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Train leaving San Francisco in 1949
Train leaving San Francisco in 1949

Every now and then, when I see images of old trains, I ask myself whether there is much interest in that form of travel anymore. Millions of children eagerly watch the television adventures of Thomas the Tank Engine, and some of them may see The Choo Choo Bob Show. On PBS, adults can view documentaries about iconic old routes like the Trans Siberian Express and the Durango narrow gauge mining network in Colorado. But the big excitement for most people relates to other forms of travel such as the space ships in the movie Star Wars, space capsules, and big airplanes like the Boeing 777. Even luxury cruise ships seem to attract more interest than trains.

But perhaps there are still people who appreciate old railroads. I hope so, because I want to talk about the role that trains have played in my life.

I was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1943. I believe that my love of trains began even before I was born. In 1942, my father, then twenty one years old, was in his second year of service in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps, working as an Operating Room Technician at the military hospital in Providence. At the time my mother was still in the East Bay Area of California, where the two of them had grown up, met, and married shortly before the start of the Second World War. When my mother became pregnant, the Navy paid for her and a friend to travel across the United States by train so that I could be born in my father’s presence. I have no conscious memory of that trip, but I am convinced that it was the experience that first made me love to travel by rail.

My mother and I lived in Providence with my father until he was assigned to be the entire medical department on a Navy destroyer that was directed to make its way south through the Panama Canal and then perform combat duty in the Pacific. Then for a while my mother and I lived in New York in the Bronx, where her father, recalled into the Navy, was imparting his experience as a gunnery officer to new recruits at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Shortly thereafter, unaccompanied except by me, my mother made her way back to the East Bay Area. I remember nothing about the trip. But I was told several times while growing up that a passenger on our transcontinental train was Bing Crosby. Insisting on no special treatment, he traveled on crowded troop trains just as my mother and I were doing. At one point my mother happened to be sitting across from him and introduced me. “Pleased to meet you, Gary,” Crosby said. “You know,” he added, “this is a special pleasure. I have a son named Gary.”

My next encounter with travel by rail occurred when I was eight years old. My mother, my five-year-old sister, and I were living in the Bay Area and my father was at sea on a Navy transport serving in the Korean War. We got word that his ship would be anchored for the summer of 1951 in San Diego Harbor and that it would be possible for the four of us to live together in San Diego during that time. My father came up to the Bay Area from San Diego to accompany us on the train trip south.

The Southern Pacific Lark, view in 1946
The Southern Pacific Lark, view in 1946

We put some of our belongings in storage, packed the rest in suitcases, and were driven to the railway station in Oakland by my mother’s parents. They waved goodbye to us as we boarded an enormous, chugging Southern Pacific passenger train, The Lark, to take us south. It is my first conscious memory of riding overnight in a rail passenger car — the lights passing by us outside the window of our safe compartment, the sounds of whistles and of bells at crossings, the constant rocking motion, the buttons and doors and secret spaces inside the compartment, the smell of fresh bed linen, and the certainty, whenever the porter answered our buzzer, that we were royalty.

Bedroom compartment
Bedroom compartment

For my sister and me, the summer in San Diego was hot and boring. I did enjoy some fascinating visits to my father’s ship and the harbor area. But otherwise I was anxious to leave.

Finally at the end of the summer we received news that we would be returning to the Bay Area where my father would be stationed at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo. Within the week, we were on our way north. This time we went by plane. I had never flown before. The experience was an adventure. I even had the good luck to be invited into the cockpit and sit in the pilot’s lap and pretend I was steering. You would not be allowed to do that today. We were on Pacific Southwest Airlines, which had been founded by a World War II pilot and was only a couple of years old at the time. The owner happened to be acting as the co-pilot that day. He was fond of children and also knew how to please customers. But the most interesting thing to me about the flight, looking back, is that it did not enchant me the way my first train trip had.

After a few months at Mare Island, we got word that my father was being assigned to go north by ship to the Navy base in Bremerton on the west side of Puget Sound, where he would be serving at the large naval hospital. My mother, my sister and I would take the train north and move into the base housing that was being arranged for our family.

My mother’s parents, by that time relocated to the East Bay, drove us to the Southern Pacific station in Oakland where my mother, my sister and I boarded a train that went all the way east to Salt Lake City. There we transferred to the Northern Pacific line and made the rest of the journey to Seattle. The Southern Pacific train was sleek and modern. The Northern Pacific train was in good condition but very old in its decor, most noticeably in the dining car which had walls of brown wood, brass lamps on each table and red, cut glass chandeliers. This was my first encounter with fingerbowls. When the waiter put them on our table I thought they were rose-flavored cups of water for us to drink and I was lucky that my mother explained them to me in time.

Northern Pacific dining car
Northern Pacific dining car

The last and final train trip of my early boyhood was the return journey from Seattle to the Bay Area after we had lived in Bremerton for about two and one half years. From that time on there was no need for long distance family travel because my father was able to get tours of duty at various Navy installations in San Francisco and Oakland.

My next train trip was therefore voluntary. In 1959, when I was in the tenth grade at Berkeley High School, my best friend Steve and I got jobs selling souvenir programs on Saturdays during the UC-Berkeley football season. We were good at it. So, when the news swept the Bay Area that Cal’s great football team would be going to the Rose Bowl, the supervisor of program sales invited Steve and me to be part of the small group of high school students who could hawk our wares in Pasadena.

Steve’s parents arranged for us to stay with friends of his family in Los Angeles. Soon thereafter we were on board a Southern Pacific train heading south. The trip took about twelve hours. It went down the Central Valley, stopping at numerous farm towns with names I found exotic, like Tipton, Tulare and Cucamonga. During a long, flat portion of the trip we went through the southern portion of the San Joaquin Valley at speeds of ninety miles per hour. The track bed was old and seemed not to be in good repair. Our train vibrated precariously but gave us all a good adventure.

Vista Dome-style passenger cars
Vista Dome-style passenger cars

The train had a couple of Vista Dome cars, the kind that were always featured in ads in the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines of the era. The cars provided the part of the trip that was the most fun. They were filled with UC Berkeley students and several young musicians. Most wore white wool sweaters decorated with blue and gold UC Berkeley insignia. Everybody sang the famous Cal drinking song: “California, California, the hills give off their cry, we’re out to do or die, California, California, we’ll win the game or know the reason why.” This is just a part of the lyrics. The whole song takes around ten minutes; longer if you are drunk. Many of the students drank beer as they sang. Steve and I ordered Coca Cola.

After the Rose Bowl and a few days with Steve’s family friends, it was time to take the train back to the Bay Area. This trip was quiet. Everybody was tired. I slept part of the way but also managed to catch up on reading for my high school World History class.

My next big train trip occurred in 1964. I spent the summer of that year in Washington DC as a college intern at The Pentagon, thanks to a wonderful, generous program called Stanford in Washington. At the end of the summer, I drove across the country to Mesa, Arizona, with a college friend who lived there, and then boarded a Santa Fe train to take me north to the East Bay. There was a flash flood in the desert along the way, adding three extra hours to our trip while the train proceeded slowly and cautiously at each large gulley. The high point of the journey was the conductor. He had taught himself the history of the area and told us fascinating stories as he stood at the front of the our car and pointed out sights.

My last experience with train travel as it used to be came in 1971, after I got my Ph.D. in History at Harvard and returned to the Bay Area to look for a job. Because I needed several months to find employment, I had a lot of spare time. I spent a great deal of it with a classmate from Stanford, Bill Moore, who was working as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Bill had grown up in Arizona and had numerous memories of old trains. He had flair and an amazing ability to attract groups of people for bizarre adventures. One of his favorite activities was to organize Bar Car Expeditions. We would board the southbound Southern Pacific train in Oakland, have many drinks and tell stories in the bar car, enjoys the views of the brown hills dotted with Live Oak trees, get off in Santa Barbara, wait twenty minutes, and then board the northbound SP train to take us back to Oakland. The scenery was gorgeous, the drinks were excellent, and the shared feeling of friendship was memorable.

That’s about it. After 1971, when I got my own car, there was little need to travel by train. And I didn’t really want to travel that way. The old passenger lines like the Southern Pacific, the Northern Pacific and the Santa Fe went out of business and were replaced by AMTRAK. I do ride on AMTRAK from time to time and I feel a stubborn form of nostalgia whenever I do so. But it isn’t the same.

California Zephyr at Christening, 1949
California Zephyr at Christening, 1949

While he was a reporter at the Chronicle, and before he became Managing Editor of the Sacramento Bee, Bill Moore won a prize for an article he wrote about the last run of the famous Western Pacific train the California Zephyr. I never had the pleasure of riding on the Zephyr, but I sometimes encounter it in my dreams.

The California Zephyr in its later years
The California Zephyr in its later years



In our era we are familiar with examples of nations that have experienced impressive development because of sudden infusions of wealth from a single natural resource and then faced chaos and decline when the resource was exhausted and no other basis for stability was available. One thinks, for example, of Venezuela and Nigeria where prosperity was tied to petroleum and then slowed radically as oil reserves were depleted, because profits were not used to produced a diverse economy, a sound political infrastructure, and a treasury surplus to sustain the country during difficult periods. One can also think of counter-examples, such as Norway, where profits from petroleum have been invested in sovereign wealth funds designed to ensure balanced development and social equity over the long term.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, California had the potential to become a state based too much on one resource, but instead crafted a future that, while not without problems, was filled with great possibility because it was based on multiple sources of strength.

In 1848, as a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the U.S.-Mexican War, California became a possession of the United States. That same year, extensive deposits of gold were discovered in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the areas north and south of the Sacramento River and its tributaries. As news of the discoveries spread, huge numbers of wealth seekers made their way to California from Asia, Australia, Latin America, other parts of the United States, and Europe. Even though many people did not find gold, others did, and their stories produced a mania and a single-minded view of California as a place known for quick riches and nothing more.

There were, however, more farsighted people who suspected that the bonanza would not last forever; and they asked themselves whether it might be possible to create a more multifaceted California that would not disintegrate after the gold was gone.

Bayard Taylor
Bayard Taylor

One of the people who thought rigorously about California’s future at mid-century was Bayard Taylor (1825-1878), a talented journalist whose reporting continues to be a highly informative exploration of the identity of the Golden State.

Bayard Taylor grew up in Chester County, Pennsylvania. His father was a wealthy farmer and his parents were Quakers. Possessed of great literary ability, Taylor made his way to New York City where he gained prominence as a poet, travel writer and journalist. During his lifetime he journeyed to and wrote widely read books and articles about many places, ranging from Hawaii to Egypt to Japan. In his last years he served as a U.S. diplomat in Germany, where he died.

