California’s a pretty diverse place, geographically and demographically: it has both the highest and lowest points in the contiguous forty-eight states (Mt. Whitney, and Badwater in Death Valley, respectively — almost within sight of each other); the hottest place on earth (Death Valley, again), as well as some rather cold places (it’s been a Chicagoesque -30C in Truckee); volcanoes and rainforests, deserts and redwoods, wide rivers and frozen glaciers, beaches and ski slopes (California has hosted the Winter Olympics), rolling high country plains and deep mountain lakes, oil fields and endlessly-fertile farmland, Silicon Valley and East LA, Hollywood and Marin, Berkeley and Bakersfield, Arcata and Barstow (all in a state that’s less than half the size of Japan). This diverse landscape and the underlying geology have shaped California’s culture in many ways; keep these in mind when you’re planning trips in California.
The first thing to remember is that virtually all of California is earthquake country — there’s just no escaping this. This basic fact shapes everything from freeway and bridge design, through the architecture of skyscrapers and domestic buildings (and the obvious lack of brick houses), to human and cultural neuroses. We all know that the Big One will hit sometime, but most of us try not to think too much about it (or refuse to think about it at all). As a tourist, you probably shouldn’t get too obsessive about it, but don’t be complacent — the Big One is just as likely to strike while you’re reading this as it is to hit in thirty years time. We just don’t know. The US Geological Survey (the USGS) has a good Earthquake Preparedness site with links to various sites; this should be required reading for anyone visiting California. As a driver, the minimum you should do is carry enough water and food in your car to last you and any passengers for a day or two for when the quake strikes and you’re in your car (a likely scenario in California); you should also carry a basic first aid kit in your car as well.
The second thing to remember is that much of California is naturally either desert or mountain, often both. Water is scarce in much of California, and for the desert areas (especially Los Angeles) water has to be piped in from elsewhere, often from hundreds of miles away, and often up and over high rugged mountain ranges at great expense (and huge power budgets). Most of Southern California does not have enough water to sustain itself, so water is power in this state, especially in the Los Angeles area (see the movie “Chinatown” for a barely-fictionalized account of some of L.A.’s early 20th century water wars). Green suburban lawns in L.A., mall fountains in San Diego, the ability to grow rice in the Central Valley: all of these are ostentatious signs of power and wealth — and all of them are signs of a heavily engineered environment that is proving harder and harder to sustain as the population grows and the climate changes. Every decade or so we also get long droughts whose effects get worse as the population increases; if they last more than a year or two, restrictions on everything from lawn-watering to showers come into effect in most parts of the state.
The third thing to remember is that there’s Northern California and Southern California. Northern and Southern California are physically and culturally quite distinct (enough so that every now and then Northern California half-seriously contemplates leaving California and becoming the 51st state). San Francisco and the San Francisco Bay Area are definitely in Northern California, Los Angeles in Southern California; the dividing line is less easily defined, but is usually thought of as being somewhere south of Monterey on the coast, and a little south of Yosemite inland, depending on who you talk to. We Northerners tend to resent the fact that outsiders think all of California is like the Southern California they know from television and movies (God forbid that life would be so empty!), and that Southern California (L.A. in particular) and the San Joaquin Valley callously and wastefully take all of Northern California’s water for things like swimming pools and golf courses.
Of course, there’s really more to it than just North vs. South — see e.g. the State of Jefferson, and sometimes the Central Valley feels like another state entirely. But apart from the stolen-water thing (which isn’t entirely true, but never mind), it’s the cultural gap that’s most significant: you all “know” about Southern California (airheads and babes; rollerblading actors and actresses between jobs waiting tables in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica; geriatric golf in Palm Springs; drive-by gang shootings; Watts, East L.A., etc. etc. ad nauseam), but much of California isn’t like that at all (parts of Southern California aren’t like that either, for that matter). San Francisco and Berkeley, for example, are quintessentially Northern Californian in their pretensions to a smaller, more European, more cultured existence than L.A. or San Diego. Don’t ever accuse a San Franciscan of being a Southern Californian — they will be terribly offended, especially if (as is often the case) they’re actually originally from L.A. These pretensions are often laughable — and the sign of some deeply troubling insecurities — but they’re a strong part of California’s cultural makeup. The really painful truth for most older Northern Californians is that (at least since the 1970’s) L.A. is now definitely the cultural, musical, and artistic capital of the state, with excellent galleries, music, art scenes, etc., spread across the vast L.A. basin; I don’t think older San Franciscans have ever quite been able to get over this fact. The truth is, that while San Francisco tends to think of itself as being locked in a mortal cultural rivalry with Los Angeles, L.A. barely knows San Francisco exists, and cares even less — from L.A.’s point of view, there’s no rivalry at all.
