Sunday, September 5, 2010

Little Odors and Simple Pleasures

Making my home town--AROMAS--the subject of art.

Originally published in the Santa Cruz , August 28, 2010

My family’s home is situated on the Mexican land grant, Rancho Las Aromitas y Agua Caliente, which translates as “little odors and warm waters.” The rancho’s name was made official in 1835 when Juan Miguel Anzar received a grant of 8600 acres northwest of the San Juan Bautista mission.

The inspiration for the Rancho’s name is a bit of a mystery to those of us living in Aromas today. Many think that “little odors” refers to the sulfur/rotten eggs smell one encounters when driving west on Highway 129—not a very romantic notion. The bigger mystery is the whereabouts of the hot springs—which must be hidden on someone’s private property, since the location is not commonly known.

When the town of Aromas made its name official about 100 years ago, “Aromitas” was also a contender, and, in my opinion, a much lovelier sounding and perhaps less misleading word. But, despite the implied promise of olfactory delights, Aromas does not have any distinctive aromas I’m aware of—certainly none to rival its northern neighbor, Gilroy, the garlic capital of the world.

So “Aromas” is simply the name of our town, without any further implications. It’s a small country town with a funny name that tries to make its location more widely known once a year on Aromas Day. Perhaps it is a sign of my own ambivalence about Aromas, that I invited a friend to Aromas Day with the dubious sales pitch of “yard sales as far as the eye can see.” In fact, the downtown festivities are actually kind of special, in a low-key, small-town sort of way. There’s a parade with Girl Scouts, classic cars and tractors, horses and other livestock. The 4H sells plants and homemade jam. The Boy Scouts sell hot dogs. A horse-drawn wagon gives folks a free ride from the field parking lot. The Grange serves a warm pancake breakfast. And Aromas Hills Artisans (AHA) has an art sale in the rejuvenated downtown park. What could be sweeter?

My contribution to AHA’s art sale was pending until I decided to roam around downtown with my camera to explore Aromas’ identity through its civic architecture: the school, the library, the post office, the fire station, the water department, and the Rogge Lane Bridge. It seemed like a good idea: spell A-R-O-M-A-S with a photo of each letter. The letters wouldn’t be literal letters found on signs, but rather implied letters, found in architectural embellishments. But I soon discovered that, although a few of Aromas’ buildings are over 100 years old, they were all built with an emphasis on functionality. Only one building—The Old Firehouse, which was originally a K-8 school designed in 1925 by the famous Bay Area architect William H. Weeks—has tile work, wrought iron and a few other flourishes of the Mission Revival style. I had my work cut out for me.

So I widened my parameters just a bit. Aromas (pop. 2797) doesn’t have a sit-down restaurant (although the two markets make great take-out burritos and barbecue on Sundays), a city hall (we aren’t a city), a high school (that’s in San Juan Bautista), or a hotel. But it does have Aromas Feed (with lots of great garden ornaments), Marshall’s Grocery (with its creaky wooden floor and squeaky screen door), the Grange (our social event center), and Granite Rock Quarry (a little difficult to photograph without permission, but very visual in an industrial sort of way). Thank goodness Aromas is only six letters, or it would have taken me much longer than a weekend to find the requisite number of decent images.

After I printed each letter as a 4x6 black and white image I had several ideas about how to present them. The customary choice is a white mat with 6 openings and a black frame, and I found several of these online for around $20. A slightly less expensive idea is to use glass clip frames (the kind that don’t require a frame) adhered to a black strip of wood. I found clip frames online for $2 each. My bargain basement idea is to use small plastic Fotoclips ($10 for 100) and clip the photos together in one long vertical strip.

So, on Sunday, we’ll see if my A-R-O-M-A-S photo collage actually sells, or inspires any civic pride. I rekindled my own bit of hometown pride when I encountered some helpful fellow Aromans while making my photographs. One woman said she’d seen me all around town with my camera, asked what I was doing, and then told me about the yard sale she has planned for Aromas Day. Another inquired about my project and then suggested a place to find good “As.” And at the fire station, one young firefighter offered to open the bay doors of the garage where the fire engines are parked, then looked inside and outside the truck compartments, and all around the station yard with me, trying to help me find a better “A” and “M.”

One thing I love about photography is that it opens your eyes and helps you see things in a whole new way. Looking for ways to describe my small town through photographs, enabled me to see more clearly what Aromas has going for it. And despite our deficits in architecture, amenities, and aromas, I kind of liked what I saw.

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