67. El Dorado or Donner Pass

More than 15 million Americans became Californians between 1940 and 1970 "? the great years when the state was retailed to the nation as the perfect mix of Arcadian ease and technocratic energy. The greatest paradox is, of course, that the success of these Californians in having so much has turned into so much loss.

Well over two million middle-class Californians have immigrated to "greater California" in recent years "? to Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona. Their leaving might be the inevitable backwash at of a restless population or symptomatic of something worse. Did something missing in our history or in our character as a people speed them on their way, with their disposable incomes and flawed but real habits of community building?

For Joan Didion, the state's renowned exile, there is in California "a dangerous dissonance, a slippage between the way we perceive ourselves and the way we are."

Story continues below

We see ourselves possessing a land of abundance, but we're at the limits of fragile ecologies. Our official story is a pageant of conquest and bonanza, but belief requires willfully forgetting so much. We thought our story recorded what had been hard won, but it's actually full of lucky accidents "? gifts of nature or the federal government in the form of water systems, highways, missiles, and satellites. We'd fallen in love with the sales pitch that brought us here, but we became California's remorseful buyers. We long to have our home here, but we dislike its claims on us.

Californians tend to use the environment to project what they can no longer find "? something has gone missing, and the suburbs, the smog, the traffic, the pollution, and the presence of too many of us are the reasons. But perhaps what Californians can no longer find was in themselves, something they lost by becoming Californian. Maybe self-realization was only selfish. Empowerment only power for its own sake. Ferment and innovation just fickleness. Maybe contentment was only smug satisfaction.

Californians forget that the California Dream doesn't come with a moral compass. But I cannot say that the dream did not serve us. It provided the goods of a middle-class life to millions of working-class men and women. It remixed popular culture in exciting ways. It added colors to the America spectrum. It had a part in humanizing the small town narrowness of American life. It built beautiful and lasting things.

Too many of us still think that California is the answer to every desire, no matter how extravagant or contradictory. The solution to our problems, we thought, was to become more Californian "? more certain of our grievances, more distrustful of leaders and public life, more indifferent to the costs of what we want from California, more consumers than citizens.

California has a founding myth of blind luck. It's the Gold Rush and the 160-year binge that followed. But the myth has a monstrous alternative in which delusional assumptions go terribly wrong. It's the story of the Donner party and the cannibalism that followed.

El Dorado or Donner Pass? We presumed the California Dream would lead us to the destination that answered our desires and away from what we feared Californians could become. And now we know that it can't.

The image on this page of the Donner memorial was taken by Flickr user GoonSquadSarah. It was used under a Creative Commons license.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading