The tiny, dusty town of Fairmead, California, feels a long way from anywhere. It’s the kind of place where people come to start anew, hoping to silence the ghosts of hard times past. There are the African-Americans whose families migrated out of the segregated Deep South more than half a century ago, looking for farmwork and a place where they could hold their heads high. There are the migrants from Mexico, who came in search of a slightly better life than the one they had left south of the border. There are the Anglo descendants of refugees from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. And there are elderly adventurers looking for something new—for a little land and a lot of quiet in which to live out their fixed-income retirements.
Fairmead is unincorporated. It used to have a mill, a library, a hotel, and a small store, as well as a handful of restaurants. None of these remain. Located a few miles from the prison town of Chowchilla, Fairmead today has a Last Picture Show feel to it. It boasts a small elementary school, a Head Start program, a couple of churches, and a population of roughly 1,400, spread out along miles of rural back roads. The town’s avenues are numbered instead of named—some of them paved, others simply bumpy lanes of gravel and stone. They stretch out from what passes for the town center—a few neat streets lined by bungalows and ranch houses, with a city well and a recently built water-storage tank at its heart—into the orchards beyond.
These days, while the almond orchards are kept a perfect green, the surrounding landscape is a dull brown, and the yards in front of most of the houses are little more than dirt and weeds. At least 25 families have seen their wells go dry in recent months. Many others are rationing what little water remains. Those lucky enough to be on the city’s system still have to strictly conserve to keep the town’s only well from going dry.
Not that they want to use any more of the city’s water than they absolutely have to: The water quality is so bad in Fairmead, where tap water flows a milky white, that even those on the city well prefer to drink bottled water. Mostly low-income, they spend tens or even hundreds of dollars each month on drinking water, and many dollars more on gas to drive their cars out of town to someplace where the water quality is better, so that they can fill up large containers with safe water to use for showering, washing dishes, and watering their gardens.
Flossie Ford-Hedrington, a longtime grape and cotton picker—like many of her neighbors, she says she started picking as a little girl—is one of those without water. She lives in a tumbledown house, with a ripped-canvas roof and several boarded-up windows, on Avenue 18½ on the edge of an almond orchard. Behind the main house is a mobile home, antiquated, wounded, the crooked wooden walls long ago having given up any pretense at symmetry. Next to it is her little well, which stopped producing water last year. “It’s a big change,” she says. “There’s no faucets to turn on, honey. I cry. Because I don’t have nothing.”
Ford-Hedrington came here at the age of 6, when her family migrated from Louisiana. Now 59, she is hobbled by severe asthma—a common complaint in California’s dusty, hyper-polluted Central Valley—as well as high blood pressure and stomach problems. On the day I met her, she had just gotten out of the hospital. Yet each day, Ford-Hedrington has to walk a mile down the street to her neighbor’s house when she needs water. Then, somehow, despite her frailty, she has to lug a five-gallon jug back home.