The fourth thing to remember is that for all the high tech glamour of Silicon Valley or the local biotech industry, California is still largely an agricultural state. A big part of California’s wealth comes from the fruit, vegetables, and grains grown in the huge Central Valley. Much of America’s produce comes from the Valley; a lot of this produce comes to us cheaply due to federal water subsidies (see below) and seasonal near-slave labor imported from Mexico.
The fifth thing to remember is that for all its self-image as a cultural or physical frontier, California is the way it is due to huge federal subsidies over the years, and a large defense and civil service sector. The immensely-productive Central Valley, for example, would still be mostly desert or swamp if vast publicly-funded engineering works hadn’t been used to make it possible to grow rice, cotton, fruit, and vegetables “cheaply” with subsidized water from elsewhere. Similarly, much of California’s early development was underwritten by the federal government in one way or another, and continued to be until fairly recently.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the gap between rich and poor Californians is large, and growing daily; the middle is being relentlessly squeezed out in the nicer parts of the state. This won’t mean much to you unless you live here, but you will be affected by the very evident homelessness and street poverty in the main cities. If you’re shocked or distressed by the sight of obviously-mentally-ill street people roaming around un-cared-for, or by being hustled by poverty-stricken beggars on the sidewalks, or you don’t want to step around or drive past blocks full of tents sheltering homeless people, urban California is not for you.
Lastly, most people you’ll meet in California will probably be from somewhere else. California is a nation of immigrants and movers; it’s unusual to meet a native of whatever city or town you’re in. It’s even common for me — an immigrant from overseas — to be the only person in a work meeting who’s been in California for more than (say) ten years.
All this makes for a state that is much more geographically and culturally diverse than most other states or countries. A large proportion of the state’s population is Latino, Asian, or African-American; “Anglos” are a minority in significant parts of the state; the Asian-Pacific influence is very strong, especially in L.A. and the San Francisco Bay Area; and there are influential pockets of Italians, Native Americans, Britons, Portuguese, etc. here and there around the state. Above all, there’s a huge range of economic and social classes, from the desperate poverty of the inner cities and rural farm workers through the disappearing suburban and urban blue collar workers to the suburban middle classes to the good burghers of Beverly Hills and Sausalito. Needless to say, for all California’s self-proclaimed egalitarianism, social mixing happens a lot less than most Californians would like to admit, and there’s a great deal of racial and cultural strife in some areas. However, most visitors will probably not be directly affected by such problems, and the real miracle is that by and large California’s multiculturalism actually works as well as it does (it’s one of the reasons I moved here).
If you want to know more about what makes California’s culture and economy tick, I’d recommend starting with both “Cadillac Desert” by the late Marc Reisner (Penguin, ISBN 0 14 010432 1) and “City Of Quartz” by Mike Davis (Haymarket, ISBN 0 86091 303 1). These books do a good job in explaining why California is the way it is, and how water and government politics (and “pork”, of course) have shaped California. I also like Joan Didion’s “Where I Was From” for a deeply-felt and thoughtful look at the various myths we Californians often live by. For a good guide to California’s different geographical and cultural regions, I recommend “The Seven States of California: A Cultural and Natural History” by Philip L. Fradkin (Henry Holt and Company, New York 1995, ISBN 0-8050-1947-2). A really excellent first-hand description of the early exploration of California by Europeans from Back East (and the impressions California made on them) is contained in “Up and Down California in 1860-1866: The Journal of William H. Brewer”, ed. Francis P. Farquhar, UC Press (1966, numerous reprintings), ISBN 0-520-02762-0. Reyner Banham’s “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies”, although really dated, is good at conveying and explaining some of the mythical Los Angeles Experience, as well as being a lot of fun to read (it’s hard for a Northern Californian to admit, but Los Angeles on a clear sunny winter’s day with the snow-capped mountains sparkling in the background glimpsed through the palm trees can actually look very beautiful, especially from Santa Monica or Pasadena, or from a fast-moving freeway above the sprawl. You might also want to check out Banham’s “Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles” on Google Video; again, it’s very dated, but a lot of fun).
And if you’ve got the patience, here’s a video I made a few years ago of some of my favourite bits of California, some places you probably won’t spend much time visiting, but that are definitely a crucial part of the California out there beyond the tourist trails (video © 2011 Hamish Reid):