For a brief twenty-five days in 1846, California was a nation. It must have been a glorious twenty-five days because, as I learned in my fourth-grade social studies textbook, California contains more multitudes than any other state. It is unrivaled in topographic, demographic, and economic diversity. Were California a sovereign nation, Californians remind each other, it would boast the world’s fifth largest economy. That has always felt apocryphal to me, perhaps for its mythic optimism. Still, even after three years in college unlearning nationalist public school textbook propaganda and replacing it with Marxist analogs—I find myself holding onto that belief faithfully: that California could be much greater than the sum of its parts were it released from the sprawling and unwieldy national project that has been the United States.
That belief makes one kind of sense to those who have been inducted into the cults of urban elitism we name Los Angeles and San Francisco. But drive three hours away, towards the center of the state. Alongside rural stretches of highway, there is always something growing, which feels auspicious until you realize that growth is the product of wetland destruction, and that central California continues to recover from topsoil erosion wrought by resource-intensive agriculture, as well as recent drought. Here, California’s glory begins to fade.
There are three ways to get to San Luis Obispo, my hometown. If you are near the coast, you can take the 101—you are almost guaranteed to see the sign indicating that the next ten exits are for San Luis Obispo, and that on either side, you can take a detour into one of the many small beach towns that surround it. In doing research for this essay, I learned from Wikipedia that the U.S. Route 101, while still a major coastal route, has been largely outmoded by the Interstate 5, which is “more modern in its physical design [and] connects more major cities.” Of course, the I-5 side-steps San Luis Obispo entirely, likely because San Luis Obispo is not a major city and never figured into more modern highway engineers’ plans.
I recommend driving, really, considering that San Luis Obispo consists almost exclusively of poured-concrete sprawl, except in the downtown area, which, to quote a banner, is trés chic. But even that chicness has begun to wear thin, as many students from the local university—once driven away by exorbitant housing costs—now opt to remain after graduation and join startups. These startups bring with them lumbering office buildings and a sensibility that is all glass and faux-granite, irreverent next to the adobe-brick Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Because of this sprawl, to get anywhere in this city, you need a car. That need is made possible by a plethora of parking structures, although in the three years since I graduated high school, an hour of parking has gone from seventy-five cents to a dollar fifty, causing my friends and I to park illegally on the sides of streets everywhere. Of late, that strategy has been costly—in the course of my four-week visit home last summer, I accrued $122 in parking violations. There can be no rest for the willful teenage hooligan.
A second mode of transport—fast, removed from the sights and smells of the highway—is flying. San Luis Obispo boasts an airport just outside city limits, a few minutes from my house. Shortly after I matriculated to college, the airport underwent major renovation. Though it bloomed from one gate to a whopping six, at no time are all six gates in use, and my entire family regards the renovated airport as a dysfunctional mess. Of course, that is the nature of cruel optimism. San Luis Obispo hopefully looks to its airport as an engine of “economic growth,” but as lifelong resident, I’ve always struggled to understand precisely how or why anybody would choose to fly through San Luis Obispo, which connects only to four other cities. San Luis Obispo maintains the appearance of growth per such spectacles as this airport expansion—but the city still boasts extraordinary storefront turnover and vacancy in the trés chic commercial district. Memorably, one restaurant didn’t even last six months.
So instead you might take the train—the station sits sandwiched between a petite, sun-bleached Italian restaurant and a clapboard-clad residential neighborhood. An Amtrak train stops for ten minutes in San Luis Obispo four times each day, and if you are willing to pay, it’ll take you either up or down the Golden State—cinematically telescoping a two-and-half-hour journey into one of six hours. When I took that train recently, I was seated in a car with only six other passengers: two families, sitting in clumps, among forty empty seats. As the sunlight streamed over open, snoring mouths and row upon row of empty seats, I understood that the rest of the train looked approximately like this car—just short of evacuated.
Living with my sister in the Bay Area suburb of Redwood City over the summer, I realized that besides its many virtues, the entirety of California boasts wretched public transit—among other problems, the systems are slow, expensive, and spread far apart. Moreover, they aren’t integrated. The implication is, of course, that everyone in California should be wealthy enough and able enough to drive a car, or else, have friends wealthy and able enough with whom to carpool. For those of us who won’t be paying $20 per day for parking, trekking from Redwood City to Berkeley, where I am meeting a friend, requires taking a SamTrans bus, the Caltrain as far as Millbrae, then the BART to Downtown Berkeley station. The Bay Area transit systems have recently adopted the Clipper Card, which makes it possible to pay all fares with one card, thank god, but you still have to buy the fare for each system separately. My first week staying in the Bay Area, I don’t realize this. I get flustered when the bus driver tells me there is no money on my Clipper Card for SamTrans, and I take a Lyft all the way to the Caltrain station. Unable to divine how I can add SamTrans fares to my Clipper Card, I rinse and repeat this expensive litany of mistakes for two weeks before finding the appropriate fare-loading machine. The problem is compounded by tech companies’ insistence on cobbling together privatized parallels to local transit—Google provides a free bus for its employees, and smaller tech firms have begun leasing buses for their employees, while (ironically?) calling them carpools. Eager to hold onto their independence and promote the ideal of economic growth, even in the face of a looming mega-metropolis, the cities responsible will never cede control of their individual public transit systems to a greater authority, so there is no guessing how long this stressful, obtuse system will persist.
Upon writing those words, I realize there is something marvelously and piteously Californian about that futile persistence, and something deeply counter-progressive in California’s organized resistance to the remarkable march of progress. I correct myself—that persistence is, I think, specific to centers of city life and the suburbs of their denizens. More familiar to me, and to the semi-rural ethos I grew up in, is disdain—the knowledge that petty élites will always act in their imagined and contrived best interests, that the rest of us will grumble and bear with it, and try not to think about the government too much.
When I was young, I dreamed I was better than the place I grew up in—a common enough fantasy. I dreamed of moving to San Francisco and living by the beach. The first time I remember taking a family trip to the Bay Area, I took my first steps gingerly and preciously referred to my visit to City Lights Bookstore as a “pilgrimage.” Retrospection is easy; easier still is laughing at my adolescent arrogance. But it wounds my pride and sense of linear progress slightly to admit that nothing has changed, only my sense of what is provincial.
As I grew up, my world dilated: San Francisco, like San Luis Obispo, became too small to contain my ambitions and sense of self. California gave way to New York (or rather, the Greater New York City area)—perhaps someday, New York, too, will yield to an ideal still larger. Despite my voter registration, I no longer believe in living in California. I continue to puzzle, too, over the internal contradiction—how, even when panic attacks and self-loathing left me heaving on my bathroom floor, I continued to cherish the sense that I was too good for where I lived. My answer, of now, is that we all become the places where we’ve lived. Faith relies on miracles rather than evidence, and that it should come as no surprise that I have inherited some mythic optimism from California—a faith in futures forfeit.
The state where I lived was a nation for twenty-five days before a US Navy Lieutenant raised the United States flag over Sutter’s Fort, thwarting any potential glory—those dreams that might have come true, otherwise. My ambitions grow, and I know they will someday be deflated. In the meantime, I continue to wax nostalgic, for all I might be, but also for all the futures I’ve already discarded.
Sohum is a junior in Branford College, and his favorite room to nap in is the very underrated American Studies Reading Room.