It’s a scientific fact that if you stay in California you lose one point of your IQ every year. – Truman Capote
California is a garden of Eden,
A paradise to live in or see,
But believe it or not, you won;t find it so hot,
If you aint got the doh-ray-mi.
(“The Doh-Ray-Mi”, Woody Guthrie, 1930’s)
California is one of those places that has suffered the fate of being eulogized so often in the modern media that it’s hard to imagine it without all the positive connotations drummed into us by songs and movies (“I wish they all could be Californian girls”). It does have a different vibe to the rest of the US but is also one of the most expensive places to live in the world. The lifestyle is mostly laidback and, aside from the big cities, the housing is all pretty spread out and luxurious. It’s the kind of place where people drive an hour to visit friends hosting a pot luck by their hot tub.
Many Americans you’ll meet travelling tell you that there you could only ever live on the East or West coasts of the US, that the middle is only for the Bible Bashers, red necks and maybe the Amish. Push them a bit further and those who consider themselves really hip might say that it’s really only a choice between New York and San Francisco. The difference is fairly stark though – whilst on the East Coast the people freeze during winter and approach life with a cynical, intellectual eye, the Californians believe everything they hear, consult their birth charts by the hour and search for the meaning of life through starry (if not stoned) eyes. It’s the kind of place where you’ll find Yoga for Pregnant Women magazines by the check out counter in the local store.
California is without doubt a beautiful place to travel. You’ve never seen trees as big as the redwoods in North California and there are beautiful beaches running all the way down the coast. Not withstanding the freezing water, the undertow and the great white shark attacks, the surfing can be good and, once you’re into Southern California, the whole beach scene begins.
As awesome as the scenery can be for the backpacker, however, California is not a cheap place to travel, as Woody Guthrie hints above. If you’re renting a car and camping you can get by okay but the moment you look at staying somewhere you’ll be wishing the dollar had completely crashed.
Down from San Fran you have Santa Cruz, a hippie town where drumming sessions take place up in the woods near the campus. There’s a ghastly promenade with plenty of fat Americans eating their way to happiness and a fairly plastic downtown that tries to look colonial. Good people live here though once you find the right places to hang out.
Pay homage to Jack Kerouac at Big Sur and maybe even sign up for the work program at the Esalen Centre. It costs you $800 a month and you have to work 32 hours a week but you do get to do the workshops for free and hang out in one of the most vibing, karmic places on earth, man.
Further south, just an hour from L.A is Santa Barbara, one of the most beautiful towns in California with mountains at the back, a calm vibe in the town with trees running down all the roads, and the beginning of the beach culture down on the shores. As affluent as anywhere you’ll find the population is largely divided between the college students, the rich who own the million dollar homes and the Latino population who serve the former.
Then you’re into Los Angeles, the city most filmed in all of the world. It’s a metropolis where most people spend a couple of hours a day fighting traffic and listening to Tibetan mantras on their car stereos. Everyone works hard here but of course, really, that’s just a short-term gig while they’re waiting for their script/audition/cd to come through and take them to the big time. Travelers should head to Venice Beach to connect with anyone worth meeting.