I never thought California would become a habit. The promise of eternally sunny skies, though attractive, left me unmoved. I’m from Denver, where 300 days of sunshine and stunning mountain views are the norm. So although I like the beach as much as the next person, I never understood the desperate need for immediate access to sand and surf. Mention Los Angeles and I don’t think of Hollywood glamor. I think of terrible traffic. To me, California is huge and overcrowded and climatically unforgiving: either you bake in the desert or drown in impenetrable fog. It’s a place where, if you trust government health warnings, everything will give you cancer.
I was determined not to fall in love with somewhere so capricious. I would be immune to California’s not-inconsiderable charms, no matter how much the locals sang the praises of the weather, the people, or the leisurely pace of the lifestyle. I believed that no place could be that perfect, that something must disappoint.
But now, for the third time in three summers, I’m traveling back to the state that I loved to hate. I have succumbed to California, the Golden State, where the evening sun slides off the edge of the world into the arms of the Pacific — and for a moment, as it hangs half in sea, half in sky, time stops. There is no drug like sensuous, deliberate twilight; no gratification like realizing all the rumors of a place’s beauty are true.
“Going to California” — it’s a Led Zeppelin song, “Made up my mind to make a new start, going to California…something something something.” I’ve never been good with song lyrics, even though Led Zeppelin is a fixture of my family’s road trip playlists. There’s nothing like classic rock to fill the eighteen hours in a car between Colorado and California.
Stuck in a cramped and crowded airplane, I think wistfully of those earlier trips, made in the company of my family in vehicles with enough legroom to fit the gazelle-like frame of my sister and my own more portable five feet and nine inches. Hurtling through the sky at some 500 miles per hour in a pressurized metal tube, I’m at leisure to reminisce about those family vacations.
Three summers I’ve gone west, but never twice to the same place. Sequoia National Park, Sonoma, and Santa Barbara. Three very different places, but all connected by the same roads: endless miles of highway bordered in oleander — great tumbling masses of the stuff, covered in blooms of magenta, scarlet, cream, and palest pink. And the light. The light is always the same. Sometimes mellow, sometimes dazzling, but always gold, shifting from rose-gold in the morning to white-gold at noon to buttery gold-gold in that lustrous hour before sunset. It’s dreamlike, reflecting off a landscape of sun-bleached grass and blue sky streaked with wisps of cloud. Perhaps that’s the secret of the state’s appeal.
California is for dreaming with your eyes open: through-the-looking-glass juxtapositions are everywhere. It’s where small-town strip malls along the highway blend effortlessly with orchards that grow everything from almonds to avocados to peaches; where groves of glossy-leaved citrus trees spring from barren desert valleys and fill the warm, still air with the scent of their flowers; where the distinction between what is imagined and what is real is no distinction at all.
California’s scenery is too perfect to be found outside of a novel. In wine country, the roads are barely wide enough for two-way traffic; tracing the spine of a ridge, they wind among juniper and scrub oak, then swoop down into a gully where the crumbling asphalt is shielded by arching olive trees. Grapevines planted in neat rows roll over the hills, many capped by faux-chateaux. It’s the valley of a French fairytale — I wouldn’t be surprised to see a white horse come galloping across the fields, mane and tail flowing majestically in the breeze. And that’s only the countryside: the towns that dot the valley floor are snapshots of Americana, if Americana means jasmine and the occasional palm tree instead of red barns and cornfields.
California scenery embraces the fantastical: Tolkien could have walked the mist-drenched forests of the north, peppered with redwoods and the echoing shrieks of crows. George Lucas did so and was inspired to film The Return of the Jedi there (or so I was informed by a hiking companion). It’s easy to believe: the combination of overweening quiet and shreds of fog snagged in the tree branches is otherworldly.
And the coast? The coast needs perspective. A vista. And the view of Santa Barbara — a semitropical paradise at precisely 73 degrees Fahrenheit — is framed by agapanthus, lemon trees, and bougainvillea. My gardener’s soul still can’t believe it grows wild here. It’s a painting, a postcard, so picturesque that it seems like it could be anywhere¾I could be standing on the Riviera, or on a hillside in Greece, or even in Spain. I could be anywhere that conjures the romance of blue sky, turquoise sea, and blindingly white stucco. The city of Santa Barbara drowses below me, forest-clad hills on one side and the Pacific on the other. Maybe that’s what it is. That’s the magic: not the weather, not the lifestyle. California gives you a vista, a view, a setting, and your imagination supplies the rest. It’s the great escape from where you are to where you want to be: you could be anywhere, with this scenery, living out your wildest dreams. People and their problems are swallowed up by the landscape.
But not my problems, not then. That was the day I got the call. My grandfather — found at home. A heart attack. Very sudden. Memorial service later that week. Would I come — I’ll come home. There’s no question. The next few days passing in a daze. Suddenly the leisurely passage of the sun is all too slow. I need to be home, I need to be somewhere real, not here eating lotuses by the sea, where dream and reality mingle in an endless, mindless stream of sunny days perfumed by orange blossoms. I discover that it is possible to be filled with hollowness. There are permissions to be acquired, plans to be made, flights to catch. A funeral to attend. Reality is 900 miles away.
Then back on a plane, back to the palm trees and the sea air and the slow-blinking, come-hither sun — just as I left them. It’s midafternoon on the 101 when I return. I’m stuck in a bus in slow-moving traffic leaving L.A., but the highway — and me, a tiny freckle on its concrete skin — are bathed in California’s slow, sinuous sunlight. I stare blankly out the window of the bus at the ocean, and the words come back to me: “Made up my mind to make a new start, going to California with an aching in my heart…Took my chances on a big jet plane, never let them tell you that they’re all the same. The sea was red and the sky was gray, wondered how tomorrow could ever follow today.”
It’s an easy answer, now. Tomorrow follows the same way it always does, for years and months and for the three days I’ve been gone. Tomorrow follows the sun, falling into the sea on the horizon of the Golden State, and time stops. Not for a moment, but for a lifetime, for a state-time, for a summertime. Beauty makes it that much easier to forget.
Emily Switzer is already plotting a way to get back to California for a fourth summer—why mess with a good thing? Email her with travel tips at email@example.com.