California: The myth

Before I write about my Pacific Coast Highway travel experiences, I want to write about California the myth, the California I experienced before I ever set foot in the state. (I won’t go into Washington & Oregon, where I also visited, until my actual travel chronicles).

I experienced 23 winters in the Chicagoland area and didn’t visit California until age 24 and perhaps for this reason, the Golden State has felt like something of a myth formed by an accumulation of TV and movies.

In this way, it is similar to New York City, my current home. Like NYC, California is familiar to the majority of Americans not from living there, but from watching stories that are set there.

Before I moved to NYC some eight years ago, the city I knew from TV and films was, depending on the era, chic, (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Rear Window), full of quirky misfits and drug users (HairAnnie Hall, Panic in Needle Park) gritty (Taxi Driver, French Connection, Saturday Night Fever), or yuppy (“Friends,” “Seinfeld”), but across all of these periods, except maybe the 1990s, New York feels heavy, like a place where intense things happen all of the time.

California in contrast has always seemed light to me. It is somewhere people moved to offload all of the heaviness of the East Coast for a life that is easier, warmer, sunnier, and perhaps less intellectually stimulating, though what does that matter when you can surf every day? Some of my earliest exposure to California was through TV fluff like “Saved by the Bell” and “California Dreams”—a show with a theme songs that begins “Surf dudes with attitudes.”

Then there were movies, so many movies, set in California. So much of California in these films is of course L.A. And this usually meant two types of depictions: either the gritty L.A. of race riots and crime or the stratospherically wealthy L.A. of  Hollywood and Beverly Hills. It meant the Rodney King riots I saw from brief news clips as a kid. It meant the 1995 film Higher Learning, which is set at a large California college that is roiled by misogyny and rape, racism and white supremacy, identity politics, and violence. You could call Higher Learning important, or you could call it heavy-handed, and you would be right. It meant Troop Beverly Hills, an endearing movie that manages to have you not only rooting for the 1 percent, a girl scout troop from Beverly Hills, but viewing them as David up against the Goliath that is Big Girl Scout. It meant Clueless, a funny movie with enviable (for 1995) fashion and a portrayal of rich L.A. that you hope is caricature but fear is not.


Beverly Hills

And then of course there was that TV show about a nice pair of Minnesota twins who get schooled in America’s wealthiest zip code: “Beverly Hills 90210.” In “90210,” people go to high school outside, surf for fun and maybe even when they should be in school, and drink, do drugs and have sex when they’re 14. They live in huge houses with successful, distant parents or by themselves because their crooked businessman father is neglectful (Dylan McKay).

I always wanted to go to California, because as a kid I wanted to go everywhere. But it also seemed like a myth, like a place that was written by someone in a small New York City apartment and built on a sound lot.

The California that first called out to me as real was not L.A. but farther north, in the Bay Area, portrayed in the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo. In this film about a detective who becomes obsessed with a woman he is hired to follow, we are treated to the redwoods of Muir Woods and Spanish mission architecture at the Mission San Juan Bautista, where several of the film’s most climactic scenes takes place. In Vertigo, we see elegant San Francisco and seedy San Francisco–which is elegant too. We see it all from the vantage point of main character Scotty, played by Jimmy Stewart, as he drives up sloped streets, to his own modern, low-rise apartment building, through pastel Victorian architecture, as he enters from an alley into a department store with a breathtaking floral display, and to a gloomy motel. 


San Francisco

After this California lodged in my mind, the state began to seem more appealing, more beautiful and varied. This was furthered when I saw Play Misty for Me, a 1971 thriller starring Clint Eastwood set in his hometown of Carmel-by-the-Sea. The modern, timber and stone oceanside home where Eastwood’s protagonist lives put the Monterey Peninsula on my list of idyllic places. Despite that as the film goes on, Eastwood’s bachelor-driven isolation becomes a liability, to me it looked wonderfully peaceful.


Big Sur, heading to Monterey Peninsula

Another favorite film of this time, The Way We Were, with Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford, showed California as the place where people go when they leave New York City to live an easier life.

I encountered yet another California in my mid-20s, this one a world of cults, psychedelic drugs, and ultimately, violence. I read the book Helter Skelter, an intricate chronicle of the Manson murders of 1969 by the man who prosecuted and put away the Manson Family, Vincent Bugliosi. 

What frightened me nearly as much as the brutal killings of Sharon Tate and her friends was reading about young people who joined up with Manson and got swept up in his insanity. Many of these kids were simply lost. They came from homes where there was abuse or indifference and were drawn to a movement that eschewed the traditional family unit as hopelessly corrupt and embrace a collective where everyone loved each other. The Manson story was a California story. Most of his family members met him in the Haight Ashbury social scene of the late 1960s, where he was considered a cool guy and a musician. They then went with him to L.A. Manson had his family take over a ranch that had been used as a set for old Westerns. They did lots of drugs, had sex with each other at their leader’s behest, and absorbed Manson’s theories about the coming race war.

Although cults can happen anywhere, the setting of California seemed especially appropriate. The state seems conceived out of a utopic idea: if you keep going far enough West, you’ll arrive. You’ll find farmland or gold or wine or fame or fortune or people who finally get you. California is the place where people go to leave behind old traditions for something new and better. Yet, this belief that you can be saved by going somewhere seems dangerous. It reminds me not only of Manson, but of Scientology and Jim Jones’s People’s Temple, the seemingly harmonious and tolerant church that grew to become influential in  San Francisco and met a horrible fate in the jungles of Guyana.

This California of cults, new religions, and alternate ways of living life is portrayed in Joan Didion’s skeptical Slouching Toward Bethlehem, a collection of narrative non-fiction pieces set in 1960s California. In one, called “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” Didion quotes the father of a woman who ends up dead: “Lucille wanted to see the world, and I guess she found out.” The recurring theme of California seems to be that your new life there will be no better than the one you left behind and might even be worse.

A slightly different, and more hopeful vision of California is offered in the 2004 film Sideways. Here you can begin a second life and have a good outcome. The state’s beautiful Santa Barbara County is that place for the two lead female characters, played by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh, who have settled into a life of wine pouring and connoisseurship, discussing the fine points of Pinot Noir and enjoying as opposed to enduring life, as the two male characters, played by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church are doing at the beginning of the movie.


Santa Barbara’s gorgeous wine country

My sense of California has long been as somewhere where you went both to escape and find yourself. It is a place where you could get rid of all of the tension built up during your daily commutes in sweaty subway stations during a humid East Coast Summer. 

What turned me on to doing trips up and down the Pacific Coast Highway however was not a movie but seeing photos from a vacation that my aunt and uncle did along PCH. After I saw their photos, the idea of escaping the New York City humidity in the dead of summer stuck in my mind. This is the time in middle to late August when the charms of summer are being overshadowed by miserable subway stations and a Prospect Park that has become a wasteland of people’s post-barbecue garbage. 

Stay tuned to find out what I saw in my Highway 1 series.