Everyone's happy in California, or they're trying to be. It's not just the weather, the people seem sunny.
I'm trying to adjust. Moving from Pennsylvania took only a day; yet after more than a year in San Francisco, I'm on shaky ground. The Pacific is mysterious, the people who lives along its shores more so.
I've just returned from Death Valley. Not my first visit: my first was made in the mid-90s, after Death Valley had been declared a National Park (it had been a National Monument.) It's a classic American landscape: sand dunes, moon-like craters, and Borax-tipped hills and plains that look, to the untutored eye, snow-covered.
I realized, with amusement, that my first naïve viewing of Death Valley's cliffs, my Eastern eyes had mistaken borax for snow. I got it all wrong. Now, I rubbed my fingers in the glowing mineral dust, and thought, of course, that's why people came here: gold, silver, lead, chloride, and the desert's first source of wealth, Borax.
The cliffs, shimmering with mineral light, are filled with abandoned miner's camps, each one of story of men (often Chinese immigrants) stranded in the inhospitable desert for what must have felt like a prison sentence. The desert has no water to speak of, and burros carried whatever was needed for the solitary men—and now, the ghost camps have piles of rusty tin cans, eerily preserved by the National Park Service as an archaeological site. Ugly, but perhaps the miners were consoled by the dark starry skies that must have spoken of other glories, other worlds, other hopes.
So much of California's history is a gold rush. The first explosion in the mid-nineteenth century, then a silver boom a few years later that made more than a few San Francisco fortunes—and less than half a century later, equally glittering Hollywood, built in part by immigrant Jews who were barred from the East's wealth industries of banking and insurance. And then, in our recent history, Silicon Valley whose saga is still unfolding. Now, there are stock options instead of mine claims, but California is, as ever, a land of get-rich quick, fortunes that rise overnight.
No wonder Californians expect happiness as part of life's deal—whereas the rest of us settle for its pursuit.