Gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in 1848, and overnight the rush was on. California became the idée du jour for a new life, with a dream of riches thrown in.
The story has older versions as well, such as the tragic one of Spanish missionaries spreading Christianity among the natives of Alta California, destroying a way of life in the process; or a more hopeful one, 15,000 years earlier, when the first peoples to inhabit North America came across the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, migrating south to what would become known as The Golden State. But always it was the same, the idea of something new-sometimes good, sometimes not-that brought people to California ..
It became that idea for me when I was sixteen, starting with the lure of LA-the blue Pacific, white-sand beaches, Beach Blanket fun in the sun. I lived then on the mean streets of New Jersey, across the river from New York, the greatest city in the world. But I had been there and done that. California was the grand idea, unknown and beautiful.
I first set foot on its soil at the Naval Air Station on Coronado Island in San Diego Bay, not the best way to enter my Promised Land. There I boarded a troop ship bound for Vietnam, along with 3,000 other souls of the US Army, flown in from all parts of the country. It was 1965 and that war was just beginning to heat up.
Eight years later, with Vietnam behind me and a wife and baby in my life, I came to California permanently, so I thought. Deep down, I always knew the idea of Beach Blanket fun was a fiction. The state had major problems, of too many people and prices too high. The Watts riots of 1965 were already history. Illegal immigration helped fuel the economy by offering menial, low paying jobs to those willing to do them for those who were not. And it was earthquake country, where the slippage of a major fault could wipe out the good life for many thousands. Still, I was there, with a new job in the LA of my earlier dreams. I was on the track to that good life. Such was my thinking.
The rude awakening came quickly. I could not ignore the smog, the clogged freeways, the immense anthill of people stretching from Mexico to the northern edges of Los Angeles County. Population around fifteen million and counting, with all the problems such a huge collection of people brings with it.
Northern California, 400 miles north, became my next new thing. The San Francisco Bay Area with its cooler climate was more like it, and I stayed there for twenty-three years, through three jobs, a divorce, and the first home I've ever owned a part of the Santa Clara Valley once known for endless citrus groves, though by the time I arrived the groves were gone, and it was called Silicon Valley. During my time there my daughter grew from a little girl to a teenager with an awakening mind. My wife became history. After that, I took up with several different girlfriends, with nothing permanent in mind. I continued to write my stories and the odd novel, unsuccessfully at first. I was still learning my craft.
Perhaps my stay in Northern California had become a product of inertia. Finally, though, after all those years, I had enough of the Golden State, and I left it behind, for good, so I believed, with pockets full of cash from the sale of my piece of overpriced California real estate. I settled down to begin my writing career in earnest, a serious writer now, in my luxurious garret surrounded by the pines and firs and winter snows of the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico.
But nothing is consistent except change. A visit to a friend living in a retirement community in the seaside town of Seal Beach, far enough from Los Angeles to ignore it, convinced me it would be a good place for an occasional getaway from the New Mexico winters or the heat of the summers . It had the lure of balmy weather, with the blue Pacific close by and bikini-clad girls all around. The price was cheap and I bought in. I started Chapter Two of my on-and-off affair with California, a little wiser this time. It lasted three years, and it was mostly good.
Until, once again, it was not. There were new problems this time, different from those of my youth. I was in an enclave of so-called retirement bliss, but I felt no connection to the relics I saw there, hobbling around on their walkers, or transporting them in their electric wheelchairs, apparently content to be warehoused until time came to shuffle off into eternity. It was not for me, and so once again, it was California-leaving time, Part Two.
This time, so I thought, it would be for good. I would never return. So I set out to see parts of SoCal I had never seen before, and revisit places I had not seen in years. And I did all that, feeling like the aging version of Woody Allen, looking with jaundiced eye at the sleaze and tawdriness of Venice that you never see in movies, and the triteness of Malibu Pier, like a smaller, cheaper version of the long- gone Palisades Amusement Park of my youth. My old LA neighborhood of forty years before looked the same, yet oddly finished and ordinary, leaving me with a so-what feeling. I surprised what I was doing there. Finally I left it all behind, again for good.
Now the only feeling I can summon about my near life-long California experience is that all grand ideas come with a price. Who knows, maybe mine is still buried inside, waiting to awaken for Chapter Three of my Golden State yearnings. Some ideas simply die a hard death.