California seems to exist on the knife edge of contemporary America. The cultural expansiveness, natural beauty and artistic expression which have long entranced dreamers and schemers to head West still exerts its gravitational pull. And yet another California has risen—one of mudslides and drought, traffic clot and suburban sprawl, and absurd wealth inequality. It’s simultaneously the land of hippie experimentation and capital injection—Hollywood glitz and migrant labor.
This past winter, while visiting from New York, my wife and I undertook a lazy road trip through the state, exploring locations both known and new to us. We travelled 2,000 miles over two weeks, from Los Angeles to San Diego, up the desert to Joshua Tree, across the great Central Valley via Bakersfield to the cliffs of Big Sur, down the winding PCH to the outpost of Ojai and back through LA.
"We saw whales, elephant seals, hiked with goats and stopped to soak in the sun on roadsides chalked with dust where the air still carried the promise of the Pacific."
We visited National Parks (sadly unstaffed due to the government shutdown) drove dirt roads where jackrabbits darted through the high beams, hiked through redwood forests to vistas to watch the merging blue of sky and sea.
We saw whales, elephant seals, hiked with goats and stopped to soak in the sun on roadsides chalked with dust where the air still carried the promise of the Pacific.
And we also sat stalled amidst diesel fumes, passed endless miles of corporate farmland and duplicate housing developments, and felt the bones of fish crunch underfoot on the shore of the pesticide choked, shrinking Salton Sea.
As such, the trip was a fascinating look at contemporary California—both the state of tourist brochure photos and the suburban banal—a vision of our stunned, stubborn country in all its splendor and fracture.