Letters on California

A year and a bit ago, I left California and learned how difficult it is to leave. Of course, I’ve been outside California before. And, of course, leaving is as easy as sitting in a moving vehicle and waiting. And, obviously, I came home. But, though a fish learns about water the first time they leave it, it seems I only learn about California the millionth time I leave it. My respect for fish only grows, but I digress.

Driving across the border from Tahoe into Nevada, I begin to experience emotions. “I’m somewhere!”, I think. “I’ve done something!” And that’s a good feeling, but there’s also an unmistakable sense of loss. Shortly before crossing, looking out the window yielded breathtaking alpine views. Shortly after, looking out the window yields a revolting casino. I suppose I should be thankful for that casino, because at least it’s a warning: within minutes I’ll be driving through Stockton, Nevada (though the locals call it Reno.) But, for all of my negativity, I love Nevada. How can this view of Battle Mountain, a gorgeous mountain range I used to sneer at, only cost $19,000? How can Great Basin National Park, an island in the sky with aspen woodland, deer, and the cutest specimens of rodentia, be so deserted? Valley of Fire, Red Rock Canyon, you just can’t go wrong.

And, as I continue along 80, crossing into Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado, my wonder only grows. Could it be true? Could I be happy living here? It certainly seems so. If I hadn’t been born in California, I would undoubtedly have been born in Bend, Bothell, or Boulder. There is no other way to explain the acute sense of home I feel in those places. Even the strip malls feel so familiar. But, I always leave.

Blinded and terrified in a snowstorm at the Eisenhower tunnels, gasping in surprise at the beauty and calm of Grand Junction, watching sunset over the Great Salt Lake, yearning to see Battle Mountain from another set of angles, I can’t shake the feeling that I am making a great mistake. Every passing mile holds its own surprise, every turn reveals a slight change in geology. Why am I passing all of this? I can’t count the numbers of photos I’ve missed because of a stubborn refusal to stop. Is the allure of sitting on my couch really so strong?

As I pass the casino again, heading into California, it becomes apparent: there are no further discoveries in this trip. But while it feels like that should be a bad feeling, there’s an undeniable amount of comfort. Suddenly, the drivers get worse (half choosing aggression, and half choosing cluelessness.) It hits me: these are my people. Their driving may be a crime against humanity, but I understand what they’re doing and I fit right in. More importantly, after one thousand miles of clouds, the clouds part and Tahoe reveals itself glistening. A few days before I had been shivering in my car, but now I can feel the warmth all around me. I’ve heard that home is a time and a place, and returning to California on the day of the Superbowl makes me realize: home is rush-hour in my car. I don’t understand it, and I wish I didn’t feel this way, but I am truly, finally, home. And I know why I’m back.

April is crazy for critters The Great Salt Lake On top of the world Serenity, Rocky Mountain National Park Gas station views