In 1848, Taylor caught the eye of Horace Greeley, the founder and editor-in-chief of the New York Tribune, which was by the 1840s the most influential newspaper in America. Greeley commissioned Taylor to go west and write articles for East-Coast readers about the new mining regions. In June 1849, aged twenty-four, Taylor left New York by ship, made a hazardous journey across the Isthmus of Panama, and then sailed north, arriving in San Francisco after brief stops in Mexico. During the voyage to California and after arrival, Taylor regularly composed “letters” about the places and people he encountered, intending that each letter eventually be reprinted in the Tribune.

San Francisco 1848, as illustrated in Taylor's book Eldorado
San Francisco 1848, as illustrated in Taylor’s book Eldorado
San Francisco 1849, as illustrated in Eldorado
San Francisco 1849, as illustrated in Eldorado

Taylor’s letters duly reported on the Gold Rush. But he soon began to focus upon a story that he judged to be of more importance. With the shift in California from Mexican to American rule, an older society was waning in influence, and a new one was beginning to take shape. The challenge of adjustment was being intensified by the sudden arrival of thousands of migrants, and there was a possibility that Yankee California might be a house of cards if the gold ran out, the gold seekers left, and the area had no basis for any kind of life except the sleepy rancho society of the earlier Mexican period.

In pursuit of his curiosity about California’s future, Taylor wrote articles covering many aspects of the world he encountered. In San Francisco he described the phenomenally rapid physical growth of the city, the kaleidoscopic interplay of peoples as diverse as Hawaiians, Chinese, Chileans, Malays, and Kansans, the harbor crowded with ships, the juxtaposition of gambling dens and churches and the powerful energy one could feel at every turn. He journeyed by mule across the Central Valley and wrote vividly about mining camps in the Sierras. He traveled by schooner through the Delta to the new and rapidly expanding town of Sacramento. He explored deteriorating Spanish missions and visited ranchos still run by the original Mexican families. He walked from San Francisco to Monterey, stopping for numerous conversations along the way.

Sacramento, from Eldorado
Sacramento, from Eldorado

Two aspects of California’s future interested Taylor in particular: One was government, the other the role California might play in the larger world.

The first issue, government, was arising at a time when national political leaders in Washington DC were anxious to consolidate the United States into a transcontinental nation. Annexation of California in 1848, by means of the treaty that confirmed America’s victory in the U.S.-Mexican War, provided just such an opportunity. And eagerness to strengthen ties to California became even greater as the Gold Rush increased the area’s population, offered a new source of wealth for the Treasury, and provided secure locations for military and naval bases. The dominant concern of leaders in the East was speed in achieving these specific goals.

What interested Taylor was the way in which political leaders in California made enlightened use of Eastern eagerness. Rather than simply throwing together a hasty, slapdash proposal for statehood and sending it off to Washington DC, California’s leaders came together in a carefully deliberative convention in the temporary capital at Monterey and crafted a constitution that provided for growth that could be sustained even without a large supply of gold.

Taylor was impressed by the conscientious, thorough manner in which convention delegates addressed difficult issues that had long-term implications. For example, the delegates carefully discussed slavery (voting to prohibit it), where to put the eastern border of the new state (locating it along the eastern side of the Sierras), and how to regulate land ownership (approving a system that integrated older laws based on Spanish land grants and newer laws based on Eastern forms of property rights).

Monterey, from Eldorado
Monterey, from Eldorado

Taylor was also impressed by the inclusiveness of the convention. Many delegates were chosen to represent U.S. interests, including, for example, the military hero John C. Fremont, the prominent Monterey newspaper editor Walter Colton, and the landowner John Sutter whose properties near Sacramento had been the location of the earliest gold discoveries. But, Taylor noted, there were also delegates representing the earlier Mexican order, such as the powerful landowner Mariano Vallejo and Andres Pico, the military leader from southern California who had been defeated by Fremont and had signed the surrender documents. Broad representation of this kind would help to ensure an orderly political and economic future.

After the constitutional convention ended, Taylor prepared to leave California, return by ship to New York, and oversee final publication of his “letters” in Horace Greeley’s Tribune, followed by collection of the articles into a book with illustrations based on his journey. But before departure he penned some final reflections concerning the larger question of California’s ideal role in an expanding America. Taylor imagined a California connected to the entire Pacific region. With enthusiasm he wrote that “the new Highway to the Indies, forming the last link in that belt of civilized enterprise which now clasps the world, has been established under my country’s flag.” He envisioned that California, with its varied topography, mixture of cultures, and potential for many kinds of economic activity, might well become “the Italy of the West.” Such a comparison has since become commonplace, but Taylor was among the first to make it.

In his concluding observations, Taylor declared that San Francisco was the place in California that most impressed him. He believed it would someday be the “New-York-of-the-Pacific.” And in one of the most powerful of his “letters” he wrote: “Of all the marvelous phases of the history of the Present, the growth of San Francisco is the one which will most tax the belief of the Future. Its parallel was never known, and shall never be upheld again. I speak only of what I saw with my own eyes. When I landed there, a little more than four months before, I found a scattering town of tents and canvas houses, with a show of frame buildings on one or two streets, and a population of about six thousand. Now, on my last visit, I saw around me an actual metropolis, displaying street after street of well-built edifices, filled with an active and enterprising people, and exhibiting every mark of commercial prosperity…. Like the magic seed of the Indian juggler, which grew, blossomed, and bore fruit before the eyes of his spectators, San Francisco seemed to have accomplished in a day the growth of half a century.”

If Taylor could have returned to California in later decades, he would have seen that the state in many ways did not live up to his hopes. In the second half of the nineteenth century, California was marred by racist violence directed at Native Americans and Asians, profligate exploitation of natural resources, political corruption, and consolidation of land ownership in too few hands. Nevertheless, and thanks in great part to visionaries like Taylor who were present at its birth, California did develop in multi-faceted ways that have laid the basis for relatively stable political and social order and a very large role in the life of the United States and the world.

Bayard Taylor’s ancestral home in Chester County, Pennsylvania

Eldorado: Adventures in the Path of Empire, based on Taylor’s reports in the New York Tribune, was first published in 1850. A modern, annotated edition was published in 2000 by Heyday Books and Santa Clara University.


Main entrance to Harvard with classroom building in background (Credit: Detroit Photographic Company)
Main entrance to Harvard with classroom building in background (Credit: Detroit Photographic Company)
Entrance to Stanford
Entrance to Stanford

Because the United States is so large, a shift from one region to another can be quite disorienting. Adjusting to Seattle is not easy after living in Miami. Pennsylvania is not Idaho. I realized this when, after growing up in California and completing my undergraduate years at Stanford, I moved to New England to begin a six-year stay at Harvard leading toward a Ph.D. in History. This story dates from 1965, and graduate school is an esoteric topic for many. But I suspect that the experience I want to describe will be very familiar to anyone making the transition from California to New England today.

In one of his books, Wallace Stegner talks about the way the air changes your perception of things as you move from the western United States to the east. In most parts of the west — assuming there is no rain or fog or smog — the air is clear. It has a transparency that makes you think distant objects are very close. As you move toward the Atlantic coast, however, the increasing humidity gives you the subconscious feeling that — as Stegner puts it — a layer of gauze has come between you and everything you see. That feeling may have been the first cause for the strangeness I felt in the east. The sight lines also took some getting used to. Along most of the Atlantic seaboard, the vistas are small and close by western standards. Unless you happen to be at the top of a mountain or at the seashore, there aren’t many of the unobstructed, hundred-mile views so common in the west. The east does offer opportunities for intimacy with the landscape — canoeing on a small, meandering river, for example — and an up-close, very interesting, tradition-dominated mixture of the human and the natural, as, for example, when you see a stone house at the bottom of a hollow. The east is also where the conservation movement began: Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, continues to be its most important point of reference. But there aren’t many visual experiences to satisfy an appetite for grandeur, largeness, or absence of limits. Things feel more compact. In the east, the horizon seemed very close and the sky felt right on top of me. I felt confined when I arrived in New England.

Harvard Yard, the center of the campus
Harvard Yard, the center of the campus

I also felt ill at ease culturally. Harvard today is slightly more relaxed than it was when I went there. But in 1965 it was still a rather formal place: admirably polite, but marked by Calvinistic reserve and extreme attention to the dignified maintenance, or in many cases the creation, of pedigree and status. One of my history professors at Stanford, a refugee from Harvard, cautioned me to avoid the “braying solemnity” of the place and asserted that, at Harvard “people think there is a necessary correlation between competence in one’s subject and gravity of demeanor.” There was also a vaguely astringent feel to the institution, as if Harvardians were intent on sucking the life out of any attempt to relax or have fun.

Widener, the main library at Harvard, in Springtime
Widener, the main library at Harvard, in Springtime

In the fall of 1965, when I arrived in Harvard’s home city, Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was intoxicated as I enjoyed the bright students, famous professors, historic buildings, extensive facilities and opportunity to get to know the east coast. But, as the months passed, and I experienced the eastern academic establishment up close, I saw drawbacks. The work was long and hard. There was little time for social life. And there was not much in the way of praise or encouragement. It occurred to me that, had I stayed in California, graduate school at Stanford or UC Berkeley or some other school in the state might have been just as demanding. But I suspected that Harvard placed a greater value on heaviness.

While I welcomed the intellectual rigor of the university, I tried through petty subterfuge to counterbalance all the sternness. I joked about surfing on the nearby Charles River, in response to which my professors adopted tolerant, prune-faced smiles. And my teachers and fellow students must have wondered why, when nearly all the other men in graduate school wore the tweed sport coat and tie which was the uniform of the day, I insisted on wearing Pendleton shirts even during the months when they were too drafty to protect against the New England winter. Most of my experiences of Harvard were associated with winter. The incredibly beautiful autumn seemed to last only a few weeks. Then, for a metallic six months, there were no leaves on the trees and Harvard Yard was gray, cloudy, and cold. The fresh, white snow quickly became dirty as steel gray sheets of ice imprisoned the vegetation.

Harvard Museum of Natural History
Harvard Museum of Natural History

Coming from Stanford, I found that my mind adhered obstinately to sun, not snow; to palm and redwood, not maple and laurel; to colonnades, Romanesque sandstone, and tile roofs; not brick walks, Georgian terraces, and gables; to campus dormitory names like Serra, Escondido, and Madera, not Eliot, Winthrop, and Quincy. To this extent, my ability to be a part of Harvard was diminished before I ever saw the place.

