Brigitte Bowers: California shines despite out-of-state criticism

Editor’s Note: This is the last part in a series.

It was early August, and my son Everett and I were at the top of Kit Carson Pass, on Highway 88. We had just left South Lake Tahoe, where we had stopped long enough for Everett to paddleboard on the lake. It was the last day of our summer road trip – we would spend that night in our own beds.

The evening before we’d slept at the Whitney Peak Hotel, billed as featuring the tallest climbing wall in the world and located next to the Reno arch, from which is suspended the neon sign advertising Reno as “The Biggest Little City in the World.”

It was my birthday, so we had decided to treat ourselves to a good dinner, and we ate in the hotel’s new restaurant, where pate de foie gras was on the menu. I figured we deserved it. Later we strolled along the Truckee Riverwalk before returning to our hotel. It had been a quiet, peaceful last night for our trip.

That morning, before heading into California and driving over Carson Pass, we had visited the National Automobile Museum in Reno, also known as Harrah’s Car Collection. It was the one thing about Nevada that Everett had longed to see. I had been to the exhibit in the early 1970s with my father, a mechanic and classic car enthusiast. Going to Harrah’s with him had been a lot like going on a pilgrimage.

He knew everything about all of the cars, and we did not need to read any of the interpretive signs as we moved along through the aisles of Packards and Duesenbergs. When we came upon a Bugatti in mint condition, it was as though my father had finally, after years of searching, found the Holy Grail.

Walking through the museum with Everett that morning had been similar to going through it with my father all of those years before. Though Everett was more interested in the newer cars, his knowledge concerning specifics – top speed, weaknesses in suspension, innovations in body style – was almost encyclopedic.

So the last day of our trip had been a busy one, and now we were 8,600 feet above sea level, back in California, and I could only gasp at the beauty. We had seen so much stunning country over the past few weeks, and it had all been a bit overwhelming.

The Snake River, Swan Valley, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Big Sky country, the Beartooth Mountains – all had been places worthy of much longer visits, and I hoped to return to each of them again.

But California could stand up next to any of those places, and at the top of Kit Carson Pass, after spending a day traveling through the western Sierra Nevada mountains, I was reminded of how much I love this state.

I had found myself defending California in predictable ways throughout the trip. On the second day of our journey, one young man claimed he could not live in California because our gun laws are too restrictive, a sentiment that was repeated to me again and again in Montana.

“Yeah,” I answered each time. “I hear that a lot.”

There is no point in arguing against such logic. But when people told me they could not live in California because it is overpopulated, I tried to convince them that there are still pristine places here, tiny towns where one may encounter as many bears in the back yard and deer in the road as they might in other, less-populated states.

And how does one explain those other, less tangible things about a place – the joy of driving through rolling foothills, the energy of Market Street on a Saturday in San Francisco, the laziness of a summer day in the Valley. I knew that I had not defended my home state well during my trip, and I felt a little guilty about it.

But then, driving along the divide of the Sierra Nevada, I experienced an elation that erased all of my guilt. Those who malign California, I thought, simply don’t know it.

We dropped down from the pass, and I stopped at Ham’s Station, a bar and store that has operated in the same spot since 1879, to ask about the distance to the next gas station. A woman sat at the bar, drinking a red beer, and an old man stood behind the counter, holding a dish rag.

“Not far,” he said. “About two miles.”

He was right. We got gas and proceeded into Jackson, and on Highway 49, where live oaks line the road between Jackson and Angels Camp, I began to feel fully at home once more.

“California is really beautiful,” I said to Everett.

“Yep,” he said. “I think so, too.”