In my early 20s I took the requisite college student’s pilgrimage to Europe, exploring its finer train stations and sleeping on the premier park benches from London to Istanbul. I was relatively anonymous—just another tanned and skinny, blond and blue-eyed American with a backpack. That is, until I crossed into the former Eastern Bloc.
The reaction there was dramatic, almost palpable. Like Moses parting the sea, I wandered the crowded streets of Prague and citizens would stop, stare, and step aside as if I bore a scarlet letter A across my chest. It wasn’t until a man with faltering English approached me that I discovered the reason for my newfound celebrity status.
“Eh, you. Where you from? No, no. Let me guess.” He stepped back and gave a cursory examination, followed by a pregnant pause. “Ah, I’ve got it! California! You’re from California, no?” His eyes gleamed as I told him that, yes, he was quite correct. “Wonderful! Wonderful!”
A dozen or so pilsners later with my loquacious new friend, it all became clear to me: To him, I was a celebrity—a rich, convertible-driving surfer who spent most of his days lazing on the beach, fending off hordes of buxom blondes while arguing with his agent via cellphone.
The myth is complete, I thought. I am the Beach Boys. I am Baywatch. Status by association. The tentacles of Hollywood have done what no NATO pact could achieve by offering a far more potent narcotic: the mystique of sun-drenched California, of movie stars strolling down Sunset Boulevard, of beautiful women in tight shorts and bikini tops roller-skating along Venice Beach.
In short, the world has bought what Hollywood is selling.
Of course, the allure is understandable. It is warm and sunny most days of the year, movie stars do abound in Los Angeles, and you can’t swing a cat by its tail without hitting an in-line skater in Venice Beach. This part of the California mystique, however exaggerated, does exist, and it’s not hard to find.
But there’s more—a lot more—to California that isn’t scripted, sanitized, and broadcasted to the world’s millions of mesmerized masses. Beyond the Hollywood glitter is a wondrously diverse state that, if it ever seceded from the Union, would be one of the most productive, powerful nations in the world.
We’ve got it all: misty redwood forests, an exceptionally verdant Central Valley teeming with agriculture, the mighty Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, eerily fascinating deserts, a host of world-renowned cities, and, of course, hundreds of miles of stunning coastline.
And despite the endemic crime, pollution, traffic, and bowel-shaking earthquakes for which California is famous, we’re still the golden child of the United States, America’s spoiled rich kid, either loved or loathed by everyone else. (Neighboring Oregon, for example, sells lots of license-plate rims that proudly state, “I hate California.”)
Truth be told, we don’t really care what anyone thinks of us. Californians know they live in one of the most diverse and interesting places in the world, and we’re proud of the state we call home.
I travel the world for a living, but I choose to live in California—because no other place on earth has so much to offer.
— Matthew R. Poole