Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Call of the West

Well, it's been two weeks since the end of our California trip. Two weeks that seem like a year; the slate-gray skies and below-zero temperatures of December Prague are a planet away from Sunny C. We had the benefit of that most American of machines, a car, for our trip, which allowed us to see a lot of the state, from San Diego near the Mexican border to the more obscure corners of the wine country north of San Francisco. Between those two points, we also saw LA, Manhattan and Long Beaches, Malibu, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Carmel, Big Sur, Monterey, San Francisco, etc. etc. etc. Oh, and we made a what-the-hell road trip to Las Vegas for a quick overnight.

But that's a travelogue or three for another time. For the moment, it's best to offer a bite-sized initial impression of the West, a part of the US I had never previously experienced (the furthest I'd gotten in that direction was Champaign, Illinois). Typical for a New Yorker, huh? Many of us natives consider ourselves worldly if we make it to Boston.

Perhaps it comes from growing up in one of the Original Thirteen (American colonial states, that is). Or maybe it's a product of living for 11 years in an European capital older than a Millennium. But to me, it feels like much of the Western US was built yesterday. As if it sprang up in some crazy post-WWII migratory spread. Hey Frank, the war's over, let's go to Hollywood!

You feel this most strongly in Los Angeles. LA has a bad reputation for being phony and soulless. I didn't find it that way necessarily, but it does have that temporary, just-landed-on -this coast-impression. A lot of it seems improvised. Big, fancy houses dominate the lawns in Beverly Hills and Bel Air, but most of them look like they were built when I was in college. Downtown LA, the commercial center, is home to a cluster of skyscrapers, a showy Frank Gehry-designed concert hall and a newish sports arena with a corporate name tag. All this stuff is handsome, well-polished and pleasing to the eye...thing is, Downtown is far away and hard to reach from most other LA neighborhoods, so it feels like an island. It's as if someone decided that, what the hell, right HERE would be a fine place for the business district. Almost nothing about it feels natural or evolved.

And I couldn't escape the impression that a lot of the West is flimsier than it should be. San Francisco - conveniently located near a fault line - is home to possibly the world's largest collection of wooden buildings. It's as if the Gold Rush came, then a settlement was built and evolved only a little over time. You never quite escape the impression that the earth might crack open again and swallow the place whole.

And Las Vegas. Vegas! Only in America would somebody look at a small desert settlement and think of building casinos and hotels there. You have to admire the boundless optimism that sees such huge potential in a plot of sand...and the clever sales job that brings tourists in by the millions and money by the planeload. Driving into Vegas is a funny experience; after several hundred miles of scrub brush desert, broken by the occasional town or outlet mall, Vegas just...explodes...from the ground. They came out here, picked a place to build - and presto! new city.

What's interesting about all this - assuming you're not worried about San Francisco disappearing in the next big natural disaster - is the sense of visiting the result of an adventure. Once upon a time, Americans were imaginative, optimistic and just plain crazy enough to abandon their lives, come to the West and build something out of virtually nothing. A little recklessness once in a while is a good thing, it seems.

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