Hugging the Left Coast

Posted March 30th, 2010 at 2:38 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

Let’s get back to our California expedition, starting at the beach.

A quick factoid: 54 percent of the people in the United States live within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of our shorelines. That makes historical sense, since settlement naturally began on the east, west, and Gulf coasts and moved inland. So you’d think that packing all those people near the coasts would mean that everybody’s always going to the beach!

Well, not so much in sunny California.

The summertime water temperature in Manhattan Beach — pretty far south on the California coast, where I lived for a year in the 1980s — is 21° (70° Farenheit) at the very most. Usually it’s a few degrees cooler. And prevailing winds off the Pacific often howl, meaning that even on a July or August day, the coast is ideal only for seals and surfers in wet suits.

To clarify, just the surfers wear suits.

California popularized the “surfer dude” culture, romanticizing its sun, sand, and aura of freedom. Remember the Jan and Dean song “Surf City, USA” from 1963? “You know we’re goin’ to Surf City, gonna have some fun!”

The song was so popular and came to epitomize the youthful beach scene so perfectly that the City of Huntington Beach, just down the coast from my beach, trademarked the “Surf City” name.

Conditions along the 2,000-km (1,242-mile) California coastline may be ideal for catching a perfect, hollow “barrel wave,” but not so much for sunbathing or tame playing in the water. Relocating Mark Twain’s famous line about San Francisco: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer on the California shore.” As a mobster might say, “fuggetabout” bikinis, anywhere north of Santa Barbara. A frigid, nasty ocean current courses along the shore all the way from Alaska to the Central California Coast.

Throw in the treacherous boulders that poke out of the crashing surf and the sheer cliffs practically rising out of the waves, and the Pacific works best as a postcard backdrop rather than a comfortable swimming hole.

And I neglected to mention the blankets of fog and mist that often anoint the stretch of shoreline abutting the northern rain forest. “Rain forest,” as in “not exactly beach weather.”

The California coast is, however, a wildlife-watcher’s delight. Pelicans, herons, crabs, sea lions, two varieties of seals, and a half-dozen kinds of whales frolic in plain sight just offshore. Seals and sea lions, of course, attract sinister denizens of the sea as well. Think “shark!”

The southernmost point on the coast, San Diego, is a beauteous place. San Diego County stretches from the Mexican border at Tijuana to the U.S. Marines’ training base at Camp Pendleton, and eastward from the ocean to the fringes of the Anza-Borrego Desert. But the county is surprisingly mountainous. California Institute of Technology’s acclaimed Palomar Observatory looms high in the Cleveland National Forest.

Balmy San Diego has some of California’s premier man-made marvels, from its world-class zoo and stunning collection of yachts-at-harbor to three old Spanish missions and the grand Del Coronado resort hotel. One of the nation’s most restful places for a quiet interlude, too: Balboa Park, named for the Spanish explorer who first spotted the Pacific Ocean in 1513.

Orange County, sandwiched between San Diego and Los Angeles, might well have been written off by visitors as a humdrum bedroom community had not animated-film maker Walt Disney selected 30 hectares (75 acres) amid an Anaheim citrus grove to build Disneyland, his first amusement park, in 1955. Combined with the rides and ghost town of nearby Knott’s Berry Farm, which preceded it, and the surfing allure at the shore, Orange County morphed into the sizzling tourist destination it remains today.

Orange County has also served as perhaps the West’s mightiest bastion of conservatism. Its international airport, named for the late macho actor John Wayne, supports that impression. The county produced conservative president Richard Nixon at a time when it was home to outspoken members of the ultra-right-wing, anti-Communist John Birch Society. County residents have voted Republican by an average 56-44 percent margin in 12 of the past 13 presidential elections. An anomaly was 1992, when conservative businessman and independent candidate Ross Perot got 24 percent of the vote; Republican George H.W. Bush still won the county’s support, though, over Perot and Democrat Bill Clinton. Spectacular, evangelical megachurches — including the Crystal Cathedral and Saddleback Church — have become tourist attractions as well as conservative-leaning sanctuaries in the country.

