Read of the Year: Kaleb Horton on America's Strangest Kidnapping
Central California couldn't be farther away, environmentally and culturally, from Long Island, New York–the interior Long Island, no shores or Hamptons, just Joey Buttafuoco and the Gotti family. Aluminum siding, delis, corrupt local officials. That's where I spent my childhood, and if you've seen The Sopranos, its depiction of suburban New Jersey captures well enough the dim, entropic Hell of the place. The first connection I felt to the West, being as far East as you can be, was hearing the song "Wichita Lineman" by Glen Campbell.
My dad was a telephone lineman, and though the endless horizon traversed by that song's narrator is very different from the Long Island Expressway, I knew it was a hard job. In the song, the lineman's task is existential. Like some Greek hero, he'll be searching those wires for another overload for eternity. That's the notion, anyway, looking in that direction: a frontier which never ends.
Of course, it does end, hits an ocean colder and vaster than the Atlantic, and that, to me, is what my friend Kaleb Horton's article, published today, is about. The American frontier has an end, and in 1976, the Bicentennial Year, one of the strangest crimes in our country's warped history was inflicted upon the ultimate Western state: California. I won't say too much more; the article is too good, and I'd prefer not to tip my hand as to what I think it says.
What you need to know is that twenty-six children in Chowchilla, California–a farm town, largely settled by the "Okies" who fled the Dust Bowl for the Central Valley–were kidnapped in the most hare-brained criminal plot to ever percolate from '70s sleaze cinema. Their only adult companion was school-bus driver and farmer Ed Ray, as quiet as the scheme was outlandish. As Horton writes, even now, it is an offense which marks the landscape:
"I got to Chowchilla after dark. I saw an Arby’s sign, a Carl’s Jr. sign, two or three cars on the road, and a whole lot of wide, flat nothin’. I was here to get my hands around the whispered horror story I was told but mostly eavesdropped on growing up, the one the adults kept from the kids, the one that made me just a bit uneasy whenever I saw a school bus out on the horizon; the one that has come to define this town to outsiders for 45 years."
It is the best story I've read in years. Read it here on Vox's The Highlight.