California, a Love Letter

The fallen Wawona Tunnel Tree looking the worse for wear | Photo: Phil Virgo/Flickr/Creative Commons License

East of Yosemite Route 120 begins in the sagebrush prairie near Benton, seven miles down U.S. 6 from the Nevada line. That's where I first saw California, peering out the window of my father's turquoise Malibu station wagon in the summer of 1966. The road was a roller coaster then, beelining over the landscape with little regard for the hills and washes it crossed, and even with Dad's cautious driving we caught air over and over again.

The road was still like that in 1992. It was a lifetime later. It is a lifetime since. My then-fiancee and I were returning from the Four Corners area to our place in Oakland. Not nearly as cautious as my father, I had to slow lest I scrape the undercarriage of our little Toyota clean. Soon the road swung due west and Jeffrey pines struggled to conceal Mono Lake from view.

This has been my life in California: retracing old steps with new eyes as the landscape changes underfoot.

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I was six years old in 1966. I remember few of the trip's details. By the time we reached the point where Route 6 crosses into California west of Tonopah we had been on the road for about a week, a couple in their late twenties with four kids six and under, on a cross-country trip pre-Interstate replete with Yellowstone bears and mountains carved into political statuary. The fragments of California that remain in my memory are frustratingly incomplete. I recall passing through the Wawona Tunnel Tree, but not Mono Lake or the drive up Lee Vining Canyon. A moment of "are we there yet" boredom in Bakersfield persists somehow in memory, as does a western fence lizard I saw in the campground we used near Anaheim and the improbable lawn at Park Moabi on the Colorado River, where we camped in triple-digit heat and I got sick.

And there was the theme park we visited in Anaheim, the ostensible purpose of the whole trip. Its name escapes me at the moment.

It was another 18 years before I arrived on my own power, after getting what little schooling I have out of the way. A ride-share got me to Boulder. My thumb got me from there to Laramie, where the rides gave out. I used most of my remaining money on a bus ticket to San Francisco. I was 22 and broke and I had a phone number of a friend who'd offered me a place to stay. Eventually I found work.

But before that, as I negotiated the traumas of youth and adolescence -- some of them trite and universal, some my own alone -- California was never far from mind. At eight years old I pored over books on Yosemite and Lassen. At thirteen I resented Upstate New York bitterly for its lack of western fence lizards. At seventeen I raided Mom's purse for cash; with the $40 I purloined and a few things in a canvas backpack, I hit the New York State Thruway with my thumb pointed west. I made it as far as Columbus, Ohio before I chickened out.

This is one of those trite universalities: I got to California in my early 20s and remade myself. I list Berkeley as my hometown, though I had existed for more than two decades before I ever saw it. It is where I started, and the rest mere prologue.

Telling stories of driving cross-country in the days before Interstate highways has a certain feeling of obsolescence to it, not wholly unlike what I imagine the Argonauts must have felt relating travel tales to the youngsters who arrived after the railroad was installed. Truth be told, Interstate 80 wasn't even finished the second time I arrived: in 1982, there was still a gap in the highway at Lovelock, Nevada, and transcontinental traffic idled at that town's single stoplight.

As of the new year, that second arrival was 32 years ago. That puts me here longer than half of you. There are about 15 million more people in the state now than when I got here. To be honest, though each one of you new Californians is very welcome on an individual basis, it's getting a little crowded in the mass. Conservative activists claim that the state's policies are driving an exodus from the state, but so far the statistics have failed to deliver on that promise.

And who can blame us for staying? As Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo almost said centuries ago in "The Adventures of Esplandián," from whose fictional island California took its name, this state is very close to Terrestrial Paradise.

