The End of California Dreamin'?
All the leaves are brown (all the leaves are brown)
And the sky is gray (and the sky is gray)
I've been for a walk (I've been for a walk)
On a winter's day (on a winter's day)
I'd be safe and warm (I'd be safe and warm)
If I was in L.A. (if I was in L.A.)
California dreamin' (California dreamin')
On such a winter's day
~ California Dreamin’, The Mamas and the Papas
I was born on the East Coast, in Upstate New York, in 1977. I grew up in various parts of New York, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut, and only truly left the Northeast for the first time when I went to World Youth Day in Denver, Colorado, in 1993.
Bit by bit, my small, insular world began to open up, as I indulged the newfound freedom of young adulthood and pursued my love of travel more.
By the time I graduated high school in Texas 1996, I’d at least driven through most of the continental United States, taken a Greyhound bus across Canada from Toronto to Winnipeg, explored both the slums and the white sand beaches of the Bahamas, and seen a good chunk of Mexico, from the Texas border straight down through Monterrey and Saltillo to the Distrito Federal.
But my first visit to California wouldn’t happen until the summer of 1997.
It had been a tumultuous year. I’d notified my superiors that I was leaving the full-time volunteer program with the Legionaries of Christ in Dunwoody, just outside of Atlanta, during Christmas break of 1996, but still had to spend half of January of ‘97 overseeing 60 missionaries through a parish-based door-to-door mission I had set up in the Miami, Florida area, and was the appointed director thereof. During that trip, the typical cult methods of isolation and alienation began to be used against me by the priests who showed up to provide spiritual support for the missionaries — ah, screw it, let’s be honest, they were just there to recruit people, and they admitted as much in private meetings.
I left that event feeling confused, betrayed, and frustrated, with a growing sense of anger. They were doing all they could to cut me off from my friends on the inside. On my way home, I stopped and visited my girlfriend at the time, who had been living temporarily in the DC area (and was also involved in “the movement”). There, some of the lies I had been told to keep me apart from her began to unravel.
I spent much of that year in a deep depression, feeling betrayed and lost. I came close to losing my faith — in some ways, I think it would have been better than doing so 23 years later — and I spent much of my time just working. I worked full time at a computer repair place my uncle had gotten me a job with, and picked up an additional evening job at a hotel restaurant. When Paul, one of my high school best friends who had been with me in Atlanta finally finished his own term of service with the Legion, he invited me to come up to Idaho for the summer. I could live on his parents’ farm and work for the family business, installing pumps in water wells across a broad swath of northern Idaho and parts of Washington State. I jumped at the chance to do something different, to be with friends, to get a change of scenery and go out into nature and hopefully get my head out of the depressing squalor of betrayal and loss of identity (that now seem to be recurring themes in my life). I got in my crappy 1986 Chevy Celebrity station wagon and headed West. (The poor car made it to Idaho and no further. The gas tank disintegrated shortly after arrival.)
It was a long summer, but a good one. Full of hard work, cold beer, and big adventures. I decided over the course of my time in Idaho that I was going to go to Franciscan University of Steubenville to study Psychology. It didn’t hurt that a number of my friends, Paul included, were also going. I liked the idea of having a core group of people I knew going into that new environment, and as fortune would have it, most of them are people I still count as good friends today.
When we finally headed out that August, we didn’t go straight to school. We decided, as Paul and I had done several times before (and would again), to take a big old road trip along the way. It was a trip that would cause this East Coast boy to fall deeply in love with West Coast — a love I’ve never been able to let go of.
We started out with a visit to his brother, who lived in Seattle. From there, we made our way South along US Route 101, otherwise known as the Pacific Coast Highway, all the way to Los Angeles. 1,650 miles. 35 hours of drive time. Some of the most beautiful country on earth, with views like these for much of the drive:
We drove through old growth forest, went swimming under a full moon late at night off the Oregon coast, took a tour through the Redwoods, balked at paying the outrageous price of $1.75 a gallon for California gas (which is now over $6.00), and slept under the stars on beaches for most of the trip. After a night spent under the shelter of a lifeguard station at Zuma Beach in Malibu, we spent a whole day body surfing the waves, leaving me with blistering second-degree sunburns all over my neck and shoulders because I, with my Irish/Slovak complexion, was too young and dumb to believe in using sunscreen.
In a very real sense, it was still Ronald Regan’s California. Volkswagon Beetles and Buses everywhere, sun-kissed beauties, long-haired surfers, palm trees, pristine beaches, a rugged coast, the old sky blue license plates with yellow letters on every car, and somehow, it always seemed to be what photographers call “golden hour.” We pulled Paul’s Honda CBR 1000 off the back of the pickup and rode it through Hollywood, took a trip through the mansions in Beverly Hills, and felt that the world was teeming with promise and possibility. When we arrived in the lush green hills of Steubenville a few days later, my sun poisoning finally having abated, we were ready for anything the future might hold.
The Not-So-Golden State
My first trip back to California wouldn’t come until 14 years later. In May of 2011, I had to go to Sacramento for a conference held by the association I was working for at the time. I had never been to the state’s capital, and I was not prepared for how run down it would be. It was nice in the area right next to our hotel — the Hyatt Regency — but not so much anywhere else. I still loved it there, but the dream version of California I had in my head for all those years was beginning to fade.
