Hustlers grab your guns
Your shadow weighs a ton
Driving down the 101
California here we come
-California by Phantom Planet
It feels like not so long ago that I was listening to this song on repeat, anticipating my big move. Like most people, I know this song because it was the theme for The O.C., a show which was popular when I was a teenager. As silly as it may sound, that show my decision to move to California.
The allure was in the beautiful people, beaches, palm trees, fancy houses and cars; certainly an appeal to my baser instincts, which dominated my decision sphere at age 17. I know all these kids today want to save the world, but I was a normal kid with normal desires. That show crystalized my desire into a dream, and I made that dream come true. I got into a small college in Southern California, and couldn’t have been more excited about the move west. I was ecstatic, sitting my in childhood bedroom, blasting that song and singing along. Now, more than a decade later, I’m leaving. It has begun to dawn on me that it may never return; I may be leaving for good.
I am writing this just hours after returning from this year’s Lightning in a Bottle. It was my time at that festival, and it felt like a place where north meets south. That is, where Northern California meets Southern California. Geographically, the festival was sort of in the middle. Bakersfield is farm country roughly between San Francisco and Los Angeles and felt like a neutral zone between regions that share license plates and a tax regime but foster radically different states of mind.
The south was always more to my liking, as I’ve written many times before, and at times feels like an entirely different state. My relative distaste for the north, where I’ve spent the last four years, may be part of why I wasn’t feeling too reminiscent til now. But the two are perhaps not as distinct as I thought. Lightning in a Bottle showed me this.
California is a diverse state with many subcultures. At Lightning in a Bottle, those subcultures included yoga, mushroom-heads (didn’t know that was a thing until this weekend), ravers, bohemians, vegans, environmentalists, and Coors Light drinking bros. From talking to more people than I normally would, I came to realize that most identify with one of those, or another, as their primary subculture affiliation. But, as you may already see from that list, there’s a good bit of overlap.
These past few days I met mushroom-heads who are into yoga and yogis who are into mushrooms, and many if not most of them were vegan. At first I was perplexed by all of this. Those who know me know that I am not vegan, a yogi, or into mushrooms, so all of this felt a bit culturally voyeuristic of me if I’m being completely honest, but fascinating. I couldn’t quite find the common thread. Some people describe the festival as where Coachella meets Burning Man, much to the chagrin of many burners who nigh approve of any comparisons to the burn, but I don’t think that’s quite right. It certainly was an amalgamation of various aspects of festival culture. But I realized it was more than that. What it was, in actuality, was thoroughly California.
The cultural continuity is revealed roughly where yoga meets tans and hallucinogenic drugs. Elements of these subcultures have spread well outside California and even well outside our great nation, but there is no place embodies them more than California.
California, as a brand, has not faded. The state’s history is short but sweet. Renegades went west for riches, one boom for gold, the next for fame. The ascension of Los Angeles after San Francisco’s devastating 1906 earthquake set the wheels in motion for one of the most remarkable development stories in America’s history. As it turned out, good weather was good for business. Berkeley’s hippies and Santa Monica’s beach bums worked in harmony to spread good vibes amplified by the rise of modern mass entertainment through the radio and television. This past is the foundation for what has become perhaps the best branded region in the world.
When I was a kid growing up in the 90s, California meant cool. I distinctly remember separate kids moving from California to our sleepy, modest town in Maryland. One moved from Santa Monica, and I have no idea where the other moved from. It didn’t matter. He was from California. He was cool, and we all thought so. In a sense, we perhaps wondered why anyone would move from the storied land to our simple home, but we were honored to have them both and I recall myself and my peers reacting to them with a sort of deference and intrigue. Looking back, they were pretty normal kids. But their brand preceded them, and was back then strong enough to form strong preconceptions.
Since then, California has expanded its influence. The technology emanating from the Bay Area, already important when I was a kid, has damn near taken over the world. Even SoCal owns a social media generation with Snap. I don’t know what the perception of California is for young Americans outside the state today, but I imagine many still dream of leaving wherever they call home to chase some sort of dream in California. On the cusp of leaving, it’s easy to forget what an incredible place California has been, and still is today.
Driving down the 5 today, I couldn’t help but stare at the California license plates. I was so captivated by them when I first arrived here for college. The playful cursive lettering teased the playground this place can be. California was fun. California is fun.
As we approached LA crawling in traffic behind a black Rolls-Royce convertible with a license plate frame reading “Rolls-Royce Beverly Hills,” I thought, “wow this is so LA,” and couldn’t help but feel a little sad. Living in California was the dream life. I had it, and now I’m letting it go. I might not miss San Francisco, but I will definitely miss California. California — may your sun shine on forever.