When most people think of California, I don't think they think of the town of Weed. I don't think they think of Mojave or Barstow or Blythe or Alturas either. Nor do they think of Lakeport, or even Crescent City. They don't think of Atascadero, unless they know about the prison for the criminally insane.
Weed, where we spent the night a couple weeks ago, is the kind of California town that breaks the stereotype of sunny prosperity and relaxed urbanity that we associate with California. In fact, do we even remember that California is full of small towns, some of them down and out or struggling economically-like Weed? Do we think of towns like Greenfield or King City in the Salinas Valley, towns totally focused on agriculture, on lettuce and broccoli fields in the loam laid down by the Salinas River? Our friend Ken, who was raised in south Texas, says King City, Calif., reminds him of Texas in the '50s.
There are other towns that seem like non sequiturs in the California lexicon: Bridgeport and Olancha on the eastern side of the Sierras, Brawley in the Imperial Valley, Santa Margarita, Lompoc, Stockton, Pleasanton, even Santa Rosa. None of these call up beauty like Merced (a gateway to Yosemite National Park), history like Sacramento (a jump off to the 1849 Gold Rush towns), or romance (where else, but San Francisco), or glitz (LA-LA land for sure).
When I think of California, I think of balmy weather - in spite of 12 feet of snow on Donner Pass and frigid high pastures driving down Highway 395. I think of wealth, expressed both through conspicuous consumption and quiet estates in Bel Air and Hillsborough. I think of progressive politics and New Age spirituality in Marin County, then its opposite, Orange County, with a conservatism that sometimes seems to be "I've got mine and let the devil take the hindmost"-both viewpoints sometimes expressed with a smugness that could be humorous if not so divisive.
I think of the Golden Gate Bridge and Chinese New Year in San Francisco, Highway 1 churning along the Big Sur coast, roller skaters and body builders at Venice Beach, the sheer cliffs and waterfalls of Yosemite Valley, redwood trees the size of locomotives, and of course, freeways, freeways, freeways.
I think of California as one of the world's largest economies, ranked in the top ten, but I forget about the homeless people that have been taken for granted since the '70s, especially the mentally ill turned out on the streets when Gov. Reagan decided to reduce the size of state government by closing many of the state mental hospitals. I forget about California voting celebrities into office and that being a bellwether for political shifts in the U.S.
I forget about towns like Weed, where friendly, hard working people are still trying to make a buck with an honest enterprise - until I'm there, staying in a little motel that used to hug the only highway, but is now left behind by an interstate. And then I wonder, what used to be the source of livelihood, if not prosperity, in this remote part of the state? I wonder what kinds of problems families face, where they get their health care, how good are the schools, and are there any hometown jobs for their kids when they grow up?
Sound familiar? It's the other California, the rural part of the rural/urban divide that is separating almost every state into relatively prosperous urban areas and struggling small towns.
Just as there is the other California, there's the other Oregon, and the other Washington. Not the Washington of Seattle's dot-com boom, or Boeing factories, or the source of grunge rock. Not the Washington of Mt. Rainier National Park or the Olympic Range. Not the Washington of sailboats on Puget Sound or among the San Juan Islands. Not the Washington of the Columbia River Gorge or giant Grand Coulee Dam or even the Hanford Reservation. The other Washington is made up of small towns like Elma, Forks, and Tenino, Kettle Falls and Omak, Goldendale and Ritzville.
So, when the national elections roll around, and the commentators start discussing the "blue states" and the "red states," as if each state could be explained in simple terms, perhaps it would be helpful to remember that every state has some blue and some red, not only in terms of voters, but also in terms of problems and compensations.
Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer from Ilwaco, but spent several years living in California and still loves many places in the state.