Big Personalities

As a born and bred Californian, I’ve seen a lot of this golden state during the last, hmmmm, so many years of my time here. It’s a beauty. But there is no place quite like the Salinas Valley, my home for the past 20 years. The abundant ag fields. The rolling pastureland. The so-close sparkling Monterey Bay. The larger than life people scattered throughout the area, smiling down at me from their lofty 18-foot viewpoint.

Yes, I said larger than life people. But it’s actually more than just big people … it’s also big trucks, big signs, big boxes of lettuce, big dogs, big flowers and even big cows. Unique to the Salinas Valley, is local artist John Cerney’s painted plywood roadside art. These oversized cut-out murals are tributes to real people — to the farmers, field workers and businesses that sustain the Salinas Valley.

I like that part. I also like that they make me smile … every time I see one of them. There are few places on California’s Central Coast that haven’t been touched by Cerney’s atypical take on reality. Whenever I head up Highway 101, returning from a visit to Southern California, my birthplace, I know I’m home when I see the figures of Allen and Pat Gill smiling at me from behind the Pat’s Pimientos sign in King City. I smile back.

I breeze past Greenfield – the city where the historic El Camino Real meets Monterey Wine Country – and there stands Jeff Maier from J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, wine thief in hand, testing one of the vineyard’s vintages. I ponder. Maybe a glass when I get home.

I spy Soledad in the distance and a vintage Thunderbird beckoning me to explore the Monterey County Wine Country. Not today. I’ve got barn fever.

Gonzales rolls in to view. A big box of lettuce and Dennis Caprara of Dole showing off a gorgeous head of romaine lettuce makes me hungry. I honk at the dog sitting nearby. He never responds.

Since I live near Moss Landing, I rarely get off the highway in Salinas, but I know that at my favorite farm stand, The Farm, there is an ensemble of field workers harvesting iceberg lettuce. I wave in solidarity, knowing I have my own lettuce at home to harvest.

These are just the tip of the iceburg lettuce of Cerney’s works in-and-around this region. It’s a great weekend adventure to try and find all of them.

I think this type of community art makes us stop and open our eyes to what’s right outside our windows, providing a refreshing new perspective. It adds a touch of whimsy and beauty to our everyday lives, and it keeps the stories alive of our heritage.

Plus, it’s free and it makes us smile. I’ll take that.

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