I did, however, greatly enjoy many features of the surrounding city. Like the Telegraph Avenue neighborhood that I knew so well next to the UC Berkeley campus, only more so, Cambridge instructively exposed one to a metropolis, yet retained an amazing intellectual integrity of its own. It was not only the perfect base of operations for getting to know Boston. It was also, for certain values uniquely derived from its academic situation, a crossroads with few equals in the world. First there were the tourist attractions: Harvard and M.I.T.; Longfellow’s House; the Burial Ground and the Common; fashionable shops; expensive restaurants; and the postcard views of the Charles River. Merging with these was the world of pop culture: Bogie flicks at the Brattle Theatre; astrology bookshops; rock concerts on the Common; the mystical rite of buying a Roast Beef Special at Elsie’s coffee shop. Finally there was underground Cambridge — or, rather, the unveiled evidence of all those movements which were less tolerated elsewhere in society: shops displaying water pipes and strobe lights; salesmen hawking the Black Panther News; orange-robed men chanting Hare Krishna; girls in dark capes arguing with passersby about the virtues of the Black Mass; and, at Christmastime, the spectacle of all these phenomena competing with that very respectable institution, the Salvation Army Band. Seeing all these things cheek by jowl, I realized that my years in Cambridge were a time of incredible intellectual freedom. “I’m selling shirts at the Harvard Coop,” a friend said, “because it’s one place that will hire bearded poets.” I realized that the beards were hired partly because they were quaint, and, like Cambridge in general, deemed acceptable to the rest of society as long as they did not walk out of the intellectual playpen. But the beards were also tolerated because the rest of society knew it needed them. Out of Cambridge, in any given year, came an important part of the literature, art, science, and political opinion that formed the mood of the rest of America. Nearly every famous figure came to the place sooner or later. Norman Mailer, Erik Erikson, and John Fairbank were among the faces I remember noticing within one short span of time. The result was chance contact of the most educational sort. “You would not believe it,” an Israeli friend told me, “this afternon I went into the Idler Coffee House and did not come out until four hours later. I met Vladimir Dedjejer, Tito’s aide in the Yugoslav Resistance. He still carries a bullet in his head. After he had been telling me war stories for ten minutes, the whole place stopped to listen to us.”

Memorial Hall, Harvard
Memorial Hall, Harvard

To gain perspective about the east coast, I kept in touch with friends at Stanford. I was surprised how much my letters to them talked not only about academic matters, such as descriptions of Harvard professors and the interesting books I was reading, but also about the possible connections between learning and landscape. I recall one instance in particular, when I wrote a letter to my good friend Dan Endsley, the editor of the Stanford alumni magazine, and for whom, during my junior year, I had written some articles. I asked him if he would be interested in having me write an article on Frederick Law Olmsted’s nineteenth-century plan for the Stanford campus, the poetic feelings prompted by the hills behind the University, and what I called, with some pomposity, “the ecology of learning.” Dan wrote back a long letter saying he liked the idea even though my terminology was infelicitous. But he couldn’t risk commissioning the piece. “Some years ago,” he explained, “I began an article called ‘What is Happening to the Stanford Lands?’ It almost cost me my job.” Dan’s comments helped me to remember that my undergraduate institution was not a perfect place, either.

Beyond Cambridge, of course, there was greater Boston. From Cambridge, the subway ride to downtown Boston (on the MTA, made famous by the Kingston Trio song) took only eight minutes. As a result, Boston, too, was an important part of my experience. Perhaps I can best convey its effects on a Californian by describing what became one of my favorite pastimes, wandering in the city.

I had come to Boston to study for a Ph.D. in History. Meandering is a congenital love of historians. Some walk through graveyards; others traverse old battlefields. Some hike along historic trails. Some go aboard old ships or visit castles and cathedrals, and go off into side rooms by themselves to search out the spirits in the spaces. In Boston, historians walk the city’s streets. I really could not count the number of times I walked around Boston. I saw the tourist sites such as Paul Revere’s House and Bunker Hill Monument. I spent entire days in the rain walking through warehouse districts. I walked along the Charles River, and past the brownstone houses on Commonwealth Avenue. I walked next to the Harbor. I walked over freeways ramps where there were not even any sidewalks. I went in and out of bars and corner stores around Boston Garden before Celtics basketball games. I observed pigeons on the windows of old buildings. Around Haymarket Square, I observed the old wagons that still delivered meat and vegetables, and I took in the fetid smells. I trudged through snow and stood and watched twilights. No matter where I walked, I usually went alone. I had my share of friends. But I had concluded long ago that most people did not enjoy wandering around a city as much as I did. Even when I knew the friends would enjoy the experience for an hour or two, I did not bring them along. Being alone with my fantasies and unsorted feelings gave more pleasure than acting as a tour guide.

Boston Common (Credit: Phillip Capper)
Boston Common (Credit: Phillip Capper)

I started out one particular wandering by taking the MTA downtown and walking up to Beacon Hill. I planned to hunt for silversmith shops. My sister and I – in touch by letter – had decided to buy my parents a set of sterling silver portrait frames for their wedding anniversary. I thought Beacon Hill, historically known for silversmith shops, would be a good place to look. I found two old shops, but only after a surprisingly difficult search. At both, the elderly owners told me that handmade silver was much harder to come by than in the past. The costs of labor made prices too high to justify regular production of new items. Most available pieces were antiques, out of my price range.

I left Beacon Hill and walked across the Common and the Public Garden, which were unspeakably beautiful in their fall colors. Wet piles of orange and brown leaves cushioned my feet on the brick sidewalks. The old statues, gray, and white, and green, sent my mind into the past. As I walked next to the historic graveyard in the Public Garden, a cold wind came up. I pulled my heavy tweed topcoat more tightly around me and tucked my brown plaid scarf more securely under my chin. I walked from the Garden across the street into the Tremont business district, and down a few blocks to Shreve’s jewelers, one of Boston’s oldest and most famous firms. Here, after explaining my problem to a sales clerk, I was finally able to find what I needed – a fine set of sterling silver frames, used but not antique, better made than modern items, at a price I could afford. I was momentarily jarred out of my venerable Bostonian mood when the clerk started telling me how much she admired Ronald Reagan. But I recovered, put my coat and scarf back on, and politely went on my way, package under my arm. I took some time to window shop along the streets around Shreve’s.

Then I came upon a bookshop in the basement of one of the old brownstones. I went in and browsed. Eventually my eye came upon a history book I had been looking for. I paid for the book and left the shop, delighted that my day had become so productive. Down the street I found a coffee shop on the ground floor of an old office building from the 1920s. I stayed there for about an hour, reading parts of the books I had just purchased. Then, when I had read enough, I put the book under my arm with the silver frames, made my way back to the MTA station, and returned to Cambridge pleased that, in this instance and a few others, I was a Californian quite delighted to be spending some time in New England.

Fall in New England
Fall in New England


A year ago I made a return visit to Berkeley to attend a friend’s wedding. Having grown up in the city, I felt a rush of memories, including ones prompted by the stroll I took through Berkeley’s commercial center in the area of University Avenue and Shattuck Avenue. Walking there today you find a preponderance of boutiques and foreign restaurants and coffee bars catering to students from the nearby University of California campus. Most of these establishments have moved into storefronts that made up a very active business district when I was in high school in Berkeley in the 1950s. My walk through Berkeley’s commercial center as it is today brought back a flood of memories of the kind that, I’m sure, many Californians experience when they revisit neighborhoods that have undergone their version of the radical, continuing change that is so much a part of the state.

Berkeley looking west toward the Bay, with the tall buildings of the commercial shopping district in foreground
Berkeley looking west toward the Bay, with the tall buildings of the commercial shopping district in foreground

To have a full social life as a teenager in the 1950s usually required access to a car. That fact, in an indirect way, led me to become much better acquainted with downtown Berkeley. During the winter when I was sixteen years old and in the eleventh grade at Berkeley High School, I took the driver training course offered at the school and obtained my driver’s license. But I needed money to pay for personal liability insurance. My parents didn’t have enough to cover the full amount. My father offered to assume part of the cost if I could find a way to pay the remainder. I thought I might be able to earn what I needed by finding a job for the holiday shopping season in one of the stores in downtown Berkeley. Looking back, I find it interesting that I never considered searching anywhere else. For example, I could have looked for work at a factory or a lumberyard in the industrial area of Berkeley, down by the shore of the Bay, or I might have hunted in Albany along San Pablo Avenue, at one of the grocery stores or at the bowling alley. I must have concentrated on downtown Berkeley as a way to make more connections with the city I regarded as my community.

Corder Building, Shattuck Ave, Berkeley (Credit: Sanfranman59)
Corder Building, Shattuck Ave, Berkeley (Credit: Sanfranman59)

The search for work enlarged my understanding of cities. Each time that I went into a place of business and asked the first employee I met if there were any job openings, I was told to go to the back of the building and introduce myself to the manager. This was the first time I ever thought much about the fact that a store was not only its sales area but also the storage rooms in the rear, the Spartan room where the employees ate their lunch, the shabby hallway with the coat hooks and the thumping gray metal machine that punched the time cards, the semi clean bathrooms, the accountant’s offices where a pale skinned man sat at a desk covered with receipts, and the office where the manager presided at his desk, talking on the phone and gesturing to you that he’d be off the line in a moment. I went in and out of many stores: department stores, stationery stores, drug stores, insurance offices, music stores, men’s clothing stores, movie theatres, grocery stores, hardware stores, candy shops. Finally I found a job as stock boy at Taylor’s Leather Goods. This was the ultimate back room experience. Out in front, the store was spacious, brightly lit, festively decorated for the holidays, and filled with the pleasant chatter of prosperous customers who could afford to buy the shiny leather briefcases and finely tooled luggage that the establishment had been offering for seventy-five years. But where I worked, in the rear of the store, the space had a different character. The stock area consisted mostly of shelves where the inventory was kept. In the middle was a wooden table, lit by a few bare, hanging bulbs, where I was stationed. I unpacked items wanted for the floor, packed recently sold items for shipping, did gift wrapping, went out onto the floor from time to time to sweep and dust, and occasionally left the shop to run errands and make deliveries. At first I worked after school. Then during Christmas vacation I worked all day, sometimes twelve hours. As one day followed another, I noticed that, in contrast to the quiet of my area, sounds out on the sales floor became louder and louder, like an ocean roar, as the number of customers in the store increased and shopping season intensified. The holiday break from school began to feel like immersion in a machine. I had never viewed it in this way before.

Expensive luggage, worth repairing if necessary (Credit: Tanner Krolle)
Expensive luggage, worth repairing if necessary (Credit: Tanner Krolle)

Although I was in the back, I felt a strong sense of community at the store. I got to chat with interesting customers when I carried their packages to their cars. High school friends dropped in to say hello or join me for lunch. The salespeople enjoyed having me and asked me about myself and told me riotously funny stories about the customers. The owner, though brusque, was a courteous and fair man who took time to teach me things like how to work a cash register and how to monitor inventory. I also had the good fortune of being next to a full time companion. Near me, at another dimly lit table, surrounded by boxes and shelves, was the luggage repair area. This was a major source of income for the store, thanks to the skill and reputation of an odd character who proved to be a counterpoint to my search for ways to belong. He was known to everyone as Herman, the Trunk Man. That was how he introduced himself to me, my first day at work, as he suddenly emerged from behind a row of shelves and sat down on the stool at his worktable. He was about five and a half feet tall, with a stocky build. His hair was white and he was bald on the top. He wore rimless gold glasses and had a round, shiny face. He seemed like a slightly threatening version of Santa Claus. He wore a solid colored, blue gray sport shirt and old brown slacks. He seemed to be about fifty years old and he spoke in a tenor voice with a German accent. He picked up some tools from his worktable and began repairing one of the pieces of luggage that was in front of him. As he worked, with his eyes nearly always focused on the job, he struck up a conversation — the first of many we had during that holiday season.

