This is the third in a three-part series. Part I | Part II
Morro Bay is a sleepy midway point on this push up the coast, and while I take another pause along the harbor over chai and a muffin from a funky shop, it is time to move on from this inquisition into memory. Next, I am obliged to visit that land variously known as San Simeon, La Cuesta Encantada, even Xanadu: the castle built by William Randolph Hearst on the southern end of Big Sur. Alas, I see no zebras, and the Casa Grande never quite shakes a layer of the absurd for me, this Mexican cathedral of a house overloaded in tapestries and collected ceilings and art to a plutocratic excess. But the guest villas are on point, the Neptune Pool stuns, and the setting, artfully interwoven into the estate by architect Julia Morgan, lives up to all the wishful dreams of its builder.
Joan Didion may have biased my view of the place. In “A Trip to Xanadu” she calls it “exactly the castle a child would build, if a child had $220 million and could spend $40 million of it on a castle: a sand castle, an implausibility, a place swimming in warm golden light and theatrical mists, a pleasure dome decreed by a man who insisted, out of the one dark fear we all know about, that all the surfaces be gay and brilliant and playful.” But I also agree with her sentiment in “The Seacoast of Despair,” where she compares it to the monumental abodes of some East Coast barons of industry: “San Simeon, whatever its peculiarities, is in fact la cuesta encantada, swimming in golden light, sybaritic air, deeply romantic place.” In no place else could an estate like this look somewhat reasonable.
The romance comes from Big Sur, where spring landslides have now twice foiled my hopes to traverse the whole route. I settle for going a few miles past San Simeon to turn around at a lonely lighthouse at Piedras Blancas. All of the crowds have disappeared here, and my Mustang is alone, nestled into the chaparral, the surf once gain mesmerizing. From there, I swing inland to the 101, a pleasant but unmemorable drive excepting a tasting at a winery in Paso Robles. Upon hearing this city name issue from locals’ lips, I conclude that Spanish speakers, when trying to figure out how to say the name of a California city, should imagine the worst pronunciation possible and will thereby be correct. I sigh theatrically and shoot north on the 101.
The Monterey Peninsula, home to Monterey and Pacific Grove and the gated communities at Pebble Beach, is the only native habitat of the Monterey pine, a graceful giant that reaches outward in accordioned layers, all sculpted by coastal winds. Nestled just above the dunes on the edge of a grove is Asilomar, a resort built as a conference ground for the YWCA and designed by none other than Julia Morgan of Hearst Castle fame. Here, with a somewhat less eccentric patron (Phoebe Apperson Hearst, who just so happened to be William’s mother), she created an Arts and Crafts beauty, wood and stone blending with the landscape and later bleeding into many of the Pacific Grove bungalows. My room is a period piece, a proto-modernist retreat of raw materials and crisp angles and balconies, outfitted simply and no TV. My kind of refuge—or asylum, depending on how one translates the Spanish. It lives up to the feel, a cool piney retreat where no excitement happens. Pacific Grove is “the sort of place where you worry you’ll knock over a grandma,” my friend Mike later opines. I unwind on the dunes of Asilomar, my best extended writing of the trip coming on its benches over the sea, before I begin northward again.
First, however, an interlude. I’m not sure what I expected when I arrived in Santa Cruz with only a vague knowledge of the town, but it was not what I encountered: a boardwalk amusement park right on the beach, children everywhere screaming and eating fatty foods and general chaos. This beach could not be any more different from the placid one I just left in Pacific Grove, and it strikes me that this boardwalk, with its gaggle of Hispanic and Asian families and harried parents escaping to the beach and wandering, segregated clumps of teenage girls and boys all putting themselves on display, is more representative of the full swath of California than any other coastal community I’ve visited this week.
By this point I’ve had enough of the solitary phase of this trip and am ready for a sojourn in the Bay Area with my college friend Mike and his wife Lizette. They live in leafy Menlo Park, an ideal-type suburb wedged between the Stanford campus and tech mogul retreat Atherton, the second-wealthiest zip code in America. Food comes at cafés on walkable streets, and I spend an hour weaving in and out of the arcades on the Stanford campus, past the engineering and computer science departments that feed the furnaces of industry and beneath Herbert Hoover’s bell tower and into the church at the heart of the campus, at once beautiful and yet discordant with all the earthly pursuit around it, an inscription on its wall both a warning and a premonition of the godless tech engine the Peninsula has become.
On the night I stay here, Mike takes me to a party of Stanford graduate students. When the first person we meet introduces himself with a discourse on his cold bath habit, I know we’ve hit the motherlode.
