Crafted in metal and backlit with soft shades of pastel, the logos and trademarks of the Santa Clara Valley are as familiar as our own names: Nokia. Apple. Google. Facebook. HP. Intel. And Starbucks, to keep it all fueled.
The symbols are like code, or a new language. The language of the future.
After almost a month in Montana, we were making our way home last weekend, adding more family visits in the region of the planet now known as Silicon Valley.
Some lifelong residents admit hating that name. They remember growing up when the spectacular vistas between the Santa Cruz Mountains to the south, the Diablo Range to the north and the San Francisco Bay in the middle were filled with orchards, farms and vineyards, thriving in the temperate climate.
A massive, can-shaped billboard sign bearing the name Libby's is all that remains now of a mammoth cannery, one of dozens that once dominated the economy of the region. A century ago, the mechanical clanking of conveyor belts, huge pressure cookers and canning devices preserved fresh produce in cans and jars to feed a nation fulfilling its dreams of progress.
With Stanford University at the center of its nervous system, it has long been home to emerging technologies. Moffett Field's Hanger One, which housed a huge Goodyear blimp "flying aircraft carrier" in the 1930s, still covers some eight acres next to San Francisco Bay. Its curved roof is visible for miles, reminiscent of an American Notre Dame Cathedral.
In later years, Moffett Airbase became home to the NASA Ames Research Center and the U.S. Army's 7th Psychological Operations Group. More recently, nearby Mountain View real estate was gobbled up by Google to become its headquarters.
And so it goes in the Santa Clara Valley, which has evolved from processing things to eat to processing information. Our visit includes a nostalgic drive by Homestead High School, where my wife graduated in the mid-'60s. Its black-and-white yearbook photos include two Steves - Jobs and Wozniak - destined to take prominent places among the techno geeks who would change the world beyond recognition.
Once rural townships now blend into a repetitious suburban blur. On former farmland in Sunnyvale, a brand-new cityscape rises with corporate offices on the ground floor and still empty apartments above.
A few blocks away, a multi-story skeleton of metal and concrete awaits the installation of mirrored walls, destined to become the face of LinkedIn. Trying to explain just what LinkedIn is presents one of those challenges of the modern age.
As they say, when you can't figure out what a company's product is, chances are, it's you.
Like computer-generated animation, Silicon Valley architecture is full of smooth surfaces and rounded edges. It is sleek and cool, favoring sterility over blemishes. It is free of the dust and dirt that used to make things grow in the ground.
Silicon Valley may be the greatest concentration of intelligence on the planet. Even a brief visit convinces you that it has gotten to the future faster than the rest of us - even if it leaves us uncertain about whether we want to go there, too. On Sunday afternoon, we accidentally take a wrong turn down Innovation Way and find ourselves surrounded by block after block of modernistic Juniper Networks high-rises. We have no idea of what Juniper Networks is and there's not a soul in sight to ask.
During the early phase of this long family vacation, I kept finding movies to review that resonated with the new surroundings. But last weekend's big movie news was about all the bombs of late summer.
Just as well. A visit to Silicon Valley feels like being in a movie - a cautionary sci-fi mystery that leaves you wondering how it will turn out and how long we can survive on the stuff now growing where the orchards used to be.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org