There’s a California landmark that just about anyone who has travelled from Merced to Fresno on highway 99 has seen countless times: most of the time experiencing a view lasting but a millisecond. I’m talking about the median section of the highway south of Madera: where the palm meets the pine.
I’ve driven by it hundreds of times in my eleven years as a Californian. But it was only in recent months that someone called my attention to it.
Symbolism cannot be mistaken
The palm and pine trees look out of place between the two sections of the highway. They tower above the standard issue shrubs that are common in most of the highway’s medians.
But their symbolism cannot be mistaken. The pine tree is north, representing Northern California. The palm tree is south, representing Southern California.
It was established many years ago that the geographic center of the state is in North Fork to the east of highway 99 in Madera County. But to see North Fork, you’ll need to get off the highway and head toward the mountains.
The center of the state that most of the public will likely view is right along highway 99. To be more exact, you’ll find it between the north and southbound lanes in the median south of the city of Madera.
The pine and palm trees represent a symbolic separation between Southern California and Northern California.
No one is quite sure how the trees were first established at that site. Web blogger Duane Hall researched the topic a few years ago and lamented the scarcity of definitive history about it by writing,
“There is an abysmal lack of information on the birth of the palm and the pine.”
It’s believed the original trees were planted in the 1920s to represent the midpoint of the state between the Mexico and Oregon borders. In the 1980s, the state’s transportation planning agency CalTrans rolled out plans to bring the highway up to new standards. These plans called for the destruction of the trees. There was a public outcry, CalTrans redrew the plans, and the trees remained.
That is until 2005 when a storm toppled the pine tree. It was replaced in 2007. The median is under control of CalTrans and it appears the palm and the pine will remain there under the care of the transportation agency for years to come.
The trees may not be entrenched in popular culture, but the phrase “where the palm meets the pine” has been immortalized in a country song performed by singer/songwriter Danny O’Keefe. O’Keefe wrote a number of country tunes in the 1970s including a song Elvis Presley recorded called Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues.
Even in a country song
In the song In Northern California (Where the Palm Tree Meets the Pine) from the album American Roulette, O’Keefe opines about a relationship between an older woman and a much younger man:
She'd thrown away her crutches But I knew that I'd need mine In Northern California Where the palm tree meets the pine
You can see the two trees just south of Avenue 11 in Madera County on highway 99.
Unfortunately, there is no way for anyone to legally stop, get out of the car, and take a closer look at this site. And that seems to be a missed opportunity. One can imagine cars stopping off the highway, people having their picture taken in front of the trees, and families making memories of the Central Valley of the Golden State.
But highway extras such as scenic overlooks and rest stops cost money. No one is calling out for anything such as this, so it appears the two trees will remain just one of those quirky things people see while driving along highway 99.
Until someone comes up with a plan that might allow the public to safely stop and view the trees while absorbing the symbolism of the palm meeting the pine, we’ll continue to see the natural monument to California’s geographic center right where it is: at 65 miles per hour.
To listen to the song In Northern California (Where the Palm Tree Meets the Pine)
Steve Newvine lives in Merced and travels up and down highway 99.
His book 9 From 99 takes the reader on a road trip from Stockton to Bakersfield along the highway.
For blogger Duane Hall’s essay on the Madera landmark, go to: http://duanehallca.blogspot.com/2010/02/where-palm-meets-pine.html