This is a little piece I wrote after a trip to California. There is an associated photo album, which I unfortunately cannot include here.
Nation of California
by David Sano
In the mind of a lifelong midwesterner like myself, the idea of California exists in a state somewhere between a shimmering dream and a foolish fantasy. The image-based “phony” culture of Hollywood and Los Angeles tends to elbow its way to the front of any of my discussions or thought explorations of “SoCal”. How can one reconcile the endless folly of the Kardashians and Real Housewives, The Paris Hiltons and Hoopzes with any meaningful and effortful pursuit of life? And yet, somehow – despite my strong approbation – LA goes on.
Secondarily there is San Francisco. Idealized in the 60’s as a Mecca of alternative lifestyles, it has since become a hotbed of innovation. The new titans of the information industry (Jobs, Zuckerberg, Musk et al.) have chosen the San Francisco area as the birthplace of their world-changing innovations. However, a certain elitism has arrived along with the wellspring of dynamic ideas. Rent in San Francisco is mind-bogglingly high – comparable to the patently absurd prices in Manhattan. I had recently dubbed San Francisco “1% City” due to my ignorance and a hearsay construct of the coding elite who live and work in the area. An earlier trip to LA had done nothing to really disprove my preconceptions about said city, but I had yet to visit San Francisco.
Thirdly there is the land of California itself. This was the aspect I have always half-overlooked – my envious disdain was directed at the sun baked Cali culture. Although the beaches and sun played into my bitterness, My tunnel vision was narrowed in on the weather moreso than the actual soil and clay of the state. I live in Illinois, a state utterly devoid of natural features. Lake Michigan is mere window dressing, a grudging concession and frustrating temptation. The lake is perpetually ice cold and has actually claimed the lives of a few of my former schoolmates and coworkers. The only thing in Illinois is the city of Chicago. There is nothing else.
My childhood state of Michigan boasts many winsome natural attractions. The Great Lakes are obviously king, but there are also the Sleeping Bear Dunes, Hartwick Pines, Mackinac Island and more, as recently given shine in the “Pure Michigan” advertising campaign. However years of city living in Chicago had lowered my standards for what qualifies as “nature”. To drive out of town for an hour or two and see a bit of green and a few stars was enough to make me feel all lovelorn and nostalgic. I really didn’t know what I was in for.
Named after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s infamously too-casual greeting of David Ben-Gurion at the 1938 Évian Conference, Yosemite National Park is a colossal swath of preserved land located in central California. Protected from development, it stands as a living geologic snapshot – a picture window looking in on the beauty and power of a mostly lost American landscape.
Within a short time of beginning to hike on one of the park’s many trails a number of dormant ideas rose to absorb my attention. As a media observer with an environmental conscience, one can’t help but feel that nature is a perpetual victim. A living thing actively raped and butchered by the leering, grinding teeth of industry. If not outright destroyed, nature is to be broken down and reprogrammed and demystified and patented until all of its wonder and grace are spent. In a sense this is true – the Earth needs protection from the greed and indulgence and ignorance of too many people with too many wants. However, in Yosemite, one gets a sudden reminder of the foreboding might of the planet we call home. Yes, we can pulverize and drill and dynamite and chop, but even if we irradiate everything, the Earth will abide. Barring a celestial shift, she will forever remain, long after we are harmless dust in the ground and on the wind.
One also gets a sense of a dangerous one upmanship at play. It is easy (but painful) to imagine contractors stampeding callously in with explosives and heavy equipment and desecrating thousands of years of growth and formation in a matter of hours. It is also easy to imagine immense granite faces shearing off from mountains and leveling entire construction camps, smashing cranes and bulldozers like a child’s frail toys. However in Yosemite as currently preserved, it’s best not to think about such things at all. A long-held truce exists and the harmony is exquisite, provided one can manage to forget how much driving they did to get to the park. A hike at Yosemite is a chance to commune with nature, to feel a part of something larger than humanity. One can climb house-sized boulders at repose as they fell hundreds of years ago, can touch gnarled trees older than human thought and feel the mist of waterfalls carved out from the melted snow of innumerable springtimes.
The park’s strewn boulders and rushing rivers and defiant trees exuded a serenity and patience that was humbling, even embarrassing in the face of all the packaged food and technology we had brought along. The air smelled almost violently fresh. Other people were to be politely greeted, but also avoided, as in a museum on a weekday afternoon. Each person or small group experiences unbridled nature in their own way. After a time, the outside world ceased to exist and childish fascination became the general mood.
