On one of the most memorable mornings of my teen-age life, I climbed a small hill in eastern Wyoming with a group of friends to watch the sun rise over the plain. On the way back down, traipsing across a golf course, we were accosted by a sheriff’s deputy informing us that we were trespassing. Our explanation that we were from California seemed to mollify him, as if he were quite confident that everyone was California was either very special or very crazy.
Some years after that, when I was still caught up in the fantasy that the only real publishing jobs were in New York City, I was visiting a recruiter there. I gave my resume – my name and California address prominently at the top – to the receptionist, and a few minutes later, the recruiter burst into the lobby to greet me. Her first words were not “hello” but “Why would anyone want to leave Palo Alto?”
And so my life progressed. I eventually did leave Palo Alto, but only because housing was cheaper ten miles away. I’m still back there – for dinner, for shopping, for dentistry – enough that it feels comfortable. And California did eventually develop its own publishing industry, which helped finance that house in Silicon Valley.
Not only that, but California has always remained a special place. The California Dream may have morphed from the days of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath – now the dream is not just a job, but a job with a potential IPO attached. But people still flock here with stars in their eyes – the population has increased by more than 4 percent, from 37.2 million to 38.8 million between 2010 and 2014.
And I have always loved being able to say I was a native Californian. Who wouldn’t want to have grown up in paradise, with Disneyland on one side, Yosemite on the other, and an endless beach on the third?
But as time goes on, I am less confident. Here’s why:
Boomtown. As Silicon Valley keeps reinventing itself, from a mecca of defense to electronics to computers to software to biotech to social media and other apps that only make sense to 25-year-olds, it just keeps getting more popular. That’s fine for housing prices (assuming you already have one), but the resulting traffic, financial impact on service workers, and the diminishing comfort and joy begins to take its toll.
Nature. The worst drought that most of us have lived through was in 1977, the year I graduated from college. (I solved that problem by moving to Seattle, where water fountains on the street gushed constantly.) The snowpack in 1977 was measured at a scarily low 27 inches; when they went back to measure the same place last week, there was no snow. If it doesn’t start raining soon – and it shows no sign of doing so – it’s going to be like that Twilight Zone episode where the earth starts moving closer to the sun.
Government. One of the side effects of the drought is that rain doesn’t wash nasty stuff out of the air as often. Here in the Bay Area, we already have to suffer through what are known as “spare the air” days when we can’t use the fireplace. Unfortunately, they’re usually the days you’d most like to use the fireplace. Now what is derisively referred to as “the nanny state” is talking about going a step further, and banning fireplaces altogether. If this stupid law passes, no one will be able to sell or rent a domicile without removing the fireplace or installing a gas insert. Even as a liberal, I find that wholly intrusive.
And so, after all these years, I’m beginning to wonder … is it time to go? Has California finally played out its wonder? What’s the point of paradise if the result is road rage, aggravation, and the inability to take a shower?