On certain topics, Herman never volunteered information. I never quite knew where he came from, or what his family life had been, or exactly where he had learned how to repair luggage. I guessed that he was from the Midwest – maybe Chicago or Milwaukee – and had been brought up there by German-American immigrants. He seemed to have been married and then to have moved west after the death of his wife or a divorce. His major topics of conversation were gambling, drinking, smoking, sex, and gossip. It was the world of one of the magazines, the Police Gazette, that I peeked at from time to time at newsstands. He liked to smoke small cigars while he did his repair work. On one of the shelves near his table he kept a leather-covered flask of whiskey. From time to time he offered me a sip, which I accepted once or twice, although I didn’t like the taste. When he asked about me, he usually wanted to hear stories about the girls my friends and I knew. He was always looking for racy stories and was usually disappointed by the ones I came up with. But he did enjoy the dirty jokes I told him. High school students usually have a rich supply as a substitute for the sex they seldom experience. Herman also liked to talk about gorgeous movie stars. I concentrated on the ones that interested me, like Anita Ekberg and Gina Lollobrigida. Herman preferred the stars of earlier generations, like Claire Trevor and Joan Crawford. The one he kept coming back to was Clara Bow. He seemed to have been to every movie she ever made. Probably his sexual awakening had taken place during the early era of sound movies when she became famous. “She was known as the ‘it’ girl,” Herman advised me again and again, “and let me tell you, my boy, she did have ‘it.’” In his focus upon Clara Bow, Herman seemed to me to be trying to capture something – perhaps to achieve a higher degree of sexual adventure than he had attained, perhaps to recapture a relationship with some beautiful young girl who had disappeared long ago, perhaps to have lived a life filled with more big-city adventure than he had the courage or the unscrupulousness to make possible. I could tell that he wanted to wander but also knew that, for some reason, the best strategy was to stay put, spending most of his hours planted firmly on a stool in the back of a shop in the sedate downtown of a medium sized city.

Studio Building, Shattuck Ave, Berkeley (Credit: Sanfranman59)
Studio Building, Shattuck Ave, Berkeley (Credit: Sanfranman59)

Taylor’s Leather Goods was the place where I first worked in downtown Berkeley. My second downtown job came about a year later. It also presented me with a life story that was an indirect comment on my desire to belong. With my father away on his final tour of Navy sea duty, I thought I might be able, if I could get a job, to help my mother financially and get a head start on paying for college. I went back to downtown Berkeley and again walked the streets until I found work – for the second time — as a stock boy. This time I worked at Kaufmann’s Draperies. The owner, Julius Kaufmann, was a Jewish refugee. In the early 1930’s, he had owned a prosperous drapery shop in Vienna. When Hitler annexed Austria, Mr. Kaufmann took what he could of his personal fortune and fled with his wife to Cuba. In Havana, he opened a new shop and steered it to prosperity. In the process, he caught the eye of Fulgencio Batista, Cuba’s evil dictator. One day, as Mr. Kaufmann later related to me, Batista summoned Mr. Kaufmann to his palace and demanded all of his money. Batista gave Kaufmann a choice: Turn over the money willingly, making it easier for Batista to get to it, or die, along with his wife and new baby boy, in which case Batista would, after some inconvenience, find the money anyhow. Batista told Kaufmann that, if he cooperated, he would be allowed to fly with his family to the United States, where the U.S. authorities would, no doubt, take pity and allow him permanent residence.

Beautiful fabrics: Mr. Kaufmann's store  had thousands of them (Credit: Credit: MissMessie)
Beautiful fabrics: Mr. Kaufmann’s store had thousands of them (Credit: Credit: MissMessie)

Mr. Kaufmann and his family arrived in America shortly after the end of the Second World War. They were accepted and relocated to California, where, it was thought, they would find employment in the postwar economic boom. At first, however, Mr. Kaufmann could not get a job. No one wanted to hire a person with a German accent. Finally, the owner of a fabric store in Oakland gave him a chance. Mr. Kaufmann quickly became the top salesman. Then, with the help of friends, he obtained the financing to open his own establishment in Berkeley. By 1961, when I began working there, Kaufmann’s Draperies was the largest fabric and drapery store in Northern California.

Mr. Kaufmann was a complex man. He was highly intelligent and farsighted. He was a strong leader but also democratic in the sense that he would take off his suit coat and perform any job in the store when necessary. He was not averse to sweeping the sidewalk in front of the store or taking his turn at one of the big workbenches in the back, measuring out and cutting and sewing a large length of cloth. He was compassionate, as, for example, in making no-interest loans to employees in distress and allowing extra time off for emergencies. He was also a good father in some ways. His son, Walter, was a graduate of Boalt Law School at the University of California. But against all this Mr. Kaufmann had many weaknesses. His store was his domain. In his mannerisms, he was an Austrian martinet. He considered it his right to yell at employees, to berate them, to humiliate them in front of others, and to make cutting remarks. He did not encourage dialogue or tolerate disagreement.

I learned all of these things about Mr. Kaufmann gradually, and from my vantage point. As a high school student, not yet eighteen years old, with college still ahead of me, I did not have the training or the vocabulary to put what I was seeing into any theoretical framework. But I did know, from common sense and my high school history classes, that I was getting a very detailed picture of the life and sentiments of a man who had been driven out of the world he loved, and who needed very much to carry a part of that world, the world of Old Europe, with him.

University Avenue, where Mr. Kaufmann's shop was located, night view
University Avenue, where Mr. Kaufmann’s shop was located, night view

To maintain that sense of connection, Mr. Kaufmann observed a variety of rituals. Even on the hottest of days, he came to work in a three-piece wool suit. He was very formal with every employee, addressing almost everyone as Mr., Miss, or Mrs. Several times a month, he sent me across the street to the local tobacco shop to pick up the small German cigars he loved to smoke. He talked thoughtfully about the articles he read in the papers and about books. He and Mrs. Kaufmann regularly took in plays and concerts in Berkeley and San Francisco. He donated generously to charity and was an active member of local service clubs. He sought to be admired not only for his success in business, but also for the place he held culturally and socially in his city.

The most nervous I ever saw Mr. Kaufmann act was during the two weeks before the scheduled visit by members of the family who owned the largest department store in West Berlin. Mr. Kaufmann spoke with each of us individually to emphasize his concern that the visit would take place without incident. He ordered us to undertake a special cleaning and decoration of his entire store. He told us to be especially polite and diplomatic if any of the visiting Berliners happened to speak to us. The day the guests arrived, Mr. Kaufmann was wearing his best suit, silk tie, and cuff links. There was, however, something a bit sad about the actual visit. All four of the Berliners – two men and two women – had svelte bodies and wore the latest, rather colorful fashions from Europe. There was a modern, almost Italian look to them. Mr. Kaufmann, with his short, stocky body and his dark suit with the old fashioned cut, looked like he was having difficulty keeping up. And the visitors carried their bodies haughtily, as if to remind Mr. Kaufmann that they owned a vast department store while he was merely the keeper of a big shop. As I watched Mr. Kaufmann’s guests go through his store that afternoon, I hated them. Mr. Kaufmann may have been an autocrat, but he was also a decent and incredibly brave man who had suffered too much. He deserved more respect than his guests were giving him. And I was confident that, after he was gone from the world, many, many people would remember him with gratitude and admiration.

Building of Tupper and Reed piano store, one of the shops active on Shattuck Avenue in the 1950s, now an espresso bar (Credit: Almonroth)
Building of Tupper and Reed piano store, one of the shops active on Shattuck Avenue in the 1950s, now an espresso bar (Credit: Almonroth)



In the 1970s, after growing up in California and moving to the East Coast, I happened to attend a revival showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s great film North By Northwest (1959). By this time I knew more about the terrain along the Atlantic Coast than I had known when I first saw Hitchcock’s film in the 1950s. Early in the movie, there is a scene in which Cary Grant nearly loses his life while driving drunk, supposedly along the coast of Long Island. Viewing the film for the second time, I suddenly realized that the winding, precipitous road along which Cary Grant was careening could not be anywhere near Long Island, because all the seacoast in that area is flat or nearly so. But, I realized, the topography did look a lot like California, which is in fact where the scene was filmed.


Ever since that time, I have played a mental game of noting and remembering film and TV scenes that are not supposed to take place in California but in fact do.

Many uses of California topography as substitutes for someplace else are quite convincing. In Rebecca (1940), a story set in England, Hitchcock uses rocky cliffs along the California coast for the climactic scene in which the heroine is nearly killed by her dishonest lover. In North By Northwest, there is a chase scene, one of the most famous in all of cinema, in which Cary Grant is buzzed repeatedly in an Illinois cornfield by a crop-dusting airplane. The scene was actually filmed on a flat farm field north of Hollywood and was made to look very convincingly like Illinois by Hitchcock’s amazing technicians.

In the thrilling Warner Bros. film version of Robin Hood (1938), the sequins on Errol Flynn’s costume may have become a bit suspect with the passage of time, but the dense clusters of California oak trees and the streams that run through them serve very well as Sherwood Forest even if the soil is drier than it would be in England.

We can witness the same degree of success in the great adventure film Gunga Din (1939), which depicts the nineteenth-century exploits of three British soldiers who battle against a murderous cult on the Northwest Frontier of India. To provide atmosphere and situate the story, the film makes excellent use of locales such as a British frontier fort and rock-bordered trails along which the British soldiers and their bagpipers must march. Our belief that we are in India is very strong. But the film was actually shot entirely in areas north and east of Hollywood that bear a powerful resemblance to northern India.

Area in the hills near Malibu used as one of the trails in Gunga Din (Credit: Bobak)
Area in the hills near Malibu used as one of the trails in Gunga Din (Credit: Bobak)

Among television shows, an example of very convincing use of California locales was Mission Impossible (aired 1966-1973). It was about an elite group of intelligence operatives who carried out difficult takedowns of Cold War-style tyrants and their agents in countries that closely resembled actual states in Latin America and Central Europe. All of the episodes were said to take place in those countries but the episodes were filmed entirely in Los Angeles and environs. When the dictator was Latin American, choice of locales was easy, given California’s heritage of Spanish architecture. But even in more difficult cases the carefully chosen scenery was very convincing. In one episode, for example, there was a foot chase in and out of a frightening, shadowy but artistically curved set of archways that were supposed to be somewhere in Eastern Europe but might be recognizable by a few viewers as exactly what they were: the concrete arch supports under the famous highway bridge in Pasadena that crosses the arroyo near the Rose Bowl stadium. An equally convincing backdrop in another episode was the front view of an ornate building said to be the palace of a Central European dictator. It was the front of Glendale City Hall.

