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.