on Southern California

Added on by Taylor Smith.

I took a drive up to Utah last week. My wife and I joined a 12-person relay team and participated in the Top of Zion Relay. This was the second time we have run in this event. While I am still not entirely sure that I am “a runner,” I was much more prepared this time than last.

I have driven between Southern California and various points in Utah more times than I can count. As a kid, it felt like we visited family and various tourist/historical sites up there every summer. Between my wife and I, more than half of our immediate family members live in either Utah or Idaho—my mother plus three of my four siblings, as well as my wife’s parents and two of her four siblings—despite the fact that we both grew up in California. So, we make a lot of trips to Utah.

To put it bluntly, I hate driving to Utah. (Okay, that might be putting it a bit too harshly … Let’s just say that I never look forward to it, and I always wish it to be shorter than it is.) For those that haven’t made this trek, I can sum it up pretty easily: you spend five hours driving through a desert—Las Vegas does break the monotony a bit—until you arrive at the Utah/Arizona border; then you drive through three or four more hours of barely-populated desert until you get to something that feels like “somewhere.” To be fair, there is some stunning scenery along the way, but it mostly feels like a long, dusty drive through a lot of “nowhere.” The return home is the same, only in reverse.

My maternal grandparents both grew up in a tiny town in southwestern Wyoming. It is one of those towns (or was) with only a few families, so my mom ended up with some cousins that are related on both sides. After my grandparents got married, they spent their first several years together wandering around various Wyoming locales until they decided to make a big change; California’s marketing as the land of milk and honey finally got to them and they moved to Los Angeles in the early-1950s.

My grandpa once told me about their move to L.A. He told me about what it was like to drive down the Cajon Pass, out of the desert, into San Bernardino. There was no smog then, so he could see for fifty miles, and one of the most prominent things he saw were orange groves just about as far as he could see. Once they made it all the way down the pass, they decided to stop at one of the fruit stands along the side of the road. And then, the heavens opened and angels sang as he tasted his first glass of orange juice. This, he said, was the most amazing thing he had ever tasted! There were now two parts of his life: B.O.J. and A.O.J. (before orange juice and after orange juice). The orange juice was so amazing that they stopped at every fruit stand between San Bernardino and Culver City. As far as he was concerned, this place was the Garden of Eden, and fresh orange juice was nectar straight from heaven.

When I was in college, one of the first questions we asked each other upon meeting was some variation of, “Where are you from?” I was a little embarrassed of part of my answer, but less so of the other part. I was often a little smug about the fact that I could say I was from California, which I regret; there are a lot of reasons to not be proud to be Californian, and a lot of reasons to be proud to be other kinds of -(i)an.

In graduate school, I took a class called, “Los Angeles: Texts and Contexts.” Claremont is all proud of itself for requiring everyone to take a “transdisciplinary” course; the L.A. one just happened to be what was being offered when I had room for the t-course. It was an interesting class. It was basically a look at L.A. through a variety of lenses, including some not-so-obvious ones. It was in this class that I wrote a paper about The Beach Boys, and when it came time to settle on a (new) dissertation topic three years later, I looked back on that paper and thought it might be worth expanding.

Though I am not a geographer, nor a cartographer, nor a topographer, I ended up leading a discussion about the city’s interesting geography. Basically, Los Angeles—and the rest of Southern California—is kind of like an island, surrounded on two sides by mountains, on one side by an ocean, and on another by the international border (with an uninhabited desert beyond that). The Tehachapi, Santa Monica, San Gabriel, and San Bernardino mountains make an almost unbroken northern wall, while the San Jacintos, Santa Rosas, Cuyamacas, and Lagunas do the same to the east. There are 5,500 miles of ocean to the west, and the land becomes uninhabitable about 200 miles south of Mount Wilson. Put more simply, it is a pain in the butt to get to Southern California: you either have to scale 10,000+ foot mountain ranges—after crossing hundreds of miles of desert—or sail in from some other place touching the Pacific; entering from the south is a little easier except for the fact that Baja is a really long peninsula, most of which is also empty.

Mountains, more mountains, deserts, and an ocean.  (The blue dot is where I happen to be sitting right now.)

Mountains, more mountains, deserts, and an ocean.  (The blue dot is where I happen to be sitting right now.)

The thing is, L.A. really has no business being where it is. There is not enough water to support anything close to that size. It takes quite a bit of effort to get into or out of the area. There is no natural seaport. (Even San Diego’s bay has to be dredged to allow large ships to pass. The bay is naturally only about 5 feet deep in several places.) But, none of this has stopped 15 million people from calling this corner of the country home. (I am well aware of the complicated political finagling that allows L.A. and S.D. to access water from far away places, and am sympathetic to the problems this causes.)

Given the popular language about California one day falling into the ocean, the image of Southern California as an island is really interesting to me. So, as my wife and I were driving across the Mojave Desert on our way back home, this image of us driving to an island kept popping into my head. This makes the idea of the entire state dislocating from Nevada, Arizona, and Oregon, and floating out to sea a bit more literal. And then there is the fact that California has a larger economy than most countries, and that a sizable chunk of the U.S. couldn’t care less if we were to just float away. What if we did float away?

But, then there is the orange juice.


*Interesting side note: one of the names Natives used for the L.A. Basin translates into something along the lines of “Valley of Smoke.” Basically, the place is a magnet for smog, and it seems that it was a problem long before Europeans paved over the place.