The second day’s hike was a strenuous march up a 4.6 mile long, switchback-heavy trail to “Glacier Point”. We came horrifically close to just abdicating our will and driving the rental car to the top. I sincerely believe that decision would have caused a schism in time-space, whereby the us who hiked would cross a wormhole to vehemently shame and ruin the vacation of the lazy motor-tourist us. The hike was estimated to take more than 3 hours, and the early going was sobering indeed. However as we rose by degrees above the valley, we knew that the sweat and toil was going toward something, a miniature graduate degree of experience to hang forever on our mental office walls. One of our fellowship developed painful foot blisters but kept bravely on. As our elevation rose out of our normal frame of reference we began to be intoxicated with the sheer height and unfamiliarity of it all (urban heights can also be thrilling, but offer much less mobility and a built in sense of scale which can re-orient and re-scale you against your will. Airplane heights are abstract and sequestered). Each view was better than the last. Each mortally sheer edge along the trail seemed to spray a fresh jet of adrenaline against the walls of my stomach.
I imagined all sorts of things: Being an early white settler coming onto the valley; Being an early indigenous nomad coming into the valley; Being an early nomad shepherding a whole tribe, pregnant women and children and livestock and all, along underdeveloped trails out of the valley to escape the seasons. Later in the hike the trail grew more precarious and deadly and I began to grow mentally fatigued and feel distinct waves of weariness and fear. I took solace from the lesson in Carlos Castaneda’s “Journey to Ixtlan” in which Don Juan tells Carlos that death is always with us, just on our left, and that one day, our death will tap us on the left shoulder and we will know it is time to depart.
We reached a wooded area thousands of feet above the valley and entered a mountain wood as vibrant and stunning as the many below. Passing hikers began casually to warn of bears on the trail. We soon stumbled upon the mother and her two cubs. I made noise while making a wide circle off the trail and the mother looked dead at me. I have seen the stirrings of friendship and loyalty and happiness in the eyes of domesticated dogs and cats, but the mother’s bear’s look made the bottom fall out of my stomach. I quickly recalled Werner Herzog’s comments in Grizzly Man. The bear’s look held nothing but cold confrontation and dull instinct, and behind that, a coiled readiness for terrific violence and murder. In hindsight, it was a lot like dealing with the police.
Once the bears had wandered off, we braced ourselves for our plunge back into modern society. We had been warned (by cellular technology) about falling into a deep naturalistic trance during the hike, only to be jarred rudely awake by a swarm of sloppy tourists eating ice cream. The experience was just as unpleasant as advertised. Glacier point is outfitted with stores and bathrooms and and parking lots and lookout areas and filled with a cross section of American and global travelers, most of whom have driven or taken a bus to the top. One of the first people I saw was an ancient woman using a walker with the tennis balls on the feet. We slunk off a little ways into the woods to eat our lunch. Bold squirrels essentially panhandled us for food. We got ice cream like the other tourists but felt like we had at least earned it – and we at it too fast. People we had seen hiking up alongside us became our co-conspirators in not being part of the lazy, haplessly tacky, shortcut-taking herd. In an alternate universe the us that drove up got out of the car and felt dirty.
We made the hike down in less than two hours. Some deer grazing the mountainside came very very close to me. The journey to the top felt more and more like a weird dream as we touched back down on the ground. We got in the car, went to the Yosemite grocery store/gift shop, got snarled in Yosemite Valley traffic, and felt the aether of modernity schloop back down around us. The contemporary world never felt so absurd.
We hit the road for San Francisco to meet a friend and go out on the town. He lives in a building that resembles the hotel from The Shining. His apartment is large and pleasant, and due to some luck, rent-controlled and relatively affordable. We were in the “Lower Haight” and ended up at a bar called “Delirium”. On the street and in the bar, there was a great stew of people in various cultural plumage. I got a pleasant, scummy East Village vibe (I have only been to East Village once though, so don’t quote me on that). A friend of mine from college recently moved to San Fran and joined us. We started a small mosh pit on the dance floor. Some kids were horsing around outside after the bar closed. They broke a skateboard and tried to throw it under passing cars. Overall reports from San Francisco were inconclusive. It was certainly not the 1% city I had imagined. The on-the-street urban culture was vibrant and chaotic, but it seemed like even the slightly dilapidated districts had money hidden away behind those bay windows.
