A California Travel Guide


Legends of California – From the ’49ers to the Famous – History and Information.

If you have ever wondered what site to explore while you are planning a road trip across the U.S., the Legends of America site is it. They manage to wrap history, geography, and folklore together in a way that will suck the boredom out of any long car journey.

Particularly delightful to me is the way they divide up the site by states, and the Legends of California section will prove a guaranteed time-suck, so don’t go there without at least an hour or two of free time.

The site is set up like a travel guide designed to introduce you to places rather than delve deeply into the detail of a place. For example, you could write an enthralling book about the history of Cajon Pass, which for over a century was the gateway into Southern California from points east. On the Legends site it merits two paragraphs, but two good paragraphs that give you enough information to keep you from boring your family on the way up (or down) I-15.

Several times I have used the site for inspiration, a starting point to learn more about the history of a place, about a legend, or an event in the state’s history. My favorite posts thus far are their extensive coverage of Route 66 in California, on the History of Wells Fargo, and a slightly naughty one about the Harlots of the Barbary Coast.

The site is incredibly eclectic, and belongs in your list of links about California, and somewhere close to the top. If you are like me, you’ll keep coming back, enjoying it like a guilty pleasure.

The California Playlist

Living a long time away from home tends to put a bit of a halo around the place. You never want that halo to go away, really. You want it to stay there as a means of making memories into something more than just recorded data. Surrounding your home with a healing light makes it safer to come back to.

When I was living in China, I would use music and literature to turn down the intensity of the glow I put on California without extinguishing it entirely. The bad is as important as the good: when you love someone, something, or someplace, and your affection is more than just infatuation, you take the good with the bad and to the extent possible, you love both. Music, at its best, elevates both the good and the bad.

I have written up several bits of music in this forum, but before I go further I think it’s worth putting out the playlist I used in China to keep California alive.

I want to grow this list, so your suggestions for additions are welcomed. My plan is to shift it to a separate page that we can all use to build the Soundtrack of the Golden West.

In alphabetical order, the seventeen tracks on our list are:

Sheryl Crowe, “All I Wanna Do” – Crowe’s breakthrough hit captures the creative torpor of a Hollywood afternoon as experienced from a barstool. The song is a still life from the 1970s that echoes the angst of frustrated writers pounding on typewriters in Garden of Allah bungalows a generation sooner. It is pure L.A. poetry.

Neil Diamond, “Be” – Diamond and his music are much maligned, usually with good cause. But if you experience the music of America’s preeminent living schmaltz-meister in the right time and right place, it is magic. Diamond’s soundtrack for the film Jonathan Livingston Seagull was the best part of the movie, and(sadly, that’s not saying much. But if you are driving up a deserted stretch of Pacific Coast Highway – like Morro Bay to Monterey – this is the music you want playing.

Mammas and Pappas, “California Dreamin’ ” –  We get a bad rap in California for being superficial, for jumping on trends, and for taking our lives through a series of turns. We are the home of reinvention, and this classic song speaks to me about those moments where depression and pain become hope and promise.

Al Jolson, “California, Here I Come” – Yes, it’s old and more than slightly corny. But if you listen to it at just the right moment, and you listen to it all the way through with Al Jolson singing, it will tug at the heartstrings.

Marlena Shaw‘s, “California Soul” is a song that captures the feeling of urban California in a way that no other song has before or since. If there is an anthem all of us living in San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and Sacramento can share, this is it.

Jan Berry and Dean Torrence, “Deadman’s Curve” – The California street racing phenomenon that birthed the Fast and Furious long pre-dated the Mitsubishi Eclipse and the Mazda RX-7. Jan and Dean’s ballad brought together the Surf City sound with the bleeding edge of a car culture that remains in the blood of every Californian.

Charlie Haden Quartet West, “Haunted Heart” – The title track represents the excellence of the entire album, a moving accompaniment to an evening reading Raymond Chandler. The music evokes with pitch-perfect tone the Los Angeles of the pre-War and post-war years.

Tony Bennett, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” – Almost everyone I talk to who has spent some decent time in San Francisco tells me that there was a moment in their lives when this song touched them, and their affection for the City coalesced and never went away. I get it. I remember my moment, and San Francisco came alive for me every time I sat there in the dark of my Beijing study and listened to this song.

Randy Newman, “I Love L.A.” – Originally written as a tongue-in-cheek anthem a year before the 1984 Olympics, Newman’s song is both paean and parody, holding up a mirror to a city that can love itself and laugh about it at the same time. To Newman, L.A. is not a balkanized mess lashed together by strings of concrete, but a city of towns in the way New York is a city of neighborhoods.

Journey, “Lights” – I played this song one evening during the summer I spent squatting in my sister’s apartment in Berkeley. The living room looked out over the Bay to the city, and it all came together. I challenge anyone to watch a sunrise or sunset in Oakland, San Francisco, Berkeley, Santa Monica, or Coronado while watching this song. You’ll get it.

Katy Rose, “Overdrive” – Rose captures the essence of the eternal summer vacation lifestyle of the hills above Los Angeles in a song written to get you in your car and on the freeway.

Freddy Martin ( as “Felix Figueroa”) and his Orchestra, “Pico and Sepulveda” – There is no meaning to Martin’s ditty, beyond a simple recitation of Los Angeles street names strung together to make a tune partisan to an otherwise unremarkable west Los Angeles neighborhood. It resonates, though, as a sideways tribute to the often irrational loyalty we have to our neighborhoods.

