California 2023, Part III: Enriched

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.


California 2023, Part II: Released

This is the second in a three-part series. Part I is here.

There are four American cities that aspire to global greatness. Many others are lovely to visit or live, have their own unique cultures and topographies, and I admire many of them. A few claim certain statuses: Portland is the capital of one American byway; Nashville, another. Miami is a borderland striving to be many things. Chicago tries to take New York and filter it through Midwestern sensibilities, with mixed results; Boston is an experiment in blending European built form with unnecessary aggression. Las Vegas is not a city of this globe at all, but an escapist window into a virtual future.

That leaves the big four: New York, Washington, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Of these, New York remains the center of the empire, straining but hegemonic, truly its own thing among American cities. DC’s prestige is a simple power play, a magnet for wannabe influencers of a particular stripe and all of their hangers-on, even though beneath that there is a beguiling city of nuance and details and homage to both the richness of a national past and the complex world in which it is enmeshed. Anyone from abroad can understand why these two giants are the way they are.

California, meanwhile, is an altogether different matter. The pithy analogy of my grad school friend Parker remains the best: San Francisco is utopia gone wrong, while LA is dystopia gone right. Here are the two cities where manifest destiny, straining to the coast, sought new frontiers, collided with reality, and tell us something profound.

The Bay Area is a stunning place, hills rising from the mists, shimmering glows on the Golden Gate, and I return here on this trip for my deepest immersion yet. It is, more than ever, the central processor of the American zeitgeist, the chief engine of technological breakthrough and a laboratory for preening moralism over how the world must be, from a masturbatory libertarian singularity to the woke corporate commune. The child of tech genius and sixties radicalism is now both fabulously wealthy and yet strung out on something, its various aspirations toward utopia now crashing up against unattainable housing and an army of the homeless and sudden tech dread. That dream, it turns out, is a frontier only a select few may cross; for the rest of us there are endless swipes and AI-generated content, the opiates of the 21st century masses.

Edit a few details and many of these same critiques apply to LA. The difference is that LA is a few decades further along in the cycle, a late empire Rome that by now has dropped some of the pretense. Yes, it is still a vast cultural capital, home to the entertainment industry and a paean to the postwar era of suburban development and American dreaming. But there is a general sense that the jig is up. The golden age of Hollywood is long behind us, the traffic is a nightmare, and in the shadow of race riots and OJ and Skid Row, Los Angeles is at least a generation beyond any intelligent claim to utopia. It is all the stronger for it.

There is some kind of Sisyphean triumph in LA’s acceptance of its fate. Yes, it can be superficial in its obsession with surface-level beauty. So what? We’re human; we want to look good. Yes, the traffic sucks: well yes, we all want to be here, and we want to live in a well-appointed rambler, not stacked in tiny boxes, free from bad weather and creaky old buildings. Give us a remote job or a TikTok house and we don’t need to bother with the commute. In bizarre and not altogether reassuring ways, it may be attuned to this moment. The artifice is still there but we all know it is there, and can perhaps use that knowledge to build a city that still feeds on some very human impulses and tempers them with an appreciation for reality.

It is of course easy to write in these grand sweeps about cities and an altogether different matter to experience them firsthand. I’ve lived in DC and visited New York and the Bay Area numerous times, but this trip is my first venture into southern California. On my drive north I break off my coastal route at the industrial swamps of Long Beach, surge into Los Angeles to see the USC, a gorgeous campus where I never have been welcome given my lack of skateboarding skills. I check out the Rose Bowl, get lost amid Glendale and Pasadena, tucked away from all the rest. I give myself a half hour of Hollywood Boulevard, which is plenty to get the picture, meander down Mulholland and gawk at the estates on Sunset.

In the end, LA is about what I expected. Its poverty is less ubiquitous than San Francisco’s, but more tightly concentrated; a drive through Westlake is like a tour through a Mexican roadside market, only with garbage littered everywhere. A vicious wind casts a palm branch beneath the Mustang and it sticks there, dragging on the ground, before I stop to extract it. The traffic still sucks. I am intellectually ready to appreciate LA in a way I was not five years ago, but dystopia properly enjoyed would seem to require fellow travelers into the underbelly, and in this state I am not inclined to linger.

