CALIFORNIA’S over, everything I love about this place is going to hell.
I knew there was something familiar about this thought from the moment it occurred to me in Yosemite National Park. My sister and I started going to those mountains 40 years ago with our parents, who taught us to see the Sierra Nevada as a never-changing sanctuary in a California increasingly overrun by suburban sprawl.
Once we had our own families, we indoctrinated our kids in the same joys: suffering under backpacks, drinking snowmelt from creeks, jumping into (and quickly back out of) icy lakes, and napping in wildflower meadows. Yosemite remains my personal paradise, but the impact of drought and climate change has become overwhelming — smoky air from fires, shriveled glaciers leaving creeks dry and meadows gray, no wildflowers.
The big new forest fire didn’t help, as we hiked back to our car in mid-August. We were never in danger, but smoke from that so-called Walker fire filled the sky and turned sunlight orange. At the surprisingly good restaurant attached to the Lee Vining Mobil station just outside the park, ashes fell like apocalyptic snowflakes onto our fish tacos. We watched a DC-10 air tanker carpet bomb flames a few miles off. We had intended to stay in a nearby motel, but Highway Patrol officers told us they planned to close the road, so we joined the line of vehicles escorted past red walls of fire.
We slept at a friend’s house on the western flank of the Sierra Nevada. The next morning, as we began our drive home to San Francisco, this sense of unraveling — of California coming apart at the seams — worsened by the mile. The air was more Beijing than Yosemite, and the Merced River, normally a white-water pleasure ground, was a muddy sequence of black pools below mountains covered with dead ponderosa pines, a tiny sample of the more than 12 million California trees killed by drought and the bark beetles that thrive in this now-warmer climate.
The San Joaquin Valley, still farther west, is depressing on good days, with its endemic poverty and badly polluted air and water. But driving in freeway traffic through endless housing developments on that particular weekend encouraged a fugue state of bleakness in me. Somewhere in that haze lay an industrial-agricultural plain where the unregulated pumping of groundwater has gone on for so long that corporate farms pull up moisture that rained down during the last glacial period — with two paradoxical and equally strange geological effects.
First, the evacuation of so much water from underground pore spaces is causing the surface of some parts of the valley floor to collapse downwardby nearly two inches a month. Second, the lifting of water weight — all those trillions of gallons from underground, and more vanishing from reservoirs and snowpack throughout the West — is now causing the rocky crust of the Earth, which floats on our planet’s molten interior, to push upward.
As a result, the Sierra Nevada mountain range is gaining about 1 to 3 millimeters in elevation annually. San Francisco, normally cool and clear, completed the picture: air so murky we could barely see the bay below the bridge, yet another scorching day in a freakishly warm summer — thanks in part to the immense blob of warm ocean water parked against the west coast. Roughly five hundred miles wide and thousands long, this warm water carries subtropical plankton that may be related to the accelerated decline of the Pacific sardine population, the failure of pelicans to mate and the mass die-offs of baby shorebirds and sea-lion pups. Concomitant blooms of toxic algae have shut down crab fisheries on the coast and, inland, befouled our rivers so much that, on at least two occasions this year, dogs jumped in to swim and promptly died.
We were nearly home, inching through Sunday-afternoon traffic (rush hour is now everywhere and always), when I realized that I had become my parents. Put another way, it was finally my turn to suffer the sense of loss that made my mother weep over every strip mall obliterating every once-lovely farm during family road trips in our 1971 VW micro-bus. My father’s nostalgia was more for 1950s Los Angeles: Bing Crosby living down the street, the Four Freshmen on the radio, a T-shirt filled with oranges as he rode the bus from his family’s Westwood home through sleepy neighborhoods to a completely separate town called Santa Monica.
Confusing one’s own youth with the youth of the world is a common human affliction, but California has been changing so fast for so long that every new generation gets to experience both a fresh version of the California dream and, typically by late middle-age, its painful death.
For Gold Rush prospectors, of course, that dream was about shiny rocks in the creeks — at least until 300,000 people from all over the world, in the space of 10 years, overran the state and snatched up every nugget. Insane asylums filled with failed argonauts and the dream was dead — unless you were John Muir walking into Yosemite Valley in 1868. Ad hoc genocide, committed by miners, settlers and soldiers, had so devastated the ancient civilizations of the Sierra Nevada that Muir could see those mountains purely as an expression of God’s glory.
“I’m in the woods, woods, woods, and they are in me-ee-ee,” Muir wrote about the giant sequoias, in a Whitman-esque letter to a friend. “I wish I were so drunk and Sequoical that I could preach the green brown woods to all the juiceless world, descending from this divine wilderness like a John the Baptist.… Come suck Sequoia, and be saved.”
Muir got his turn when San Franciscans dammed his beloved Hetch Hetchy Valley inside Yosemite National Park, part of a statewide water grab that included Los Angeles developers’ swindling Owens Valley farmers out of both their water and their economic future. But all that water helped create the coastal urban paradise that lured my grandfather west in the mid-1940s, when there were fewer than 10 million people in the state: abundant jobs in defense and entertainment, middle-class families buying homes with sunny backyards, plenty of room on wide highways to seaside coves where good surf peeled across reefs with abundant lobster free for the picking.
Dad went to the University of California, Berkeley, spent three years in the Navy and three more in law school, then moved to Washington, D.C., with my mother to work for L.B.J.’s anti-poverty program. He came back in late 1968 to find Los Angeles buried under a concrete megalopolis. Up in San Francisco, meanwhile, where Mom grew up, methamphetamine and violence were already darkening the hippie dream.
