Several decades ago, in a remark that quickly became famous, the novelist and historian Wallace Stegner said that California is the West, only more so. California is the westernmost portion of the Continental United States. It offers the hope of being on a frontier, but also the reminder that you can’t keep moving west forever, that at some point you must make your peace with finiteness. Since the time of the Gold Rush, and in its abundance of land waiting to be developed, California has held out the prospect of sudden wealth mixed with the awareness that not every scheme will lead to riches. And ever since the Gold Rush, California has attracted wave after wave of migrants, along with frequently chaotic appearance of new construction and urban sprawl to serve their needs. In all of this, California has evidenced the same pattern of development one can see in every area of the United States west of the Mississippi River. But in California the process has been more intense and more haunting.
I have been thinking about Stegner’s remark for the last several weeks, and I believe I have a new way of applying it, as the result of a vacation trip I took with my wife and a family friend. Most of our travel took place in and around the Rocky Mountains, as we visited Denver, Salt Lake City, Bryce Canyon National Park, and Zion National Park. Then, to conclude the trip, we stayed briefly in Las Vegas. My wife and I had not been there before, and we thought we ought to see it at least once in our lives, especially when we needed only a few extra hours of driving to get there.
I had seen many images of Las Vegas and was familiar with the standard lore associated with America’s capital of gambling and sin, so I did not expect to be surprised. But I was in fact astonished, both by the artificiality and by the kaleidoscopic feeling of the place.
The artificiality is probably the easiest to see. The whole city feels like it doesn’t belong there. It just comes up out of the surrounding desert. Except for the gambling and the federal money pumped into the surrounding area for things like dams and military installations, Las Vegas would have no economic basis. The architecture possesses almost no originality. There is a large copy of the Eiffel Tower.
An enormous hotel calls itself the Bellagio, even though it doesn’t much resemble the town of Bellagio on Lake Como in Italy. At the Venetian Hotel, appropriately costumed gondoliers give you rides along an imitation Grand Canal filled with chlorinated water; and inside the hotel, there is a replica, the size of a shopping center, meant to capture the look and feel of St. Mark’s Square, complete with fancy sidewalk restaurants, guided tours, air conditioning and a fully enclosed, painted ceiling five stories above you.
And then there are the entertainers. I lost track of the number of lounge acts featuring Elvis impersonators. In front of one hotel I stopped and stared for several minutes at a very large wall poster inviting met to buy a ticket to their long-running show: a three-hour reprise of the songs of Frank Sinatra, all performed by the city’s most celebrated Sinatra imitator.
I was also struck by the way Las Vegas conveys disorganization and a feeling of impermanence. Most of the city didn’t exist before the 1920s and the economic bonanza provided by construction workers from nearby Hoover Dam. The history that is there today is very recent. Away from the new Strip there is the older strip, mostly a creation of the post World War II era, with the old casinos like Binyon’s and the Golden Horeshoe, although a lot of the famous spots from the Rat Pack era, like the original Sands and the Desert Inn, have been torn down. But the new Strip, dating from three decades ago, after the Mob was kicked out and the casino owners tried to become family friendly, looks so clean and sanitary and un-weathered that it seems to have been built just yesterday. And the enormous buildings have simply been plopped down wherever, with little regard for zoning or long term urban planning. Sidewalks come to an end for no apparent reason. The copy of the Eiffel Tower overlooks the huge ornamental fountain of the Bellagio. A large, outdoor electrical power grid, about four stories high, occupies an entire city block surrounded by big, tall hotels: a violation of who knows how many fire laws.
Confronted by this bizarre world, I was at first judgmental and haughty, thinking of myself as a visitor from a superior civilization. But then I realized I was no such thing. I was a visitor from California, and Las Vegas is California only more so.
You can get a lot of echoes of Las Vegas in California’s amusement zones, places like Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz, the piers at Santa Monica, and Disneyland. Like Las Vegas, they all have the flavor of a carnival midway: magical and exciting and a little bit unsettling at night, slightly disappointing in daytime when the illusion is less intense. California has numerous architectural follies that resemble Las Vegas, like the Cliff House in San Francisco, the crazy hodgepodge of pieces from European villas that is the Hearst Castle at San Simeon, the Coronado Inn near San Diego, the strange amalgam of Spanish motifs that is the old Mission Inn hotel in Riverside. California has thousands of examples of residential developments that were badly zoned. Many of the buildings of California lack a feeling of permanence. The writer Joan Didion once singled out the California beach house as the ultimate architectural symbol of the state’s impermanence. She saw the same characteristic in Hollywood, where copies of entire environments are thrown together in one week and taken down in the next. These things are not the whole of California, but, I realized, they are enough to remind me that California and Las Vegas are not as unlike each other as I first assumed.
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
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.
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?
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).
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.
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.
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.