My destination on this night is instead Santa Barbara, and I am immediately suspicious that it is a city designed by AI to appeal to me. It settles between sandy beaches and the Santa Ynez Mountains, that collision of land and sea, the Channel Islands floating out in the distant haze. It is a Spanish colonial revival town, laid out in pristine urban form, and its architecture reflects that ideal, exquisite tile work and white adobe and red roofs and Moorish flourishes, all lined by lush trees. The State Street pedestrian mall bustles with families, and there are layers of surfer culture and college town funk to keep it from resort town sterility. I could spend a very long time here. As it is, I settle for watching the men’s NCAA basketball final at a brewery, a night in a gorgeous bed and breakfast, hiking up Rattlesnake Canyon, swinging past the old mission, and spending far more time than planned just strolling those stunning streets. As with so many beauties, the pictures only do it partial justice, failing to drink in the nuance and the power of full immersion.

Late on my night in Santa Barbara, sated by beers, I learn just how this city maintains its aesthetic. As I scroll through the channel guide, I stumble on a recording of a meeting of the Santa Barbara Architectural Board of Review. I endure about ten minutes of five older white people telling a Hispanic man they are pleased with his thematically appropriate elements and the relocation of the trash bins to the rear, though it would be really nice if we could do something about that carport, wouldn’t it? The prices we pay for beauty, and the dangers of looking under the hood.

My next stop is along the central California coast, in the environs of San Luis Obispo. I was here once before, half a lifetime ago, when a grade school science teacher brought me and a few other kids to present at a national conference on monarch butterflies. My journals on that venture, perhaps the first of my mature writings, still exist, and I fish them out ahead of this trip to peek into my 15-year-old brain. In them, I find some keen observation, a healthy degree of dry humor, meticulous notes on the science of the butterflies that overwinter in these areas, and titanic levels of latent horniness. It is at turns enlightening and cringey, and often fairly mundane. But above all I am struck by the rapturous details I saw in the world around me, of the love for the human and natural realms I inhabited, and a refusal to waste any time. While the succeeding 17 years have enriched my ability to craft prose, the journals are unmistakably the work of the exact same person, still ravenously hungry for his world, his successes and failures not so far off from those of his kid self. We are who we are.

I make the most of my trip down memory lane. I swing through the absurdity that is the Madonna Inn, where the other boys and I stood guard over the men’s room with that waterfall urinal so the girls could go in and take pictures. I return to the elephant seal beach, and while the more melodious males are out to sea for migration this time of year, plenty of females flop about on the beach, delighting the gathered crowd. “The deep, guttural sounds they issue are, horribly, a combination of the worst belches and flatulence,” I wrote in my 2005 journal. At Montaña de Oro State Park, I seek out the cove where we found rich sea life in tide pools; here, I shared a moment with the late Lincoln Brower, the world’s foremost monarch scholar, reveling in the beauty of our world. Dinner comes on the water at Morro Bay, staring out at the town’s eponymous rock, and make a temporary friend in a Brit working the other way down the coast, telling him snippets of this tale as we trade travel stories.

As I settle into my room with a view of Morro Rock that night, I wonder what that “smart kid with loads of ambition but no courage to do it all,” as I put it so very bluntly in December 2005, would think of the 33-year-old version who retraces these steps. Upon hearing the story, he would, I think, be proud of my journey, especially if he could hear how I’ve managed to draw down some of the anxieties that paralyzed me at that age. He’d nod in respect at the Mustang and my ability to actually follow through with some fashion sense. He’d be a bit distraught to learn the Yankees have won just one World Series since, and of course he’d also ask why the hell I’m still single, and I’d ask him just how much time he has if he wants to hear that whole tale. But whatever my 15-year-old self might think of me now, he would be proud of one thing: I have never lost the wonder.

