My emotions run the gamut whenever I visit California. It is a truly unique place born from the hopes and dreams of generations searching for something a bit better than what they may have experienced in the many places from whence they came. It is a beautiful place with its mountains, lakes, forests and ocean coastline, but it can also bring heartbreak.
At the present time California is so dry that it is like a tinderbox just waiting for a spark to burst it into flames. Signs everywhere warn of the high probability of flash fires. The land itself is brown and filled with dust as farmers struggle to irrigate their crops to keep their businesses alive. Rain is a luxury and its scarcity is threatening the serenity of the landscape. Fire is a constant worry.
Much of the state lies along fault lines that threaten to erupt into earthquakes at any moment. Even for visitors there is a kind of tension lurking in the background, a worry that the big one might happen without warning. Still, the beauty of the state and the promise of opportunity lure many an adventurer just as has always been the case. Murmurs of “Go west, young man!” whisper in the Santa Ana winds. The gold that people seek these days is most often found in Silicon Valley, a place that called to my father way back in the nineteen fifties.
I don’t know what he was hoping to find in California, but whatever it was prompted him to pack up the family and leave our comfortable home in Texas to travel thousands of miles to San Jose. His anticipation of things to come was childlike as he animatedly described to us the wonders that we were sure to find. He delighted in the idea of visiting Disneyland in its opening year. He described the beauty of Yosemite with a kind of breathless awe. He assured us that we were going to one of the most remarkable places on earth where every day would bring new adventures and discoveries.
I’ll never know what happened to dash his dreams, but something did for soon we were heading back to Texas with a quiet resignation. California can be like that, sometimes delightful and sometimes cruel. Our family did not find gold in the hills or even the joy that my father had expected. We left with a kind of dreary sadness, and my father who had always been a giant in my eyes seemed small and defeated. Our ride back to our former home was so quiet and tense that even my baby brother sensed that something was wrong. He cried constantly making our journey feel somehow ominous.
Nothing would go quite right for us after that and the grand finale of our California dreaming would become a nightmare when my very young father died suddenly in a car accident. In my childlike mind I would blame California and it would be many decades before I was able to bring myself to return to the place that seemed somehow to have destroyed my father’s optimism and confidence. I would finally be able to view California with the eye of an adult, and I saw the grandeur that had once drawn my father to the place like a temptress.
Most recently my husband Mike and I journeyed to Sacramento, California to attend the United States of America Track and Field Junior Olympics. Our grandson Eli had qualified for two events, the 4 X 8 relay and the 1500 meter race. We came to watch him, but managed to tour nearby places on the days when he was not running.
Sacramento is the capitol of California situated along the American River. It has little of the beauty ascribed to places along the Pacific coast, but much history. The people there are friendly and much more relaxed than the folks in Los Angeles or San Francisco. The pace of life is slow and deliberate with seemingly little need for hurry. It feels much more like the California I had once seen as an eight year old child. In some ways it is a living witness to the real problems that the state faces today.
The dichotomy between those with wealth and those who are struggling to survive is quite apparent in Sacramento. Tiny homes on dusty land are protected with iron bars over the windows while more luxurious houses sit on lovely green manicured lawns dotted with flowers and shaded by massive trees. The contrast between the haves and the have nots is dramatic. There are even make shift homeless camps scattered along the banks of ditches.
On the roads there dilapidated cars roll next to high end BMWs and Mercedes Benzes. In the stores it is easy to spot the people who are wondering how much longer they might be able to survive the high cost of living in California. They walk around with glazed and resigned expressions on their faces. Everywhere there are empty buildings that point to glory days past. Perhaps it was the extreme heat that made me think that there was much desperation in the town, or maybe it was my own past catching up with me once again. Somehow I sensed that the people were longing for a time when hope seemed more realistic, but like my father they had at least for the moment begun to question the logic of their lives.
Almost everything in Sacramento is many times more expensive than similar items in Houston. A visit to a burger place cost us forty dollars and we only purchased one burger, two orders of fries, and some lemonade. Gasoline runs in the range of four or five dollars per gallon. Road tolls are six dollars. I tried to imagine how people survive when even a tiny home of about nine hundred square feet costs more than my three times larger house in Texas. Living in California these days is a brutal undertaking that requires determination.
I found myself thinking of my father at every turn and wondering what my life might have been had we stayed in California. It is a hauntingly beautiful place, but one fraught with so many challenges. Somehow I find myself preferring to visit. California dreaming is best done in small doses unless one is able to find the mother lode. I’ll take Houston, Texas where the pace and the price allows even ordinary souls to live in king like circumstances, but I do understand what my father saw in California. It still offers the enchantment of many dreams.