With two international trips already cancelled, the prospect of our traveling outside of the United States is doubtful in the foreseeable future. It also may be problematic to travel domestically as some states ban or quarantine visitors from states with high numbers of COVID-19 cases.
It looks as if Phase 1 for opening up our travel will consist of road trips within California. Fortunately, we’re blessed with many spectacular destinations within a few hours’ drive.