I always loved California, but it never loved me back.
I lived in or near San Francisco three different times over the years and each time I was forced to leave in failure.
The first time wasn't my fault since I was only a young infant. In 1945 my old man took a job at Hunter's Point shipyard in San Francisco, helping to build warships for the Navy. Several months later World War II ended, my father was laid off and he couldn't find another job in the bay area. My family returned to its roots in the Midwest.
The second time was right after two friends and I graduated from high school in Michigan. We drove across country and our car died on the Oakland bay bridge. The only job I could find was working as a part-time doorman at the Geary Theater in San Francisco, but after 6 months, I was broke and I gave up to return to Michigan.
The third time I thought my bad luck with California was finally over. In 1969 I was assigned to Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield and I spent most of my off-duty time in the bay area digging the best music I had ever heard. I saw live performances by Van Morrison, Sopwith Camel, Stoneground and Jerry Garcia among others and I was in the audience the night Bill Graham closed Winterland (aka the Fillmore West) in San Francisco with a sensational rock concert. I also explored Marin County, fished in the Sierra Nevada mountains, gambled at Lake Tahoe and caught free hops on Air Force planes to southern California whenever I had a few days off from work.
But a 20-year-old Valley Girl broke my heart at Travis and I volunteered for duty in Hawaii to get away from her.
Since then, I have returned to California many times because the Golden State continued to entice me with unrequited love. The natural beauty of California is undeniable. It's like a whole country in itself with different climate zones: snow-covered mountain tops, fertile farm valleys, deserts, dripping-wet redwood forests and balmly semi-tropical places like San Diego.
I visited San Diego only once on my way to Mexico, but I was duly impressed by the city's chic beauty. The first time I saw the rugged coastline of Big Sur it literally took my breath away. Scenic Napa Valley was the setting of drunken wine-tasting trips I took periodically. I danced one night away at the Whisky A-Go-Go on infamous Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. I froze my butt but enjoyed camping out in Desolation Valley and along the banks of the Russian River. I panned for gold in the American River near Sacramento. I hung out in college bars a couple blocks away from the campus of the University of California at Berkely, where I once choked on police tear gas. I had my first taste of mead at the costumed Renaissance Festival in San Rafael. I spent a night with an attractive young woman on an island in the middle of Lake Berryessa, where we found mysterious deer tracks and each other in the darkness. My favorite drive was along the northern California coast with two friends when we stopped overnight in Mendocino on our way to Oregon. I cruised past Malibu beach mansions and explored Laurel Canyon before it was an in-spot.
California has the best and the worst of America. On the worse side is Los Angeles, the megalopolis of tacky urban sprawl and spider-webbed freeways posing as a real city. In Bakersfield you can smell the odor of rednecks and boiled mustard greens as you listen to hillbilly music on the AM radio stations. You might as well be in Alabama or Arkansas.
But who can forget the best side -- the spectacular natural beauty, music, artist colonies, cozy college towns like Santa Cruz? California offers a cornucopia of great things for anyone willing to look.
At my age I doubt if I will ever see California again. Of all the places I ever lived, the Golden State will likely remain the one amazing place where my luck never matched my sense of wonder.
"The earth was made round so we can't see too far down the road and know what is coming." -- Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa