Good as Gold

Posted March 24th, 2010 at 6:29 pm (UTC-4)

We already stuck a toe into California — and quickly pulled it back out when it landed in the searing Mojave Desert. But let’s tough it out and take another look at the Golden State. Golden, as in sunny, and golden because of the fortunes made by the lucky few who found gold high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains a century and a half ago.

California is often described as two irreconcilable entities, north and south. In 1859, nine years after statehood, the legislature voted to slice the enormous, elongated state in two, somewhere around Fresno. The measure died only because the U.S. Congress back east — which would had to approve such a radical idea — was nervous about creating new states as a drumbeat for civil war was growing louder. So it ignored the “two Californias” proposal.

Today Southern California, in and around the Los Angeles Basin, is called the “Southland.” Funny, since nobody seems to refer to San Francisco and its environs the “Northland.” That might conjure up wacky images of ice-fishing off the Golden Gate Bridge.

California is warmer and colder, higher and lower, more rural and urban, more heavily populated and sparsely peopled than many Americans realize. And it’s bigger, drier, more forested, agricultural, ethnically diverse, historic, and beautiful than even some Californians imagine. There is plenty of room for paradoxes, since it’s a long, long way — in distance, culture, and lifestyle — from San Diego on the Mexican border to the Oregon Coast, 1,250 km (777 miles) to the north.

Rambunctious California defines the New West, but it retains countless elements of the old one as well. Far-right conservative in places, wildly liberal in others, California boasts “genuine article” cowboys, lumberjacks, roustabouts, and miners. But it also has its share of what the Center for the New West once called “cow-free watering holes for weekend cowboys and coastal yuppies looking for a shake-and-bake wilderness experience.” California politicians who hold statewide office must somehow meld the interests of ranchers, fishermen, farm workers, actors and filmmakers, business executives, environmentalists, minivan-driving suburbanites, and almost every imaginable ethnic and gender interest group.

California has never stopped being a state of immigrants. Not just the highly publicized legal and illegal newcomers from Latin America and Asia, but also an influx of American arrivals — lately slowed by the long national recession — looking to “reinvent” themselves or their lives. California offers what Time magazine in 1993 called “liberation and excitement . . . as the ultimate, myth-making destination, tantalizing the daydreams of restless souls itching to pick up and move.”

California’s terrain is amazingly diverse as well. More than 50 peaks in the Sierras top 1,500 meters (5,000 feet), including Mount Whitney at almost three times that height. I’ve already told you about the other extreme: blistering Death Valley, where the Badwater Salt Flats lie 86 meters (262 feet) below sea level. Besides the San Andreas Fault — the world’s largest fracture — there are other geological battle lines along the earth’s tectonic plates beneath California, or just off its coastline. There are also dormant volcanoes in Owens Valley, whose mountain passes are now adorned with turbines to harness the ever-blowing wind, and a lush interior basin drained by occasionally raging rivers.

But Life magazine once wrote that the state’s golden sunshine is “the most valuable ingredient of the California way of life.” The golden poppy is the state flower, and the golden trout the state fish. The name “California” — “abounding in gold” — first appeared as a mythical island east of Eden in a 16th-century Spanish romance novel. The name was at first applied to the Lower (Baja) California peninsula, which that sticks down below the state in Mexico, and later extended to all of Spain’s new holding along the western Pacific Rim.

Like other western states, California is a series of what Phillip M. Burgess and Richard F. O’Donnell of the Center for the New West call “urban archipelagos and large city-states surrounded by vast empty quarters.” Paradoxically, again, California holds both America’s biggest county (San Bernardino) and the world’s most sprawling city (Los Angeles — often lampooned as “a hundred suburbs in search of a city).

California has been an ethnic mosaic from the moment in 1770 that Catholic missionaries ventured north from Spain’s Mexican colony and built missions in an effort to convert the mostly passive American Indian tribes. In 1812, Russians established a foothold at Fort Ross, north of present-day San Francisco, but they were fixated on hunting sea otters, not putting down roots; when the otter supply was all but exterminated, they split.

Mexicans continued to filter north into California after their nation gained its independence in 1822. And, 27 years later, Americans of many heritages broke down the doors to fertile California in a frantic search for gold following its discovery at Sutter’s Mill. Asian migration began with the 15,000 Chinese laborers brought in to work in the mines and on the railroads soon after statehood in 1850.

Still, by 1960, non-Hispanic whites accounted for 80 percent of California’s population. Today, five decades later, the decennial census may reveal that the percentage of non-Hispanic whites will have been cut in half and that Hispanics will have caught or topped them.

As I described last posting, hundreds of thousands of Midwest farm families packed up, fled unbearable “Dust Bowl” conditions, and headed to California in the 1930s. Then for three straight decades as America’s south- and westward “automobile migration” went wild, California’s population erupted. Everything new and improved seemed to start there: big-budget motion pictures, modern weapons design and production, transcontinental television, the personal-computer revolution, and even “surfer” music that extolled carefree “California dreamin.”

California has also become a magnet for individualists, nonconformists, and eccentrics. As New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty wrote in the 1940s: “Iowa gets here and goes crazy.” “Beat” poets encamped in California coffeehouses in the 1950s, and “peaceniks” and runaways hieing to San Francisco in the ’60s were reminded to “be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” In their Book of America. Neal Peirce and Jerry Hagstrom called California of the 1970s “an unstratified society made up of communities of strangers.”

In large measure, it still is.

