One of my favorite people these days is a retired teacher and school administrator who was the faculty advisor to our high school class. As with a number of my classmates, we reconnected through Facebook. He and his wife are beyond travelers—they are out-and-out (and apparently tireless) globetrotters. Their recent trip to California, en route to Hawaii, reminded me of a column I’d written for a weekly newspaper back in the early 90s. It is reprinted below, with minimal editing. Please remember that this was not written from the wise perspective of someone who is #retired!
I should say at the outset that my first, and perhaps most entrancing, trip to California resulted from a friendship forged when our firstborns were just a few months old. Though we have seen each other very rarely, that friendship remains strong. So this, Valerie, is for you and David. Thanks also to my dear friend Maureen, who edited this column and gave me the opportunity to contribute.
In the 70s, a couple I was peripherally friendly with came back from a Palm Springs vacation to announce that they were selling everything to settle there permanently. Which they did—only to return several months later. Their explanation: “It was just too surreal.” A year or two ago, another friend, reflecting on the six years or so he’d spent in San Diego, showed me photos of his beautiful home there, surrounded by the breathtaking flowers typical of California neighborhoods. His voice grew so wistful that I couldn’t help saying, “Why did you ever leave?” He was quiet for a moment, then looked up and replied, “I went to California because I was searching for something. But it didn’t take me long to figure out that everyone in California is searching for something.”
Well, perhaps not quite everyone, but I understood what he was saying.
California doesn’t welcome… it seduces. The sky seems wider, the outline of the landscape sharper, the sun hotter. And the sun is there, reliably, more than 300 days a year. Some California transplants have told me they get bored with day after day of sunshine, and every now and then catch themselves yearning for just a glimpse of changing seasons—the burnt-orange of fallen leaves or the onion snows of early spring.
The natives, too, long for breaks in the weather, but mostly for welcoming rain that will restore water to their reservoirs, nurture their crops, and protect them from the fires that periodically ravage the hills. Because they’ve grown up with them, they don’t worry much about the fires, or the mudslides, or the fault lines.
As I write this, I am eight or so hours away from my fourth trip to California, and my first north of LA. Of course, I am sleepless with excitement. For most of my life, California has been just short of an obsession with me. California, the Golden State, promised Hollywood, strawberries, vineyards, and the “hot, pointed stars” that Steinbeck wrote about in his stories of the Sonoma Valley. In California, you could stand outside the Pantages on Oscar night. You could step in Clark Gable’s footsteps at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. You could ride through the dusty, brown mountains, laced with chaparral and lives trees—the same mountains where Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, and the Cisco Kid chased after cowboy justice. You could eat in a restaurant shaped like a hat, buy a bottle of aspirin at Schwab’s Drugstore, and maybe, just maybe, be discovered.
You could go to Disneyland.
California, all those years before I finally got there, in my daydreams was like a set of Russian nesting dolls: open up one surprise only to find another and another and another. It was the land where reality was recreated a dozen times and day and anything, no matter how preposterous or out of reach, was possible.
I made my first trip to California in my mid-30s, to visit my dear friends in Monrovia. With their indulgent assistance and companionship, I did the whole silly LA routine and loved every minute of it, from Main Street in Disneyland to Hollywood and Vine. I got sentimental at the Coliseum, where they were setting stage for the Olympics. I ate real Chinese and drank Mexican beer (not so readily available in the East back then). Nothing disappointed. Kitsch, splendor, sleaze, and fantasy—it was all there.
Subsequent trips have been no less exciting. In San Diego, I lapped up Balboa Park, the Zoo, and Sea World. Last year, it was Palm Springs, then back to see my friends in their new home amid the avocado groves. This next trip, to San Francisco and San Jose, will reveal new surprises.
I’ve daydreamed about what it would be like to live in California. What would I find if the circumstances of my life were different, if I moved there?
But I know the answer. Great weather, bougainvillea, and millions of other people like me, looking for something. After a while, I’d probably be longing for cloudy skies just to break the monotony.
Oscar night, of course, is no longer at the Pantages.
Disneyland opened in Anaheim when I was in second grade. Between the Mickey Mouse Club and Walt’s Sunday night TV show. Like many other kids my age, I was near delirious with anticipation and could not even have imagined actually being there. Thank you, Valerie!
After the trip to San Francisco/San Jose, I was lucky enough to spend time in the Napa Valley, where my daughter received her professional chef’s certificate at CIA Greystone and began her career in the wine industry. I never got to live in California, but she did. That was after she worked for Disney.
You are not supposed to expect your children to live your dreams, but it’s kind of fun when theirs turn out to be so much like your own. More about the Napa Valley in a future post.
Photo: A misty sunset on Half Moon Bay.