Some call it “cow-schwitz”….

News of the recent fire at the Harris Ranch feedlot near Coalinga, and the reports that animal-rights activists are claiming responsibility, made me think of a story I did a few years ago for Weekend America about the place, its famous smell, and its neighbors (which include a state prison, a giant prehistoric mastodon jaw-bone, and a community of migrant farm-workers).

Coming Home to a Smell

The little town of Coalinga is almost exactly half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco, in the country’s most productive agricultural valley. But neither food nor the funny name are what the town is known for.

Coalinga is also not known for the giant, prehistoric fossil-the upper jaw bone of a mastodon found in the hills outside of town.

“That’s his eye socket,” explains Stephanie McHaney, curator of the local history museum. “His eye socket is 28 inches round. So it’s bigger than most everybody’s head! They were all over the place. It was nothing to have them be roaming back and forth. I wouldn’t have wanted to run into them, but you know.”

McHaney likes to show off this jawbone, and many other things the town is not known for, on her museum tour. These things include an extensive collection of famous peoples’ shoes: Ronald Reagan, Loni Anderson, Ann Landers, Pat Boone; a complete set of bedroom furniture from a defunct whorehouse. “The women of the night is the way I put it,” McHaney says.

There are still more things Coalinga is not known for: lovely sunsets, the country’s first female police chief, and the fact that a man named Jack Tarrington used to ride around town on his motorcycle with a pet mountain lion on the back. Coalinga is not known for any of this.

The thing Coalinga is known for becomes inescapable to anyone driving this section of Interstate 5. It hits you like a wall. Fierce. Haunting. First it hits your nose, then it lingers on your tongue. Like something died in your mouth, and then rotted.

Above all else, Coalinga is known for its smell.

“Yeah it doesn’t bother me actually,” says John Harris, the man behind this smell. “It doesn’t really smell bad,” he insists…. CONTINUE

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