Friday, February 14, 2014

California as Oz

When I was growing up, California—and especially the Los Angeles area—was a mythical land.  To me, California was Oz.  It never seemed like a real place.  Instead it was the place of television and movies. So was New York, but unlike New York, which also seemed glamorous, California was like a made-up place, a fairy tale. New York was gritty and real—I’d actually been to New York.

I remember the first time I flew into LA—my first visit to California in 1987.  It was an evening flight out of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.  As my plane chased the setting sun toward the Pacific Ocean, racing against the motion of the turning earth below us, I watched the land below me moving in the twilight.  Phoenix was a long string of lights; the Valley of the Sun was even back then a nearly 80 mile east-to-west stretch of development.

Further west and the light and the lights diminished rapidly until one could see two things:  the illuminated ribbon of the cars beneath us on Interstate 10—red on one side, white on the other—and a line of demarcation on the southern horizon where the lights seemed to disappear completely—the Mexican border.

Western Arizona and eastern California was a simple blanket of black with clusters of light where the smaller towns and cities lay.  Then the lights on the ground began as a glow on the western horizon, as if the sun had changed its mind and was perhaps coming back up for a final glimpse.  Then suddenly we were looking at the most tremendous sea of lights I’d ever seen.  Lights as far as the eye could see, dense, brilliant, flickering, thriving.  One highway became many, glowing two-tone snakes writhing across the glittering landscape. Thirty minutes later, the light ended abruptly and frighteningly at what appeared at first glance to be a wall of emptiness—the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. 

I was excited, looking at all those lights.  At last, I had come to the land of Oz!

Since then I have been to California several times, but I have not been here in over fifteen years.  The day I wrote this, I was basking in sixty-five degree sunny weather (“real feel” seventy-two) in Winterhaven on the Arizona border.  I had not felt so relaxed and happy in a long time.  The sky was blue and clean, the air fresh and reviving, the countryside quiet except for the frequent trains and the occasional jet. I was reminded of how delightful summer felt in childhood, in central Pennsylvania, before global warming turned the weather on its head, back when California was fictional and mythical, and I was happy and hopeful to be once again in Oz.

In recent days, we have crossed the California portion of the Sonoran Desert and the Laguna Mountains, visited San Diego and traveled up the Pacific Coast Highway to Winnetka, slightly northwest of Los Angeles proper. While driving into the densely populated, auto-heavy metropolis, I could feel the artificiality of the culture here.  This place is the myth-making machine for the American dream, Spin Central for our commercialized consumerist culture.  And while I might have observed this at one time with contempt, I see it now for its absurdity, its irony, its folded-over humor.  I see it for the trickster medicine it really is and am no longer angry over it.  Just certain that I want to visit this Oz for a short time and move on to a place I can truly call home.

Now, where are my ruby slippers?

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