“California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things better work here, because here, beneath the immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.”
-Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem
When the Sierra Nevada vacation ended, I ran out of continent.
Since the day I’d left home two weeks prior, my guiding principle had been, “When in doubt, just go west.” But this was California, where all westward momentum eventually comes to a screeching halt. The recoil gave me whiplash.
It’s halfway over. The peak has come and gone. I’m going home now.
I told my brain to get a grip and stop jumping ahead of me. I still had a handful of unexplored states to see. “Home” wasn’t for at least another week, and “going home” was, by now, antithetical to “going back.” I wouldn’t arrive at home the same person who left, nor would I live the same life she did.
The Sunday drive back down to Tyler’s house in Santa Rosa was nothing like the cool, starlit drive we made up the mountain two nights earlier. It was a four-hour, midday, 100+ degree drive with no air conditioning. Needless to say, it was a sweaty one.
Remind me again why I did this trip in August?
In the light of day, we could see miles of farmland scorched black by the wildfires that had recently raged across northern California. I’d heard about the fires on radio stations across the west, but it was humbling to see the actual ruins out my window.
See the mountains in the background of that second photo?
That’s because they’re hidden behind thick smog left by the wildfires and the drought. I reached over Tyler and pointed out a farm where the fire had scorched a straight black line through the crops. The farmer didn’t even need a fence to keep the cows close by, because they never crossed the line onto the burnt side. The grass isn’t always greener elsewhere, like they say.
We stopped for lunch and Tyler told me that roofing companies in the area make a fortune this time of year. Californians religiously repair their roofs and gutters every August in preparation for El Nino, no matter how many years have passed since its last appearance.
This California, the one of violent fires and storms, was wildly different from the peaceful, carefree one I’d just floated around atop Lake Utica the day before. It was ever more different from the decadent, narcissistic California I’d seen in Beverly Hills seven years earlier. This California was never far from the edge, nor ever forgot that fact. This was the California where “things had better work”; where no ready alternatives presented themselves.
This was the California that Joan Didion famously dissected throughout her life; the one she claimed as her own through decades of insightful writing. According to Didion, the quintessential California story was that of the Donner Party – a group of westward pioneers, whose dreams of fortune and fresh starts were destroyed by an unbearably harsh winter on the western frontier, and whose lives ended in cannibalism. With their resources depleted and no way to continue forward, the close-knit circle curled in upon itself and imploded. (Back at Donner Lake in Tahoe, I had joked to my friends that perhaps the Donners went mad because they paid 8 bucks to enter and then weren’t allowed to swim.)
Didion proposes that perhaps all Californians share a deep, underlying fear of failure and implosion because they, too, have “run out of continent.” Migrant families risk everything seeking the American Dream in California; aspiring entertainers flock there in search of their big break; and restless gypsies drive there all the way from North Carolina in desperate search of – something.
But I had the very thing those Californians, both past and present, didn’t have: an ESCAPE.
(Also the internet).
How silly I had been earlier, for feeling even the slightest disappointment about turning back home. Having a home to go back to meant no implosion, no entrapment, more beginnings, and people who still cared. I didn’t have to live on that same violent edge. I didn’t need California to work (and thank God for that, because my San Francisco plan didn’t work AT ALL.) The starving pioneers and the scorched-earth farmers only wished they had such an advantage.
I’ve had a deep fear of being trapped my whole life (can you tell?) and I realized on this trip that I could gain the purest form of liberation, not by running, but by flourishing in my natural habitat. By being fully and presently home.
Back at Tyler’s house in Santa Rosa, I re-packed my life into my car with one word on my mind: East.
Just one more photo op in California, then it’s back across the desert for me: