10 Jul Calilfornia

My From Animal House to Our House book tour has brought me to California, where I’ve been for the past week. I entered through the wind farms of the southern desert and, now, am leaving through the redwood rain forests of the northern coast. Although I grew up in the East, some part of me belongs to California. I was born here. After college, I returned to live in San Francisco, then Berkeley, and stayed for nearly a decade. It’s a wild state. I mean naturally wild, with some of the nation’s highest mountains and largest, oldest trees (redwoods, sequoias, joshuas), some of the most remote valleys, most treacherous coasts, and most dangerous deserts. At the same time, it’s our most populous state: 36 million people. And, now on the verge of bankruptcy, one of the most troubled.

California has two distinct cultures: the coastal and the inland. The first describes everything from marijuana farms in Humboldt county to ashrams in Malibu. Everything that is counter-cultural, organic, alternative, hip, fashionable, or otherwise glamorous belongs to the coast. The other culture — inland — is actually the larger culture of California. it comprises virtuallly all of the state’s rural life with an emphasis on country music, corporate farms, pick-up trucks, and Mexican immigrants. For a brief time I lived in the San Joaquin valley: it’s hot and dusty and criss-crossed with wide concrete aquaducts. This was where my father grew up, the son of itinerant fruit pickers. Destined to be a small-time farmer, he went on to other things after his frist crop (of cucumbers) failed.

His mother — our Nana — lived out her last decades in the San Joanquin valley. She worked in a citrus packing house until, at seventy-six, her health failed her. Ultimately, we returned her to her North Carolina home, scattering her ashes in a creek behind the ruins of the house in which she was born. Whenever I visit California, I think of her living in a tiny rental among the orange groves. From her front yard, you could see the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas. I don’t enjoy the San Joaquin — it’s too hot, dry, and dusty and too much farmland — buit nonetheless I think of it fondly because my family history is so bound up in it.

Most people who haven’t been to California do not understand that this is mostly a desert state. It has thrived on borrowed (sometimes stolen) water. You will find tarantulas here and road runners. Although the coast can be lush, everything dries out once you cross the coastal hills. That’s why Californians are rightly frightened of fire. During the too-dry summer months, the state is a tinderbox. It’s made more vulnerable by the many houses built where houses really shouldn’t be built–perched on cliffs and atop hills that routinely burn. Moreso than in any other state, you will find houses built in the mostly unlikely and improbably places.

It’s such a huge state, with so much wilderness, you can get seriously lost here. But also, it’s one of the few states where, just when you think you’re not near much, you turn the corner and there is a goat farm or the ruin of a coastside Victorian or, ten miles down a windy country road, an organic bakery. If you’re accustomed only to Eastern beaches, you will be unprepared for the scope and grandeur of California beaches. There are cliffs and dunes and mountainous boulders. And flower-filled valleys that roll down to the sand. There’s otherworldly fog, too. Right now, Jill and I are making our way up the coast to Oregon. We’ve been driving through redwood forests whose dark, cool depths look like a ferny scene from the Jurrasic era. Every evening, the fog settles on the coast and hunkers there until noon or so the next day, before releasing its grip at last and letting the sun break through.

Last night at a campground we met a group of young vagabonds who had started out in South Carolina and now are “on the move” up and down the coast. Two of the guys said they’d come to Humboldt county to work in the medical marijuana industry. All seven of them could have walked out of a Woodstock time machine. They were drinking beer and smoking pot for breakfast. One of the guys explained why Humboldt county is so good for growing marijuana. The plant stops growning when the temperature reaches 85 degrees. Humboldt county never gets to 85 degrees. And it’s damp and foggy. Pot plants love it here.

Jill and I spent the afternoon at the Blue Ox historic (wood) mill in Eureka, CA, talking to Eric, the owner. He showed us his antique redwood burl, among other things. His custom wood shop uses antique tools exclusively and does work that no other shop in the world does. He and his crew NEVER visit the customers — because that would make the work too expensive. The specs for each job are done through photos and drawings. Eric’s aim to help young people learn the vanishing trades like fine wood and plaster work. He says, “People need to understand that there are two kinds of work in the world. The kind of job you shower for before you do the work. And the kind of job where you shower after the work. One’s not better than the other. We’ve got to have both.”

Tomorrow we leave California. Today, after getting two private historic house tours and visiting Eric at his way-cool compound, Jill said, “Has you entire trip been this much fun without me?” I said, “Everything is more fun when you’re with me.” Tonight we’re camped illegally, our camper van tucked into some trees not far from the coastal highway — the campgrounds are booked. Jill, who’s crazy for animals, got to see some elk today, as well as some sea lions and then, as we rounded a foggy cliff on the coastal highway: a flock of pelicans, soaring past like a parade of pterodactyls.