Thursday, March 10, 2005

Visions of the Golden State


My friend Mary and I are sitting on the sparkling green lawn of Alice's Restaurant in La Honda, a place bikers still roar up to on Harley hogs, lots of leather and denim, their heads -- bald or balding now -- swathed in bandanas. The noise of the engines settles quickly, giving way to quiet conversation and the sounds of the countryside.

This is California, where the sun on an early spring afternoon is soft and golden and where each sound rings clear in the dry air. Today the animated chatter of birds dominates. It's 65 degrees. Redwoods reach skyward. The smells of spring, sweet and healing, fill the air. After three months of New England winter, this is paradise.

"Beautiful day," I say to the waitress on the way out.

"Totally California," she answers.

Yup. Totally.

For me, the Golden State has always held magic. I lived here for seven years while working as an editor for The San Jose Mercury News. But discovery still marks each visit, even to places I've been before. Each time I arrive, I feel like an adventurer, seeing a foreign country for the first time. And for a transplanted Bostonian, foreign the West Coast truly is.

I recall reading a column years back by a woman who called herself a "bicoastal personality." It fit. My roots are sunk deep in Eastern soil. I was born in New York City and grew up near the Atlantic coast. I appreciate the brusk directness and intellectual parrying of the best Eastern conversations. I love buildings made of brick and stone, share an appetite to argue sports and politics, value (though too seldom partake in) the breadth and depth of the arts. What's left of my small family lives here.

But nothing touches a Caliornia sunset, viewed from the rocky Pacific coastline, the sun at once flattening, expanding and turning orange as a stray pelican flaps across the frame. Nothing relaxes like spring skiing in the Sierra -- empty slopes, breathtaking views of rugged rock and snow ridges, so much sun that sweaters and long sleeves soon strip away, replaced with a thick coat of blockout and a cold beer. And nothing enchants like the view from San Francisco's Coit Tower, of the city of hills, light and shade to the left, and of the fog rolling over the Golden Gate bridge straight ahead.

If it is California's physical beauty that never ceases to astound, it is its culture that intrigues. I love the easy humor and sense of unhurriedness that survives in a place, contrary to East Coast illusions, that's every bit as driven as much as the biggest billable-hours Wall Street law firm. It's true. California can seem a strange and soulless society. When we lived in Silicon Valley, we knew a young family with two or three high-powered sports cars parked on their lawn, an intricate computer set up in the center of their living room, and not a book, picture or personal memento in sight. There, they weren't all that unusual, young professionals on the move and on the make.

But to them, as others, my wife and I were just Kathy and Jerry. There was none of the probing for pedigree -- family, school, profession -- that starts too many East Coast encounters, the conversation within a conversation to determine whether you're worth talking to at all. In the often curious contradiction that is California, what you see is what you get -- even if what you see is bleached, botoxed and otherwise enhanced.

Yes, this is the land of Perpetual Youth. It can get old as one gets older (and we all do). But I believe in the spirit of Peter Pan, even if my joints don't always agree. I believe in laughter. And I believe the world weighs awfully heavily if that's all we let it do. In California, that just doesn't happen. Eventually, the sunshine burns off the fog, over the sea and in the spirit, too. Perhaps that's why I can't stay away terribly long.

Mary and I stop at another "only in California" destination. An hour from the bustle of the crowded 101 corridor (it was in California that highways first became a life form, as in The 101), over the rugged foothills separating people from the protected and still pristine coast, across from a herd of grazing cows on the emerald hillsides that by late May will turn to straw, sits a tile-roofed, high-ceilinged place named The San Gregorio General Store. You can't buy beans and franks here. But though it was started by a former Stanford University philosophy professor, there's nothing pretentious about it either. Oh, you can buy the complete works of California authors like Wallace Stegner and John Steinbeck. There's a section devoted to feminist literature. And they sell some nice silk scarves. But the book collection also includes "Fart Proudly: Writings of Ben Franklin You Never Read in School," an aisle over from the scarves you can buy a hefty iron skillet, and, across from the feminist literature section, the bartender mixes one mean Bloody Mary.

The store is a single big room with something for just about everyone, an apt metaphor for the state in which it's set. Outside my friend Mary strikes up a conversation with an old woman who looks more weathered than the beat up store roof. When her husband died some years back, she sold her farm down the road. Now she lives in a gray wooden house that I gather used to be a blacksmith's shop.

And what, Mary asked, had brought her over to San Gregorio?

"Why my boyfriend," she says, teeth flashing in a girlish grin. So she's pushing 75. It's California.


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