This is the second in a two-part series on my recent trip to California. Here is part I.
The main attractions of my recent trips to California were its mountains and shorelines and deserts, but I devoted half of my adventure last week to the more populated portions of the Golden State. The jarring riches and contradictions of its natural environment match those of its people, who luxuriate in opulence or live in massive tent cities on its streets, extremes that a Midwesterner accustomed to a semblance of order needs some time to process. But all halfway decent chroniclers of travel revel in the dualities and contradictions they see, witnesses to the rich vastness of human experience. We can dive into urban chaos and venture off the grid and chew on it over time, slow thought exemplified after the mad rush in the moment.
I’m not very good at travel at leisurely paces, and in San Francisco, I have the perfect guide to facilitate a rush to drink in everything this city has to offer. My cousin Rob, an artist at his craft, gives my fellow Lost Coast hikers and I the grand tour. This is my third time in San Francisco in four years, and despite the inauspicious theft of all my camping gear on the first visit, it continues to deliver thanks to Rob’s curation. My first visit featured an unexpected visit to Pride Weekend and an escape to wine country, while the second was a moped-powered kickoff to another great adventure. San Francisco is a temperate city populated by extremes, stunning beauty and endless fog banks, mind-boggling wealth and its trappings twinned with the extreme poverty of tent cities where my old Eureka may yet live on. It starts with a Women’s World Cup watch party, meanders through botanical gardens and the cable car museum, and crosses that famous Art Deco bridge a couple of times, all before dumping me back at the airport all too quickly for everything but my wallet.
San Francisco’s true greatness comes through the things one consumes while in the city, and this is where Rob’s expertise is most useful. The crowning meal is the seafood feast at Bar Crudo on our full day in San Francisco after the Lost Coast hike, octopus and wine and crudo and oysters. But we also enjoy a decadent brunch at Brenda’s French Soul Food, with beignets and shrimp and grits, and a Greek fast casual rush to salads after four days of freeze-dried delicacies. For drinks, it’s an even wider-ranging tour: a mezcal bar, a cocktail bar on Russian Hill, a couple of neighborhood establishments, and a failed visit to the Hilton’s 43rd story, shrouded in fog. At its most ridiculous, there’s the Tonga Room: a former pool in the basement of a luxurious Fairmont hotel that now has a band on a moving boat in the pool, which enjoys periodic rain showers with thunder and lightning. A full pirate ship sprawls across the bar as a dance floor (complete with real reclaimed masts), there are tiki huts and real dugout canoes scattered about, and we have the privilege of tasting $17 mediocre mai tais. After bidding our older companions farewell on the final night, Rob and I wrap up with a nightcap at a beer bar from a group headquartered in Copenhagen. I’ve drunk it all in, all too literally.
Our trip to the Lost Coast involves a three-and-a-half hour meander up the 101, a highway that runs down the coastal spine of California. It’s a somewhat confused highway, ranging from six lanes to two on its trek northward based on what the topography will allow. It starts in ritzy Marin County, wanders up through Sonoma, and eventually arrives on the north coast. The road trip brings two familiar stops, the Russian River brewery on the way north and the Locals wine cooperative on the way south; I fly home with a few bottles stuffed inside my sleeping bag. Rob and I drive separately of the rest, freeing us to talk of baseball and music and for him to share the sad tale of Pete Buttigieg’s iMac. (Fresh off his Rhodes Scholarship, the future mayor gifted it to a teacher at his high school, who in turn passed it on to the sort of kid who might make use of it, a future Bay Area engineer; alas, it fell victim to a recent purge of the attic storage area by his parents.) The south end of redwood country is both as a dramatic and as kitschy as we’d hoped for, and we’re easily distracted by an endless array of entertaining sights. We spontaneously divert to drive through the Drive Thru Tree, a 2,400-year-old Redwood that some enterprising entrepreneur cut a car-sized hole through in some less environmentally sensitive era.
Big tree tourism aside, the economy of northern California is sustained principally by mind-altering substances. Somewhere in Mendocino County, the vineyards of wine country give way to businesses making puns about the herbal substances grown in greenhouses up in the hills. Over dinner in Garberville on the night before our hike, we share a cantina—the last place open in town, and still open only because they can make some money off of us—with a herd of Mexicans in stoner garb who populate the neighboring table. Connor, our Lost Coast Adventure Tours shuttle driver, regales us with tales of the marijuana industry and points out greenhouses not-so-secretly tucked away in the woods off the miserable washed out roads of this backcountry. He had teachers in high school growing plants on the side, he explains, and those smashed-in cars that litter the roadside here and there are the product of a land that doesn’t want many intruders. Connor speaks of Brazilian and Bulgarian incursions, all in pursuit of this ideal pot-growing climate, and laments the one-sided portrait of Humboldt County that came out of HBO’s Murder Mountain, a series that points out the region’s nation-leading disappearance rate and the places where the authorities will not go. Tales of rural Mexico come back to me, and not for the first time, I think the borders between our countries are sometimes far more arbitrary than many Americans would like to believe. Whatever one’s take on actual use of the drug, my two-hour meander through the hills only fuels my weirded-out feeling by the marijuana industry, both for its insufferable lazy stoner culture and the dark side of its industrial-scale cultivation that will likely go on whether pot itself is illegal or legal but regulated.
