Sometimes I forget how big California is. “I live in Northern California,” I say. “In Berkeley,” if I’m talking to someone who’s familiar with the area. “In San Francisco,” if I’m not. But the Bay Area, while northern, is only halfway up the state. Mid-California.
There’s a highway that shoots through the state. The road rides along the southern coast until it juts inland in Orange County, cutting through the eastern edge of Los Angeles and then up through Central California, into the Sacramento Valley and the Shasta Cascade. If you drove this highway from end to end, you would go almost exactly 800 miles without ever leaving the state.
Interstate 5 is really the west coast’s main highway. It starts with the border crossing in San Ysidro, California and ends at the border to the north in Blaine, Washington. The 5 is the ribbon that connects all the major cities on this coast: San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Portland, and Seattle. All of the cities – except for San Francisco, which it bypasses entirely.
When you drive the length of California, you don’t have to take the 5. The 5 is simply the one that gets you there, barring abysmal traffic. It is not our state’s romantic highway but the practical one. I have never loved driving it, not when I lived in Southern California and not when I have driven on it for great distances. But I have appreciated it for what it is, which is a means to one end or another.
The farthest south I have driven is Calexico. I took my mother there, and then to Mexicali, just across the U.S.-Mexico border.
After we drove through Mexicali and stopped at the Plaza La Cachanilla, Mexicali’s mall, we got lost trying to find the border crossing back to Calexico. We drove down narrow streets in a crumbling neighborhood not far from the mall. I thought about these two cities separated not by an impenetrable wall but by a tall fence. I thought about Calexico just across the border, if we could ever find it, with its pale adobe-colored strip malls topped by red clay roof tiles. Another take on a Spanish Colonial Revival style, the same relentless thing, as seen through the slats in a fence.
I’ve never driven California from north to south in one go. I haven’t even been on the entirety of the 5. I’ve been as far as Mt. Shasta in the dead of winter, and I’ve been to Calexico in the summer. In between I’ve driven up the coast, from San Diego to Orange County, from Orange County to Monterey to San Francisco, from San Francisco to Trinidad. Tiring of the 5 and its interminable vistas of farmlands and cattle ranches, I’ve gone a little farther inland to take the 99 through Bakersfield, Delano, Chowchilla, Turlock, Modesto.
Sometimes I think about the places I’ve missed on these drives, the way I’ve been north-south but not as much east-west. The day we went to Mexicali, we drove only from Costa Mesa, over and back. Had we gone straight up we might have made it to the Salton Sea. I’ve never been to Tahoe, to Yosemite, to the Sequoias, to Grass Valley or Antelope Valley, or to the ghost towns that dot the landscape. I’ve spent precious little time in Riverside County, although the night I stayed in Hemet across from an emu farm felt like a near-eternity.
California is deserts, farmlands, mountains, beaches, craggy coasts, forests, scrublands, redwood groves, oil fields, diatomite and tungsten mines, cities with unfathomable wealth, communities that are poorer than anywhere else in the country. It is where anything can come alive and where many dreams have died. It is an impossible place.
The spine that runs through it connects its fabled halves, Northern and Southern, as if this divide is all there is to say about the entire state. But the spine itself belies the myth of California, the one that hovers at the very edge like an iridescent bubble and floats just out of reach every time. There is no straight shot between those storied Northern and Southern Californias. You cannot take a direct route from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Instead, you have to unfurl each road, one memory at a time, to find California for yourself.