One might think that the growing influx and influence of Hispanics and Asians in Orange County might mitigate the conservative tide, but even their party affiliations skew Republican.

A century ago, Los Angeles County, just to the north, was maligned around the state as the “Queen of Cow Counties.” Grazing cattle and lemon groves marked the landscape where today Los Angeles — with 70 independent cities packed within and around it — spreads the blanket of twinkling lights, visible clear to Arizona, that I described in an earlier blog.

Some of them belong to Hollywood dream factories — great movie studios that spread across chaparral canyons and elegant neighborhoods throughout the city. “L.A.” also connotes the swank Polo Lounge inside the “Pink Palace” Beverly Hills Hotel, vibrant shops along old Olvera Street and the “glam” shopping arcade of the rich and powerful on Rodeo Drive, luminaries of the silver screen pressing their palm prints into the wet cement at Hollywood’s Grauman’s Chinese Theater, jazz under the stars at the Hollywood Bowl amphitheater, a Ferris Wheel ride at Santa Monica Pier, an elegant trip through history inside the Queen Mary ocean liner permanently docked as a hotel off Long Beach, and a chance to commune with great art at the J. Paul Getty Museum on a cultural campus high in the Brentwood Hills.

Los Angeles also boasts something that I never thought would appear: a subway and light-rail system. Since the city spreads so far and wide, mass transit was long thought to be impractical. But things got so intolerable on the city’s clogged freeways that mass transit caught on. Nowadays there are more than 300,000 daily boardings at 70 different stations on five lines each weekday.

California’s Central Coast calls itself the “Middle Kingdom.” It is a place of staggering beauty and unlimited charm, as old, zigzagging Highway One — still two lanes along much of its length — winds past historic lighthouses, craggy oceanside cliffs, working wharves, and a half-dozen historic mansions. Sun-drenched cities like San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara — the “American Riviera” — are Mediterranean-style masterpieces where life seems like a perpetual festival, and deep valleys and rocky bays carve the coastline.

Northward, that coastline turns wild. “It’s nearly impossible to get to California’s violently inhospitable Big Sur coast,” wrote the Washington Post in 1998. “That’s why everybody wants to.” The newspaper quoted author Henry Miller, who was awed by his visit: “If the soul were to choose an arena in which to stage its agonies, this would be the place for it. One feels exposed — not only to the elements but to the sight of God.”

Big Sur got its name from Spaniards living in nearby Monterey, a provincial capital of New Spain. They called the rugged coastline El Sur Grande — “the Big South.” A collection of small cities defines the good life there. The climate is agreeable, the wines, restaurant fare, and museums exquisite, the sunsets over the sapphire Monterey Bay enchanting, and prices, well, pricey! There are more than 60 fine art galleries in the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea alone. Even the sea lions, crowding onto rocky outcroppings off the scenic, private, but tourable (for a fee) “17-Mile Drive” can’t help but take it easy.

The famous newspaper publisher and “yellow journalist” William Randolph Hearst certainly did at his “Hearst Castle” at San Simeon, in the mountains high above this scene. Over 30 years beginning in 1919, Hearst and Paris-trained architect Julia Morgan designed and built a lavish home that he called “Casa Grande.” It became the nation’s most elaborate, and most envied, Shangri-La. Hearst installed his mistress, Marion Davies, and exuberantly entertained Hollywood stars at Casa Grande, in the estate’s enormous “Neptune Pool,” in its sumptuous gardens, and in guest houses the size of mansions.

Like California’s “Southland” that we explored last time, Northern California has an ugly smudge of urban sprawl. Its “Bay Area” stretches from San Francisco southward through the Silicon Valley to San Jose, then back up the east side of the Bay to Oakland and Berkeley. Unlike the case in the Los Angeles area, though, there is no need to search for a core. Sophisticated San Francisco is “The City” for the whole region.

