My curiosity drove me back down a dusty road

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A journalist colleague recently summed up what attracts writers to journalism in one word: curiosity. "As a journalist, you can go anywhere and ask anyone anything." Her curiosity, she related, had even gotten her to Siberia, where she had visited with an indigenous reindeer herder's family in their yurt on the tundra.

From her remarks I received a welcome answer to why I write: a compulsion to explore. Fortunately, I've been able to pursue that to some extent ever since my dad became part owner of a newspaper when I was 14.

Looking back, I can recall only one instance where curiosity led me to a dead end. And that experience has remained with me, not just because I "failed" to get a story, but also because I hadn't satisfied my own curiosity.

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The locale was a country store tucked away at an intersection off a canyon road. I'd come upon it after several months of making a weekly three-hour drive to visit a relative north of the Bay Area. After frequently traversing twisty Highway 17 from the coast to the busy 101 freeway, I needed a respite on the return trip. So I took a back road off Highway 101, and my VW Beetle and I wound gently into a valley that emerged at the coast highway and a deserted beach.

But it was what greeted me just before emerging that awoke my curiosity. I had the sudden sensation of having driven into Edward Hopper's painting, "Gas." First I saw the gas pump, which I recall as red. Then I took in the dingy white front of a general store. There was nothing else in sight. A one-lane road ran past the store and into farm fields enclosed by cactus-covered hills. Late-afternoon light cast long shadows, as in Hopper's painting.

It was six months before I had time to pursue my discovery. This time I returned with a notebook, determined to find out what went on in this hidden niche named San Gregorio. I recall my palms were sweaty as I left the narrow strip of coast highway. There it was: dingy, desolate, Hopperesque.

I parked and went up the broad, creaky steps, and through a screen door. Inside it was what you'd expect from a general store - barrels and bins of stuff and a counter with a dozen stools. It must have been lunchtime, since men in work clothes occupied the counter space. The waitress took my order for a soda and shoved it indifferently my way, as she returned to hungrier patrons. I took out my notebook and looked around, slowly drinking and thinking about what to ask.

When it got down to one or two diners, the waitress came back and looked at my glass. I guess I didn't look like a good prospect, and she started to turn away. "Excuse me," I said. "I'm a writer. I want to write about this place... Uh, what do they grow up here?"

She just looked at me, and her disbelief hung between us. "Whatever they plant," she replied and turned back to a sink full of dishes. I left my money on the counter and rushed out, hoping to catch an interviewee. There was no one around, just an old pickup raising dust as it headed toward the fields.

Over the years, I thought of going back to San Gregorio just to find out what could sustain a general store and gas pump in the middle of nowhere. I had even planned a trip to Santa Cruz last year after nearly two decades, intending to run up the coast and make that turn. And then work intervened.

This morning, while online, I found myself thinking of my colleague's remarks on curiosity. I typed "San Gregorio" into the search field. As I waited, I thought, "That was dumb. A dusty intersection in a field is not going to show up. The store has probably been razed and the fields leveled to make way for a condo development. Or, with that name, I'll get an Italian website."

And slowly a picture emerged - still vaguely Hopperesque, on its own website with the heading: "Highway 84 and Stage Road, San Gregorio General Store." The site indicates it's been serving the farming community since 1889. Its tubs, barrels, and shelves offer seeds, cast-iron cookware, work clothes plus home-grown tomatoes, garlic, and apples in season. There's live music on weekends, including "folk, Celtic, blues, bluegrass, pop, and everything in between." A linked website says it's a "secret" tourist treasure.

So the gas pump is gone, the place now doubles as a saloon, and it's acquired cachet. But a second photo shows the old road with its leaning wooden sign silhouetted against a landscape of rolling hills. At least that hasn't changed. And I've finally satisfied my curiosity about what they grow there. I've finally written my story, too.

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