Yet again I cross through California, and yet again I am astonished and utterly depressed by what I find. And not just on the coast; this time, I am in the central valley, the heart of California, hurtling down old Highway 99 that joins Sacramento to Modesto to Merced to Fresno, not to mention Tulare and Turlock. Expecting to find quiet agriculture towns, instead I find vast strips of franchise stores, posters advertising gun shows, and freeways with their speeding trucks bouncing over unrepaired potholes.
I believe California represents our zeitgeist, the spirit of our times, both the present and future of this culture. And the spirit seems sad, sallow, bad tempered, and worn out. The gold here has long worn off, and cheap tin is all that remains. Political signs complain angrily about vague congressional conspiracies. No one makes eye contact. Any originality and humanity seems drowned beneath the vast corporate landscape, led by Walmart and closely followed by all those other chains whose brands we know too well.
I stop to eat lunch in Kettleman City, where Highway 99 meets I-5, and am wary of a cadre of police cars spread through town, apparently enforcing the speed limit. The cafe has a very large sign at its entrance proclaiming to be protected by several local law enforcement organizations; it seems they are announcing this fact to someone, but I cannot understand who. The cafe is one of those engineered-retro establishments, with nostalgic ephemera decorating every surface, yet the hamburger and coleslaw I order turns out to be uniformly tasteless and industrial, all laced with corn syrup and supplied generically by Sysco.
A bumpersticker on a passing pickup reminds me that this is cotton country, and sure enough, I spot fields of white puffs atop brown stalks, and enormous bales waiting to be picked up. In the eastern foothills of the mountains that range between the coast and the valley, what might be a now-harvested cotton field portrays a post-apocalyptic vision: a vast desert of dusty gray earth, with a few sprigs of dead, brown brush. Along the road appears a junkyard of a thousand rusting small-scale tractors, machines of an earlier age, useless now next to the massive combines that today plow the dry, ravaged land. An abandoned housing development, roads built but no houses save the model, now graffitied and decaying. This post-drought, post-pesticide, post-industrial, post-development desolation would be a sad but unsurprising future.
As my despondency deepens, I slowly realize that I do not belong here. I have felt this before, at various times in my life, and usually when confronted with the worst of empty American excess. This is not even the excess of the Las Vegas Strip, or of LA’s most glittery attractions. No, this is the hangover after the excess: the loneliness of the crowded freeway, the plastic fist of the malls and chain stores, the puckered rage of the gun owners, the massive megachurches, part mall, part Disneyland. This is not my place, and these are not my people.
I find myself on the other side of the reverse-culture shock I felt when visiting Barcelona last February. Then, seeing the happy Catalonians gather for coffee in the plazas in the afternoon, their recycling and compost being picked up and processed by the city, being merrily transported by decent trains and buses, I found myself not just seeing that the Barcelonians had it right – but that we, the Americans, were so far behind that it was literally hopeless to consider we might catch up. Instead, America barrels ahead into an advanced, hopeless, xenophobic dystopia. Love it or leave it, baby.
Then where? At this point, I often consider emigrating, usually to Europe, although immigration there is difficult now. I consider a stepped approach: a few months here, a few months there, slipping past the timelines of the border controls. What is my world, where I feel not only comfortable, but creative and inspired, and not hateful and depressed? Portland is a fine city, perhaps one of the only cities in the States where I can genuinely live, the heart of Cascadia. Little satellites, moons of my travels, have appeared along the way: Silverton, Vashon, Sebastopol, Genoa.
Okay, America. You get one more chance. My mom’s neighbor Carol has recommended I visit a little place high in the hills above Santa Barbara. It’s Spirit Pine Sanctuary, where a family she knows has been building a small collection of cob houses, strawbale buildings, and other hand-built structures. Carol says it’s a lovely place, off the grid, out of time. I prepare the housetruck again, put everything in order, make it shipshape, and push off.