“The smart went west,” my grandmother liked to say. She and my grandfather left Kansas City when my mom was five and never looked back. My brother and sister-in-law, who live in San Diego, have an image on their wall of the California flag, the flag of the great Bear Republic—a sturdy brown bear painted on raw oak, the bear pacing, head down, nose forward, tracking the scent, heading west. Aren’t we all heading west? Or, at least, longing to do so? This hankering to head west, to walk off one’s map. Surely, there must be more! we cry.
I have no home, so I, too, am heading west once again. It is summer, and I have stored belongings (winter coats, college curriculum, pens) in Chicago, Orlando, San Luis Obispo. “Your stuff is here, there, everywhere,” my father says. Today I am leaving San Diego on the Pacific Surfliner, traveling north toward the home of my parents for the next two months—a migration forced upon me by life circumstance, by choice. My sister-in-law has dropped me at the depot, and the train has come.
The San Onofre nuclear plant. Our resident eyesore, our “Fukushima waiting to happen.” Built on a fault line, the site of past tsunamis. San Onofre is a storage shed for 3.6 million pounds of radioactive waste. All of this perched on a sandy white beach edged by a blue ocean. And the US Marines, just north of Oceanside, are running war games—helicopters and Humvees buzzing, spraying sand. You can see the choppers hovering. The California fan palm, the petticoat or desert palm, oversees the games. “Plumed knights,” the Los Angeles Times called them in the early twentieth century. Here is a fault line, a spring, her roots say. Here is where the earth might rupture, or divide. California Indians used her fruit for medicine, her fronds for roofs. The pelicans overhead are looking like the US Air Force, F-22s in formation. A flapless V. How is it they flap so little and remain midair? They are, I suppose, like level-four autonomous vehicles, only intermittent flaps required.
When training north from San Diego, remember to change seats in Los Angeles at Union Station. There, the train cars switch direction. The ocean is now to your left. It’s important that you face forward on the train and have an ocean view at all times.
The homeless are tented along the tracks just outside the Ventura train station, south of a state park where campers pay exorbitant overnight fees to tent-camp. One-quarter of the nation’s homeless live here, in California; our homeless seemingly more numerous than the stars in the heavens. A woman in the seat in front of me is fixated on her laptop, scrolling endlessly through fashion shots of a pale, red-headed model. The model is emaciated, stick-thin, and staring.
People wave at the train. All sorts of people, not just children: grown men without shirts, grown men on the beach with white bellies and bright orange shorts waving at trains (but our conductor does not blast the horn).
“Gold is the new green,” the yard signs read in Santa Barbara. Don’t water the lawn. Water costs as much as gold (or Bitcoin, depending on the market that day). Don’t shower every morning. Don’t flush the toilet: “If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down.” My father, who worked for decades for Southern California water districts, taught me and my brother this California proverb. Drought, fire, earthquake, landslide—these were the seasons of our childhood. We were taught, early on, to be conservationists, though we fought against it, as children do. Land, mammals, water, the republic. To whom do they belong?
I thirst. But the café in car four is closed. She will let us know when she returns from break. To the west, the black, volcanic rocks hold fast. The Pacific burns. The way my eyes have been burned in the tumble of the wave, my heart will burn for hours after a swim, for years. I cannot get the Pacific out of my pores, my porous bones and skin, the cells broken from sun—skin cancer, they told me, the type of cancer that appears on the foreheads of seventy-year-olds. With all my years in equatorial Africa and California in a bikini on the beach with tar between my toes, I was thirty when diagnosed.
Who can escape their place of origin? “My parents have ruined me for the rest of the world,” I joke. “It’s all downhill from here.” Anywhere I live after this—after a birth certificate that reads Cottage Hospital, Santa Barbara, California—will never measure up. The wild orange trumpet vine takeover of the chain-link fence that wasn’t bothering anybody. Palms trees! Singing palms. Sweating palms. Swaying palms. The San Marcos Pass is to the east now, it cuts through the Santa Ynez valley, where Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch once spun magic (and longing, and agony), this is the pass with the head-on collision one Christmas, my mom holding me, a small baby, in her arms.
Mustard weed in abundance. The train blows its horn for no discernible reason. We are in the middle of nowhere. The conductor likes the sound of it? I don’t blame them. I watch a surfer paddle into a wave. A kite surfer shreds near the shore, wakes the yellow fish. What looks like wheat everywhere, the golden hills, but is not. It is really just purple needlegrass, blue wild rye, and tufted hair—all these green grasses turned gold. Our eyes feast on golden white, our feet walk on carpets of flame. Our eyes feast on fake, Hollywood-set wheat. These hills are for beauty (not for eating)—this is the consumption that consumes Californians: beauty. Transcendent, personal, syringed.