Martin Landau in Mission Impossible (not a real jungle)
Martin Landau in Mission Impossible (not a real jungle)

Another example of successful use of local terrain in television was M.A.S.H. (aired 1972-1983), one of the most popular and honored TV series ever produced. The story takes place at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. All the settings bear a very believable resemblance to that locale even though they were filmed in carefully selected topography outside Hollywood.

M.A.S.H. filming site in California with rusted ambulance (Credit: Magnus Manske)
M.A.S.H. filming site in California with rusted ambulance (Credit: Magnus Manske)

The practice of using California to stand for someplace else in films and TV programs is not, in principle, anything that should bother us. After all, one of the reasons the film industry first concentrated in Hollywood, in addition to the sunny climate, was the great variety of terrain that could be accessed easily and lessen the need for expensive construction of indoor sets.

But it is still a good idea to be alert for sloppy uses of the Golden State as background. In the TV series Dukes of Hazzard (aired 1979-1985), the action is supposed to take place in the Deep South, but the settings for the numerous car chases are much too obviously located in California. Similarly, in the currently- running and often very well written TV police series Battle Creek, the action is supposed to be occurring in a small city in Michigan, but the sunlight and the vegetation and the architectural styles of the houses are unmistakably in California. Egregious contrasts of this kind diminish our ability to enjoy what we are watching. In such cases it is a good practice to remember that drama is, among other things, manipulation.


San Francisco Earthquake 1906
San Francisco Earthquake 1906

In the May 3, 2015, issue of the New York Times, I ran across a long article entitled “The End of California?” The piece was all about the widespread shortage of water now presenting severe problems for the Golden State, and its analysis was optimistic. Serious reorientation would be necessary, the author emphasized. For example, California would need to adopt the kinds of water regulation and conservation already in effect in Australia and Israel and would have to shift away from water-wasting crops like almonds and cotton and rice. But the state’s enormous capacity for re-invention would carry it through.

And yet, in spite of his balanced approach, the author of the Times article felt a need to address the sense of glee evident among many observers of California’s problems. In a sub-headline, the article stated, “Ingenuity created an Eden, and ingenuity will save it, despite those who imagine the state is doomed.” And the author predicted that his analysis would be “disappointing to those with schadenfreude for the nearly 39 million people living in year-round sunshine.”

The Times article reminded me that obsession with the idea of possible Apocalypse in California is very old and has been evident both among outside observers and residents. Emotional tension between the ideal and the real was already implied at the time of the arrival of Spanish explorers, who named the region of California after a mythological queen Califah who would preside over a utopian realm. A similar tension was built into the Gold Rush of 1849 and the rapid spread of agriculture that followed it. Some people discovered gold but many did not. The land brought bounty to many farmers, ranchers and loggers but frustrated the hopes of others. In 1906, the San Francisco Earthquake fixed the notion of California’s impermanence in the minds of millions, not only within the state but also around the world. Thoughts about disaster in California are by no means unrealistic. The state contains topographic features that remind one of great change in past geologic eras, like the extinct volcanoes of Mt. Diablo near San Francisco Bay and Mt. Shasta in the north.

Mt. Shasta and Tule Lake
Mt. Shasta and Tule Lake

Everyone knows about the San Andreas Fault and its branches that extend for hundreds of miles.

Aerial view of the Central California portion of the San Andreas Fault
Aerial view of the Central California portion of the San Andreas Fault

Longtime residents of California are familiar with the climactic alternation, approximately a decade long, between heavy rain and flooding on the one hand and dryness that creates drought on the other. Failure to notice the realities of nature is nearly impossible.

Drought at Stanislaus River, 2009
Drought at Stanislaus River, 2009

The problem is that millions of people try very hard not to notice them. That is the source of all the social commentary. In Biblical terms, willful ignorance is a sin. In scientific terms, failure to respect natural laws is very unwise. In economic terms, risk based upon faulty analysis is folly. Numerous commentators have addressed California’s failures to respect these truths. In the Biblical category, criticism usually starts from the fact that California does, indeed, look and feel a lot like the landscape of the Bible. It has large arid regions and beautifully clear skies and scenic mountains in the distance. It has pines and cedar trees. One can grow figs and dates and grapes. Palm trees do very well. But, as critics point out, California is also Biblical in less friendly ways. It is subject to drought and plagues of insects. Its deserts are purgatorial. The state may resemble Eden. But Eden contains dangers. It is not Heaven. Moral awareness is required. Forgetting this fact leads to trouble.

Oakland Freeway collapse, Loma Prieta Earthquake 1984
Oakland Freeway collapse, Loma Prieta Earthquake 1984
Collapse of Bay Bridge section, Loma Prieta Earthquake 1984
Collapse of Bay Bridge section, Loma Prieta Earthquake 1984

One of the writers who issued such warnings was Nathaniel West, in his novel The Day of the Locust (1939), a haunting castigation of the sinful ways of Hollywood during the boom years of the movie industry. The book ends with an earthquake and building collapses that recalls the destruction of the Temple in Samson’s time. The title of the novel is self-evidently a use by the author of a Biblical allusion, intended to warn all who presume to violate God’s laws.

Santa Barbara Oil Spill 1969
Santa Barbara Oil Spill 1969

Probably the most famous author to have criticized California through Biblical allusions is Joan Didion. In all of her works, including Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968) and the autobiographical Where I Was From (2003), Didion draws upon her Episcopalian sensibility to paint a picture of her home state as a place of great beauty and creativity harmed by its lack of a moral center of focus and failure to take the long view. She is very interested in symbols of impermanence, such as the stage sets on Hollywood film lots and the flimsily constructed beach houses along the Pacific shore, which suggest that California’s achievements are all temporary. In Where I Was From, Didion goes so far as to declare that the effort to achieve a “California Dream” turns out to have been disturbingly misguided.

Monitoring the Medfly Epidemic in California fruit orchards, 1989
Monitoring the Medfly Epidemic in California fruit orchards, 1989

Criticisms of California from the scientific point of view have also been numerous. One of the most powerful was The Destruction of California (1965), by the forestry biologist Raymond Dasmann. The author wrote at a time when California and the United States were emerging from the over-emphasis upon material values and industrial expansion that had reached its height in the late 1950s. Dasmann provided a detailed catalogue of the ways in which Californians were squandering the state’s natural bounty, as they cleared forests, burned grass cover, allowed sheep to overgraze, eroded the soil, failed to regulate mining, turned redwood forests over to lumbermen, and failed to plan for proper zoning of urban areas that were growing rapidly due to large influxes of new residents.

Dasmann’s catalogue sounds very familiar today, almost trite, but that is because the problems he identified have only been partially addressed. His book was widely read at time of publication. Indeed, the fact that Dasmann’s warnings were heeded at least partially is one of the reasons that California’s problems of growth have not been worse.

A famous example of California criticism from the economic point of view is the work of the great journalist and historian Carey McWilliams (1905-1980), author of numerous works including Southern California: An Island on the Land (1946), California: The Great Exception (1949), and hundreds of articles and essays, many of which are collected in Fool’s Paradise: A California Reader (2001).

National Park Service (NPS) fire crew enters the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias to establish defensible space protecting the big trees if the Rim fire advances. The Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest near in California began on Aug. 17, 2013 and is under investigation. The fire has consumed approximately 149, 780 acres and is 15% contained. U.S. Forest Service photo.
National Park Service (NPS) fire crew enters the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias to establish defensible space protecting the big trees during the fire of 2013.

McWilliams wrote informatively and powerfully about many things, including the beauty of California’s landscape and architecture, the extreme contrasts between dark and light in its literature, the intrigues of its politics, and tensions between democratic openness and race prejudice. But his comments on the fundamental flaws in the state’s economic structure may be his most enlightening contribution. In McWilliams’ view, California’s economy was a prime example of exploitative oligarchy. Instead of acting responsibly, its elite aggrandized wealth and did very little to improve the conditions of the state’s population as a whole.

For McWilliams, the prime example of the pattern was agriculture, which he examined relentlessly in his great work Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California (1939), one of the earliest studies to provide extensive documentation of the ways that underpaid, ill-housed ethnic laborers, Hispanics especially, were being used as the basis for a network of latifundia based on low wages, subsidized supplies of water, and exhaustion of the soil. McWilliams warned that such a society, divided evermore extremely between masses and a small wealthy class at the top, would eventually explode. Disillusioned with his home state, McWilliams left California after the Second World War to pursue a highly successful career in journalism in Washington DC, where he observed many of the same economic patterns he had noticed in his home state. At the time of his departure McWilliams offered negative observations about California that were both broad in their vision and also petty; he noted, for example, that irrigated civilizations all come to an end, and that all the promotional advertising about California fails to acknowledge that the state is full of fleas.

Fires burning in San Diego County  in 2014 as seen from the harbor
Fires burning in San Diego County in 2014 as seen from the harbor

Calling attention to California’s fragility is vitally important. But so is attention to two other characteristics. One is the fact of long-term endurance that is part of the state’s inheritance. Anyone who has toured Big Sur or the Redwoods can see that many of the best features of California are as old as time. The rocks along the shore may slowly erode, and a tree or two may die after a thousand years, but for human needs, certain features of the state’s landscape offer more than enough permanence.

The other feature of California life that should not be ignored is its incredible adaptability. In the May 17, 2015, issue of the New York Times there are two articles exemplifying the kinds of news stories about California’s inventiveness that appear all the time. One of the articles describes increasing national interest in the experience of hiking the Pacific Trail, “probably America’s greatest hiking trail,” which stretches 2,650 miles from the desert border of California in the south all the way to the Canadian border, winding through cactus and redwoods, crossing rivers and following the edges of mountains, presenting hikers with wildlife ranging from bears to rattlesnakes to mountain lions to soaring birds. The Trail offers serenity and the chance to be alone if one wishes, but also democracy and opportunities for meeting people of all backgrounds in groups that form spontaneously along the way, with hikers sharing their diverse impressions and forming new friendships. The Times article argues that the growing popularity of the Trail shows how California continues to be a leader in finding ways to learn from and enjoy Nature, for example in the recent institution of a permit process that limits new thru-hikers to no more than 50 per day, and the customs that have formed regarding such activities as sharing scarce water and making certain that no trash is left behind.

