The land of opportunity, a golden Eden, the last frontier. What is this place that has given rise to countless metaphors but can still quicken the imagination? For Bill Barich, the question became a quest when he realized that home was no longer New York, where he had grown up, but California, to which he had been lured twenty years earlier. Now, in this account of his journey through California, he captures the true nature of the state behind the stereotypes.
From the fogbound fishing towns of the North to the Mexican port of entry at San Ysidro, Barich describes an amazing diversity among people who have staked a claim to California’s promise. He introduces us to a Native American hairdresser and the head priest of a Sikh temple; we meet loggers, bikers, an aging lifeguard, and the prison warden whose job is to keep Charles Manson behind bars. He follows the traces of John Muir, Robert Louis Stevenson, Walt Disney, and Ronald Reagan, and weighs the impact their dreams have had on the rest of us. The result is a book that captures all the promise, heartache, grandeur, and incongruity of California and its unabashed Big Dreams.
Barich, a writer for the New Yorker whose best-known work is a splendid account of the horse-racing world, Laughing in the Hills , has created a highly original book out of a tired idea. Would you believe that anyone could wring fresh interest from exploring the highways and byways of our most-written-about state? Think again. Barish is a deceptively quiet companion, who can fill your ear effortlessly with as many often eccentric facts as John McPhee, enjoy as many offbeat encounters as William Least Heat Moon ( Blue Highways ) and give his travels a personal, idiosyncratic twist like Jonathan Raban's Old Glory . What comes across most strongly in his portrait of a state he accurately assesses as being a part of almost every American's dreams is the elusiveness of that dream for most of those actually living there. Environmental slaughter, plummeting air quality, soulless subdivisions, regrets for lost Edens and dangerously abrupt divisions between rich and poor are much of his stuff; but Barich has a richly accepting eye, too, for what remains of the natural wonder that has dazzled generations of visitors. As adept at sketching the weather and topography of California's many regions as he is at offering bits of economics and sociology, Barish also employs a beautifully fluid style. There is much pleasure in learning the great deal he has to teach us about this endlessly self-indulgent, aspiring place; and if there are occasional miscalculations--we don't really need another rehash of Charles Manson's crimes--they only serve to accentuate the originality, even daring, of most of the book.