California politics has been marked by a passion for ballot initiatives and referenda driven by citizen outrage — including Proposition 13, the largest property-tax-cutting measure in history, in 1978. The state has had a colorful procession of dissimilar governors, from genial future president Ronald Reagan to distracted “Governor Moonbeam” Jerry Brown to the incumbent, Arnold Schwarzenegger — an Austrian-born former bodybuilder and, like Reagan, B-list actor.

All of this is relatively recent history, as is much of the California story. Early Spanish explorers advanced just above present-day Mexican border. But they turned tail when they encountered Mojave Desert. Imagine them in those pointy metal helmets in the unremitting, hot sun!

It was left to Spanish seafarers to sail the California coastline. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo landed first in San Diego in 1542, and Spanish galleons called at San Diego on their long, trans-Pacific journeys.

Missionaries spurred settlement along El Camino Real — the King’s Highway — a trail that wound all the way up to San Francisco. Their missions along it, including the famous San Juan Capistrano, visited by returning swallows each spring like clockwork — are marked by roadside mission-bell signs to this day.

Westward American expansion was bound to reach California. As John Gunther wrote in the 1940s, “the United States without California would have been as ridiculous as France without Brittany or England without Kent; the impulse to fill the great bowl of the West was unavoidable and irresistible.” Defeated Mexico formally ceded California to the United States in 1848, the same year that ranch hands found gold along the banks of the American River. Legend notwithstanding, it was not one of them who shouted “Eureka! I have found it,” but the Greek mathematician Archimedes, 21 centuries earlier.

“Eureka!” is, however, the complete and official state motto today.

Much of the gold left California and helped finance the nation’s rise to superpower status. Overnight, San Francisco — which I will describe in a posting down the road — mushroomed from a sleepy fishing port of 1,000 people to a Queen City of 50,000 — at once rich, raucous, and refined.

Irrigation helped create an aromatic, floral, and citrus potpourri in California. Two seedless orange trees imported from Brazil in the 1890s would lead to a giant industry built around thousands of orange, lemon, and grapefruit groves. “Cali,” as the woman who serves me California roll sushi from time to time calls it, also became the nation’s leading supplier of almonds, walnuts, prunes, apricots, eggplants, olives, avocados, raisins, melons, and garlic. So many vegetables and fruits grow in the Imperial Valley along the Mexican border that it’s been called “America’s Truck Farm.” Beef cattle, too, grow fat every day on the lush, irrigated grass in this desert.

One onion field there produces about 160,000 large sacks of onions each harvest. There are 50 or so fat onions to a sack. So that’s 8 million onions from a single field. Pass the breath mints!

Something is always being harvested or planted in this breadbasket in the sweltering desert, where, in mid-summer, daytime temperatures routinely top 40° (104° Farenheit). This agronomic paradise was made possible by an ingenious system of irrigation canals diverted from the Colorado River over in Arizona.

Water flow is controlled by gravity alone, starting with great gushes and ending in a steady flow into cement ditches alongside California’s fields. Nearby giant cities have long coveted that bountiful water supply for sure.

A couple of other landmarks in the California’s Southland: Imperial Dunes, blinding white, ever shifting and changing, but a favorite haunt of daredevils on dunebuggies. And the Salton Sea, which stretches from the Imperial Valley northward toward the posh resort city of Palm Springs. This is actually California’s largest lake. Devoid of life because evaporation created salinity levels in some spots that are 25 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean, it was formed by accident in 1905, when gates to the farmers’ crude irrigation ditch collapsed, flooding the entire Imperial Valley.

This did have one positive effect: the flood pushed millions kilos of good topsoil into the valley.

Closer to the Southland’s bloated population centers of Los Angeles and San Diego, the earth still looks brown and unappealing. But it could not deter the march of civilization — if you consider row after row of tract houses to be civilized. The “Inland Empire,” some clever promoter called this oft-baked place far from the sea. The U.S. Census Bureau even cobbles together the “empire’s” 4 million people in cities like San Bernardino, Riverside, and Rancho Cucamonga and considers it the third-largest metro area in California and the nation’s 14th-most-populous place.

How many Americans could guess that Greater Rancho Cucamonga would be bigger than Denver, Colorado?

Yup, in a place where, as California crime writer Raymond Chandler once wrote, hot winds “come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch,” millions of people have pushed out most of the cows and lemon growers.

If you’re in the construction business, even this dusty, brown patch of California has become golden.

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Covet. To long or wish for something, often enviously.

Rambunctious. Incredibly active, exuberant, full of energy.

Roustabout. An unskilled laborer, often on the docks or in oilfields or railroad yards.

Unremitting. Persistent, never-ending. To “remit” is to reduce the intensity of something, but unremitting intensity never wanes.

3 responses to “Good as Gold”

  1. --Ted says:

    >When the last post was published, reader "Essen" asked me where John Steinbeck came up with the name "Grapes of Wrath," and why.According to one account, it was suggested by his wife, Carol, and taken from the lyrics of Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic":"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:/"He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored."The choice makes some sense in the context of the book, since the "Okie" migrants faced unrelenting wrath from those whom they encountered on the way west and in California, where harvesting grapes and other produce was one way they survived."

  2. Anonymous says:

    >who calls it southland? do you mean socal?

  3. SargeV says:

    >Thoroughly enjoyed and learned a lot from this article. I thought I knew quite a bit about California but attention to detail and good reporting skills by Mr. Landphair (love his name) made me realize I need to be less smug about what I think I know. Thank you Mr. Landphair. I will look for your other articles.

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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