Santa Monica Pier, the terminus of Main Street America, Route 66. A washed-up dead seal bobs in and out of the incoming waves, drawing the attention of beachcombers lazily walking this strip of sand at the edge of America, this resting place of the American Dream of westward expansion.
When the Europeans landed on this continent, they spoke of it as a paradise, a new Eden. And at every turnâ€”when things got tough, or crowded, or restrictiveâ€”those of us who are their descendants have been quick to pull out that most edenic of imperatives to pick up and move towards a horizon of new opportunity.
“Go West!” a phrase popularized by New York Newspaperman became shorthand for escape: from illness, poverty, oppression, crowds, prison, and drought. The West was America’s Eden, a land of healing powers, and youthful optimism. The West accepted dreamers running towards a future and criminals running from a past.
Nowhere has this been truer than in our westernmost state of California. In California you could reinvent yourself: change your name, dye your hair, start a religion, become famous.
All along we have read our country from east to west, looking to California’s youthful optimism as our nation’s future. It is no accident that Walt Disney put his original “Tomorrowland” inside the “Magic Kingdom” we know as Southern California.
California has always reflected our nation’s gaze and delivered to us the future: from the late 30s Palo Alto garage of Hewlett and Packard, to the 1948 Los Angles garage of the slingshot/Frisbee/hula hoop maker “Wham-O,” to the 1958 Dana Point garage of Bill and Mark Richard that spawned the skateboard revolution. California has been a kind of magical mirror for the rest of country, reflecting back on us our own mythic image of ourselves: eternally young, preternaturally gifted, and bathed in limitless wealth. We see this reflection in the boxes coming out of Silicon Valley and the box offices of Hollywood.
In our obsession with the new, the future, and limitless possibility, we have ignored some basic geography (both physical and metaphorical). It is that Tomorrowland exists on a coast, a very real reminder that things end; that lives, empires, continents, and storiesâ€”-like Route 66â€”come to an end. This seal rotting on the beach is the spectre that haunts California, a mememto mori of rot and decay in a state, judging by the sheer number of cosmetic surgery/enhancement/waxing/laser ads, committed to cutting, plucking and waxing itself back into our nation’s pre-pubescent fantasy space of erotic desirability: an eternally wrinkle-free, smooth-skinned, infantilized Eden.
Sitting here in the sand at the rather literal “end of the road” of a rather metaphorical American Dream, I am shaded by a billboard promoting this year’s Oscar-winner “Slumdog Millionaire.” Reading today’s paper, I notice that we now interpret our continent in reverse, reporting the news from China and India looking east across our continent towards Wall Street. The West Coast of America is now referenced as the East Coast of Asian Markets.
It’s not just the sand shifting beneath my feet, but the metaphorical ground beneath the Go West! mantra of America’s eternal youth and optimism. Of course, one could make the argument that nothing has really shifted. We’ve just moved further west, across the Pacific, to the new-new frontier, no longer the “Far East” but the “Wild West” of China and India with their unlimited resources (human and otherwise) and their lax regulatory environments, waiting with open arms; or that we’ve dispensed with geography altogether in favor of cyberspace.
This evening, as the sun sets over Santa Monica and the dawn begins to break over the Asian continent, I turn in the sand to head east, back to Montana. My daughters are hungry and we stop at a cart. The vendor’s sign no longer reads “Cotton Candy and Popcorn” but “Churros and Popcorn” though he still does a brisk business in the pink sugary stuff. And while the sign is new, the metaphorical pattern it speaks is not. California has been el norte much longer than it has been the West Coast of the Anglo imagination, and it is equally an “American metaphor.”
In Santa Monica, here on the threshold of the continent, one cannot help that we’re going back to the future.