By John Branch
Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood, which was destroyed by a wildfire last year. (Josh Haner for The New York Times)
NOVATO, California — It was about 30 degrees Celsius that afternoon, but at a rest stop along Interstate 5 in the mountains of Northern California, it snowed flakes of ash on my pickup truck. The wildfire raging nearby was about as bad as anyone could imagine, but our imaginations hadn’t reached November yet.
This was August, long before we lost Paradise and much of Malibu, before the fiery hellscapes at opposite ends of a state under siege lit up screens around the world.
I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, nowhere near the fires but persistently reminded of them. My neighborhood slinks through the rugged hills of dry grass and trees, terrain not unlike what we’ve seen burning on television.
Twitter had the first message from President Donald J. Trump about the fires, in which he blamed “gross mismanagement of the forests” for the crisis.
Love it or hate it, California represents a foil for people who worry that it foreshadows the future of the country, as it always has.
The state, we were told, was an overpriced and overregulated land of marauding immigrants and drinking straw-less restaurants. And now, post-election, look at it — burned at both ends, the recent setting of another unexplained mass shooting, a place with both abject poverty and astronomical housing costs, everyone waiting for the big earthquake.
Funny, I think, every time I hear California insulted. I choose to live here. There is no other place I’d rather raise my children. I’m proud to say I’m from California, a beautiful and messy place unlike any other, in a moment unlike any other.
One in eight Americans live in California. If it were a country, it would represent the world’s fifth-largest economy. It is the most diverse state in the country, by measures of geography, economy, culture and demographics.
Always a trendsetter, California today is the United States of tomorrow, and now it feels ready to use its power to blunt the forces from the White House, about 4,800 kilometers away.
California already has sued the Trump administration 44 times, on issues involving immigration status, health care, the border wall and fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles. The administration has sued California three times, including over net neutrality and sanctuary status.
Pick a side: California represents a threat; California represents an ideal.
It’s much more complex for the 40 million of us who live here. It is more paradox than paradise. Life would be simpler someplace else. I bemoan the ever-worsening traffic here. I’m aghast at the levels of homelessness. I’m disappointed in the public schools.
I bought my house six years ago, and there is no chance I could afford it at its supposed value today. I worry I’m raising children in a place they will never afford for themselves.
Some have had enough, but most of us are digging in. It’s exciting to be on the front lines to many of this country’s biggest problems — climate change and energy, economic disparity and infrastructure, race and immigration.
One weekend, I crossed the northern border from Oregon and drove more than 1,600 kilometers, all in California, by Sunday evening. I have made trips to Crescent City on the northern coast and San Diego on the southern one. I have been to Sacramento, Fresno, Bakersfield and Tehachapi, all on separate trips. I have been to two national parks (Yosemite and Redwoods), about 800 kilometers.
Here might be the most California sentence of all: The only reason we canceled our weekend camping reservations at Lassen Volcanic National Park in October was that my son had an appointment at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and the earliest it could be rescheduled was this month.
All those excursions came as California-bashing boiled over. It changed my perspective as I looked around. What will California represent once the smoke clears?
The so-called Tubbs Fire was just one of several that broke out in little-known corners of wine country late at night.
My father-in-law and his wife, both in their 80s, stayed at our house for 10 days as fires burned in uncontrolled blotches around theirs.
Their house survived. The coastal redwoods deep in the shady canyons did, too. The redwoodis naturally resistant to fire, which partly explains how some have lived 2,000 years and grown nearly 400 feet tall. It’s the state tree, which feels appropriate.
It rained at my house in early October, for the first time since May, and the brown hills where I run in my free time soon flashed a hint of undergrowth. In California, the grass is greenest in winter. I’ve always found it a fitting metaphor, now more than ever.