I want to live among old trees, old oaks and date palms with yellow-orange fruit and wide bellies. Trees that have seen some stuff. Trees that still stand, that still root and reach. One day, I would like to take up the company of an old bottlebrush tree (should I ever own a home), its pink flowers clustered like sea anemones. The tree will draw the honeybees, the ones with the striped knees and the tabernacle lamps for bodies. It will draw the bees that are wise, and are not heavy-laden. The bees that know about easy yokes and honey-making.
How does one make home? And what would that entail? To make a place a home. To take a piece of a republic, an epoch and era, and to say—this is mine. Who owns the land? What audacity that requires.
As it turns out, the larger republic for which we stand was an expansionist project from the get-go. From the get-go we gave ourselves room to grow. The Northwest Ordinance of the 1780s “created the mechanism” (the structure, the de facto opportunistic strategy) to incorporate the Midwest into the Union. And from there, we took the show west.
Red tile roof after roof. White stucco and stone. Bell towers! The Spanish have been here. In fourth grade, the state Board of Education required that every fourth grader build a mission. How absurd a task! I think now. “Reconstruct, at scale,” they said, “one of California’s twenty-one missions.” (You must master this.) I spent months building my Spanish mission out of popsicle sticks, twigs, cardboard. Father Junípero Serra overseeing the build site. No one spoke of the whip he held in hand, the forced labor of the California Indians—the forced builds—red clay tile (for roofs that would not catch fire from flaming arrows); military forts (for future jailings of “the red man”/“the savage”; for law and order). I did not learn of the systematic rapes of women and children by Franciscan priests. No, the California Indians died by starvation, by war, by strange diseases (smallpox, typhoid) brought by “the white man.” I did not learn that by 1873, sixty-two thousand California Indians would die at or near one of these twenty-one missions.
Just north of Santa Barbara now, heading toward Point Conception. Wild orange poppies cropped, low heads. The golden poppy, the flame flower, the flower of the republic, la amapola, la copa de oro. Take, drink: a cup of gold for your eyes. The fire feet of the black foothills, charred. Fire has moved through. Cliffs of sand are chittering, whispering of the Great Quake of 1906. The Anacapas, islanded, always out of reach. The blue whales that never appear even though we scan, scan like the California Coast Guard in search of a drowning man.
Oil-riggers are hammering offshore, iron bots moonwalking on saltwater. They lean against the enormous chest of a blue god, the god of a Titan foam. They jar. They jam. They mount themselves to our sky wall. The oil spill of 1969 deposited tar (fifteen years later) between my toes every beach day. President Nixon spoke of the spill, a history-making environmental disaster—a grave concern. The world watched. Montecito women transported oil-soaked pelicans, cormorants, Caspian terns in their Mercedes-Benzes. The Union Co. steam-cleaned the rocks, killing the mussels. The Union Co. released chemicals into the ocean to break down the oil; the chemicals stripped the birds of their preen oil. It took eleven and a half days to plug the oil leak in the ocean floor. Dolphins with plugged breath holes asphyxiated and surfaced on our beaches. Seals, too. I’ll never forget the first time I petted a dolphin. My tiny, human hand on her slick back. Her back the seat of a swing in the rain. These were our friends, all our delight, covered in oil. The oil company: I cannot believe all the fuss the world is making about four thousand or so birds. The next spring, Earth Day was born.
Eucalyptus everywhere—scented, seeded, gray flaking bark—a holy incense. Eucalyptus trees were once bike tire snares, skids and burns, two skinned knees and elbows. The pelicans are pacing, keeping train time—flying low, necks tucked. Who wouldn’t want to be a bird or a deer? Two brown does just south of Surf. I catch them looking at the train, legs splayed, ears up, alert. One black cormorant on a rock stands among dozens of white gulls. We pass through miles and miles of undeveloped land that the Republic of California has protected. This is one of the reasons I love my state: there are always those who move to protect, even as others seek to destroy. And always this: why don’t I own binoculars?
Black beef cattle are grazing. Clearly, they’ve no idea what a view they have. They hardly look up. Pull up a chair, you dummies. Pull up a rock seat, a cliff, a cable car, you old heifers, I tell them. They don’t listen. All this grassland, and the beef cattle are grazing. “We have never seen so much grassland for our cattle!” the early settlers cried. They took and split the bones of the land—and divided it among themselves—to grow grapes, cattle, and grain. “Verily, gold is a powerful magnet!” they cried. “It must be destiny, or Providence!” California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, in 1851 declared: “a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct.” The settlers, they took the blue rivers flecked in gold and the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. They took grasslands and waterways, drove off blackfish, carp, and game. They took the red blood of the republic’s first people in what historians have called “the site of the clearest case of genocide in the history of the American frontier.” Between 1846 and 1873, 80 percent of California Indians died. The governor today has issued the first public apology for the genocide in the history of the republic. Who can say what these words might do? Who can say what debt is owed? “These stories,” some wise ones have said, are “just the base of the totem pole.”