The other exemplary story in the May 17 issue of the Times, given the top spot in the paper as the headline item in the upper right hand corner of page one, is a lengthy comparison of California as it was in the 1950s under Governor Pat Brown, and as it is today under his son Jerry Brown. Brown, Sr., had to craft ways of serving a state challenged by enormous population growth and post-World War Two desires for abundance. Brown, Jr., on the other hand, sees his job as managing the consequences of the earlier era, which he is doing by leading statewide discussions of tradeoffs regarding the future and by enforcing rationing and limited budgets, but also by continuing to champion selected large projects such as a high-speed train route between San Francisco and Los Angeles and construction of two large underground pipelines that will carry water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the south of the state. This kind of combining old and new is likely to be California’s way of moving toward a new future.  



During his lifetime (1899-1957), Humphrey Bogart appeared in 75 feature films. In their locales, the films span the globe, from the Caribbean (To Have and Have Not) to the Mediterranean (Beat the Devil) to China (Satan Never Sleeps) to Mexico (Treasure of the Sierra Madre) to the Congo (The African Queen). Six of the films take place wholly in California. It is interesting to ask whether these films have anything in common that relates to the state.

The answer, in brief, is that the California films all use the backdrop of the state as a device to intensify portrayal of a character type that Bogart played often during his career, one that seemed to have almost infinite appeal to his fans. In his many years as an actor, Bogart played many kinds of characters, ranging from a menacing tough in gangster films to a courageous priest to a hardscrabble riverboat captain to a gold-crazed prospector. But the character type he seemed to play most often was that of the hero who discovers he has become entangled in surprisingly difficult circumstances and must look deeply within himself to find the qualities necessary to resolve the situation. This is certainly the pattern visible in the films that take place in California, all of which use selected aspects of the state (without any attempt to make general comments about the state as a whole) to intensify the films’ explorations of their recurring kind of hero. In theory, many locales in addition to California could have been chosen for the purpose. But locales in California were near at hand and the ones chosen were a very good fit.

Bogart’s first California-based film was San Quentin (1937), which appeared during the years when he was making the transition from Broadway to Hollywood and was not yet a major star. Bogart plays “Red” Kennedy, the brother of a San Francisco nightclub singer. Bogart is involved in a prison escape, is tracked down and shot by police, and makes it back to the prison gates where he dies. The film is exciting and the performances by all the key players are serviceable. But the fact that action takes place in San Francisco and Marin County is mostly a matter of character delineation, not any deep exploration of sense of place. It is convenient for the plot to have the prison location be so near to the big city environment that supplies urban grit and a maze of streets. By this means, the writers can use place to heighten the sense that the Bogart character is being gradually trapped.

Sierra Nevada Mountains
Sierra Nevada Mountains

Bogart’s next California film, High Sierra (1941), is tied to California more specifically. A convict named Roy Earle, played by Bogart, is released from prison but then pressured by former criminal associates into assisting with a robbery at a resort near Palm Springs. Earle struggles to find a way to avoid being ensnared in the robbery but finds he cannot do so, even after various well-meaning residents in the area try to help him. Eventually Earle steals a car and flees to the Sierra Nevada Mountains in hope of escaping the police who are after him. At this point, print and radio reporters join in the hunt, dubbing the fugitive “Mad Dog” Earle and gleefully describing the way he is shot to death by a police sniper. The film ends with the strong suggestion that Earle was a good man who tried to elude fate but could not. The film’s images of the mountains where Earle dies are powerful symbols of fate and also challenge audiences to think about the story they have been told.

Bogart as Sam Spade, with Mary Astor
Bogart as Sam Spade, with Mary Astor

The Maltese Falcon (1941), released shortly after High Sierra, takes a more paradoxical route. The San Francisco private eye Sam Spade, played by Bogart, is hired by a lower-class temptress to track down a rare work of art. At first Spade thinks the case will be easy to handle, but then when his partner Miles Archer is suddenly shot to death Spade begins to realize that he is becoming involved in very complicated matters and is not only the hunter but now also the hunted. Spade has to navigate past obstacles laid down by the police, exotic charlatans from the Middle East, and the temptress who first hired him before he can finally solve the mystery and extricate himself from it. And in this instance the California locale is central. It is difficult to imagine any setting better suited to symbolize the hero’s challenges than foggy, fishy, shadowy, maze-filled San Francisco.


Much the same can be said of The Big Sleep (1946). Now the action is in Southern California. The story begins in Pasadena where the private eye Philip Marlowe makes his way to a mansion owned by a withered millionaire. Sitting in a wheelchair in a steamy room full of tropical flowers, the rich man asks Marlowe to find one of his daughters, who has disappeared. The Pasadena location and the menacing, artificially sustained plant life perfectly convey the decadence and complexity that are parts of the world of Southern California; and they foreshadow the ways in which Marlowe, like Sam Spade, will begin his journey as hunter but soon suspect that he is also being hunted as he is drawn further into the complexities of his case. Marlowe’s investigation leads him into conflicts with the police, a love affair with the missing woman’s older sister, a shootout with gamblers, and the discovery of a pornography racket before the puzzle is finally solved. All along the way, the LA-area settings add to the force of the story, even when some of them, like the scene involving the bookstore early in the film, are obviously indoor sets unlike any commercial street locales in Pasadena.

Dark Passage
Dark Passage

Dark Passage (1947) takes Bogart back to the Bay Area where the story again begins with an escape from San Quentin, this time with extensive and very effective use of outdoor photography, as the hero scurries up and down hillsides near the prison to elude police and then hops a ride across the Golden Gate Bridge into the city. Bogart has been wrongfully convicted of killing his wife and has made his way into San Francisco to find the real murderer. To disguise himself he illegally undergoes plastic surgery that alters his face. A long section in the middle of the film records his housebound existence and near blindness as he recovers from the surgery, masterfully conveying his sense of drift as he tries to understand the events that led to his imprisonment. Then, healed and with bandages removed, he determines who the killer of his wife is and tracks the man to a plot of land under the Golden Gate Bridge, where he kills him. But, having been temporarily the hunter, the hero realizes that he is still being hunted by the police, and so as the film concludes he escapes to Mexico and the start of a new existence.


The last of Bogart’s films to be set in California is In A Lonely Place (1950). The story is set in Los Angeles and concerns an embittered, once very successful screenwriter who is battling alcoholism. When he becomes a major suspect in a murder case, the writer cannot figure out what to do. But, differently from the earlier California films, this time the Bogart character finds his way out of his maze with almost no resort to physical action. The love of a friend, movingly played by Gloria Grahame, and extensive conversation are the major tools the hero uses to resolve his dilemma. And the Los Angeles setting fits well with the story. The hero’s contemplative response to his challenge seems to transcend the surface-oriented, unreflective behavior that is often associated with Hollywood.

It is difficult to know whether the pattern visible in Bogart’s California films was intentional on his part or due to something else. Producers, directors and writers all had a hand in crafting the films in which Bogart appeared. They may have been the ones who decided that selected aspects of California life and terrain were the ones most useful for exploration of a character type that interested them. But Bogart did agree to act in the productions and the intensity of his performances showed that the character type and the California situations in which he was placed were of great interest to him. In any case, California is the setting of several of his best films.



Most Californians will tell you that they have moved around quite a bit. Mobility is one of the defining features of the state, and it affects attitudes toward lots of things. This is a post about just such a collection of feelings.

In 1953, when I was ten years old, I moved with my mother and father and my seven year old sister from an apartment in El Cerrito, on the east side of San Francisco Bay, to a small house that my parents found, in nearby Albany. At the time my father was stationed at the Navy base on Treasure Island in the middle of the Bay. As a Navy family, we moved around quite a bit. In this case, as often happened, we moved not because we had to but because my parents were in search of a better place. The rent for the house was only a bit higher than the cost for the apartment, and the house was rather attractive and in a neighborhood full of children, which ensured lots of playmates for summer, which had just begun.

Albany looking west from Albany Hill
Albany looking east from Albany Hill and the bay

The new house was a single story bungalow with a large front porch, exterior walls made of coffee colored stucco, and wooden roof beams and window frames painted chocolate brown. The front yard had a small lawn and flowers. There were hedges along each side of the house, and large honeysuckle bushes that gave off an incredible fragrance during both the day and the warm nights. The house had a large backyard with a lawn, bushes, flowers, and several big trees. A driveway led along one side from the street to an old, wooden, one-car garage that stood separately in a far corner of the backyard. The garage was full of junk and looked like it had not been used in many years.

California bungalows
California bungalows

At the back of the backyard, partly overgrown by bushes, there was a gray, wooden fence with a swinging gate that opened onto a wide, asphalt-covered walkway that extended, straight, for several hundred feet, parallel to the fences and bushes of all the backyards of the other houses. On the other side of the walkway, there were two tennis courts and, then, further along, the grassy playing fields of a large park that the city of Albany maintained for the neighborhood.

Typical East Bay park
Typical East Bay park

Because we arrived in our new house in June, just after the schools had closed for the summer, the neighborhood was full of children all day long. Along our street, and in the nearby park, my sister and I found it unusually easy to meet new playmates. We spent entire days playing Hide and Seek, Kick the Can, War, and Red Rover Come Over. The street was not heavily traveled. We could play baseball and kickball there. At night we often went to each other’s houses for dinner, then read each other’s comic books, traded baseball cards, or played each other’s board games. Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders, and Sorry were our favorites.


Shortly after we moved to the bungalow in Albany, my mother and father both took on part-time jobs to increase the family income. My mother became a part-time secretary at a truck-manufacturing firm located in the industrial area of Berkeley down near the Bayshore Highway. She was home most afternoons to take care of my sister and me. When she wasn’t home, the families in the neighborhood watched out for us. My father was out of the house each weekday, commuting to the Navy base on Treasure Island, where he was assigned to a small ship that was making sonar maps of the bottom of the Bay and the ocean floor just beyond the Golden Gate. On most days, the ship remained in port and there was little to do. The Captain advised my father to use the spare time for naps on board and to help our family by getting an evening job. My father found work at a large grocery store called Park and Shop, a few miles from our house.

With the extra money they were earning, my parents were able to buy some things we all wanted. My sister got new toys and clothes. For my birthday I received a boy’s sized desk. My mother purchased a new table for our dining room, made of pink wrought iron with a glass top. My father got a car – a used, dark blue, 1950, two-door Ford convertible with a white canvas top. For all of us, there was a new television set. Looking back, I now find it interesting how much these purchases expressed the twin poles of my family’s values. On the one hand, we were striving to be settled. The desk, for example, helped me to feel focused, to have a space of my own in the bedroom I shared with my sister. On the other hand, we were eager to be connected to a larger world. The car, in particular, helped us to be out and about. We went out for dinner more often. We made more visits to our relatives. On pleasant summer evenings, we took spins around the neighborhood. We went to drive-in movies and to drive-in restaurants like Mel’s and the places that were the precursors to McDonald’s, where you could buy a hamburger sandwich for nineteen cents.

At home, I was not feeling secure. I had to listen to my parents argue. Their busy routines – my father holding two jobs, and my mother holding a part-time job and trying to manage the household at the same time — tired both of them and put them on edge. My sister and I had to put up with the bickering and find countervailing equanimity outside the house.