Grapevines were introduced to the ranchos surrounding Northern California missions by Franciscan friars in the 1770s. Later, more than 300 varieties of European grapes — from chardonnay to pinot noir — thrived in the sandy soil of the Napa and Sonoma valleys north of San Francisco. California introduced the deep-red and fruity Zinfandel, the only California grape varietal grown exclusively in the United States, so far as I know. I can’t swear that some international visitor didn’t snip a vine or two and stick them in his suitcase.

California’s more than 800 wineries still dominate the U.S. wine market. There is even a Napa Valley brandy distillery. Awaken at a hacienda-style inn in California’s Wine Country, look out upon the sunswept hillsides planted in arrow-straight rows of vines, and you will swear you were in Greece or the south of France. You can take a “wine train” ride out of Napa and enjoy gourmet dining and a wine tasting along the way.

A Mustard Festival is celebrated throughout the Napa Valley in the late wintertime, too. It’s yet another excuse to drink good wine.

California’s northernmost counties are heavily forested, save for the northeast corner, where oddities like lava tubes — natural conduits through which lava still flows — dot the otherworldly landscape. The coastline of Mendocino County is so unspoiled that it is called the “Lost Coast.” Not irreparably missing, though; Carol and I found it!

Aside from quaint fishing centers like Eureka, abundant freshwater lakes, and the majestic Cascade Range, extreme Northern California is marked by boundless stretches of ponderosa pines, Douglas fir, spruce, giant sequoias and redwoods. Some of the redwoods and sequoias are simply colossal. Cars look like toys, and you like ants, beside the giant redwoods, some of which have been dated to 500 A.D. or earlier.

The California Northland does not lack for rain or snow. The dominant landmark is massive, usually snow-capped Mount Shasta, and the region abounds in ghost towns, historical museums, and Victorian homes ¬— 75 in little Yreka (not to be confused with Eureka) alone. Nearby Gold Country — site of the mineral’s discovery and a frenzied rush by prospectors 161 years ago — features old Folsom Prison, still operating next to a modern penal institution. You can pan for gold (good luck finding any!), ride a stagecoach, and sip sarsaparilla in Columbia State Historical Park at a preserved mining town.

Wait a minute!! This just in regarding your chances of striking it rich: I’m now told that geologists speculate that 70 percent of the gold that once lay under California has yet to be discovered. Carol, grab the suitcase and my pick and shovel!

To sum up before I head for the hills, California is variegated, unpredictable, delightfully wild, and suave all at once. As I indicated a couple of postings ago, though, part of me sides with radio and television comedian Fred Allen’s assessment half a century ago when he remarked that “California is a wonderful place to live, all right — if you happen to be an orange!”

Speaking of San Fran

(The locals will tolerate that abbreviation, but never “Frisco.”) A couple of postings ago, I indicated that I’d devote an entire blog to the City by the Bay — forgetting, during a prolonged senior moment, that I had done so some time ago. Rather than repeat myself, I invite you to check out my impressions.

(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!)

Chaparral. Scrubby desert land, dotted with low bushes.

Denizen. An inhabitant of a place.

Glam. Newspaper tabloid slang for “glamorous.”

Sarsparilla. A drink similar to modern-day root beer that derives its flavor from the roots of the prickly sarsparilla plant found throughout Latin America.

Variegated. Multi-colored.

Yellow journalism. An early name for sensationalized, even made-up, stories printed by viciously competitive newspapers in New York City in the late 1800s. The name was taken from a character, “the Yellow Kid,” who appeared in a popular comic strip in one of the papers.

Zigzag. To travel ahead making sharp turns in alternating directions. Lightning bolts are often depicted to make such jagged turns on their way to the ground.

One response to “Hugging the Left Coast”

  1. Anonymous 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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