We left San Francisco headed down the Pacific Coast Highway, a winding and scenic route which stretches down much of the California coast. We made stops in Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo, both of which seemed impossibly sun-drenched paradisical towns. We also stopped along the highway at Big Sur to look at an incredibly scenic waterfall. At some point the question in my mind changed from “what kind of person would live in California?” to “what kind of person WOULDN’T live in California?”
The place is honestly its own country, and the rumors of great weather are true (arguably excepting San Francisco, which is generally pretty chilly, as our friend there noted bitterly, icicles hanging from his beard). There is abundant fresh, local produce and the Pacific Ocean is blue and majestic. One gets the impression of great and widespread enthusiasm for the outdoors. My friend from college described the area as a vast playground with enough diversions to keep any reasonably inquisitive person busy for years. Between the breweries, wineries, skiing, national and state parks, urban culture, beaches (We saw wild dolphins at the beach in LA – WILD DOLPHINS), surfing, joyful weather and happy people, what more could anyone ask for?
We arrived in LA and that old LA feeling settled in. A vast lattice of complexly layered striving floats just a short distance above the entire city-state of Los Angeles. If the light shifts the right way, you can glimpse a strand or two straining in the breeze like still-drying spiderweb. The sister of one member of my travel party was actively involved in a music video shoot with a certain pop star. The presence of the thing only added to the strangely casual intrigue that so defines LA. Indeed Los Angeles is the land of demigods, paradoxical people larger than life, and yet as human as you or me. The tension between worship and scorn and identification and envy hangs over the place just like the smog. One of my traveling party delved with some humor, but also real feeling into the sheer poignant humanity of celebrity-paparazzi culture. He described watching a youtube video (from a friend’s facebook link) of Kanye West bumping his head painfully and being denied the basic dignity of a private moment to collect himself and let the hurt subside. Paparazzo: “Hey Kanye you alright bro!? *SNAP SNAP SNAP*”
We somehow ended up with a Ford Mustang convertible and enjoyed cruising around LA in it – but not too much. Nobody ever seems to enjoy anything too much in LA. Being cool or attractive or rich on the verge of your breakthrough seems like a job there, and a taxing one. Simple joy is to remain unexpressed and experienced quietly until it passes. Well to be fair, there are 12 million people in the area, and I can hardly hope to form a cohesive conclusion about a single one of them. Still, places have moods, auras, and LA’s is definitely uniquely detached and restless and jaded and hopeful and content all at once. You can feel it and you can feel it becoming you.
My trip ended at the giant St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop. It felt good to get back to something frugal and normal, but seasoned with a tinge of adventure and unfamiliarity. It was a reminder that people in LA thrift too, and go to the grocery store and get utility bills in their mail and look at their phones and get stuck in traffic (do they ever). It’s not fair to caricature the people there, or make them mascots (or effigies) for the whole state. It’s certainly not fair to judge them as phonies for embracing surface pleasure and beauty when we just do the same thing from indoors and further away. LA is a manifestation of some spirit within our national character, the part that went west and made the best of it when the land ran out. Los Angeles is an immutable part of the whole, and LA makes much more sense when one reframes the whole – when one considers only the wondrous land of California.
And indeed California is an entity unto itself. According to my friend and traveling companion, it would be a top 15 global economy even without the other 49 states. No longer will I scorn Californians for being so cool and tan and happy and laid back. We all make life choices, and to hunker joylessly down in the cold flat Midwest – as I have – is as much a choice as any. In said Midwest, people suffer quietly through 6-8 months of debilitating winter, then immediately switch the air conditioner ON when the ambient temperature is above 74 degrees. It’s barbaric. Even now it is warm and humid outside and I sit miserable, toes and fingers cold and aching, in a frosted and dehumidified office. Perhaps it’s time to go to the thing instead of waiting for it to come to me. Good enough isn’t good enough. Fortune favors the bold, and some of us want MORE. The people of California know that, want that, and perhaps the reason they seem so aloofly smug is that they are amused at the sight of us, puffed with foolish pride at our own sense of sober decency and humble character, and yet the whole time denying ourselves.