It has been a long time since I felt like this much of a fish out of water. Simply figuring out how to introduce myself takes several tries. I can slide in with rural Mexicans or Trumpy Midwesterners or East Coast political elites or any number of other groups easily enough, but here, I face an entirely new task. These Cardinal are remarkably diverse on the surface, but they inhabit a singular world, one that brushes up against my life every day but that I have never explored at any depth. Aside from one lonely biology student, these people are all deep in the Silicon Valley game, and while the level of polish varies dramatically—the lack of any sort of dress standard at this party would have been laughable at Georgetown—they all share an easy icebreaker: what start-up concept are you working on, when might it be ready for launch, and where will it go from here?
With this demographic, the answer is almost certainly somewhere impressive, in some form. Their ideas have the power to drastically reshape certain industries, from health care to computing; while these particular iterations may not pan out, they are laser-focused on specific problems. Whether there is enough thought about the systemic effects of these individual, money-making investments is the open question, and the one that will ultimately frame my opinion on them. Afterward, as I lie in bed and flip through my pictures from the day, I wonder how all this disruption will affect the lives of the kids on the Santa Cruz boardwalk. Few, if any, of those kids will ever march into this world, experience its wealth; all of them will use devices and apps created here. All this tech will make their lives easier in concrete ways. But will it make them better?
Mike takes me into San Francisco to meet up with my cousin Rob, my final stop on this tour. Dinner for the three of us is a culinary orgy at Rob’s favorite restaurant in the city, and I revel in crashing my college and family worlds together. From there we add Lizette and a few more old friends to the hopper in Chinatown, have fancy drinks at Cold Drinks (which, it emerges, has inherent limitations in its ability to serve coffee), and descend into an underground lair at a dive bar where the menu consists mostly of generic straight alcohol, plus its famed mai tais, which taste terrible but are a necessary part of the journey across sticky floors and through the San Francisco menagerie. Rob and I round out my stay with a few more ticked boxes: the stunning redwood groves of Muir Woods, a sojourn in Sonoma, a cable car ride, and a stroll from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Marina District on a brilliantly clear day.
“California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension,” writes Joan Didion in “Notes from a Native Daughter,” “in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work out here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.” Here we are indeed out of continent, and many things do not seem to be working. In 2016 and 2019, the aspects that made California seem extreme to me are now commonplace in my Midwestern redoubt: tent cities, upward bidding on real estate, even a looming fear of fire. The water wars will come for the shores of Lake Superior in different ways than they come for the Central Valley, but I expect them to come nonetheless. Having colonized a continent the California ethos is now trying to colonize the future, in the process abandoning the present in search of a new frontier, the self-justifying game played out in the fullest. I am enough a child of this pursuit to feel the hunger yet at enough remove from it to hate the possibility, left dabbling in ChatGPT and hoping I can master it before it masters us all.
And yet, on brilliant spring days like these, it is hard to picture California as the crime-ridden hellscape that feeds a certain media narrative. After a wet winter, the state is resplendent in green, the meltwater doing some work to restore depleted aquifers and possibly sparing us a brutal fire season. No one I meet talks about Silicon Valley bank failures or the headwinds confronting the entertainment and tech industries. The romance of the state still holds, and maybe there are enough innovative minds to make things work here, where resignation is harder to find and an aesthetic standard still reigns.
Above all else, California is a state of collisions. Mountains and sea, wealth and poverty, tech and agriculture, pursuit of the future and stubborn reality. It is here that the great contradictions of 21st century America are most visible, and for all the fear of drought and fire and exodus to Texas or Florida, it is here that answers are most necessary because it is both the harbinger of the future and a place of such beauty and cultural cachet that it will never lose its draw, even as so much of the world punches as it. No suburb of Austin or Atlanta will ever surpass Beverly Hills or a perch in Marin. I have fallen for this state because it is so contradictory, so bound up in the story of a country that is stunning and admirable and yet troubled, feeling in the dark for answers even as it barrels ahead at eighty miles per hour in a Mustang.
The friends I visit this week all have their off ramps. All three pursue interesting work somehow tied up in the fate of the state. One has a family to frame everything, and another is beginning down that road, too; the third has made an art of filling a schedule in ways that would overwhelm most mere mortals. All three explore faith in a place where it is not much of a discussion topic, from intellectual dabbling to full-on belief. My own road trip goes on, with stops to sponge up all they have to offer in an endless quest for more material, both for the words I write and the larger story over which I have some authorship. And I would like to imagine that, if I should return to Morro Bay again in another ten or twenty years, I will make this current version of myself proud of the story I’ve written since. For now, though, I will drift off, my mind back on the beach, one with the crashing waves.