That specter of its loss for others, however, has been on mind deeply for the past two months. On my drive I listen to some Jonathan Franzen essays, including one I’d remembered loving when it came out 12 years ago but whose particulars had faded: “Farther Away,” an account of his visit to remote Alejandro Selkirk Island in the South Pacific after the death of his friend David Foster Wallace. But it was more than that: Wallace’s death was the suicide of a brilliant, scheming, deeply damaged friend, and this piece hit differently when I could relate firsthand. In it, Franzen appreciates the loneliness of his quest to understand, gives up his pursuit of an elusive bird as he recognizes the gift of his own limits. Here, at the edge of the continent, may I do the same. At our best we do not forsake limits, nor bend the knee to them as supplicants: we become one with them, make them ours, use our words to order them within our lives and gain some measure of control, against all odds. Somewhere in here is the answer to the quest I’ve been on for a generation, that I now seek to revive through a renaissance. Yes, in here lies peace, not farther away but close at hand in the stories we tell ourselves in order to live.

Part III is here.

California 2023, Part I: Authorship

For the past three years or so I have been living somewhere in the long shadow of Joan Didion’s prose. I came to her in a search for meaning in this American reality we now inhabit, both for the troubles of 2020 and a jaded phase of toil through work life that is, thankfully, behind me. But I stayed because I fell in love with her sentences, her artistry, her skill with the English language, whether I cared about what she wrote about or not. Her detached cool became my ideal authorial voice.

Nowhere did Didion fix her gaze more than her native California, this daughter of a settler family and witness to the state’s change from frontier outpost to the dream state of the late twentieth century to something a bit more complicated as the dream started to run out. Because she was from an earlier era she was a keen critic of what her state became, from the postwar boom to the Summer of Love to the Reagans, always at a remove and rarely comfortable with the direction of things. Her lingering dread became part of her persona, but it was always counterbalanced by a certain glamor, the way a provincial aristocrat from a dying order learned to keep up appearances and move with her times instead of languishing into laments for the way things were. This is, I suppose, the inherent Californian in her, and a mindset I can only admire.

I head back to Joan Didion’s native land for my annual escape from Minnesota non-spring. While I have visited California several times before, I have enough ties here and enough things to see that it remains fresh. I land in San Francisco and immediately break south, pausing for an overnight south of San Jose before a long push down toward San Diego, from which I will work my way back up the coast over the course of a week. I escape Bay Area traffic swiftly and rise through the California coastal range, those ever greater undulations up from the sea. After a winter of great rain the golden land has been reborn as emerald hills, and I go in search of glimmers in a red Mustang convertible.

This trip is a break from some of my idle wanders across the American West in recent years: I spend no nights in tents, and while I’ve scheduled a few days of relative solitude, I go to both see some familiar faces and drink in the crowds. In certain ways it feels like an arrival, a trip for someone in a new phase of life free from some of the gnawing worries that gripped past trips and the start of a year of plentiful ventures outward. After the long push on day one, its pace is leisurely, with few concrete plans: I go to explore, to see where the road and my fellow travelers will take me.

The first day slog down I-5, however, is every bit as interminable as I feared it would be. The Central Valley is rich in its output, the California Aqueduct and the state’s water works a stunning feat for anyone into that sort of infrastructure (Didion is instructive on both topics), but at eighty miles per hour it mostly feels like Wyoming with some almond trees. Californians, I learn, are useless when confronted with roundabouts, and are even worse than overly polite Midwesterners at the zipper merge. I also learn that Tesla drivers are obligated to go twenty miles per hour faster than all other traffic, though as I sit behind the wheel of a vehicle that purrs when I accelerate, I rather understand the allure.

Mostly, though, Californians sit in traffic. Traffic chokes the Tejon Pass over the Tehachapi Mountains, the one real passage from northern to southern California. I sit in traffic here and then I sit in traffic above Chavez Ravine and I sit in more traffic down by Norwalk; I even sit in traffic in the Glendale In-N-Out Burger parking lot. To top it all off, the narrow strip between San Clemente and my destination in Oceanside, some twenty miles in distance, takes a full hour. At least it is a prettier to sit in traffic here than between sound barriers in Los Angeles, the sun sinking over the San Onofre beach and incongruous Camp Pendleton, a relic of an era when real estate dollars did not rule all on the coast. Southern California makes complete sense and zero sense: I get exactly why people would want to perch up on these subtropical hills on rolling estates, and exactly why the traffic is as shit as it is on these ten-lane ribbons that knit together innumerable valleys with no actual reason to form one coherent metro. The secret of the beauty is out, and the Joan Didions of the world are left to scrutinize the replacement of the ranches they knew with endless tract housing, elegiac but accepting that this is the world that now exists.

