For 12 days in December, I was evacuated from my home outside Santa Barbara and survived the largest wildfire in California recorded history. Last week, I was evacuated yet again as freakish torrential rains produced catastrophic mudslides that cascaded down from denuded, fire-ravaged hills, sweeping away dozens of houses in my beautiful, close-knit town, while stealing the lives of no fewer than 20 of my neighbors.
I’ve been swamped in the aftermath of disaster by emails, phone calls and text messages emanating from anxious relatives and friends, many in my native Colorado. “We’ve been terribly worried,” they all say. “Thank heavens you and your house are safe.” This is usually followed with something like, “And, by the way, what kind of idiot would continue living in a state where the next apocalypse is always right around the corner? Get out of there and back here where it’s safe, before it’s too late.”
The state’s instability also serves to underscore the fleeting nature of life itself. We are guaranteed only the moment. Here one minute and washed away in the mud the next.
I have struggled to provide those who care about me with an answer that might adequately explain to them why I’m staying put in California.
Tornadoes in the Midwest, hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, blizzards in New England. Life comes with risk, no matter where you lead it. That certainly seems to be the case of late in my corner of California. Others might relocate under the circumstances. Some probably will, and I couldn’t blame them.
But I owe much to this place. It is where I arrived some 30 years ago seeking opportunity and found it in abundance. It is where my children where born. And it is where I discovered my place in the global community, one that I could have never fully realized had I remained in the less precarious but far more insular state in which I was raised.
Many Californians say they could never live anywhere else because of the climate. They’re always bragging about the weather, how there really is none, except when there is, as was evident last week. They chuckle smugly about what life must be like for all those poor fools back East, having to watch the sun-splashed Rose Parade each New Year’s Day while freezing their behinds off.
Yes, we have wildfires, mudslides and earthquakes. Yes, we have high taxes, obscenely inflated housing prices, immigrant issues and a sometimes-irrationally liberal majority – “The land of fruits and nuts,” political conservatives of a certain generation like to point out. But at least we get to wear shorts most of the year.
Yet for all its inherent problems and hazards, there’s another reason, in my opinion, why California is the most populous state in the nation. And the weather has little to do with it.
Anything can happen in California on any given day. Fortunes made, celebrity achieved, dreams realized. That’s the perception, anyway, however unattainable the reality may prove for most. We all know someone who’s made it big – or know someone who knows someone – and, hey, if it can happen to them, it can happen to us.
That kind of allure is why miners flocked to California after gold was discovered in 1849. It’s why every waiter and waitress in Los Angeles fresh in from Des Moines is really a movie-star-in-waiting. It’s why Silicon Valley is flooded with immigrant techies aspiring to be the next Steve Jobs. And it’s why the rest of us here in the Golden State roll the dice every day, seeking our own version of success and happiness while shrugging off the inevitability of fires and floods, not to mention the Big One, when the place we call home detaches itself from the rest of the union and slides off toward Japan.
California’s natural precariousness affords us all vital lessons. It reminds us, often cruelly, that life can indeed be a struggle. It teaches us hope and resilience in the face of what all too frequently feels like insurmountable adversity. But the state’s instability also serves to underscore the fleeting nature of life itself. We are guaranteed only the moment. Here one minute and washed away in the mud the next. Better to be on this side of the grass. Enjoy it while it lasts.
Perhaps the great Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright William Saroyan, who was born and died in Fresno, said it best when he wrote, “Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”
That to me is what living in California is all about. It explains why I’m not moving back to Colorado anytime soon. The whole carpe diem thing. Get out there before the next shoe drops and grab life by the throat.
Not that you can’t grab it in Colorado, or anywhere else.
You probably just can’t wear shorts there in December.
David Freed, a screenwriter, novelist and former reporter for The Los Angeles Times, lives near Montecito. He can be contacted at David-Freed.com.