Ten-year-old boys run up and down the train aisle, talking to each other, to themselves, their screens, ear buds in, running, running. Why won’t my family listen when I say: Take the train! Look out the window! It is our very own Amalfi Coast! I clap my hands in front of their faces, I snap my fingers in their ears. Have I made no sound, no sound at all?
Tumbleweeds like balls of yarn gathered in a valley, a shadowed crook. The golden hills are darning socks for next winter. A brown hawk traces a narrow valley with its wings, she swoops and trails toward blue ocean then circles back, hiking her own sky trail. All this chaparral and saltwater and shoreline for the hunger of the eyes, to slake the thirst. This is the republic for which we have come, and almost everyone is on our devices. Europium, a rare-earth mineral, fires our screens (our televisions and smartphones, our computers and gadgets) with red. In the early twenty-first century, the big American tech companies began looking to mine these rare-earth minerals closer to home. They needed a source closer than, say, Inner Mongolia. So, they began digging around the Mojave Desert again. Environmentalists had shut down digging in 2002: “The mine is wreaking havoc on the Joshua Trees and the endangered desert tortoises,” the environmentalists said. “Your iPhone doesn’t work without rare earths in there,” the tech executives said, drilling a moon crater into the Mojave, grinding down stone to dust. With this fine earth dust, they’ll polish the faces of our smartphones, they’ll cause our devices to vibrate and flash in full color. What is the earth (good) for? we ask. We debate. We depend on devices. We look out windows, the rock cliffs and crevices cry out. The desert shakes and vibrates, the mountains grind down to dust and disappear.
Yellow, flowering succulents—aloe—for tearing open and sidewalk-writing the name of the boy you love. You are in third grade. In fourth grade the name of the boy you love will change, twice. And Jeremy Smith will tote one dozen pink roses sprayed with baby’s breath to school and hand them to you. You will not like this. To be admired! To be seen! How embarrassing! You will go home and cry to your mother.
Passengers toting neon green boogie boards and silver-wrapped surfboards like Dodger Dogs at the stadium on Friday nights. The kids on the train are bored—and there is all this ocean, and a train with the name The Starlight Coaster. Have kids no imagination these days? Have I gone and gotten old?
In 1869, the transcontinental railroad was complete, the tracks from the east met the tracks from the west in Promontory Summit, Utah, and there, four golden spikes were struck, a telegraph sent, and the fait accompli! The American transcontinental has been called the greatest technological invention, the internet of the nineteenth century. But not everyone felt that way. Chief Seattle famously spoke of “the smoking iron horse” and “a thousand rotting buffalos on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train.” But this is what we always want: more. The nature of our national statecraft was westward and expand from the outset, from sea to shining sea, walk off your map and keep walking. Everything you see is yours. Who will, what can, set limits on our onward march?
All the loudmouths disembarked at Santa Barbara, or Glendale. I’m happy about this, and have since removed my earbuds, and stopped moving cars and seats. (I’ve moved twice.) My ears can now smell the ocean the way Madison’s collie heard the earthquake before it arrived that year. I look out the window and wave to the waving boy in the baseball cap three sizes too big. I wave even though I know he can’t see me. The train makes me feel romantic, in love with strangers (most of them), and life. It fills my lungs with whimsy. The air smells of hot oil and popcorn, cotton candy at the Conejo Valley Fair with my eighth-grade boyfriend. “The best boyfriend I ever had,” I’d say for years. This was because he jammed handwritten love notes into my locker. Folded notes with flaps labeled “Pull.” Plus, the paper smelled like him. He waited, almost missed his bus that day to kiss me after seventh period. His lips were warm. I counted that my first kiss.
The high gray fog gathers to the east. Driftwood, dunes, little streams in the desert, more algae-lidded pools with mosquitoes walking on water. Something—some hand or breath, some gate or light—holds the fog at bay, as we say here in California.
This is my home. To it, I imagine, I will always want to return even when life directs me otherwise. I’ve been gone from it for twelve years now. I cannot stop restlessly moving through the world. Sometimes I wonder: What is wrong with me? Why can’t I settle down like the dirt, the rust, the earth, my friends, the trees. The California scrub oak drops acorns—wooded, lacquered stones with little hats. All the normal people, the plants and trees, leading normal lives. Settled. What is wrong with normal?
