This hot dry expanse of land, now rich in oil and agriculture, used to be the wet floor of an ocean overlooked by dinosaurs in the Tehachapi Mountains to the east. In the nineteenth century people of European heritage settled here and named it Kern County, and today the regional museum is hosting a one hundred fiftieth birthday celebration. Several thousand folks stroll around the shady grounds, peering through protective glass at old homes, modest and grand, into a doctor’s office, a clothing store, a general store, a watch repair shop, and many other places. The structure I most want to see is the railroad boxcar comprising about three-quarters of Merle Haggard’s childhood home in the slums of Oildale, just north of the usually-parched Kern River.
Unlike the other historical exhibits, Merle’s home is boarded up. I walk around the boxcar, and a small addition on each side, fist-pounding the plywood, hollering, “Hey, Merle, open up. I wanna talk.”
An employee of the Kern County Museum tells me, “Don’t be foolish. Besides, the place is sealed. You’ll be able to look in someday.”
“A couple of years or so.”
“I’m not waiting,” I say, and again circle the home, hitting walls and plywood windows.
“Knock off the damn racket,” sounds a voice inside.
“Not till you open up.”
I hear three kicks, the last of which launches nail-bearing plywood from the boxcar.
“What do you want?” says a short skinny kid in his mid-teens.
“You look just like Merle Haggard.”
“Who else would I look like? You look like Santa Claus.”
“May I come in and have a look around?”
“What the hell for?”
“Yours. Millions would like to know more about your childhood home.”
“I’m gonna kick your ass.”
“Is that how you treat your fans?”
“I don’t have fans, mostly enemies.”
“Singing and songwriting.”
“You’re crazy. Come on in.”
“This place isn’t bad, Merle. It doesn’t feel like a boxcar. It looks like a home.”
“It’s hotter than hell in summer and cold as hell in winter.”
“Come on. Let’s take a drive.”
“To another world.”
We walk off the museum grounds and climb into my new Ferrari.
“Can I drive?” Merle asks.
“How old are you?”
“Maybe next time.”
“Where we goin?”
“Highway 178 to the mouth of Kern Canyon.”
I drive east of town twenty years into the future and onto a vast lot hosting a long white two-story mansion.
“Who lives here?”
“You do,” I say.
“No, I don’t.”
“You will. Let’s take a look.”
Nobody responds to the doorbell or my knocks.
“Great place. You get the idea.”
“Let’s look inside,” Merle says.
“Why not?” He pulls a screwdriver from his pants pocket and expertly opens a window we climb through.
There’s a train inside the house running outside and back in and is fancy as hell and Merle’s excited and we’re still playing with the train when we see the police arrive. We let them enter the front door as we dash out back and around the side to my car which confounds the police, taking us twenty more years ahead. Outside Redding, amid hills and pine trees overlooking a lake, we see an enormous house.
“You tellin me I’ll live here someday?”
“That’s right,” I say.
“I’m not going back to Oildale.”
“You may have to, for a while.”
“Like hell,” Merle says. “I love that fancy boxcar on wheels.”
“That’s Merle’s tour bus.”
“I guess that makes it mine. And this time, I’m driving.”