California: Place to call home, no place to live

My wife and I went to California last week.

Between us, we wanted to accomplish three things, and we got to them all.

The first, for me, was a visit with two former coworkers, both of whom are now retired. We remembered the good and bad old days in the maze of corporate cubicles. We remembered the quirky executives, managers and colleagues in our “creative” department. We left glad to have seen each other and congratulating ourselves on our escapes from corporate weirdness to seek our own.

The second, with my wife, involved a 600-foot-tall pile of sand in the Mohave Desert. If there is an exact center of nowhere, Kelso, our destination, may be close to it.

Our quest at Kelso was to conquer the tallest of the Kelso Dunes, which rises to 600 feet above the sparse desert floor, a matter of three steps forward and two steps back through loose sand. We failed at this eight years ago, before we left the Golden State for the Land of Enchantment.

This time we did it, step by frustrating step. At the top we congratulated ourselves and caught our breath before taking the easiest way down. So ended our version of conquering the north face of K2.

Our third reason for visiting California was to remind ourselves why we left a place where many still dream of  living.

Here are some observations that may help explain our decision:
• In New Mexico, you can drive 150 miles without seeing a Starbucks, but in California you can drive 1,500 miles without finding a green chile cheeseburger.
• When I commuted to work in California, I’d pass through cities that were home to more than 800,000 people within 35 miles. In New Mexico, we drove through cities, including Albuquerque, that house 600,000 people from the western border to Tucumcari, 331 miles.
• In New Mexico, a good horse can take you 10 miles in an hour and a half.  In California, we took that long to go 10 miles by car on a clogged eight-lane freeway starting at 8 on a Friday night.
• In New Mexico, if you want to have a good time, you can grab a fishing pole or a shotgun and drive 20 minutes into the country. In California, it’s not fun til you’ve paid $150 for tickets, slogged through two hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic, negotiated a demolition-derby parking lot, waded through a sea of knees to find your seat, then sat strait-jacketed by people packed in like sardines.
Since we lived there for 30 years, going back to the Los Angeles area is a return to comfortable familiarity.
As we crested the last rise of the mountain pass that separates Southern California’s valleys from the high desert, there it was: blue sky above and, below, a gray-brown smear of nitrogen oxides and ozone stretched across the valleys to welcome our lungs.
We descended into the valley, and took a deep breath that caught in our throats and ended in a cough. We smiled at each other.
We were home.

Steve Hansen is managing editor for the Quay County Sun. Contact him at: shansen@qcsunonline.com

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