The California of my childhood imaginings was one thing. The reality is far sweeter. In three decades of tenure my initial puppy love for the state has only grown. Without intending to check off tickboxes on a list, I have spent time in every single one of California's 58 counties since 1982. Out of curiosity this past week, I mapped my travels in the state since I got here on a low-resolution NatGeo map, and with Nevada included for context, it looked like this :

Travels in California (click for greater resolution) | Image: Chris Clarke

That's travel by car, by bus and train, by foot and -- in the case of the American River's South Fork -- by raft. Not shown are the numerous side trips, daily commutes, and random wanderings that would have turned Los Angeles and the Bay Area into blue blobs.

Every blue pixel represents a story.

On the first morning of the century, my then-wife and I cast unbaited hooks into the South Fork of the Trinity River at Hyampom, our marriage healing temporarily from an embarrassing bit of stupidity on my part, and a bald eagle waits in a Douglas fir across the river for us to stop bothering its steelhead.

An unremarkable day working at UCSF, and I stand waiting for espresso in the student union cafe. Out the north window, past a few miles of fog-wreathed green, the Golden Gate Bridge reflects filtered sunlight.

The sound of my breathing echoes off smooth rock wall. I am alone in complete darkness in a lava tube in Modoc County. No one knows where I am. My single flashlight has just stopped working.

Annette and I try to walk off a meal in Jacumba. The local creek is full of Pacific chorus frogs. A Border Patrol officer drives past us several times, sweeps us with his floodlights on each pass, until we cannot see the stars.

Sitting atop a hill in moon-lit Red Rock Canyon State Park, my dog leans into me.

On San Bruno Mountain, Matthew and I brush aside the wild oats to see a patch of coast rein orchid in bloom, its ridiculously small white flowers almost invisible against the dew.

On the North Fork of the Salmon, I watch a yellow-legged frog in a reed-fringed pool. My girlfriend is puttering in our campsite two hundred feet upstream. I am procrastinating on a conversation that will make her cry. Snakes the color of dimes sun themselves on cobbles in mid-stream.

In a rest area on Route 58 near Boron, I wake in the back of my ancient pickup truck. A Joshua tree looms nearby. It's not the first one I've seen, but it's the first time I really pay attention. The eastern sky near Barstow is blood red.

We walk past clumps of cobra lily, a carnivorous pitcher plant, on the west slopes of Mount Eddy. That young dog at Red Rock is four months dead of extreme old age, and I remember him here more than a decade earlier glissading through the sensitive plants in uncontrollable joy. The plants, at least, have survived, and Matthew patiently waits until I pull myself together.

So many stories, some of places I can no longer visit. The places are still there, but they have changed. The taqueria surrounded by rolling fields in Nipomo -- the one with the sublime homemade brown salsa -- now replaced by an upscale stripmall. The juniper woodland in the hills above Wild Horse Canyon Road that burned in 2005. The feel of the earth under my nails in the Berkeley vegetable garden I tended in spring in 1984, covered with one more house the next year. The Berkeley that I could once afford to live in.

The Wawona Tunnel Tree, weakened by the tunnel that made it famous, which fell three years after my childhood visit.

The sloping plain I slept on among the tortoise burrows and pencil cholla, watching the headlights of traffic on I-15, with the sound of jake brakes reaching my ears every now and then from the trucks coasting downhill toward Primm.

Places change as surely as people do. Both sorts of change can hurt. Loss is the nature of love. Each ending is a beginning of what comes next.

Three years ago I stood at the side of a road in the Santa Rosa Mountains, Annette with me, and we looked downhill past agaves and yuccas and the swelling city far below us. I realized abruptly that I'd been there before, almost a half century back, my parents then half my current age and the state of California entirely different. Rexroth still sat at tables outside Cafe Trieste back then, and Jeffers, just four years dead, newly haunted the hawk aeries above Carmel. The Black Panthers would not be founded for four months, and longhairs were only starting to flood the Haight-Ashbury. The Delano grape strike was less than a year old.

And standing at the brink, a six-year-old from Ovid, New York looked out for the first time across the California desert, unsure what it was he was seeing.

Perhaps this year will be the one he figures that out.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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