I have been asked to explain why I love California. My quick response, “what’s not to love?” is silly. And it’s not exactly true. There are things not to love about my state. But, as with the quirks of a beloved partner, love can conquer all and the painful bits (Kern County) can be abided, even; perhaps, ignored.
I came to California at eight years of age, beyond what the church calls, “the age of reason.” I did not love it at first. There was a lack of green, the autumn seemed dull, and there was no snow. Spring was anticlimactic. I was not merely strange, but odd. A skinny white kid in a brown neighborhood. It’s not that I minded the shades of non-white, in the places we’d lived before (Cleveland, the South Side of Chicago) there were blacks, and I had no problem with them. My best friend in the second grade was black, as was Ernie, into whose lap I preferred to climb when at Mass (it was a Vatican II parish, located in a school, with kids rambling about during the Mass to sit where they would. The classes preparing me for my first communion were both exciting (the mystery of the Eucharist is a funny thing) and painful, because they took us away from the rest of the church, but I digress), it’s that I was the minority, and got grief for being different.
We moved about LA. Maia’s family gives me grief about how many parts of LA in which I’ve lived; you can add the barren sweeps of the Mojave Desert to that. As an adult I’ve been in Monterey, Petaluma and San Luis Obispo, with ties to SF, San Diego and San Bernardino.
My dad lives in Eastern Tennessee. It’s lovely, and the people are more tolerant than they are given credit. When I had long hair I got more hassle in LA, then I did in Oak Ridge.
20 years ago I went out there and got a car. A couple of weeks getting the hang of it, the driving test, and four days later I was driving it back to California. As I crested the 15, coming out of Barstow and into San Bernardino, the radio started to play Randy Newman’s, “I love LA”.
And I realised I did. California, in which I’d lived for 13 years, was home.
Why? Hell if I can say. Why was Lee so attached to Virginia? It’s everything. It’s the people, who tend to start trends. Palimony happened here. Civil disobedience leading to the recognition that denying marriage to gays happened here (in that blessed bellwether of progressive thinking which is San Francisco. Sodom on the Bay, a mad mix of neighborhoods, hills, leftover history rolling on the streets [not just the cable cars, but the F-Line, which has old trolleys from around the nation; and BART] As SF Goes, so Calif. goes, and as Calif. goes, so goes the nation?). Cesar Chavez happened here.
So too did crazy people. McMartin happened here, and Manson, and Zodiac. The Hillside Strangler, and Richard Ramirez happened here (the latter in the area I was living in). I can see celebrities, and I do. When I was delivering pizza in Encino, we had Cybil Shepard and Wayne Gretzky as customers. Tom Petty has a great license plate on his green MG: YTTP MT. Imagine seeing it in your mirror. People think we affect to be blasé. Nope. We are blasé.
The sun shines all the damned time. We have seasons, but they are local, and temperate. Where I live (Pasadena, home of the Rose Parade... it’s an all week event in LA. Here in Pasadena its wake up, watch it live on television, should you wish, and then walk to the parade route and see them march by, tired and proud and happy and giddy. If you want to sleep in, that’s ok. It will be repeated, three times. Bands from all over the country showing off. The Friday before, go to the equestrian center and watch all the horse events showing off. The days after, go look at the floats up close. Go out to the roads in the middle of the night and see the floats, drift across the overpasses in ghostly glory, as they are staged for the start).
If I want snow... it happens. Come December (or at the latest, January) and the mountains north of my house, are whitecapped. Mt. Baldy will be white until March. It has the highest recorded numbers of avalanches in the nation; almost every year. I’ve studied avalanche rescue there. I love snow, but it scares me. It scares me because those mountains behind my house, are the steepest range in the world (they are also the fastest growing, and the fastest eroding... which is why they are so steep).
I live at 900 feet. Mt. Baden Powell (the highest peak in the Angeles Crest) is 9,892 feet. That peak is about ten miles, straight line, from my door. Go the Sierra Nevada, I can get to 14,500 something feet. I can have all the seasons I want.
The deserts.... oh how I love them. Sere, and splendid. With a modicum of preparation they are abundant (you have to know what to look for, but food is there). The first place I saw the Milky Way was in Joshua Tree. No moon and you can still see to walk. Rocks to climb, plants to see, more kinds of cholla than you really want. Barrel cacti, and desert tortoise, kangaroo rats and rattlesnakes, skinks and hummingbirds.
Humboldt: Famous for weed, deep and dark and dense with redwoods, and moss and shadow and sunlight. A parable written wood and grass and stone. If you've never been, there's nothing more I can say to describe it. If you have, you know what I mean.
The Central Valley: home of the most conservative parts of the state... Texas has nothing on Bakersfield for “C”onsesrvative. Put a seed in the ground, add water and stand back. They use more water than they should, but they grow more food than the mind can compass. Driving five is hours of nothing but serried rows of green flashing by. Grapes, lettuce, broccoli, spinach, cabbage, almonds, apricots, oranges, tomatoes, cotton, peppers, alfalfa, psyllium, you name it, someone is growing it.
The coast.... Land of balmy. This is what people think of when the think of California, Pismo, and Santa Monica Monterey and Malibu. This is where the seasons are really tempered. The summers aren’t too hot, the winters aren’t too cold and spring happens overnight... so too the autumn. February is when the hills go green here, and, most years, the riot of flowers, and grasses has faded to an infinite variety of browns. When Maia was in England, for a semester, she found herself staring at a dead tree, until she realised she was looking at it because it was homely; with it shadings of brown, the colors of summer.
There are people who wear shorts year round.
We get rain. Not rain the way most places do. We get it in torrents. Seattle only gets about three times the annual rainfall we do, but we get it in an average of about 21 days, they get it over 300. We get flooding, earthquakes and fire. Tornadoes are rare (thank God. If I never have to huddle in the corner of classroom, or hunker down in the storm cellar listening to the radio again, I will be a happy camper).
We have food. There are restaurants of every stripe, and street fairs. We have wine. A friend was in Missouri, under imported wine they had Californian. I’ve become spoiled. I can go to any supermarket, and find labels I’ve never seen before. I can gamble 5 bucks on a strange bottle and (eight times out of ten) get more than my money’s worth. Moonshine? I’ve had it in Tenn. Swell stuff... the guy had an old sherry cask he mellowed it in. I know some people here, who make their own grappa.
A limousine oak cask, and it mellows up pretty good. No need to pay through the nose for it in a bar, I can get it from a jug, and sit around as the sun fades, the bats come out, the chickens roost and the wildturkeys gobble: small tumblers of wine and grappa, homemade sausages; good cheese and some saltine crackers, passing the time of day with old friends and new.
This is my place.
What’s not to love.