California, the great and terrible

In the third week of June, I flew down to San Diego with my stepfather so we could see the vast expanse of California, along with the infrastructure, people and biology within it.

As soon as I stepped off the airport I noticed some key differences between Seattle and San Diego. The color palette of Puget Sound tended to accentuate dark greens and browns while Southern California featured warmer colors such as lighter yellows and brick reds.

We rented a small-subcompact Mitsubishi, intent on zigzagging north up California between urban museums on the coast and desert scenes further inland. Our first stop was at the USS Midway, an old aircraft carrier which sat amongst four other aircraft carriers along the San Diego port. The huge ship was a breathtaking work of engineering but what truly didn’t register with me until I was there was how carriers facilitated the airplanes takeoff.

The ship, commissioned in 1945, had these pressure containers comparable to a small semi-truck that collected steam from diesel boilers. Pressure that pulls a multi-ton aircraft off of the ship’s short airstrip is released. The whole process feels overtly simple and diesel-steampunk but the nuclear based carriers the United States use today have the same system.

Even with over-development, Seattle is still one of the smallest metropolises in the country but the greater Los Angeles area dominates nearly a third of Southern California with its presence. We drove north towards Los Angeles and had plenty of doses of California medicine, traffic. Along the way I saw the double domes of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station as we drove along the I-5.
I also noticed evidence of lingering Spanish culture within the state since its days as a Mexican territory, especially amongst the Spanish names of roads and cities. More than a quarter of the population of California speaks Spanish.

The Los Angeles smog was visible before we could see the city itself and the air pollution is as bad as ever. Exhaust from all the running vehicles caused the air to become thick and made it harder to breathe, and the sky visibly darkened to a yellow haze very similar to the color palette of the houses everywhere.

All over southern California, everyone had houses made from yellow plaster and red bricked roofing, much like the biome that surrounds them, but they all were sickeningly uniform. The song “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds came to mind after seeing a couple thousand homes like that.

After spending time in museums looking at art and ancient skeletons in Los Angeles, we drove up to the Palomar Observatory where Caltech does a lot of their deep space observations on a 200 inch lens.

At five thousand feet, the way up to the observatory had crazy winding roads with sharp turns. We visited on the weekend so we saw death defying motorcyclists racing each other. After taking a few panoramas, I noticed that the majority of these people work for the department of defense and have ex-military backgrounds. Maybe they were looking for the adrenaline that keeps them alive but nonetheless, someone typically dies on that road every weekend.

We drove east through hundreds of miles of orange orchards before we arrived at Mojave. Palm trees receded and gave way to cacti, shrubberies and Joshua trees, a cousin of the agave plant. When we checked in for the night the motel manager told us about an airstrip not half a mile down the road that has supersonic aircraft that take off and rattle the windows.

That morning, we discovered the airstrip was Mojave spaceport where all sorts of privatized aeronautic research is performed. I walked into the local diner and accidentally met Commander Dick Rutan who made the first continuous flight on the Voyager in 1986.

Afterwards we drove northwest to San Francisco and then to Sacramento where we took a 13-hour train ride to Portland.

On the train ride I got to see the desert fade and give way to deciduous forests. California is truly expansive and seems to hold an entire country’s worth of culture, technology and environments.
It is truly difficult for me to imagine quantities larger than tens of thousands because with all the digits, the scope of magnitude is lost within a collection. With over 160 thousand square miles of land, one could fit the entirety of Japan within the state of California. I didn’t understand that until I physically traveled the distance.