Train, “Save Me San Francisco” – An uplifting anthem of a prodigal son who tries life in the Pacific Northwest and realizes that you can’t find California anywhere but here.

Wang Chung, “To Live and Die in L.A.” –  The theme song to the movie of the same name evokes Noir L.A., circa 1985, a reminder that the ugly underbelly of the city still lives and breathes beneath the glitter.

Four Preps, “26 Miles (Santa Catalina)” – A pop hymn to the most popular island of Southern California’s archipelago, the song salutes the state’s affection for waterborne recreation, and is a subtle reminder that while the offshore islands of New England are the playgrounds of the rich, California’s have been for the people.

Moon Zappa, “Valley Girl” – An anthem to what happens when you mix American suburbia with California and add a dash of Hollywood and a generous helping of retail therapy. I went to high school in the San Fernando Valley, and the song proved that Zappa’s father Frank had an ear for the teen zeitgeist even as the dad of a teen.

The Ink Spots, “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano” – A modern tribute to California Romanticism and our nostalgia for Spanish California. The image painted by Helen Hunt Jackson and others raised the missions to be a symbol of a happier, simpler time, and the Ink Spots capture that sentiment with beauty and elegance.

In Search of the Quintessential San Diego Film

English: Normal Heights, neighborhood of the m...
Normal Heights, San Diego (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

San Diego has long since outgrown its characterization as a “sleepy Navy town on the Mexican border.” We’re planning on doing a deep-dive on the history, architecture, and art of the place later this year in order to help secure its place as a cultural center of consequence, but we wanted to start by looking at some of the best portrayals of San Diego in film.

It is unfortunately not surprising that San Diego has not had many Hollywood Moments worth remembering. Plenty of films have used San Diego locations, often as stand-ins for elsewhere, but few have probed the culture of the city itself, leaving us with the sense of the city as a distinct character.

Top Gun gives us life in San Diego as viewed from Mira Mesa. Maverick’s motorcycle antics near Naval Training Center San Diego (now Liberty Station), his visit to the homes of Kelly McGillis (in Oceanside, actually), Tom Skerrit‘s house on Point Loma, and the brief scene at San Diego airport were the only exposure we get to the town. San Diego is backdrop, not a character.

Almost Famous gets us closer. The San Diego Sports Arena parking lot is there, as is that distinctive view from USD High School and scenes in Balboa Park. Even when Crowe shoots in Santa Monica, it feels like a neighborhood in San Diego, and you can feel the city starting to peek out from behind the actors. But then, all too soon, William is off to Los Angeles, then points beyond, and we lose our chance to get to know the city.

The closest I think we have come to a true San Diego film since 1915’s Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition is probably Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Yes, it’s a goofball comedy, but San Diego is a deliberate character, not just a backdrop. This is California at its California-est, from the parties, to the leisure suit-clad news teams, to the lifestyle, to the two-pound burrito Ron throws out his window. Is much of this caricature? Of course. Yet through it all comes the personality of a city that sits on the far corner of the continent, cut off from the rest of the nation by desert, mountains, and Marines, that uses its isolation as license to find its own identity. And if that isn’t the real nature of San Diego, I’d be glad to know what is.

I keep hoping that Anchorman will drop into the minds of both filmmakers and the rest of America that the city on America’s lower left-hand corner hides stories, beauty, and real character behind the facade of the Navy town on the border. Then, maybe, we can look forward to films that show the city that all of us who have lived there fell in love with, and that we never seem to be able to leave.

In “Aerospace: The Industry that Built the South Bay,” which has to be one of the best articles I have ever read about the aerospace industry in Southern California, Rachel Reeves of the Easy Reader gives us a tour through the air-tech history of the region that will appeal to everyone and will especially tickle aviation enthusiasts and those of us with a connection to the industry. I’ve got a longer piece in the works about where the industry went, but I wanted to post this now so you could read it first. Really superb.

San Francisco, Before and After

After reading our note pointing to Shawn Clover’s haunting composite photographs melding image post-1906 earthquake and fire San Francisco with modern photos, Golden West Review subscriber and graphic artist Bonnie Blacklidge took it up a level by showing us some stunning videos.

The first is a video from a San Francisco streetcar driving down Market Street toward the Ferry Building in 1905, set to Airs’ superb first track off of their with Air’s superb first track off their album Moon Safari, “La Femme d’argent” by cleverb. Nicely done, and mesmerizing.

Once done with that, take a look at a video that juxtaposes what appears to be the same scenes along Market Street with footage taken just days after the 1906 quake, posted by producer John Jones. The music is suitably haunting, almost a dirge, that like the Clover photos makes the 1906 quake much more immediate and personal.

Check out the photos, then watch these two videos in sequence. As a group they make an event of a century ago more powerful, more personal, and much more profound.

Finally, I am pleased to let you know that Mr. Clover is working on a book of his photos with appropriate narrative called Fade to 1906: The Great Quake Meets Modern San Francisco. It doesn’t seem to be available yet, but you can leave an email address to be notified when it will be available for purchase.

And a big thanks to Bonnie for this feedback.

The Economist offers a superb overview of the space renaissance that is taking place in and around Mojave in Private space flight: Cluster analysis. The region is serving a similar function for Aerospace that Silicon Valley has for computing: it is a power-cluster of some of the most innovative companies in the business. Against a background of companies shifting headquarters out of the state – particularly in Southern California – the growth of New Space in the high deserts is a welcome development for the state.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: