Thursday, December 10, 2009

california dreamin'

i'm getting ready - again - to head to california soon, and i'm absolutely thrilled. i answered a little questionnaire the other day that began "what was your favorite place to visit as a child?" and i had to put: california. where did i go this past summer? california. where did i go last spring, the first recreational trip since moving back to the states? that's right. california.

i've got mixed feelings about california in general, just like i've got mixed feelings about a lot of things - like america, and religion. but that doesn't stop me from loving the hell out of it.

as a kid, california represented the golden land of opportunity to me - just like it does to so many other people. the first time i ever went there, i must have been about 10 or 11, to sacramento. i didn't care so much about opportunity and golden lands at that time, but i cared about food, and they had orange trees, right there on the street! i was blown away. i took one look at that, and figured a person would never starve in california - you could just walk down the street, eating oranges all day. and oranges meant two other things, besides free food: sunshine and warmth. there had to be sunshine, and warmth, and lots of it, for there to be oranges, just growing along the sidewalk like that. what can i say? i fell in love. even though, as an oregonian, i had been raised on california-hatred with my mother's milk, as they say. i was born in the tom mccall era, for chrissakes. you know, the whole "Come visit us again and again. This is a state of excitement. But for heaven's sake, don't come here to live." A-1 on our shit list, throughout the 80s and 90s: californias, and all the property-value-increase and fancy-lettuce-demanding that went along with the consistent steady stream of in-migrants from that state to the south.

so i tried to fight it, that first inkling of forbidden fruit. but who can fight true love? the second time i fell in love with california was when i was 18. i drove down the coast with a friend. we landed in LA, rounded up some friends, and headed east to joshua tree in the middle of the night. although i was mesmerized by - and a little frightened by - my first night in the desert, it was when the sun rose that i fell completely, head-over-heels in love, this time with the california desert.

the room! the space! the crisp air! to a northwesterner, there's no bigger contrast to our cramped, moss-covered, excessive-plant-exhaling atmosphere (i mean, really...who needs that much oxygen?), no bigger contrast to our choked, can't-move-through sea of intertwined vegetation. i woke up and saw that i could see, could actually see, for miles and miles. i could have run for miles and miles, with nothing, nothing to stop me! in the oregon coast range, you can't even walk across the landscape. it's slog, pushing with all your might, against the dense salal and ferns, and step high over the impenetrable thickets, and then - there's a damn 8-foot diameter tree down right in front of you, that you have to walk 200 feet along to cross, or scramble over. there's no running, ever. there was only one word to describe that awakening, up with the sun, lookin out across that vast, beautiful expanse of openness - magical, truly magical. i was spellbound.

the best description i've ever read sums it up in this sentence:

no, wait, i can't just skip to the end. the whole post is too good. it's from a brilliant blog that hasn't been updated since 2008, which is too bad. here's the gist of this post though (see for the whole legitimate thing):

"I live now in the Northeast, but I’m from the Northwest. And if you’re from the West, and anywhere north of Monterey, I think it’s encoded in your DNA to believe that Los Angeles is the place where quality of life and human decency go to die. 
...I went on my vacation, which coincidentally was a hiking trip in California's central coast area. My hiking buddy is an old friend who lives in the Northwest but is French. We got to the top of some very pretty mountain which looked out over a beautiful valley, the sparkling ocean, and about four other gorgeous mountain ranges, and he asked, "So why exactly is it that everyone hates California?"
My first reaction was to clarify: "We don't hate California, we hate Southern California." But he pointed out that two years ago we had an equally terrific hiking trip, and a more visually stunning one, in the Mojave. He also pointed out that I actually like Los Angeles when I'm there, just not when I think about it.
So I tried harder to explain why we have this fascination with and simultaneous antipathy toward Southern California. ...

Then I realized something. I told my friend: "California is for us what the US is for Europe." If Oregon is California's Canada, then California is America's America: big, rich, powerful, and vulgar."

well, that's it, right there (with a slight modification): oregon is america's canada, and california is america's america. i love it, and hate it, for all the same reasons that i love, and hate, america: the vast expanses of open space; the impression of bounty neverending; the desert, mountains, ocean, trees; the whole complicated, convoluted history: gold rush, mining, shenanigans, land grabs, tribal decimation, spanish influence; diversity of people and thoughts; the modern era of hollywood and the good life and yes, arugula - california is all the crazy best and worst all jumbled together in a huge, chaotic mixing pot that occasionally explodes, but still - is "working on things". and working on things means the hope that the golden land exists, that opportunity is there.

i don't live there, it's true. in some ways it's exhausting just being around all that possibility, and i like the quiet life up here. our history is not so colorful, our population not so colorful, which is to our detriment, it's true. but for all that, i'm glad to be next door. it's like living next to the most lively, popular person in town, the one who has the most beautiful house, the most fabulous parties, that you can go visit anytime, but can leave when the drama all gets to be too much. when you don't feel the need to run, run, run anymore.

we were just back from europe 3 months when we went to california in 2008. heading back across the desert on the freeway between LA and las vegas, we encountered a traffic jam. according to the radio - truly - a semi-truck full of salsa had overturned on the freeway and there were thousands of pints of salsa spread all over the two lanes headed east. the why wasn't important so much. we had been camping in the backcountry of the mojave national preserve and for the past two or three days hadn't seen a single person. now i got out of our little rental car, amidst the unexpected complete stop, and basked in the sheer wonder of america. and by this i mean: the people everywhere were popping out of their cars, they were chatting, they were laughing, about the stoppage. they were comparing notes. there were at least 3 or 4 languages wafting on the cold spring desert morning air. there were at least 4 colors of skin mingling. everyone was in it together on that east california freeway, folks from the south, folks from the north, local folks passing though, people looking for solitude, people looking for sin city, all of us looking for the promised land, all of us not minding being waylaid for those few moments.

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