Brigitte Bowers: Small town a good place to take it slow

June 15, 2013 

The small town of Snelling rests about a half-hour's drive north of Merced. It is one of the last San Joaquin Valley towns on Highway 59 before the land rises into the foothills at the base of the Sierras.

While Snelling is only a short drive from Merced, it is the kind of place where strip malls and fast-food franchises seem very far away.

North Highway 59 is Snelling's Main Street. Traveling east though town, the first and most notable building is Snelling's only church, First Baptist, a white clapboard building with a steeple topped by a cross.

On the north side of the road is Snelling's mobile home park, a settlement of single-wides placed close together on a square acre or so of asphalt.

Master Marine is across the road from the trailer park. The day after Memorial Day weekend, I stopped at Master Marine, parked and got out, and was met by Hector Abarca, the owner, who does boat restorations. The boat repair shop was open, but the store, which sells PFDs and boat toys, was closed.

"I told my daughter, Talina, to stay home today," he said. "Yesterday was a busy day. But I can open it up."

"Oh, you don't have to," I said. "I'm just looking around."

But he already had the key in the lock.

Abarca likes restoring boats. He likes fixing people's problems.

"When they come in with kids and something's wrong with the boat, and the kids were all looking forward to a vacation, I feel good about getting them on the lake again," Abarca said. "Then they pass through town later, and they honk and wave. That's what I like, knowing I was able to help them."

I go to Snelling from time to time just for the drive, and recently I took my eldest son to Town Frosty, across from Master Marine, for dinner.

It was about one hour before closing, and we were the only customers, but that was OK because our waitress, Heather Baker, daughter of owner and cook Earleen Baker, could talk awhile.

The Baker family took over the restaurant in April. They're trying new things, like barbecues on the last Saturday of every month and adding breakfast to the menu.

But we were there for dinner, and so I had a grilled chicken sandwich and my son ordered a patty melt. He decided it was the best patty melt he's ever had.

"Just the right amount of grease," he said, which is high praise.

I ordered my sandwich without mayonnaise and cheese, a decision that worried Earleen.

"I grilled your onions," she said when she brought out the plates. "I hope you don't mind. I didn't want your sandwich to be dry."

She made a good call.

Bud's Place, on the south side of the road, is possibly the best-known of all of Snelling's establishments. Bartender Suzanne Aaron has co-owned Bud's with partner Gary Goodwin for about 13 years, but the bar has been in Snelling since the early 1930s.

"Our bloody marys are really good," Aaron told me, and the other customers agree.

"A meal in a glass," one patron said, and I can see his point.

Most people who do not live in Snelling do not stop there. They are in a hurry to get to Lake McClure and cast their lines, and unless they forgot staples like bait and beer, they are not apt to even slow down as they follow the "S" curve through town.

But Snelling is benefiting from an economy that seems to finally be climbing out of a dark and frightening hole.

"I just want this town to have its life back," Heather Baker told us, and evidence seems to bear out that this is happening.

The Dredger Inn, closed for the past nine years, is under new management and will open again in a few months. There's an air of optimism in town. But Snelling has remained relatively unchanged for the past four decades, and that's what I like best about it.

It's comforting to know that there are still places in the county where time meanders along at a leisurely pace.

Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.

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