After I free myself from the freeway I pick way along the coast, where I will spend most of this week, its own little world with great variety among the beachfront towns. La Jolla glimmers with wealth on a hill, while Del Mar opens up to reveal Torrey Pines; Encintas and Leucadia are a blur of shopping, while I am too annoyed by a poorly signed road closure in Carlsbad to give it a fair shake. Oceanside seems more democratic than most towns on the coast, a healthy mix of people strolling its beach or fishing off its pier. To the north, San Clemente is the surfer stereotype on steroids, while Dana Point is a tryhard; Laguna Beach seems the platonic beach town, Newport Beach is a cut-and-paste Orange County suburb, and Huntington Beach is one giant timeshare. Malibu’s unrelenting development along the Coast Highway render its views mediocre, though a stop on one of its beaches brings a dazzling blur of sand and sea amid an unrelenting gale-force wind. Oxnard is a discordant slice of Central Valley agriculture transported to the coast, a fitting place to stop for gas and nothing else. There is something for everyone here, even if we can’t afford to live on it.

I land for two nights in Oceanside, where Georgetown friend Ben and his wife Etienne have doubled their brood since I last saw them in Sacramento four years ago. In a family with four kids under seven nothing happens quickly, ambitious plans swiftly reordered in the face of reality, and this new rhythm is an excellent corrective to my normal rigid scheduling and relentless travel pace. We bike to the beach and stroll up the pier, which is more than enough excitement for most of the kids, and do dinner at a brewery with ample space to turn them all loose. We sneak in life updates and insights between storytimes and toy deployment, and inevitably any building project with trainsets or connecting blocks or trimmed palm fronds turns into the adults wrapping it up while the kids have moved on to something else. The world looks different when one’s concerns are one’s kids’ schools, what they learn and how they learn it, how the world chooses to treat childhood. Any philosophical debate has immediate application, the inner world all-absorbing.

Greater San Diego, Ben observes, has a sort of opt-out culture, a great suburban city with no strong political identity anymore, having shed the old Orange County and military base conservatism that built up these areas south of LA. Here, one can enjoy the creature comforts of suburban homes and beach access and breweries while working from home to escape the miseries of the southern California commute. In my friends’ case an immediate family network is crucial to making it happen, the tight bonds of that inner world able to consume all. Without these anchors life here could trend toward anomie, but part of me admires the escape from the deeply political and the relentless progress-seeking, the choice instead to pursue the rhythms of the beach, a steady cycle of waves, bliss within reach.

I start my road trip north from Oceanside at San Onofre State Beach, an iconic California surf spot. Two lonely men work the Trestles on this grey Monday morning, committed to the relentless slog outward but nailing ten-second rides down the Middles. I am mesmerized by this unrelenting quest, the pursuit of a glimmer of sublime. Without ever seeing it, I made this beach a place of deep reverie for a fictional character, and I marvel at how I thereby manufactured its significance to myself. Such is the authority of the author, possessed of a power to shape a world.  

Part of me will always be a beach child, lured by the escape promised by the narratives here: freedom from all that overthinking I am prone to do, peace before the crashing surf, whether on Lake Superior rocks or St. John white sand beaches. The beach is its own little world with its own social codes, its outward displays that mean everything until they dissipate into the enormity of the sea and mean nothing. We find our wave here before the void, straddle it and accept our position between worlds. Somewhere here the myths of progress and eternal return collide, the inevitable march of time and the depth of memory that will always cycle back, resolving into a rare vitality. The moment lasts only an instant, but the right words can sustain it forever.

This is the first in a three-part series. Part II is here.