Recently, I came back from a trip to Huntington Lake. Huntington is in the High Sierra, 7,000 feet above sea level, off of Highway 168 in Fresno County. Daytime temperatures in the summer are around 80 degrees. It’s a beautiful location, with terrific hiking trails. The lake, about five miles long, is well-known as a prime sailing lake. We were there for five days, enjoying the cool temperatures — every night, we wore long pants and sweatshirts—and as we drove back down the mountain, heading for home, I dreaded descending into the triple digits again.
But there are no jobs for me or my husband at Huntington Lake, and so we cannot live there. Instead, we must spend most of our time in Merced County, a place I love for reasons that have nothing to do with climate, which means we must appreciate the diversions that the Merced area can offer, even when the thermometer on my shaded back patio reads 107.
So for today’s column, I have compiled a list of the things I like most about summer in Merced. It is an entirely personal list, based on wholly unscientific criteria and data, but I suspect that at least some items on this random list will resonate with readers who have enjoyed the same unique Merced pleasures I have. Here, in haphazard order, is my list of the best things about summer in Merced:
1. Lake Yosemite. For $6 a day, or $50 a year, a family can enjoy a grassy park on the banks of a small, but pretty, lake surrounded by eucalyptus trees that are home to owls, egrets, hawks, and a variety of smaller birds. Kids can swim and splash around at the beach or play basketball while adults barbecue and enjoy temperatures that are, while still hot, at least noticeably cooler than those in town. Lake Yosemite is also the best place in town to watch the sun set.
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2. Gazpacho at the Branding Iron. You can order a cup for lunch for $3.95. It’s thick, cold, and flavorful.
3. Locally-grown tomatoes, watermelon, cantaloupe, and cherries. I like eating cherry tomatoes right off the vine from my garden, but during years when I don’t bother to put in a garden, I buy them from Food 4 Less in Atwater or from any of the fruit and vegetable stands around town. It is a sad comment on Merced that parts of the city are a food desert, with limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables for residents, but with community projects such as Produce on the Go, a food truck that stops in neighborhoods on a regular schedule, the bounty of Merced’s farms is becoming more available throughout the county. Additional projects like this are needed in Merced, but for those lucky enough to have gardens or neighbors with gardens, summer in Merced means plenty of fresh, vine-and-tree-ripened fruit.
4. The languorous pace of Merced summer days. When it’s too hot to hurry, Merced residents slow down and talk to each other a little more. Some studies have shown that people are less friendly when temperatures soar, but I have found the opposite to be true. In Merced, it’s as though we’re all in this version of Hades together, and I’ve observed that we treat each other a little better during the summer months. Most of our casual conversations are about the heat, but that’s OK. At least we’re still talking to each other.
5. The Regal Hollywood Theater on Main Street. This is a costly luxury, but for me, there is really no better place to spend a hot afternoon than in a dark, air-conditioned movie theater. Unfortunately, I haven’t been impressed by any of the blockbuster movies so far this summer, but even the awful most recent installment in the Pirates of the Caribbean series was made somewhat bearable by air conditioning, a refillable bucket of popcorn, and a cherry Icee. Though Regal Hollywood is of course not unique to Merced, I included it anyway. Just because.
6. Bear Creek. It’s a nice place for an early-morning walk in the summer. Sometimes I take my Pyrenees, Monty, swimming there, but I probably won’t do so this year because after so much snowfall this past winter, creeks and rivers all over Merced County are running too fast. Still, Monty likes to meander along the path. That is until we come across a squirrel. Then meandering turns into frantic lunging, which Monty likes even more than a peaceful walk.
As I already said, my short list is random and subjective. There is nothing remotely useful about it. But after weeks of 100-plus temperatures, I had to say some nice things about my hometown. Merced is no Huntington Lake, but it has its charms.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.