I remember my first rendezvous with California, the Golden State, as a 17-year old serviceman on his way to Korea, dazzled by snow-capped mountains thrown back in the crystal blue waters of Lake Tahoe, the descent into orchard country and, then, San Francisco. Suddenly, I understood my brother and a beloved uncle making it their home.
Ultimately, I married a California girl and nearly thirty years ago we honeymooned in Monterey and its environs. Our children and grand-babies are Californians and, when we can, we make the trek. I know California well, studied in California on a government grant, am a devotee of Big Sur country, aficionado of poet Robinson Jeffers, writers Steinbeck, Didion, Chandler, Solnit and still others.
But the California I knew, along with countless generations, has lost much of its golden hue. For only the second time in its history, more people have moved out than moved in, fleeing rampant taxation, escalating housing and utility costs, and the state’s crazy politics.
California with 12% of the nation’s population has one third of its welfare recipients. A once proud educational artifice of well paid teachers and progressive schools now ranks 37th. It’s last in the number of K-12 students per teacher (2015-16).
Last summer, impacted by climate change, 4 million acres of forest burned and severe drought, a now annual specter, taunts the state’s huge agricultural sector, much of it irrigational. I could write pages on the consequences of the demise of the Sierra Nevada snowpack, the state’s most significant water resource. Or of salinization of the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta that supplies drinking water for 20 million Californians. Today, California suffers the worst air quality in the nation, resulting in huge medical outlays.
Even big tech has caught on to what’s happening, several firms recently choosing their options elsewhere for more welcoming states like Arizona, Texas, Idaho and Washington. Last year, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, the world’s second richest man, announced plans to move his HQ to Texas/Nevada and sold $100 million of California real estate. (Tesla is the last auto manufacturer in the state.)
Political polity provided by a once robust two party rivalry of Democrats and Republicans has been vastly eroded. Between 1970 and 2018, the Hispanic population increased from 12% to 39%. They overwhelmingly prefer Democrats. Identity politics is everywhere.
Don’t get me wrong. Not everything is doom and gloom in California. Even with its troubles, California, were it a country, would rank fifth in GDP, exceeding several European countries such as England, France and Italy and nearly doubling Canada.
And yet, like the California haze that increasingly infiltrates our summer and fall traditionally vibrant blue New Mexico skies where Karen and I live, something’s gone out of things and a golden El Dorado no longer allures.