California: A Golden State of Mind

In just under a week from now, I’ll be leaving California after having lived here for the past 38 years. With this impending move and the ample time that the COVID crisis has provided for self-reflection, I’ve been pondering my long and often complicated relationship with “The Golden State.” I’ve decided to describe how this relationship began long before I ever stepped foot in California, and how it grew and changed over the course of my life. This will be the first in a series of relatively short posts or “chapters” that focus on different periods in my relationship with California. In this first entry I’ll describe how my fascination with California began and set the stage for my eventual move to the Golden State.

 

My relationship with California started about 50 years ago in the late 1960s and early 1970s when, as a young boy growing up in a working class city in Massachusetts, images of “The Golden State” leapt out at me from the TV screen. I saw Jed Clampett’s mansion, his “cee-ment” pond (swimming pool), and sunny skies and waving palms trees on the Beverly Hillbillies. Then there was the modern, suburban spread inhabited by the Brady Bunch, and at the age of 12, I thought nothing could be more “hip” than to be one of the Bradys! I marveled at the exciting police chases that featured cars flying over cliff-like hills that were depicted on the Streets of San Francisco. California’s presence was also felt over the radio airwaves. I knew that ”I’d be safe and warm if I was in L.A.” (California Dreamin’), that it was evidently necessary to ask directions if you were on your way to San Jose, that “gentle people with flowers in their hair” would greet me if I ever got to San Francisco, and that It Never Rains in Southern California. Living in a rather dreary and provincial city in the northeast, California seemed like a mythical place at the other side of the rainbow.

 

When I was about 12 years old, and had already been infected with a travel bug, I undertook a project in which I wrote letters to the Chambers of Commerce for cities all over the U.S.A. How I found these addresses in a pre-Google Search world, or how my letters written in a child-like scrawl were received by whomever opened the mail is a mystery, but my mom good-naturedly sent out the letters and soon I started receiving colorful tourism brochures and postcards from a couple of dozen cities. They were all exciting, but of course the ones from California particularly piqued my interest the most and fueled my desire to someday travel there. San Diego boasted about its famous Zoo and Sea World, Los Angeles provided images of Hollywood, surfer dudes, and Disneyland, while San Francisco touted the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and its uniquely hilly and crooked streets.

Over the next few years I became obsessed with everything California. In the back yard there was a large area of dirt, hidden from view by a lot of bushes, where I was able to play. With the help of a shovel, the garden hose, and a variety of assorted race track trestles, Monopoly houses, and other assorted pieces of games and toys I built San Francisco back there. I dug out the shape of the Bay and filled it with water, I built a Golden Gate Bridge made of tall, orange plastic towers, and I carefully placed white and gray skyscrapers and dozens of tiny houses across the hills I’d created with mud and dirt. Once I had it all perfectly set up, I got out the snow shovel, slid it strategically under the San Francisco Peninsula, and started to “twang” the handle, creating an earthquake in my city. Sections of the city slid into the Bay in dramatic mudslides, buildings tipped in the soft, muddy soil, and the Golden Gate Bridge collapsed. Where I came up with such a realistic scenario is anyone’s guess, but I knew my model was quite realistic. Then I would begin the long process of swooping in with my rescue planes and helicopters to restore the city to its former glory, repairing all the damage… until the next “Big One” struck later in the week. It is almost spooky that 20 years later I would find myself living in San Francisco and doing research and teaching about… earthquake preparedness!

In the front yard there was another barren area of dirt, and my friends and I would play in that area with our Matchbox cars, creating roads and driveways leading to our “houses”. Invariably, I lived on top of a hill with a long, winding driveway and always “drove” a fire-engine red or orange car. Again, decades later I live in an apartment on top of the highest mountain in San Francisco and drive a reddish-orange car…

During the winter, I had a spare room in the house in where I set up a racetrack and electric railroad. I gradually constructed an entire community, saving my allowance money to buy model houses with red tile roofs, 50s style diners, motels with swimming pools, and tiny orange and palm trees. I built some rolling hills from pillows covered with a mossy green blanket and planted some trees and cattle and horses on their slopes. I used green construction paper to make freeway signs and decided that my little community would be the California city of San Bernardino. (Why I chose San Bernardino, of all places, is another mystery, but it sounded quite exotic to me at the time). Soon I had the I-10 freeway cutting through the heart of my city, unaware that I’d be driving that freeway pretty regularly in a couple of decades.