I discovered that the most efficient way to cheer myself up was to go through the gate in our backyard and down the walkway between the bushes and the tennis courts to the park.

For small children, the park had swings and roller skating or kickball or four square or marbles. Next to that were two sandy areas with poles rigged for tetherball. There was also a large grassy field where we could play football and baseball.


The park included a small building next to the play field, where you could borrow sports equipment, and where two recreation directors were on duty to keep order. There was a Ping Pong table inside where local teenagers liked to hang out.

Most of the teenagers accommodated my friends and me, but one of them did not. When he appeared, things changed in a fundamental way. His name was Eddie. He must have been around fourteen years old — too old to pal around with boys of my age, but too young to be accepted by the older teenagers. And he probably had not been able to find a circle of friends at any other place, or else he would not have ended up in our park exactly when he did. Eddie was a bully. He took pleasure in intruding into our football and baseball games and punching us when we didn’t run the plays exactly as he ordered. If we asked the park directors to intervene, he waited for us at the edge of the park and beat us up, one by one, when we were walking home. If we simply stopped our game and boycotted him, by going from the field into the building with the Ping Pong table, then he came in and stared sullenly. The older teenagers noticed all this but felt no obligation to come to our aid. Our parents, likewise, kept on the edge of things. “You work it out,” my mother and father told me one evening at the dinner table when I brought up the problem of Eddie. Their view seemed to be that, as long as there was no blood or broken bones, then the appearance of Eddie was a minor matter and might even be instructional.

Thrown back upon our own resources, my friends and I did what boys of our age would have been expected to do. We gathered together, one afternoon, in a grove of trees at a far corner of the park and held a secret meeting, during which we swore a blood oath to protect each other. We developed a strategy of defense that seemed to us to be infinitely clever. Our plan was two-pronged. First, we would station lookouts at each end of the park, each sentinel ready to run back to and alert the rest of us that Eddie had been sighted and was drawing near. Then, as part two of our plan, we would build a secret hideout, a fort, to which we could retreat, but from which we could also peek into the park to keep track of Eddie and re-emerge once he could not find anyone to bully and was gone.

As the site for our fort, we selected an area near the tennis courts where there were dense clusters of low-lying juniper bushes. Beneath two of the bigger bushes that were very close together, we began digging a hole that would, we planned, eventually be about three feet deep and about five feet across on each side.

We agreed upon a work schedule, and used only broken bits of branches or our bare hands. I am not quite sure why we decided not to use other tools. I do recall that we told ourselves that secrecy might be compromised if we borrowed anything from our parents. Probably, though, we liked the feeling of heroism that came from digging primitively.

Our strategy worked well for the first few weeks. We coordinated our play at the park. We proved to be skilled lookouts. We took turns digging and rotated our times under the juniper bushes in an orderly, cooperative manner. Even with only a little bit of the hole completed, we were able to hide from Eddie and leave him feeling so bored that he eventually drifted away and came into our world only now and then, for example when we were looking at toy soldiers we were hoping to buy at the local toy store or going to the movies with our parents.

The thing that continued to irk us, however, was the fact that our fort was not completed. As the threat of Eddie subsided, we became careless about arriving and leaving the park at the same time and we often neglected to take our turns at digging and just played. Then, too, there were days when it rained and none of us came to the park, and entire weeks when some of us were away on summer trips with our families. Day followed day, the summer vacation was soon at an end, school was about to begin, and our fort was only half completed.

To decide what to do next, we held another secret meeting in the grove of trees at the corner of the park. We discovered that our opinions were divided. A majority said we should just forget the whole thing, and declared that their decision was final. But about four of us were determined to continue. I think, as I look back, that some kind of fundamental dichotomy in human character must have been showing itself. One group was saying cut your losses, get on to other matters, don’t waste time on a project that is no longer needed. The other group was saying that we shouldn’t run away from our commitments, that flight can become a bad habit, that faithfulness is a principle to be honored, that it is painful to start building something and then walk away before the job is done.

I am certain that, for each of us that day at the second secret meeting, there were personal values, even as young as we were, leading each of us to the choice we made. I will never know what influences operated in the minds of those who were with me in their decision. But I do know, as I look back, what was causing me to act as I did. My family was getting ready to move once again. My parents had found an attractive apartment a few miles away, across the city border in Berkeley. In a few weeks, I would be in a new home, in a new neighborhood, again going to a new school, spending too many evenings at home listening to my parents argue. There was no feeling of permanence in any of these developments, and the fact that I could not counteract them made me feel powerless. I knew that my parents loved me. But I was facing one of those times in my young life when I needed more stability than I was getting. And now, presented by the oddest of coincidences, was the chance to affirm the presence of stability, both symbolically and materially, by completing, with sticks and my bare hands, the construction of a primitive, secret fort.

Over the next several weeks, each day after school, my three friends and I faithfully met at the juniper bushes on the edge of the park and completed our project — they for their reasons and I for mine. Then, one day when the fort was completed, we shook each other’s dirty hands and said goodbye and went our separate ways and left our fort behind to wash itself into the earth in the coming rains.




At a time when drought is leading to water restrictions for many areas of California, it may be useful to look back at the life of a writer who had many wise things to say about water and the lack of it.

Mary Austin
Mary Austin

Mary Hunter Austin (1868-1934) grew up in Illinois and at age 10 moved to the area of the San Joaquin Valley near the desert to homestead with her family. She eventually became a schoolteacher and met and married Stafford Austin. He proved to be an unreliable husband who moved from job to job, more interested in pursuing ill-conceived schemes such as trying to make money through gold mining and marketing development of irrigation. The two finally separated. To help support herself and their child, who suffered from severe birth defects, Mary Austin began writing sketches about the region where she lived for Overland Monthly Magazine, based in San Francisco, and Land of Sunshine, the influential magazine based in Los Angeles that focused on the Southwest.

Mary Austin's home during her years in the San Joaquin  area
Mary Austin’s home during her years in the San Joaquin area

Austin’s writings soon attracted the interest of East Coast editors who featured her work in publications like the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Magazine. In 1904 she published The Basket Woman, an anthology of tales about the Paiutes; in 1905, Isidro, a novel about California during the Mexican period; and in 1906 a long, artistic essay on sheepherding in the Southwest entitled The Flock. These writings brought her national attention at a time when regionalist authors everywhere in the United States were responding to demand for material that offered a mental and emotional counter-balance to the pressures of rapid urbanization and industrialization.

By 1910 Austin was finding life in the San Joaquin Valley area confining, and moved to San Francisco, and later to the colony of bohemian writers and artists that had established itself at Carmel.   Starting in 1912 she traveled frequently between Carmel and New York City and enlarged the range of her writings, including addressing issues related to socialism and women’s rights. After travel to Europe, she finally settled in Santa Fe where she spent the remainder of her life.

Members of the Carmel bohemian colony, on the beach, with Mary Austin and Jack London in the middle of the group at upper right
Members of the Carmel bohemian colony, on the beach, with Mary Austin and Jack London in the middle of the group at upper right

Although Austin ranged widely in her choice of topics, her chief concern throughout her life was to explore the themes of simplicity and attention to the primitive that she had first addressed while in the San Joaquin Valley region. In The Arrow Maker (1911), she wrote at length about the nation’s ill treatment of Native Americans. In 1923, in The American Rhythm, and in 1928, in Children Sing in the Far West, she sought to increase national appreciation for Native American songs. Her last work, Earth Horizon (1932) was an autobiographical exploration of the belief she developed over a lifetime, that happiness and strength were to be found in mystical oneness with the land and respect for it following the Native American example.

While all of Austin’s works are worth reading, her monument is The Land of Little Rain, published in 1903 while she was still living in the San Joaquin region. It is considered a minor classic of American literature and nature writing. The book garnered praise from critics like Carl van Doren and Van Wyck Brooks, and was reprinted many times, with illustrations and photographs by such noted artists as Walter Feller and Ansel Adams.

 The Land of Little Rain is organized as a group of short stories and essays describing the environment and people of the Southwest. All the sketches treat the themes of respect for the land and the importance of making an effort to understand the cultures that have emerged in response to the local features of the land.

Austin describes the intense heat, extreme aridity and sudden appearance of painful windstorms that are defining features of the region. But, she argues, the conditions are worth enduring because they force people to discover their full capacities and help them into a sense of mystical unity with nature that is not always achievable in less harsh environments.

Austin goes to great lengths to avoid sentimentality and illusion. She acknowledges the cruelties that inhabitants of the desert, both animal and human, exert upon each other. But she also sees many forms of cooperation: for example, the ways in which people share food and scarce water resources, and the ways in which desert animals of different species leave trail marks to guide each other to water, even when some of the same species may later kill each other for food.

Austin describes Native American culture respectfully, but has no patience for tribal members who damage plant life and leave rubbish at their campsites. She urges readers to understand the courage and culture of the shepherds who live in the mountains bordering the desert, but condemns those shepherds who allow their animals to graze too long at the same spot and thus denude the land.

At times Austin uses local details to judge those who live far away, for example when she criticizes members of the medical profession, based for the most part in cities, for losing touch with the value of natural remedies. More generally, she argues that urban life makes it hard for people to learn all that nature can teach. And she always reminds the reader to see beauty in the arid.

Sheep in the Owens Valley, in the area of Mary Austin's home, photographed by Ansel Adams
Sheep in the Owens Valley, in the area of Mary Austin’s home, photographed by Ansel Adams

The Land of Little Rain is vulnerable to many criticisms. It does not acknowledge the many good features of urban life, such as the opportunity it creates for cultural variety, stimulation of learning, and delivery of medical care based on large-scale research. Nor does the book acknowledge the values of industrialization – as, for example, the availability of the trains on which Austin traveled and the steamship that took her to and from Europe. And of course there is the irony that Austin chose to leave, physically at least, the desert region where she had spent her early days.

But such criticisms, even though valid, are beside the point. Austin looked without sentimentality at nature in several of its harshest forms, and at people who developed the ingenuity to live meaningfully in such conditions, usually without wasting or harming the limited resources that were available. The Land of Little Rain will continue to be read because it is just as timely today as it was in Mary Austin’s era.

An excellent source of additional detail is the book by Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson, Mary Austin and the American West (2008).



Route 66 in San Bernardino County, California, with Roy’s Cafe and Motel, looking east

It occurred to me a few years ago that even though I have visited hundreds of places all over California and lived in quite a few, I have not set foot in most of the parts of the state where I have been.

This is because of an invention called the automobile. Before the 1920s, I would guess, most people in California would not have said they had traveled widely in the state. Land travel in those days was likely to be on horseback or by horse drawn wagon or buggy. Trains were reserved for the relatively few who could afford them. Cities had streetcars and limited bus services.

