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A beloved palm and pine tree mark California’s center. Now they’re being cut down
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A beloved palm and pine tree mark California’s center. Now they’re being cut down

Whenever Cassie Yoshikawa drives through the Central Valley on the former US Highway 99, she looks for the century-old landmark that symbolizes the midpoint of California: the Palm and the Pine.

Located on the highway median and towering over neighboring oleander shrubs, the Canary Island palm and the Deodar cedar tree are said to represent the spot where the balmy bottom of California meets its woodsier counterpart. In a state where north-south divisions run deep, the trees have long been a bright spot that speaks to the spirit of each half.

“It’s a cool little claim to fame given how the pine represents northern California and the palm represents southern California,” said Yoshikawa, a Fresno-based travel blogger.

While their origin story remains a mystery, it’s largely agreed that the trees were planted near Madera, California, in the 1920s. Some claim they predate the construction of Highway 99, a historic route that once stretched from Calexico to the Canadian border, and is now called California State Route 99. Local chroniclers have said the trees were probably intended to represent the halfway point between Mexico and Oregon, but have since been taken on special symbolism for California since they’re located near the exact center of the Golden state.

Given their beloved status, Yoshikawa and others were saddened by the recent news that Caltrans, the authority that oversees California’s highways, plans to remove the trees next year in order to widen the state route to six lanes.

“I’m bummed because it’s something I like to tell other people about. It was one of the first things I thought was cool about the area when I moved here from out of state,” Yoshikawa says.

Caltrans has promised the landmark won’t be gone for good; the department plans to create a new landmark along the side of the highway featuring 15 palms and 15 pines. An irrigation system would also be installed to prevent them from dying.

But some say the replacement won’t hold the same symbolic weight as the two lone trees. “[The new trees] will only be on one side of the highway and most travelers are probably going to miss it since it’s just going to be a bunch of trees,” said Michael Ballard, president of the Historic Highway 99 Association of California, a non-profit group dedicated to the preservation of the route once known as California’s Main Street.

A longtime fan of the Palm and the Pine, Ballard was disappointed to hear about their forthcoming removal, but he said the construction project could be a chance to finally install signage that would celebrate the unofficial geographic marker, an effort he hopes will gain support.

After they’re removed, Ballard would like to see the pair of trees preserved at the nearby Fossil Discovery Center in Chowchilla, which is known for restoring the Mammoth Orange, a historic Highway 99 roadside attraction and burger stand.

Plenty of drivers speed by the Palm and the Pine each day without knowing about their historical significance. The trees have been immortalized in popular culture. Danny O’Keefe was inspired to write the 1977 country song In Northern California (Where the Palm Tree Meets the Pine) about a young man’s relationship with an older woman (“So I left her as I found her / Right in the nick of time / In northern California / Where the palm tree meets the pine”).

palm trees along a street, where people cycleView image in fullscreen

The Palm and the Pine starred in a 1995 episode of Huell Howser’s California’s Gold TV series that followed the host as he searched for the true center of California – turns out it’s located near the small town of North Fork at the start of the Sierra Scenic Byway. And the quirky landmark’s name has been adopted by several businesses, including a brewery, a hair salon and an event planning company.

When Caltrans attempted to remove the trees in the 1980s during an update of Highway 99, there was a public outcry and plans were redrawn. Then, in 2005, a fierce storm uprooted the pine tree, which was later replaced in 2007. Knowing how much the trees mean to local residents and visitors alike, the department planned its tree tribute in the vicinity but has not said it would mark it in any meaningful way.

Ballard’s non-profit association already had a tentative design for signs to be placed on the northbound and southbound sides of the highway before it was announced that the Palm and the Pine would be removed. The mockups feature a pictograph of a palm and a pine and read “Halfway between Oregon and Mexico” and “Halfway between Mexico and Oregon”.

Ballard believes an official marker is important, since there’s nothing else along the state’s other major routes that commemorates the transition from north to south. “They’re just trees alongside the road for most people,” said Ballard. “With the signage there, more people would be aware of it, and more people would understand the significance.”

Source: theguardian.com