Defining the Californias

Looking over Morro Bay, the epitome of a central Californian beach town. This is neither Laguna Beach nor Bodega Bay, and any similarities are purely physical.

Dividing California into regions is a matter of such ongoing debate and conjecture that it has become a cottage industry among geographers. As a student of geography and a native son of the Golden West, I figure I am as entitled as anyone to draw my own lines. To me, the division is as much cultural as it is physical or economic, and that sometimes those cultural divides can be intuited better than they can be rationalized.

In my time back in California after my two-decade sojourn in China, it has become clear that a very real change happens when you proceed north of the Inland Empire, the San Gabriel Valley, and the San Fernando Valley; north and west of Simi Valley; and west of the Conejo Valley. Pass those points, and suddenly a different California emerges, a more timeless place, a more relaxed pace removed from the intensity of Hollywood/tourism/technology/aerospace that is Southern California. Here the farm communities, beach towns, and megalopolis-resistant exurbs take over, dotted with Wal*Marts and Costcos, to be sure, but all in service of a life determinedly removed from the economic engines of media, commerce, and innovation.

In a sense, it is here where the state joins its singular geography of rugged coast, bucolic valleys and soaring mountains with a culture that blends midwestern sensibilities and values with a progressive spirit that seams to grow from soil, rock, and sea. It shouldn’t work, but it does, and it sets the region apart.

A similar change takes place traveling north. Something changes where the coast of Monterey Bay turns to face southward; where Gilroy’s garlic fields turn into Morgan Hill’s silicon suburbs; where the waters of the Central Valley begin to drain into San Francisco Bay; and where the tufa mounds of Mono Lake stand as mute testament to the resource rivalry that has always set California’s north and south against one another. This is the point where California begins its gradual shift into a climate and culture that share essence with the Pacific Northwest,  yet remain definitively Californian.

Can any of this be quantified? Probably not. But if you look with the right kind of eyes, stopping at a pull-off on the northbound 101 at the Conejo Grade just past the weigh station to survey what is ahead, you can see it. You enter a land where towns still have Main Streets, where man remains nature’s guest, and where wealthy retirees live next door to Navy engineers, sheriff’s deputies, and the prosperous, boot-strapped children of poor braceros. These elements foster a culture pleasantly distinct from the balkanization of SoCal and the hyper-gentrification of the Bay Area and its own sprawling exurbs.

So draw your own lines, if you must, but I submit that the dividing line between Southern and Central California runs roughly Point Mugu – Conejo Grade – Moorpark – Santa Clarita – Gorman – Palmdale – Barstow – Needles; and that the split between central and northern happens along a line of Santa Cruz – Morgan Hill – Modesto – Mono Lake – the point where US Highway 6 crosses the California/Nevada border.

I love this entire state for all of its regions and subcultures, but if you are looking for me, you’ll find me here, in between the lines.