A Masshole Visits America: California

The ninth post in the ongoing series A Masshole Visits America, in which Colin Kingsbury reports back during his roadtrip around the country.

As I cross the border into California, I feel like there should be some dramatic music, fireworks, or perhaps a flyover by the Blue Angels to greet me. With 4,300 miles behind me, I’m closing in on the halfway mark. It feels like a major achievement, but it’s really quite simple: you just get in your car and point it in a direction, and keep going, and eventually you’ll get there. Of course, you could say the same for a bicycle or your feet. Getting where you want in life is complicated, but traveling is simple—maybe that’s part of its near-universal attraction.

If California were a person, it would be my number one frenemy. It’s by far the most annoying state in the country, always ready to lecture the rest of us from a perspective of complete ignorance. It’s easy for Alice Waters to eat seasonally and locally, seeing as northern California easily grows some of the best produce in the world—twelve months a year. If Bostonians truly ate seasonally, you’d be looking forward to pickled cabbage, salt pork, and turnips for the next six months. Once the exemplar of high-cost, high-value government, with limitless freeways and world-leading public universities, California’s schools now trail Texas’ on many measures, and according to my butt, so do their roads. In fact, California’s are the worst I’ve seen yet, while Texas’s were like marble countertops. Income taxes are around 50 percent higher than in Massachusetts, and gas taxes are 35 cents more per gallon, and yet the budget is so deep in deficit that they’re releasing prison inmates early to save money. Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown’s grand plan to turn this leaking vessel around is to build a high-speed train from San Francisco to LA. It’s projected to cost $68 billion and start running in 2028, by which time Apple and Google will have made leaving your house completely unnecessary.

Joshua Tree (Photos by Colin Kingsbury)

So what? Where else in the world can you ski powder in the morning, surf without an arctic-grade drysuit in the afternoon, and eat $400 sushi at Nobu Matsuhiya’s eponymous restaurant that night? As horribly mismanaged as the state is, Silicon Valley and its surroundings are still one of the greatest wealth-creation engines in the world, and if you don’t mind the occasional wildfire, mudslide, or earthquake, the weather is unbeatable. The cost of living is eye-watering, but if you can swing the tab to sleep in a place like Santa Barbara, Carmel, or the hills above LA or San Fran, you’d be a little crazy not to. Just make sure your Gulfstream has a full tank of gas—you don’t want to be waiting for Amtrak when an angry mob starts marching out of Oakland.

Klamath River

In any case, California consumes nearly a week and more than 1,100 miles, passing through the Joshua Tree National Park, up the Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur, across the Golden Gate and north through the Sonoma coast, Mendocino, giant Sequoias, and Crescent City.

Crescent City

Roughly half of those miles were on the storied Pacific Coast Highway, of which my favorite part is the 21 miles between Hardy and Leggett. The actual distance is closer to half that, but the road’s course through the steep mountains is like a maze, and I row from fifth to second gear and back up through every turn, slamming from side to side like a slalom course, except this one is in the midst of a redwood forest. I reach Crescent City in time to catch the sunset and check into a motel on the beach. It’s over six hours from either San Francisco or Portland, and feels like a small coastal town in Maine that time mostly passed by. If I wanted to just lay low for a while, it would be toward the top of my list. The next day I continue north into Oregon, but for as much of California as I’d seen, I could have turned south and driven all the way back to LA by a completely different route. In travel as in life, the story is as much the paths you don’t take as the ones you do.