50 States - 02/50 - California


I'm cheating a little with California - I've already visited twice before. The first time was not so much fun. The second time, I went on a roadtrip with my 'then girlfriend, now wife' and had a blast! I also saw a lot more of the Republic. I'll be visiting again come August but I think I can write a little about the place in terms of our Great American Experiment. We drove around an awful lot of the state - our longest road trip to date, so I can definitely give it a fair blast.

California always seems a little smug and I can see why. It seems to be regarded by both natives and visitors as being the most progressive of the states with an eye on the future. I've a few friends who are trying to 'make it' out there. Silicon Valley is, of course, what is on everyone's lips but I think part of the appeal of the state lies in it's geography. Within the state borders you have mountains, lovely beaches, skiing resorts, hot springs, deserts, forests! Everything is represented there. You may never need to leave the state there's so many different things to do. I've heard this is true of a few states, but I suspect California is one of the very few places where you can go surfing, then drive for just a few hours then go skiing.

big sur

Surfing is one of the things that we think of when Brits think of California, or even of the states more generally. There definitely is that, and all the other supporting cliches like beach volleyball, rollerblading and muscle beach. California's effect on our own culture, and possibly the world, cannot really be understated! You can pinpoint the cliches to the various city hotspots. Gay pride? San Francisco. Silicon Valley? Palo Alto and San Jose. The movies? Hollywood. Take your pick of the American cliches in our culture. Chances are it came from California.

So how to pin the place down? Lets start with the cities then. San Francisco is a unique place. Beloved by bro-grammers, hipsters, LBTQ communities and 'tech' businessmen. It's a fun place to be, so long as you have money I think. It is an expensive place. You can definitely get some very tasty burritos, sushi and coffee. There's plenty to do for everyone. The weather is a little variable. When I first arrived from Manchester, I thought I'd brought the rain with me! San Francisco perhaps, more than any other city, embodies the classic American Dream - "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere!". This applies mostly to hip, young, 'tech' folk more than others perhaps.

Like many American cities though, San Francisco is almost ghetto-ized; walk but one street away from your normal route and the character really changes. People will tell you to avoid certain roads. How well the difference races, the poor and rich, the haves and have nots mix is an important question to ask. Often, the answer seems to be 'not very well'.

joshua tree

Los Angeles is huge! It's really not one city at all, but several smaller ones, carved up by freeways. I've not spent a long time here but the place really does love the car! I don't think you'd survive long here without one. LA could arguably be the town that has influenced recent Western culture the most, with all the music and movies. Hard to say really - I never looked into all that whilst I was there. I have some friends who do live there and it certainly sounds like all the cliches I've heard.

But the cities aren't really the only thing here at all. The surrounding land really tells you something about America. Take your pick. You have mountains, desert, wine country, market gardens. We saw the whole gamut when we drove around. One thing did become clear though - the cities wouldn't really survive without all the infrastructure diverting resources to them from elsewhere. Recently, there have been blackouts in some of the cities, and droughts in other places. American infrastructure is lacking and as the mega cities grow ever larger, the strains begin to show. I wonder if the desert or mountains (in the form of an earthquake) will reclaim these cities in the end?


The deserts are lovely though. Joshua Tree national park is amazing with stones carved by the elements over millions of years, dotted with the strange Joshua Trees. It's an amazing scene! You've also got the Mojave desert and several other interesting spots to see. If you drive through some of the small towns, you might only find they have one street and look like they just came out of a western. Other small towns are even odder; we came across one that claimed to be Swedish, with all sorts of Scandinavian chintz dotted around. Bizzare! The small towns seem to me to be somewhat more reflective of the land.

There is an interesting contrast with the East coast where we are based. The east coast saw an awful lot of immigration from Europe. In California, you have a history of immigration from places like Japan and China. I think it shows in the various cuisines, architecture and broader culture. Not only that, but a significant Mexican influence too. Places like Los Angeles and San Francisco are very cosmopolitan and you'll hear many languages spoken as you wander around.

Let's not forget of course, the Governator - Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger! You'd think that California would have wanted a Democrat? But apparently, there is such a thing as a California Republican. Under his tenure, California increased it's renewable energy sources, amongst other things, so perhaps there is something in this? California has often been seen as the most liberal and, dare I say, progressive of all the States. The Eurosnob in me thinks they might just have made it to the middle ground of Europe but perhaps that's a little mean?


California is also famous for it's wine. I'm a big fan of new world wines (much better than French I find!) and the Napa valley certainly has these! We visited two wineries and the contrast couldn't be greater. Within about 100 yards, one winery was all dark-oak, and serious money, whereas the next was all hipsters who had 'totally killed it!' that season. I found the contrast very amusing.

Perhaps that's something about California? It's a big state and therefore plenty of room for contrast? I feel like I could write pages and pages on just one of the cities. I could spend months in Yosemite park alone. The history of the universities here, and the discoveries made could fill volumes. In short, California does feel like it has a lot going for it.