At its core, California is a state of escapes. It was the end of the line for Manifest Destiny, the Promised Land beyond the frontier. Its cities have always been some of America’s most alluring, even as they descend into crisis; one friend calls San Francisco utopia gone wrong, and Los Angeles dystopia gone right. And while we’ve tamed nearly every corner of it now save for a few Lost Coasts, that push to the brink is a constant, whether in Sacramento’s gold rush yesterday or the Bay Area’s tech industry today, or in the form of kids who try to pursue illusory dreams of stardom in LA. For all of California’s cool pretense, it is as neurotic a state as one can find, and if worldly glory isn’t there for the taking, it offers direct escapes to wine or IPAs or weed. California lives in the future, and that is not altogether a reassuring thought. The myth was long ago obvious to Joan Didion, and like anything built on a mythical future it neglects realities of history that formed it. Its myth was the American myth taken to its logical extreme, and its myth, like America’s, is coming due. At times I’m repulsed by the whole spectacle, but I can’t stop coming back for more hits.
Sacramento, my first destination on this trip and the last I’ll write about in my account, stands at some remove from this edge while still imbibing some of it, which may be why I liked the place. Sacramento is one of the thirty largest metropolitan areas in the country by any measure, larger than more culturally prominent peers like Pittsburgh or Vegas. Culturally, however, it’s dwarfed by the Bay Area and Los Angeles in its own state, and even San Diego in many ways. It is a seat of government with little in the way of major private industry, the rare California metro whose brushes with national attention, like John Sutter and the Folsom prison, are relics of the past. Its culture, my hosts explained, is a mash-up of Central Valley agriculture, Bay Area spillover, and a more rugged foothill culture stemming from the nearby Sierras. It’s also an ethnic melting pot, by some measures among the most integrated cities in the U.S., with large white and black and Asian and Hispanic populations. Syncretic places that don’t try too hard to be different have something going for them.
Compared to the chaos of San Francisco, Sacramento is a breath of fresh, if very hot, air. Its streets sit on a clear, leafy, clean grid. This is California, so it’s not cheap by any stretch, but it is still far more livable than the larger metros. It’s a flat city, with large swaths lower than the nearby Sacramento River, kept out of the city by levees. My host for the weekend recommends I drive up via a road along the levees of the Sacramento, and my journey feels like a warp into Southern bayou country with some citrus groves thrown in along the side, my rental car yelling at me every time I drift too far to the side in the narrow lanes atop the embankment. Rural agricultural poverty collides with riverfront vacation homes here, though the defining feature for most of Sacramento’s population is not one of these extremes but instead the identical suburban tracts in which I temporarily lose myself in Elk Grove on my drive in, and a heap of other cities I pass through the next day on I-80 on the way up to some breweries in the foothills. The extremes tell only part of the story.
My two hosts in Sacramento live different California dreams. My Georgetown friend Ben and his wife Etienne, plus 2-year-old Ella and baby Bo, host me both nights. Ben is the rare Hoya who settled down right away with a girl from back home, and while they have solid professional jobs and live in a pleasant East Sacramento neighborhood, their lives have a steady rhythm, child-rearing and delicious cooking and walks or bike rides around the pleasant grid. With them, I can lose myself playing with Ella, any uptight worries gone, back to the cradle, an instinct my inner cynic will always doubt but which my cyclical life will always turn back to contentment when I do my final accounting of pleasures and frustrations. Their deliberate domestic life, the California Dream of generations before, feels more and more like a bold or even radical choice, an attempt to restore the lingering wisdom of an old order that may or may not still be welcome here.
Meanwhile, Parker, a fellow University of Minnesota-trained urban planner, took the same prodigal son’s path and I did and found his way back to his hometown for a job in affordable housing development. If there is any dream of rescuing semi-affordable housing in California, it’s probably here, and in him I could see the same zeal that other non-locals ascribe to me when I gush about Duluth. He lives the urban single life in trendy Midtown, cultivates his status as a music connoisseur, and is my guide to quality Midtown bars and some breweries up in Auburn and Rocklin that meet with Rob’s approval as some of California’s best. They take different paths, but Ben and Parker are both exceptionally well-read, reflective people who are finding their purpose as they go. My people.
On a trip that featured a stunning hike and a dive straight in to one of the world’s great cities, some of my favorite moments came when we settled into Ben and Etienne’s porch, the kids in bed and the four of us free to debate this city and this state and what it means to find our ways in the world, the breeze pouring up the delta keeping us cool as we work through a few beers. I may not know who I am but I know where I am from, and that place, whether Duluth or Sacramento or Georgetown or Madison or Phoenix or a beach in Puerto Escondido, has nights like this at its soul.