California: Northern and Southern
By: Allen Routledge
California has always been the land of hopes and visions, a magical land of endless possibilities. California is vibrant and alive. It is a cornucopia of natural beauty. It has a dramatic and pulsating metropolitan centers. California is the gateway to the Pacific, the third largest state in the United States and it has the largest population. The County of Los Angeles alone has more people than 43 of the 50 U.S. states. It is a land of dreams and promises, and has drawn many to strike gold in the foothills, in Hollywood, or in Silicon Valley.
The landscape of California is diverse and richly varied. It has warm and sandy beaches perfect for surfing, breathtaking mountainous slopes with world-class skiing, giant and lush ancient coastal forests, large colorful stretches of sprawling desert, cascading green valleys and hills lined with vineyards, and gorgeous stretches of wooded canyons.
California has the highest and the lowest points in the lower 48 states, (Mount Whitney and in the arid and formidable Death Valley). California has an unceasing draw for adventurers, romantics, dreamy-eyed hopefuls, culinary connoisseurs, and everyone in between. California has a mystique and a allure not worth refusing.
California has been historically liberal and progressive politically. California has distinct regions with highly differing personalities. There is an invisible line dividing north and south California (this line existing somewhere just south of the San Francisco Bay Area) often use to describe the vastly differing sectors of this large state.
Northern California is a quieter and gentler companion to the bustling and sprawling southern portion of the state. Northern California houses its most populous region lining peninsulas adjacent to the San Francisco Bay. San Francisco sits in the southern peninsula, snug between the vast Pacific Ocean to the west and the bay to the east.
San Francisco is the home of the Beatniks, the poets that took cultural prominence in the ’50’s, and the city was culturally explosive in the 60’s with the hippy movement and confluence at Haight and Ashbury. As a result, San Francisco is known as somewhat of an iconoclastic city, and these roots still reside in its steep streets.
The city is picturesque, both from without and within. The highly efficient public transport systems in the region (BART, or Bay Area Rapid Transit, and municipal transport agency, known as MUNI) make the city an especially easy one to navigate on foot, even for the uninitiated. The Mission District houses the new arts scene with galleries and craft bars lining the street, as well as comfortable and oft-populated parks, a favorite during warm summer evenings in the city. Not far away is the Castro District, the historically gay and lesbian district where massive holiday celebrations send swarms of bodies jubilantly haunting the streets.
Across the emblematic Golden Gate bridge is the northern peninsula, an affluent and beautiful region riddled with designer homes and fragrant trees. The incomparable Muir Woods sits here, a breath-taking forest of staggeringly giant redwood trees, only minutes from the thriving city to the south. To the east is Oakland, a city filled with personality and pockets of tight-knit communities. Berkeley sits next door, home of the University of California or “Cal Berkeley,” known for its brewing of progressive ideologies and movements. It is a colorful city, proud, and cultivated.
A short drive north of the Bay Area, you will find the rolling hills of Sonoma and Napa valleys, the first California regions to take precedence in the international wine scene. World-class wines are carefully cultivated here and as a result, delicious fare to accompany them have cropped up in conjunction. Not far away are dramatic coastal towns, hovering hundreds of feet above a frothing ocean shore. The water is drastically colder here than in the temperate Southern California beaches, but it still makes for profound spectacles. The small town of Mendocino perfectly embodies these beautiful vistas, plus has a charming and quaint downtown still reminiscent of the earlier settlements of a hundred years ago.
Sacramento, the capitol city of California, still benefits from its vantage in the state, a reasonable proximity from the coastal regions and the mountainous east. Sacramento sits nearly atop the Sacramento Delta, where two major rivers merge and flow toward the bay. Sacramento also has an old town, preserved to demonstrate the not so distant echoes of bona fide frontier towns.
To the east, tucked in the steep curves of the Sierra Nevada, you will find Lake Tahoe, a lake pure and blue as an artist’s dream. Surrounded by comforting woods, Tahoe and surrounding areas are worth an extended visit no matter the season.
Southern California is home to the movie and broadcasting industries; and it is a major global economic force in its own right. Los Angeles is known as the global epicenter of media entertainment, and is an enormous force in keeping American culture in the minds of the world. Culturally, there is very little that cannot be found somewhere in the sprawling cities of Southern California. There are beautiful beaches complete with lazy surf towns, and affluent coastal towns with dramatic vistas and mansions dotting the cliffs.
Los Angeles is a massive and continuous sprawl of connecting neighborhoods and towns stretching as far as the eye can see. Take a curvy and dramatic drive up Mulholland Drive and stop at one of the many vistas interlaced between multimillion dollar homes and you can see what an endless city looks like.
Los Angeles is one of the top five most powerful and rich cities in the world. There is a reason so many wandering souls find their way to this gargantuan city. Where New York is limited in growth due to its geographical boundaries, L.A. was a city born to expand inland, supplanting orange groves and seeping into the land like newly opened tributaries.
L.A. launched from humble roots only a sliver over a hundred years ago into the megalopolis of massive proportions it is today in much part due to the gamble taken on the newfangled technology that is cinema. As such, L.A. is a spectacle in most senses. The cultural offerings of the diverse area are essentially endless and ever-evolving.
South of Los Angeles, hovering just above the border of Mexico, is the beach town and city complex of San Diego. The city is not nearly as extensive as Los Angeles, but a growing metropolis in its own right. San Diego has beautiful beaches, and enjoys a perfectly mild and temperate climate. The city has the largest and oldest military bases in California, including a large navy port. So expect military to be everywhere.
As far as geographical and natural wonder, Southern California indeed has its share. The Mojave Desert spreads itself out in the southeastern corner of California like a thin cream-colored sheet. The desert is vast, arid, stark, but harbors its beauties in the painted mountains that fade into the flat expanses like snowdrifts melting into a placid lake. Follow these mountains north and they will grow ever greener, larger, more rotund as they climb into the thickest points of the Sierra Nevada range. These are expressive mountains; round and warm like poured batter, with the occasional explosions of spikes and peaks like the considerable Mt. Whitney. Follow the range and cross paths with Yosemite National Park, with its breathtaking valleys and sheer-faced cliffs.
Land of Wonder
California is a land of every wonder and every desire, even those that are contradictory. You will find progressive communities in the Northern California, girded on all sides by legal fields of marijuana, but you will also find blue-collar mill towns with conservative values and a two-street downtown. California defies every label thrown at it, at the same time it embraces and manifests each accusation in its own way. The best way to understand such a place is to embark to understand it, by visiting not only the large cities, but the hidden corners as well. California will entertain you, and certainly surprise you.
Allen Routledge is a backpacking travel veteran with extensive experience ‘on the road’ in Europe, Australasia, and the Americas. Read other articles about his personal experiences and practical travel information at http://omnitraveller.com.