By the time I was 12 or 13, I had planted California poppies in my little flower and vegetable garden; they have been my favorite flower ever since. I somehow learned and could recite from memory all of the streets in San Francisco, in order, from Van Ness to the Bay: Polk, Larkin, Hyde, Leavenworth, etc. I could draw you a pretty good map of the L.A. freeway system, complete with both the route numbers and the freeway names: the San Diego Freeway (I-405), Ventura Freeway (I-101), Santa Monica Freeway (I-10), etc. I probably knew more about California than some of its long-term residents.

In 1974 my mom and I began planning our first trip to California. I pored over maps and AAA tour guides, looking for attractions and places to stay and would eagerly fill my mom in on what I had found every night when she’d come home from work. Alas, as I’ve described in another blog post, I Blame It All on My Mother, she died after a year long battle with cancer in early 1975. As a sort of pilgrimage in her memory, I decided I needed to see California for both of us, and so at just 16 years old, still a junior in high school, I booked a 10 day trip to California during Spring Break in April using some insurance money my mother had left me. I wish I could recall the reactions of the travel agency staff that I worked with as this 16 year old kid selected his and hotel stays and paid by check.

I spent five days in San Francisco, staying at the Holiday Inn Chinatown, with a view toward the Bay and Alcatraz. I remember walking the city for hours upon end, and even made a trip over the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County. One of the nurses who’d taken care of my mom in the hospital gave me the number of a friend of hers in Marin and told me to call him when I arrived so he could show me around. I’ve unfortunately forgotten his name, but I do remember that he was a handsome, blond fireman who could easily have played the role of a surfer dude in any TV show set in California. He worked part time at the San Francisco Yacht Club in Belvedere and treated me to lunch there with a view of the city in the distance. He then took me for a ride on the back of his motorcycle, instructing me to hang on to him tightly (which I was quite happy to do!), and he took me up to the top of Mount Tamalpais on twisty roads that led through the redwood groves to the summit. Little did I know that in another 20 years I’d be teaching at a university just 5 miles further up the road.

I then flew to L.A. on an evening flight and still recall that we were no sooner in the air than the pilot announced that the glow in the sky in front of us was Los Angeles, a mere 300 miles away!  I arrived at LAX and caught a city bus at 10:30 at night to the Sunset Strip area of Hollywood. (I don’t think that these days as an adult I would feel safe doing that!) I arrived at my hotel at almost midnight, introduced myself and the clerk got me registered. I sheepishly mentioned that I had asked for a room with a view of the city. He paused a second and said, “I’m sorry but we don’t have any of those left, but don’t worry, it’ll be a nice room for you.” I was crestfallen, but almost too tired to care. I did notice that the clerk winked at the bellboy as he gave him my room number and key, and this man took my bag from me and led me to my room. When I opened the door, I gasped. There, spread before me from this room on the 10th floor was a sea of twinkling lights as the entire L.A. basin spread out below me. Wow. I felt like a Hollywood celebrity that night. L.A. even decided to give me a little taste of its shaky foundation; I was awakened at 3AM by a minor earthquake. Does it get any better than that? 

I took day trips by bus to the San Diego Zoo and Disneyland, and I’d have to say that my 10 days in California lived up to all those years of dreaming about the Golden State from afar. That summer I went back for another, longer trip to California, that also included stops at Vegas and the Grand Canyon, and a year after that I made my first cross country drive to California at the ripe old age of 18. The seed had taken root and although I had no idea how I would make it happen, the desire to live in California was slowly and steadily growing in my young mind. But that plan would take another six years to come to fruition.

3 thoughts on “California: A Golden State of Mind

  1. Pingback: A Golden State of Mind: Chapter 2 – Southern California | MATT: AT HOME IN THE WORLD

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