Reports of California's demise are hogwash

A gloomy Scandinavian ventures into the golden sunlight of California and finds only scattered signs of a "failed state." In a nutshell: salmon bad, sangria good.

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Southern California traffic.

A gloomy Scandinavian ventures into the golden sunlight of California and finds only scattered signs of a "failed state." In a nutshell: salmon bad, sangria good.

You know your vacation worked when reading the local papers is like staring through the fat end of the binoculars. Everything seems small and faraway. Viaduct? What's that?

A few impressions on returning from the Golden State of California, which during the last couple of weeks has suddenly sprung from a year without a spring to the middle of summer. Up near Mount Lassen at the northern edge of the Sierra Nevada, a local innkeeper told us that it snowed two feet on Memorial Day weekend. By late June, it was 100 degrees and the wildflowers and mosquitoes were blooming.

The transition back home feels less dramatic. Everything seems too green, the air thick, the ground soggy as if someone left the sprinklers on. California's hills are green and brown and covered with flowers, the trees — oaks and junipers and pines — are spaced over the hillsides. Forests are carpeted with grass, flowers and pine needles, open and spacious, not packed and overrun like a Seattle garden that's missed a week or two of attention.

Seattle was sunny the day we arrived home, just for a bit. Seventy degrees, then the clouds came in, back to sweatshirt weather. Cross back into Washington and Middle Earth's Mordor gloom looms on the horizon.

If the travelers on the Oregon Trail thought the settlers who turned north instead of south were partly mad, they were right. The Scandinavian slice of my psyche embraces the gray, but even my Viking ancestors spent much of their time wisely raiding in warmer climes.

California travel can be a kind of cleansing ceremony. We might complain about Californication here, but the Mediterranean lifestyle is a tonic in the proper dosage. Salmon bad, sangria good.

One very vivid impression of California on this trip: Yes, there are signs of tough times. We saw a ghost mall outside Sacramento, and a gated community in the Sierras that fenced in street signs, trees, a single visible house, and paved roads to vacant lots. Storefronts in many small towns were vacant, like here. But the idea that California is some kind of failed state destroyed by taxation, sprawl, and moral decline is far from the whole story.

There is enormous wealth in California, a varied and vast terrain, wonderful wild lands, fabulous parks (still open), amazing wildlife, from Sequoia groves to high desert plains. We saw elephant seals massing on the beach, sea otters diving in the kelp forests, and California condors soaring above arid mountains.

The dream that everyone can have it all was over-optimistic, but the fact is that many millions of people are living a great life there, and the legacies of the past are still to be enjoyed: historic parks, unspoiled coastline protected from development, restored ecosystems, great infrastructure from bike paths to rural roads. And yes, places still without Wi-fi or cell signals.

Sure, the drive through the LA metroplex is a misery. It's both dense and sprawling. It's enough to make you declare your own war on cars. It's a cradle of road rage. But it's only part of the picture, and a tiny fraction of the state itself, much of which is rural, agricultural, populated by loggers, cowboys, farmers. Or still largely wilderness.

We stayed at an old hunting lodge near Tule Lake where we were fed each night by the home cooking of Verna Herman, a longtime farm wife whose husband Al still runs (organic) cattle in retirement. Fox News played on the TV in the living room. Verna and Al could pose for an American gothic portrait of your Midwest grandparents.

The idea that America is on the brink of apocalypse is an old one, that a California collapse is indicative of Left Coast excesses of government, taxation, or social engineering is the kind of nonsense peddled on FOX, where cable news caters to paranoia. California isn't paradise, but if it's struggling, it's also still able to amaze with its richness, scale, and diversity. Reports of its death are greatly exaggerated.

Back home, I am left with some unanswered questions. Why is it that I-5 through Stockton is such a lousy stretch of highway? Why is it that the condition of Lake Washington Boulevard through one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Seattle is as bad as Stockton's freeway? Is this the democratization of civic failure? Should we be happy about it?

Why is it that Oregon's beaches have more plastic and junk on them than southern California's? Does California's garbage all wind up in a mid-Pacific gyre while Oregon's beaches suck up plastic pellets? Is the appearance of paradise a fluke of nature?

How did Danish-themed restaurants spring up in California? Pea Soup Andersen's sells hot sticky soup and Danish sausage in the southern California heat. And then there's the Leavenworth-style faux Danish village of Solvang in the Santa Ynez Valley. Does any of that make sense in Surf City? Apparently Scandinavian entrepreneurship can thrive without the gloom of a Ballard June. Good to know.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.