Then after the First World War came a transportation revolution. Detroit transferred a large part of its expanded manufacturing capacity to auto production. The economic upsurge of the 1920s enabled many more people to afford cars. Oil companies lobbied for better highways. The tourist industry promoted auto travel with free maps and advertising. Trucking assumed a larger share of freight haulage. And the automobile caused major social changes, affecting everything from teenage dating patterns to grocery store visits to proliferation of trailer camps.

I suspect that, from the 1920s on, many Californians, like me at a later date, began to notice that they had seen a lot of their state, but only from a car window, without ceasing to be in


Illustration from a 1930s auto manual

My earliest memory of automobiles goes back to age four, in 1948. My parents did not own a car, but one sunny day a friend of the family came to our house in Alameda driving a spiffy two-seater convertible (I didn’t know any of those words at the time) and invited my father and me to go for a ride in the “rumble seat,” the padded, nicely upholstered area for two passengers that appeared magically in the rear of the car when you opened the trunk that would otherwise be the place for luggage. My father and I climbed in, the car picked up speed, and we careened around the neighborhood. I felt unprotected and would not have wanted to be in the rumble seat without one of my parents. But the speed and the breeze and the quickly passing views were exhilarating.

My next strong memory of being in a car dates to age 8 when, with my mother and father and sister, I was on a winding road in the Santa Cruz Mountains on the way to Big Basin Redwoods State Park, where we planned to go camping. That was when I had my first attack of motion sickness, something I have experienced from time to time ever since.

My parents first became car owners when I was 11 years old and my sister was 7 and we were living in Albany on the east side of San Francisco Bay. Although my father’s Navy salary was not much, he had an evening job working at a local supermarket and used some of the money to buy us a dark blue, used 1950 Ford convertible. That allowed us to go see movies at the local drive-in, to make trips to the local 19 cents hamburger stand, to cross the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge for tours of the seacoast, and to visit newly constructed tracts of homes in places like Hayward and San Jose where we thought about buying a house (we never did). During the day, my sister and I absorbed the sights from our car windows. On nights when my father continued toward our destination, my sister and I slept under blankets in the back seat, wishing that the canvas top of the convertible did a better job of keeping the interior of the car warm.

In the mid-1950s, I began to learn about car design. One of my mother’s brothers was a decorator at the Capwell’s department store in Oakland. He bought one of the new-model Studebakers. It was sleek and had a daring color scheme: a cream-colored body and a wine-colored top. Even more dazzling were the cars I encountered through another of my mother’s brothers, who was a Chevrolet salesman in Albany. In 1955 he gave us a tour around the showroom of the dealership where he worked. That was the year that all the Detroit carmakers decided to roll the dice and present the American public with radical new designs. Cars now looked like rockets or jet planes, dripped with chrome, and came in color combinations like pink and charcoal gray, red and white, and blue and lime. Simply to touch the cars was exciting.

1955 Chevrolet

By then I was accumulating many memories of automobile trips both short and long. But my first sense of ironic detachment regarding cars, an intuition that the automobile was a cultural phenomenon that could be analyzed and contemplated, came at age 16 when I made my first visit to Anaheim to see the new and already wildly popular amusement park at Disneyland.

The most attended attraction – nothing else came close – was the “California Freeway” ride. My friend Steve and I stood in line for over an hour for the thrill of climbing into miniature sports cars and meandering through a controlled maze of clover leafs and underpasses and overpasses, passing small billboards, miniature gas stations and replicas of motels and groves of plastic trees, and then returning with a sense of puzzlement and un-fulfillment to our starting point. We had been driven by family friends of Steve on a real, full-sized freeway to get to Disneyland from Los Angeles, and we would be returning in the same manner. Why had we cared so much about experiencing an artificial version of the same thing?

The freeway ride at Disneyland in its current version

We could not say. The answer, of course, had to do with sociology, about which I knew nothing at the time. Postwar America was in love with the automobile even more in the 1950s than it had been in the 1920s. And freeways had become emblems of California life almost as powerful as the Golden Gate Bridge or the HOLLYWOOD sign in the hills above Burbank.

Energizing all of America’s fascination with highways is a more long-term awareness of being in motion and being on a journey. America itself is a product of journeys, whether by the aboriginal peoples who came here via the Bering land bridge, or by the Europeans and Africans who came here via the Atlantic Ocean, or by the immigrants who came to America via the Pacific. There was a great filling in of the North American land mass and, in the case of California, from the time of the Gold Rush on, a great push to the Pacific Coast, sometimes in search of economic opportunity, and sometimes to explore spiritual and emotional frontiers.

In American literature, the themes of westward movement and migration from place to place are easy to notice. For example, in Huckleberry Finn (1885), the main characters are on a metaphorical road, the Mississippi River, and Mark Twain ends the novel by having Huck “light out for the territory,” that is, the West. In The Grapes of Wrath (1939), John Steinbeck describes the exhausting journey of the Okies to California in the 1930s. In The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), Wallace Stegner searches for the meaning of his father’s lifelong effort to find a place where there would be riches and relief from recurring cares. The tropes of constant motion and quest for a better place are everywhere in our literature, as also in our music, painting, and movies.

When it comes to writings about California, there is probably no author who has explored the subjects of motion and journey more powerfully than Jack Kerouac (b. 1922-d.1969).

Jack Kerouac

An important fact about Kerouac is that he was only partly a California writer. He was born and raised in Lowell, Massachusetts, where his French-Canadian family worked in the mills. After a troubled childhood he attended Columbia University, dropped out, and in the late 1940s made his way gradually westward, eventually becoming part of the Beat culture that centered on San Francisco and Big Sur. Thereafter he was in and out of California, living at various times in Oregon, Florida, and Montana, among other places.

Map of Jack Kerouac’s travels for On the Road

Whether he is discussing California or other places, Kerouac’s writings, notably On the Road (1957), The Dharma Bums (1958), and Big Sur (1962), always involve a journey in the spiritual sense, as he struggles to synthesize Catholicism, Buddhism, environmentalism, and even jazz into a usable whole. And his physical motion – expressed with amazing power in the drive of his stream of consciousness prose style — takes him all around the United States as well as to Europe and Mexico. Still, he ends his life frustrated by the failure to find ultimate meaning in any of these places.

Kerouac’s biography helps us to remember an important fact about road culture in California specifically. Road literature in America is mostly about places outside of California. California writers have said a great deal about highway culture within the state, but California is the place where you end up. You can move toward the Pacific shore in your quest. But you run out of land when you get to California. Then all you can do is leave or go from one place to another within the state, and your quest for meaning must turn at least partly inward, as was the case with Kerouac.

I sometimes think of the Los Angeles freeway system as a symbol of this kind of road journey: an endless moving back and forth and around and up and down within California, on the way to a destination that can’t be defined.

Los Angeles freeway

On the other hand, California on its own is such a beautiful, inspiring place that one can, from time to time, go on the road within the state and have an experience that is just as fulfilling as any journey from elsewhere.

For me, one such experience occurred when I was 14 years old and my sister was 11, and we made our first trip, in early June, to Yosemite.

Our father drove us. Our mother, who did not like camping, stayed at home in Berkeley. But the other three of us made the journey enthusiastically.

It took several hours of driving eastward from Berkeley, across the flat, central farming area of California, before my sister and I felt reassured that we were in fact going to reach a place called Yosemite.

As we came to the area around the city of Merced, the highway began to rise and the topography started to change. Pine trees and big boulders began to appear, then ravines and streamlets, then occasional patches of melting snow. The two lane highway meandered ever higher and eventually we arrived at a gate where a ranger from the U.S. National Park Service came out of a small, brown, shingle-walled booth and collected our entrance fee and gave us a map and some friendly advice about bears and matches and snakes.

Afterwards, the road continued to climb upwards, and there were rock walls along the edge to guard us from dropping five hundred feet straight down. My father explained that the walls had been built in the 1930s, by prisoners and out of work young people who were members of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

As we rounded one of the turns in the road, I was especially glad the walls had been built. A car coming from the other direction was trying to pass on the blind curve and was heading straight at us in our lane. My father, with the incredible athletic quickness that I had seen him demonstrate many times, swerved instantly to his right and found just enough space near the wall to prevent a head-on collision.

A short while later, we found ourselves driving downward into a hot, dry area where there were no more rock walls and the road followed the bank of a river. There was almost no vegetation. The sun reflected off the high, stone cliffs on both sides of us, raising the temperature to almost one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Then the road started to climb again, the temperature lowered, and we were back into a forested area.

By now, however, the trees were bigger and the river flowed in cascades. I recognized redwoods that reminded me of the ones I had encountered many years before on our family’s first camping trip to Big Basin. But the boulders were unlike anything I had ever seen – huge chunks of gray, textured granite that looked like they had been tossed into the middle of the fast moving river by some mysterious, unseen giant. Around, through, and over the rocks, the water ran and churned, in amazing, translucent color.

Then suddenly I noticed that my father and my sister were laughing happily. I asked them why. My father explained that I had been exclaiming “Ooh” and “Wow” for several miles, apparently without realizing it. I was usually much more reserved, my father said – more like my mother and her father.

Another wonder followed. The road soon opened before us on either side and we drove alongside the by now deep green water of the river into a huge, flat valley — a vast amphitheater, walled on all sides by gray granite cliffs over two thousand feet high, with groupings of trees here and there on the valley floor, and vast swaths of Alpine meadows and marshland. This was the center of Yosemite National Park, and from here it was only a short drive to the wooded camping areas where we could begin searching for a site.

My father told us that “camp 7” and “camp 14” were the two most desirable areas along the river. There was a conspicuous firmness in his manner as he relayed this information. He was really saying that the areas had been the most desirable twenty years before, when he had gone to Yosemite with his father and mother and two sisters, and he wanted the camps to be the same way now. But, as we drove the dirt roads between the trees, I could see that his information was up to date. We found a beautiful site right next to the river and parked our car in the fresh, white sand that had been deposited recently by the spring floods. And, because my father had remembered to come in June and beat the rush, our site was almost twenty-five yards away from the ones occupied by other campers.

As we got out of our car, I was struck by how odd it looked: an industrial intrusion in our forest surroundings. But there was no time to dwell on the contrast because we were soon busily unpacking our cargo and setting up camp: a brown canvas tent, three cots, an ice chest, and a kerosene stove placed on top of the wooden picnic table the Park Service had constructed at the site along with a stone grille.

Our stay in Yosemite over the next two weeks was not perfect. We could see that the Park was already beginning to be under stress from too many visitors. We had to wash our dishes in cold water. The public bathrooms were not always clean. I got a bad sunburn. And so forth.

But the meadows in the valley and the high cliffs and the cool water and clean air and the stars at night were more than worth traveling to see. And the most rewarding thing of all, for me, was that first sight of the park as we entered it, on the road.

Woodcut illustration of Yosemite, 1879