The road calls, whispers: Beyond the horizon lies a world where you can be reborn. Think of Jack Kerouac, "On the Road" with Dean Moriarty; William Least Heat-Moon traveling the "Blue Highways"; Nat King Cole telling you to "get your kicks on Route 66."
Bill Barich had moved to California in 1969, when he was 25. But now he was on the brink of middle age, enduring a marriage careening toward divorce. So, in 1989 he set out on a six-month journey, driving the highways and back roads from the Oregon border to Mexico. He went beyond the California of myth and hype, investigated the state's contrasts, its complexities. His book is vast in scope, and quite good.
At times the writing is perfect, the imagery and insights pure, true:
"Drifting was integral to any notion of the desert. The wind, the wind -- things kept scattering through. Vultures drifted in the sky, thoughts drifted, the sands drifted, all in slow motion."
That's exactly how it is on the Mojave Desert, when there is only silence, the wind and the abiding, immutable land. Near Alturas, way up in the state's northeastern corner, he notes the "birds by the thousands, flocking, nesting, and flying about, creating with the flap of their wings the crackly sound of a tarpaulin ripping in a gust of wind."
More travelogue than spiritual journey, "Big Dreams" is filled with historical anecdotes gleaned from a bibliography that numbers more than two dozen books. Mr. Barich, a contributor to the New Yorker with three other books to his credit, gives us Agoston Haraszthy de Mokesa, an idiosyncratic Hungarian count whose experimentations with grapes helped give birth to a $1.5 billion industry; the great naturalist John Muir traipsing through Yosemite -- the name comes from an Awani Indian word presumed to mean "grizzly bear"; the water wars that killed wheat farming in the 19th century but made the Los Angeles metropolis possible in the 20th.
Riding with him, you are overwhelmed by the size of California. The San Joaquin Valley is as big as Denmark. More than 30 million people live here: Sikhs and Hmong, Indians and Basques, fishers and farmers and oil field roustabouts. They live in fertile valleys, or forests thick with pine and redwood, in blistering, sun-baked desert towns, in sprawling cities and endless suburbs that keep popping up like weeds at every turn.
He gives us more than the Chamber of Commerce's California, the movieland fantasy of palm trees rustling in a Pacific Ocean breeze, La-La Land where airhead blonds and entertainment deal-makers drink mineral water served up in fern bars, the offbeat Shangri-La where everything that can happen does happen, and every brain is a little addled by too much time in the sun. This is the California where Merle Haggard spent his childhood in a converted boxcar, where Mexicans in search of work make mad --es across Interstate 5. This California includes Charles Manson, who came out to the coast, remade himself, and rode the wave of free love into mass murder.
Still, the California paradise does exist for some. In Marin County, where the median home price is $354,200, the "laid-back" life is enjoyed in hot tubs and saunas. Biofeedback counselors clean up your karma and reroute any chakras or negative vibrations that might be adding to your percentage of body fat. Marin County is also home to Death Row, the maximum-security prison at San Quentin.
Time and again Mr. Barich comes across small, far-flung towns and urban neighborhoods where there is despair, ruined dreams. Simple dreams of a decent job, a home, a life offering more than restless hunger and disappointment are out of reach. The young in the Pacific Coast fishing villages, the lumber towns of the north, the oil towns of Bakersfield and Oildale face the same dilemma. They were born a generation too late:
"Sometimes it seemed Oakland was laboring under a curse. . . . Frustration and anger were the city's juice. . . . I saw on a concrete highway abutment as I drove away [a graffito] that said, Oakland Is South Africa."
Oakland, too, is California, as are the Klamath Mountains, so intimidating that "They dwarfed human beings and made us seem like an afterthought in the master plan of creation."
The northern region is so cut off from the rest of California that part of it joined with two Oregon counties in 1941 to form a state called Jefferson. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor right after Secession Day, and Jefferson vanished.
In Susanville, a far-north milltown "that had not yet broken with its past to invent a future," crime is up, and so is drug use. There's a prison, built for 3,102 but holding 5,000: "In California, only the prisons were as overcrowded as the schools."