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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: The Rear View Mirror

By Jim Bishop.

In the summer of 1979 I was completing graduate work at the University of Texas, going on job interviews, and experiencing the disillusionment that many graduates face when they realize that work will not be nearly as exciting as college. I was wishing for a job in Austin, hoping for a job in Dallas, and would have settled for a job in Atlanta. However, most employment opportunities where at oil tool companies in the much polluted heavy industrial area of Houston. To find a job out of the area I was attending job fairs in Houston. California wasn't even on the list of possibilities. At one job fair, there was an employer looking for engineering grads willing to relocate to San Jose. Though I had no idea where in California San Jose was located, but they were willing to fly me to San Jose for an interview, I thought I might as well check it out.

It was typical sultry Houston July day when I boarded a plane and flew first to Phoenix and then San Jose. I marveled at all the big mountains as we flew over LA and across California. When we disembarked in San Jose, I thought something was wrong when we walked across the runway to the terminal. Was this an emergency landing and where were the air conditioners hidden that were creating the cool, dry breeze. Summer is hot and humid everywhere, isn’t it? As I drove to the Travelodge, I noticed impossibly tall evergreen trees that must be redwoods growing in the freeway interchange. The trees were surrounded by what appeared to be roses and other beautiful flowers that I didn’t recognize. I thought to myself that if this were Houston, people would be picnicking in the middle of the freeway.

In front of the Travelodge grew more flowers that I was unfamiliar with. I couldn't get over how clean, neat and fresh everything looked. To the east were golden grass-covered hills and to the west were forested hills with fog rolling over them. The next day after the interview, not sure if I'd ever return, I decided I should see as much of the area as possible. As I entered the Highway 101, I got goose bumps when I looked at the freeway entrance signs on, one marked San Francisco, the other Los Angeles. I headed for San Francisco. I was blown away by the lack of billboards, the beautiful scenery, and the landscaping along the freeway. They landscape freeways…really!…this was beyond anything I could have imagined.

A larger than life statue of Junipero Serra looks over Crystal Springs Reservoir along Highway 280.

Not knowing exactly where to go, I headed for Fisherman’s Wharf and walked along the waterfront. The cool crisp air felt like fall and the views of hills, downtown, San Francisco Bay, the islands (Was that REALLY Alcatraz?) and the Golden Gate Bridge seemed like something out of movie. At Pier 39, there were wonderful annual flowers, stunning hanging baskets including the most gorgeous orange and purple pansies. Along the waterfront grew wildflowers that looked like sweet peas. Most of these plants, if they would grow at all in Texas, would have died months ago in the heat and humidity. On the way back to San Jose, I drove Highway 280, the Junipero Serra Freeway that runs along the San Andreas Fault and the edge of the Santa Cruz mountains. The sign at Daly City read “The World’s Most Beautiful Freeway.” Even though it was dark, I could make out the outline of the mountains, the reservoirs and lights of the cities that ringed the bay.

Needless to say, I accepted the job offer from FMC at their division that made aluminum armored personal carriers. It was one of those rare decisions you make in life that you know immediately will change your life forever in ways you can never imagine. My view of Texas (some would say the best view), where I was born and never dreamt I would leave, would forever be in the rear view mirror. And so, by chance or destiny, began a lifelong love affair with California that continues to this day.

Jim Bishop became President of San Diego Horticultural Society in 2011.

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