Mangled junk or modern art? Sometimes the difference is in the eye of the beholder

This collection of pipes piqued the interest of Gateway columnist Mary Magee.
This collection of pipes piqued the interest of Gateway columnist Mary Magee. Courtesy

On our way home from a trip to southern California last October, my husband and I stopped in Patterson, a town along I-5 with a Best Western Hotel near the exit.

Patterson sits in the heart of California’s Central Valley, home to miles and miles of fruit and almond orchards, farmlands and cattle ranching. A huge aqueduct wends its way through the town and the valley, delivering sustenance to thirsty livestock and crops.

Along the highway we saw abandoned orchards with dead trees lying on their sides, or in piles ready to be burned. So sad.

There is a controversy in the valley over who has the rights to the water, the coastal cities or the farmers. Once in Patterson, we took a late afternoon bike ride through town and out into the farming areas to explore the terrain. Near the end of the ride, I noticed a huge piece of metal junk lying by the side of the road. Its shape and texture were compelling to me.

I later regretted not stopping and taking some pictures, and for months I couldn’t get that junk out of my mind. Every time I thought of it, I was reminded of the Beatles’ song, “Junk.” The chorus goes, “Buy, buy, says the sign in the shop window, why, why says the junk in the yard.”

It’s a haunting song that anthropomorphizes objects that humans have discarded. Paul McCartney was bemoaning how humans discard other humans too and was speaking to the sorrow and loneliness that those discarded humans experience. Why?

This March we once again spent time in Southern California. On our way home, we stopped in Patterson. Time allowed us to drive around in search of that junk by retracing the route of our earlier bike ride. We had all but given up hope when I spied it, lying alone in the same spot. My heart rate quickened as we pulled over. I jumped out of the car and used my cell phone to take several pictures from different angles.

The junk glimmered in the sun. It was composed of several twenty-foot-long metal irrigation pipes, each measuring a couple feet in diameter. The pipes were rusting, mangled together in an indecipherable tangle. An odd creation on display between a long fence and a flowering orchard.

As I walked about it, each angle revealed evocative features, at times resembling a wounded prehistoric creature, now the shed skin of a snake, here a yawning sea monster, now a curious dog. It was a Rorschach test, triggering my imagination. What muscular farm machine had dumped it here so unceremoniously? It must weigh at tons!

When I texted the pics to my friend Donna in L.A., she asked sincerely, “Is this supposed to be art?”

I answered, “It is to me.”

That night we ate at a nearby Mexican restaurant that’s become our go-to place when in Patterson. With margaritas in hand, we asked our waitress about the abandoned orchards along I-5. She explained that farmers’ wells are drying up. Then we told her about the junk, showing her the pics. A native of Patterson, she was not as enthused as I and said there was a lot of “modern art” like that in the area.

I told her I thought it should be in a local museum, maybe along with an exhibit about the history of Patterson. She laughed and said it could be titled, “Welcome to the Central Valley.”

It seems that so many places we travel have unique things to offer, and sometimes it’s not what the locals would even notice.

Oh well, as the saying goes, “One woman’s junk is another woman’s treasure.”

Reach Mary Magee at