In October of 2017, my wife and I decided to make an impromptu family trip to the Redwoods. The kids needed it, I hadn’t been there in 20 years, and it felt right to go. With only a morning’s planning, we pulled everyone out of school, packed up our van, and headed out from Scottsdale on a week-long road trip. We drove through Napa, hiked the Redwoods to see the Grove of the Titans, drove down the coastal highway, and spent two days in San Diego at the beach.
It was, in a word, incredible. The landscape is constantly changing, but what remains constant is that California is one of the most beautiful places on earth. A few images from that trip:
We went back again for a short vacation in 2019, renting a place with a rooftop terrace so we could enjoy the ocean views, the sound of the surf, and the smell of the salt air. We took the kids to Sea World and sat in the “Splash Zone.” We ate amazing seafood. Life was grand.
What I did not take pictures of on this trip were the growing homeless camps, the open drug use, the crumbling roads, the ridiculous cost of everything from gas to grocery bags, and the general feeling of dysfunction in the place. It was a trip that lit a fire under us to wonder how we could come up with a plan to live in such wondrous beauty, while simultaneously cursing the impossibility of co-existence with those who had run it into the ground, oppressing their citizens with taxes and regulations and liberty-stripping laws, and all of this before California became the poster child of American Orwellian Extremes in the COVID pandemic and the culture of Woke.
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California in 2023
This past weekend, my wife and I headed out to California once again for the funeral of one of her uncles. We always talk about how insane the state is with its overbearing laws and regulations and failing infrastructure, and how we’d still love to retire out near the coast. I was excited to go. To see it again.
We stayed in Long Beach, just south of Los Angeles. We drove through LA, toured the mansions in Beverly Hills, took a spin down Rodeo Drive, looked for something to eat in LA’s unexpectedly run down and ragged Chinatown, and cruised through a foggy evening in Malibu, past mansions for sale, hidden behind ornate gates and carefully cultivated privacy landscaping, priced at $48 Million, $75 Million, and $95 Million, just to mention a few.
Just before it closed down for the night, I had a chance to stand, for the first time in 26 years, on the sands of Zuma Beach, reminiscing about that first trip, that first time I fell in love with this place.
And this time, nothing felt the same.
Many of the buildings were faded, and deferred maintenance was visible everywhere, but as Californian beach cities go, Long Beach seemed cleaner and more well taken-care of than most. Of course, you don’t have to push very far past the area around the convention center, where we were staying, to be transported to neighborhoods where you’d rather not park your car, let alone take a walk. Some of the homeless lie on the street, unmoving, like corpses, most likely under the influence of fentanyl or something similarly awful. I saw two cops in Malibu looking for signs of life on just such a body, but I also saw them in places where nobody bothered to look.
“The mortality rate among homeless people in Los Angeles County has increased by 55% in recent years,” reads a piece on the website of KLTA 5 News from May of this year. “In 2019, 1,289 people experiencing homelessness died. This number increased to 1,811 in 2020 and 2,201 in 2021…”
Drug overdoses, the report concludes, are the leading cause of death among the homeless — accounting for 37% of all homeless deaths in 2020 and 2021. A report from the same timeframe warns of a new, “flesh-eating ‘zombie drug’” plaguing the LA streets.
There is trash everywhere. The whole place feels…enervated. It is creeping toward third-world status. It’s clear that it’s a failed state.
“You can feel the strain on the average, everyday people,” My wife observed. Like the place was just bleeding the life out of them, even though they probably knew nothing else and still felt at home.
The traffic was unbearable — and I say this as someone who spent years commuting in the DC Metro area. At one point, the GPS told us it was going to take 53 minutes to cover 12 miles. Every highway was a parking lot, even on Saturday morning.
We found a few nice coffee shops and a handful of good places to eat. (Shoutout to Coffee Drunk, Ground Hideout, Selva, and Blackbird Cafe for being among the best food and drink places we visited during our trip.)
We weren’t in town for long. Just Friday to Monday. We stopped at Seal Beach and walked the pier on our way out of town, on a gray, overcast morning that was cool and breezy. We still love the coast. We still love the land. But the place no longer feels like a dream. At the end of every previous visit, despite it all, I felt as though California is a place worth going back to, even if it means dealing with the dumbest, most counterproductive bureaucracy in the entire United States.
This time, I left just feeling sad. Like there had perhaps been a window of opportunity at some point since my first visit, but that the window had closed. As I write this, I still want to believe I’m wrong. That maybe some day, after enough success, there will really be a reason to go back and live the dream of settling down in a house overlooking the most beautiful coast I’ve ever seen.
It’s hard to say if it’s a place that can ever come back from how far it’s fallen. For that matter, it’s hard to say if California is a bellwether for the rest of the nation.
As I drove back into Phoenix, order re-asserted itself. The streets were clean and organized, the infrastructure in good repair. It isn’t perfect, and the real estate prices have gotten out of control, but it’s the nicest place I’ve ever lived. It has much of what California has, and in many cases it’s even better.
But it doesn’t have the coast. A coast that will never stop calling.