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.