California’s contradictions embody the West

From progressive policies to bumper-to-bumper traffic, the Golden State is larger than a sum of its parts.


Smokestacks at the Shell oil refinery in Martinez, California.

“On the Road to 50” is an ongoing series of the publisher's notes to our readers, as he travels the region and plans for our 50th anniversary – through community gatherings, individual meetings, and other listening sessions.

From 30,000 feet, Nevada resembled an endless canvas of dull flat browns, relieved only by low-slung mountain ranges and dry lakebeds rimmed with white salt like margarita glasses. Then I looked ahead, and my heart skipped a beat: the sharp eastern spine of the Sierra Nevada, patches of snow still shining on granite peaks.

We were almost to California, the state where I was born, and where my parents were born, and where, in the 1850s, one of my great-great-grandfathers claimed 160 foothill acres, supposedly searching for gold but becoming an apple-grower instead.  Our plane swiftly descended over Yosemite Valley and the Sierra’s forested western slope; the square fields and spreading towns of the Central Valley, the car-choked freeways winding through oak-speckled hills in the eastern suburbs, and, finally, the fog-shrouded San Francisco Bay.

Until I moved to Colorado 27 years ago, California was my primary connection to the West. Yet, when I moved from the Bay Area to work as an assistant editor with High Country News in 1992, the staff and board were still wrestling with whether California should even be part of our beat.

On the one hand, it seemed like a stretch. HCN’s small team of editors and writers had a tough-enough time just keeping up with the Rocky Mountain West. California, with its teeming cities and liberal politics, seemed a world away. How could we even pretend to cover it?

And yet, we found ourselves increasingly dipping our editorial toes into the Golden State’s waters. In the late 1990s, we wrote about the Quincy Library Group — one of the West’s first forestry collaboration efforts, which brought together the local timber industry, environmentalists and federal land managers on the Plumas National Forest. We ventured to Lake Tahoe to report on the unique regional planning agency charged with regulating development there and keeping the lake clear and blue. 

By the early 2000s, we were producing stories of both regional and national significance: the first major deal transferring water from Imperial Valley farmland to urban Southern California; rampant illegal marijuana grows on public lands in Mendocino County; conflicts between tribes, farmers and fisherman in the Klamath River Basin; controversial large-scale solar plants in the Mojave Desert; and the impact of a steady exodus of largely white, conservative Southern Californians to places like Idaho and Colorado.

Each story confirmed that California is more than just another part of the West. The state has always been larger than the sum of its parts.

“California is the future of the West and the country,” Jay Dean, HCN’s current board president, told me over coffee in Martinez, California, where he works for the John Muir Land Trust. Its racially and ethnically diverse population reflects how America will look a few decades from now, he says. “It’s the reason you have that phone in your pocket and why automobile companies have agreed to California’s tough fuel standards, even when the Trump administration wants to weaken them nationally.”

It’s not all innovation and progressive policies, of course. California also embodies all the contradictions that HCN has covered for the past 50 years. In Martinez, I drove past the massive, reeking stacks and tanks of the Shell oil refinery before pulling into the John Muir National Historic Site, managed by the National Park Service. Muir, the Sierra Club’s founder and a father of the modern environmental movement, penned his inspiring words in the wood-paneled den of a 10,000-square-foot mansion — once the center of a 2,600-acre ranch, now hemmed in by the refinery and the freeway. Muir married well: The ranch was purchased by his in-laws, the Strentzels, a family that got rich selling supplies to the gold miners who ripped up the Sierras and steamrolled Native peoples in search of instant riches.

The next night, long after what I thought was rush hour, I headed toward one of California’s first gold towns, Sonora, to visit readers Kate and Charles Segerstrom, the parents of HCN’s assistant editor, Carl Segerstrom. At 9 p.m., I-580 was bumper-to-bumper traffic, as I inched by the giant wind turbines of Altamont Pass and headed toward the boomtown of Tracy. Charles, a recently retired energy efficiency manager for PG&E, explained that this was just standard commuter traffic: Sky-high housing prices have driven workers to the Central Valley, he said. It’s not uncommon for people to drive an hour to Pleasanton to catch an hour-long train ride into the Bay Area.

The serenity of Pinecrest Lake in Stanislaus National Forest, California, stands in contrast.
Paul Larmer

The entire “Gold Country” belt of the Sierras has exploded, stretching the social fabric, said Kate, a Tuolumne County judge who handles an increasingly heavy load of domestic dispute and drug-related cases out of Sonora. Growth is also pushing more people into the fire-prone and ecologically fragile mountains. Before heading to the airport, I dodged RVs and logging trucks to reach Pinecrest Lake, elevation 5,700 feet. For centuries, Pinecrest was a trading center for the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians, who run a nearby casino. Now, it’s a magnet for locals and tourists escaping the valley. The sun was hot but the air cool as I walked to the lakeshore, underneath enormous ponderosa and sugar pines. Slipping into the cold blue waters amid a raucous menagerie of splashing, inflatable-armed kids, I breathed in the mountain air and thought: Now, this is California dreamin’.

Paul Larmer is executive director/publisher of High Country News.


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