Kevin Starr, a professor of history at the University of Southern California and author of a seven-volume history of the California dream, told me recently that he considered the mid-1960s — 1963 specifically — the end of modernist California, that period for which it makes sense to speak of “an agreed-upon, commanding” version of the dream. In Mr. Starr’s view, around the time I was born, in 1967, California entered a postmodern phase with multiple dreams in parallel: back-to-the-landers on communes; migrant farmworkers organizing in the San Joaquin Valley; gay and lesbian life proudly out in the open; and, of course, the outdoorsy-liberal existence that my parents found in Berkeley.
Real estate was still affordable and the public schools were among the best in the nation, so it made sense for my parents to shape life around meaningful work and just enough money to enjoy all that glorious public land. Mom sold her artwork and helped start a women’s small press; Dad worked for the local branch of Legal Services and, in 1972, on a combined income of $13,000, they bought a four-bedroom Berkeley Victorian for $27,000. They joined the Sierra Club and took us backpacking and, later, rock-climbing. When my parents felt especially flush, they took us skiing near Lake Tahoe. They even considered buying a weekend home at Stinson Beach in Marin — although $10,000, the asking price, was ultimately too much.
By the time I graduated from Berkeley High School, in 1985, those Stinson Beach homes fetched more like $350,000, but even public school teachers and jazz musicians could still buy modest homes in Berkeley’s lesser neighborhoods. Families like mine were building a secular religion around cross-country skiing in winter, rafting or kayaking on the springtime melt, climbing Yosemite’s cliffs with great new safety gear, and enjoying cold-water surf courtesy of new wet suit technology. Food, too: organic produce, local oysters, California king salmon, Napa wine.
It was soft hedonism, admittedly, but a decent life that remained more or less available right through my early adulthood — as in 15 years ago. That’s when my wife and I — “arguably the last two writers ever to buy a home in San Francisco,” says Mr. Starr — bought a fixer-upper in an unfashionable neighborhood with a street gang on the corner. Even as our daughters went off to preschool, it seemed plausible that we might pass on our lifestyle to them.
I REALIZE that most Californians do not live in my Northern California bubble, and I have no doubt that it all looks very different to the brothers from Chiapas, Mexico, who once helped me remodel my house, and who then spent their modest earnings on land back home; or to fourth-generation Japanese-American kids whose great-grandparents lost everything when the federal government incarcerated their families in World War IIinternment camps. But I do know that all over Northern California, there is a profound mood of loss: Oakland, long a bastion of African-American cultural life, has seen housing rental rates jump 20 percent this past year; San Francisco’s lesbian bars are closing, and the Castro gets less gay by the year.
Then there’s the shock of raising kids with public schools ranked among the worst in the nation, and public universities that have more than doubled in cost since 2007. Most of my outdoor pleasures are still available, but it’s getting scary with the desertification of subalpine ecosystems, Sierra snowpack at a historic low, as much as 20 percent of California’s once-majestic forests at risk of dying, and freeway traffic so ubiquitous that it can be soul-destroying just getting out of town to see all this stuff.
The real estate market, in the meantime, has become so bizarre that my funky little neighborhood is already beyond the reach of young doctors and lawyers — techies only need apply — and Stinson Beach is strictly for plutocrats.
Josh Churchman, a 63-year-old commercial fisherman who lives near Stinson in a legendary hippie hide-out called Bolinas, told me a story about sitting in his living room back in the early ’70s. A neighbor stopped by, offering to sell Mr. Churchman a nearby home for $20,000. “I had the money in cash, in the room, but I was building a new fishing boat so I turned him down,” Mr. Churchman says, in a California tale many times told. “In a single generation,” says Mr. Churchman, “my hometown went from where a guy like me could afford a home to ‘Not in your wildest dreams.’ ” As for the waters that gave Mr. Churchman a living, well, he hardly bothers fishing for salmon anymore, with the record low catch.
“Eyes wide open, here,” says Terry Sawyer, co-owner of the nearby Hog Island Oyster Company, where the big issue is excess atmospheric carbon dioxide raising ocean acidity so fast that oyster larvae struggle to build shells. “The California dream of us being wet and making a living and enjoying ourselves may be threatened,” he says. “I have kids, and I want that dream intact for them, but it may not be the same dream. I may not be growing the same organism. I am hopeful, but I am extremely concerned.”
Everybody is — except, of course, those living the most obvious new California dream, the technology gold rush. Try telling successful 25-year-old entrepreneurs in San Francisco that California’s over and you’ll get blank stares as they contemplate stock options, condos going up all over the city, restaurants packed nightly and spectacular organic produce at farmers’ markets every day.
It’s not only 25-year-olds saying that. “You’re a naturalist, Duane, so of course you see it through that lens,” said Mr. Starr, later in our conversation. “But don’t lose sight of all the great new things happening, all over California. Marc Benioff just built one of the greatest pediatric hospitals on the planet a few miles from your house! And this whole tsunami of foreign investment pouring into California is really a ringing endorsement of the dream.”
I drive by Mr. Benioff’s hospital every day, and I know that Mr. Starr is right. I am also impressed, sincerely, by all these brilliant people making fortunes seemingly overnight. I recognize that prosperity is better than its absence, and I like the fact that Californians still help make the future look hopeful, by developing better solar panels and electric cars, sustainable agriculture and marine-protected areas that preserve fish populations and their habitats. I have also noticed the friendly crowds jostling my elbows at every surf break and on the shockingly long lines below Yosemite rock climbs. These people have as much fun as I ever did, loving the only version of California available to them.