We are north of Lompoc-Surf now. My car has emptied, fallen silent, finally. We are the last few on the train heading into our final few stops before the end of the line: San Luis Obispo.
Yellow upon yellow upon yellow. Van Gogh would love this. I want to show him my California. What would he paint? Lavender seeded at the center of everything, seeded at the very center of the known world, and tall, green pines, evergreens, with black trunks. I think Van Gogh would say how his heart, it aches, and that he cannot close his eyes without all this yellow, this lavender and evergreen blazing his retina and compelling his hand: Hymn the republic! Sound the brass! Love has come! All the earth claps for joy, the earth hymns (the song of an unsung republic).
The Angus cows are the black trunks of trees, moving about the land, moving west. Eight white goats with brown spots are corralled behind a tin white trailer. Coops and coops of roosters and chickens, heaps of abandoned RVs, rusted, and dirt-ringed horse arenas.
Each time I pick up my smartphone to take a picture, the landscape vanishes. Refusing the capture. A rust-red tractor in a coat of dust and sea spray. Gritty. Strawberry stands. White, wooden-planked stands where you can eat a red berry or two before you buy. The blue shade of the mighty oak cools you when August holds at one hundred degrees plus. August always holds. That, you can count on.
My brother says: “I’ll give you this car (we’re driving through the hills of San Diego, the ocean is there, listening). If you move back here, I’ll fix it and give it to you.” Just like that, a carrot. A mango. A golden apple. It’s a BMW convertible. Stick shift, too. “Incentive,” he says. But I cannot move back. I am constantly moving at another’s bidding, to go where I am called (for work, for love), winging through the world like these pelicans. Besides, people who take trains don’t need cars. Or, people who believe in trains don’t want cars. And that is precisely the point (or one of the very important points).
The locomotive, the rail, the train, the iron horse (the name depending on the one doing the naming). Crazy Judah, a civil engineer in the 1860s, envisioned the rail moving through granite mountains, the infamous peaks of Donner Pass that took forty-five lives in 1847. Before the construction of the railroad, people traveled west in one of five ways: by wagon, by foot, by horseback, by the Isthmus Canal, or by traveling around Cape Horn by boat. The journey west was difficult, to say the least. People died. Even Crazy Judah caught yellow fever crossing the Isthmus of Panama and died before he could witness the first rail spike in Sacramento’s crust.
Those early travelers walked off their maps. Settlers, we call them. Settler pioneers. Colonizers. People who set out to settle a land already well settled. Who owns the land? And why must the inevitable always arrive: the wreaking of havoc on natives, and native species, and then the endless acts of erasure (“That did not happen. That is not true. Both sides were to blame.”).
The train offers silence. Window gawking. One red-winged blackbird rides the field of bright yellow mustard seed, and four John Deere tractors, green bodies with yellow heads, in a flock of cabbage and savory onion. We are just south of Guadalupe now. The farm workers are here breathing the pungent air (sweet onion and broccoli). The crop dusters, the water birds, the tractors. This is The Vegetable Mecca, and we’ve got cauliflower, lettuce (iceberg, romaine, butterhead). Head after head. Row upon row. With strawberries rotating in and out, in season. I’ve driven past these fields during every season of every year for the first thirty years of my life, and I still, at forty-two, do not speak enough Spanish to communicate with half the population of this republic. To my shame. Mexico has taken back the republic without a shot, it is said, their tired feet carrying them across the border. By 2042 or 2044 (the date keeps changing: birth rates, immigration policies, deportations), California will be majority Latinx.
Dry riverbeds. Fields covered in stretched white plastic in taut arches, like the skin of a whale stretched across a twenty-foot ribcage. Tractors are kicking up dust. Again: thirteen or so field workers bent over at the waist, wearing hooded sweatshirts. Two or three in this field wear pink. The agribusiness bent and picking for pennies. The eighth largest economy in the world, California is a country unto itself.
In 1862, despite everything else going on in the nation, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act into existence, something his predecessors had failed to do, and construction on the railroad began. Grocers, dry goods merchants, and hardware wholesalers, Sacramento businessmen—the Big Four, the rail magnates—backed its construction. For if it were to be successful, for the first time in American history trade could jump vast distances. Leapfrog across state lines, granite mountains. Merchants could “think continentally” instead of “locally,” trade could travel along the new “arteries of America,” as Tom Brokaw called them: the transcontinental, the East-West rail, the bloodlines of the New America.
