The Varieties of Travel Experience   /   Summer 2024   /    Thematic: The Varieties of Travel Experience

California Road Trip

Out of the Chatter and Into the Real

Matthew B. Crawford

The Pacific Coast Highway south of the Santa Lucia Mountains, Central California; Ian Dagnall/Alamy Stock Photo.

When I received an invitation to speak at Pepperdine University, set in the hills of Malibu overlooking the ocean, I jumped on it as a suitable pretext for a road trip. Conservatives love to gripe about California, and I have done some of that myself. But beneath the chatter, the fact remains that California is simply…a miracle.

The dyspeptic, conservative interpretive lens really does bring certain elements of experience into focus. But it is like a pinhole camera that focuses by refracting the world through a narrow aperture. Outside one’s tunnel vision, and outside the metropolitan centers where the matrix of discourse and counterdiscourse is strongest, the Golden State teems with rude life.

A road trip can reacquaint you with that, first by breaking your patterns. You may have a breakfast of gas station potato chips in the predawn darkness, consumed to a soundtrack of Journey. (Why am I not listening to this every day?!) As your radio scans for stations on the sparsely populated spectrum, you may find yourself listening to the “Ag Report” from the Salinas growers, who want you to know about an equipment auction to be held in Sacramento later this month. You may also hear an editorial about a legal requirement that farmers first try to find citizens willing to work as farm hands before hiring migrants. I didn’t know about that.

On US 101 south of King City, I drove past the San Bernabe oil field, which comes right up to the edge of the highway. Some derricks were pumping, some were not. It is a steady and graceful movement—like sandpipers pecking at the ground in search of sand fleas, but in slow motion and without the desperation. The derricks suck at veins as old as the dinosaurs, which, unlike sand fleas, do not scurry away. (It so happens that there is a cinematic masterpiece based on the history of the California oil fields, There Will Be Blood, starring Daniel Day-Lewis.)

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