Bulrush now. Florida taught me this reedy word, and I am surprised to see it, to find it here in my California. We are clipping along. The train’s body rocks a slow 1920s derby swing. Fields, then sand dunes, then ocean, repeat. The Pacific! She sandbags Malibu on the regular and hates the word “borders.”
Where do the field workers live? How much do they earn? Have they heard the former State Poet Laureate’s poetry? Juan Felipe Herrera’s murals of words. “Blood in the tin, in the coffee bean, in the maquila oración.” Do they agree? Do his words touch bone? “Blood in the language, in the wise text of the market sausage.” If I ask, I will not understand their answers. All my life, many Californians have opposed Spanish in the schoolyards, voted it down at the ballot boxes. “Blood in the border web, the penal colony shed, in the bilingual yard.”
We would do well to remember that the land called “California” once belonged to Mexico. To remember that in 1846, after American soldiers invaded Sonoma (the Mexican outpost) and two American soldiers entered the home of Mexican general Mariano Vallejo, after the general had served the armed soldiers whiskey and tacos, it was then that the soldiers declared Vallejo a prisoner of war. The two soldiers, believing in Manifest Destiny, ripped a patch of white cotton sheet, and painted on it a lone red star, a brown grizzly bear, and these words: “California Republic.” And a republic was born.
And this is how the west was won. With an iron spike, an iron fist, an iron horse. My brother guards the US–Mexico border, he has for decades, with US Customs. Daily, he puts on a bulletproof vest, a gun, a gun belt and buckle, and asks, “¿Qué estás trayendo?” “¿Por qué estás aquí?” What are you bringing? Why are you here? on loop, on into the night, waving people through or flagging them for secondary, for more questions. There are six-foot-high iron rods that emerge from the ground should a car decide to attempt to run the Tijuana border, heading north. The steel cars run into the iron bars that suddenly, startlingly, appear. My brother should know, for his car ran into them once, chasing a carload of runners—his neck and back haven’t been the same since.
Now, the final station has come. I look out of the window. The white flag of the Republic of California flaps in the wind, sounding a sail, a promise, a song. The California Republic, what might be said of you that would do you justice? The train pulls into San Luis Obispo, the depot of the city that Oprah, our Montecito queen, has called “the happiest place on earth,” and I wonder at the veracity of such a statement. It strikes me as true. The sun is shining. The temperature, a fair seventy-eight degrees. The hills are blue, the sky is crystal—always, a chandelier—and the earth is golden. What must happiness be like, if not like this? And at what cost has it come?
In the 1870s the California landscape became the symbol of western expansion, Manifest Destiny, Providence. The inevitable, our statecraft held. Here, human beings are tiny in proportion to the land: the Sierra Nevadas, the Pacific, the Mojave, the giant sequoias. If you want to paint a person in proportion to the land, you would need to paint a tiny dot, a speck, or nothing at all—you would, for the most part, be forced to omit the tiny human eclipsed by scale. (The human clearly not the seeded center of the canvas.) You’d need to consider our omission as given, our presence too small to note, to paint. Or, you’d have to shift the canvas focal point, and in doing so, you’d be required to give up—surrender, forfeit—the head of the oak, or the mountain, or the redwood. They are hundreds and thousands of years old, standing tall, and honest as can be. In order to render the world truthfully, you’d need to give something up. And in doing so, something would be lost. What would be lost, if we were not at the seeded center of earth, and what would be gained?
Everything, simultaneously, cannot loom large. This is a given. Either we human beings are small, or we are not. Either we are the puff of air that follows fire, or we are not. Either we are just passing through—sojourners, pilgrims—or we are not. Either we are the green grass that grows and, the very next day, goldens, or we are not. And our temporality—our tent, our pitch, if you will—must be acknowledged. These tents in which the God has gone and pitched our souls, must be acknowledged, staked and propped up, for now, en plein air—in the open air and singing—California affords a quality of light by which one can see, by which the painter can paint, and the surfer can surf, by which the humble can breathe, and call it good.
The vineyards are here. They watch us approach. They hear the train coming, and their grapes swell and purple on the vine. Some of the wine here will taste like railroad ties and old earth. The people will come to marry, endlessly, and to mark their days by these stars, these redwoods and climbs.
“The blessed were born in the west,” I like to say, although it has been a complicated history. Mine has been the struggle not to arrive, but to remain—just as it was, and still is, for California’s first people—the struggle to remain. To remain, somehow, in the west, although it vanishes before our eyes even as we, too, are vanishing. To remain, somehow, with some sense of boon and bloodrush gold in our veins; to keep our ears to the talk-stories of ancient arteries, riversongs hymned from edges; to remain head down, nose tracking the scent (the trail, the path), the way home.
San Luis Obispo