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California dreaming ends in money for a few, a hangover for many

The road calls, whispers: Beyond the horizon lies a world where you can be reborn. Think of Jack Kerouac, "On the Road" with Dean Moriarty; William Least Heat-Moon traveling the "Blue Highways"; Nat King Cole telling you to "get your kicks on Route 66."

Bill Barich had moved to California in 1969, when he was 25. But now he was on the brink of middle age, enduring a marriage careening toward divorce. So, in 1989 he set out on a six-month journey, driving the highways and back roads from the Oregon border to Mexico. He went beyond the California of myth and hype, investigated the state's contrasts, its complexities. His book is vast in scope, and quite good.

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At times the writing is perfect, the imagery and insights pure, true:

"Drifting was integral to any notion of the desert. The wind, the wind -- things kept scattering through. Vultures drifted in the sky, thoughts drifted, the sands drifted, all in slow motion."

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That's exactly how it is on the Mojave Desert, when there is only silence, the wind and the abiding, immutable land. Near Alturas, way up in the state's northeastern corner, he notes the "birds by the thousands, flocking, nesting, and flying about, creating with the flap of their wings the crackly sound of a tarpaulin ripping in a gust of wind."

More travelogue than spiritual journey, "Big Dreams" is filled with historical anecdotes gleaned from a bibliography that numbers more than two dozen books. Mr. Barich, a contributor to the New Yorker with three other books to his credit, gives us Agoston Haraszthy de Mokesa, an idiosyncratic Hungarian count whose experimentations with grapes helped give birth to a $1.5 billion industry; the great naturalist John Muir traipsing through Yosemite -- the name comes from an Awani Indian word presumed to mean "grizzly bear"; the water wars that killed wheat farming in the 19th century but made the Los Angeles metropolis possible in the 20th.

Riding with him, you are overwhelmed by the size of California. The San Joaquin Valley is as big as Denmark. More than 30 million people live here: Sikhs and Hmong, Indians and Basques, fishers and farmers and oil field roustabouts. They live in fertile valleys, or forests thick with pine and redwood, in blistering, sun-baked desert towns, in sprawling cities and endless suburbs that keep popping up like weeds at every turn.

He gives us more than the Chamber of Commerce's California, the movieland fantasy of palm trees rustling in a Pacific Ocean breeze, La-La Land where airhead blonds and entertainment deal-makers drink mineral water served up in fern bars, the offbeat Shangri-La where everything that can happen does happen, and every brain is a little addled by too much time in the sun. This is the California where Merle Haggard spent his childhood in a converted boxcar, where Mexicans in search of work make mad --es across Interstate 5. This California includes Charles Manson, who came out to the coast, remade himself, and rode the wave of free love into mass murder.

Still, the California paradise does exist for some. In Marin County, where the median home price is $354,200, the "laid-back" life is enjoyed in hot tubs and saunas. Biofeedback counselors clean up your karma and reroute any chakras or negative vibrations that might be adding to your percentage of body fat. Marin County is also home to Death Row, the maximum-security prison at San Quentin.

Time and again Mr. Barich comes across small, far-flung towns and urban neighborhoods where there is despair, ruined dreams. Simple dreams of a decent job, a home, a life offering more than restless hunger and disappointment are out of reach. The young in the Pacific Coast fishing villages, the lumber towns of the north, the oil towns of Bakersfield and Oildale face the same dilemma. They were born a generation too late:

"Sometimes it seemed Oakland was laboring under a curse. . . . Frustration and anger were the city's juice. . . . I saw on a concrete highway abutment as I drove away [a graffito] that said, Oakland Is South Africa."

Oakland, too, is California, as are the Klamath Mountains, so intimidating that "They dwarfed human beings and made us seem like an afterthought in the master plan of creation."

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The northern region is so cut off from the rest of California that part of it joined with two Oregon counties in 1941 to form a state called Jefferson. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor right after Secession Day, and Jefferson vanished.

In Susanville, a far-north milltown "that had not yet broken with its past to invent a future," crime is up, and so is drug use. There's a prison, built for 3,102 but holding 5,000: "In California, only the prisons were as overcrowded as the schools."

Once a prize example of California's wealth, the school system is now a stark indication of democracy's failing compact. Mr. Barich writes: "The adolescents in Oakland's rundown high schools, and in rundown high schools all across the state, knew that they were being monitored and contained, not prepared for advancement."

California has the third-highest percentage of high school dropouts. Los Angeles ranks 32nd among the nation's large cities in terms of the maximum salary paid to a teacher with a master's degree. You can earn $8,000 more a year in Jersey City.

Yet, people are making money in Hollywood -- "miles of money, money dropping from the clouds." A million-dollar salary for a picture is chump change. In Los Angeles, "illusions and realities were hopelessly entangled and expectations were astounding. . . . Even a hamburger had to be more, much more, than a simple patty of ground beef."

Since this is a road book, some areas are given short shrift, or not even mentioned. Don't expect to find Watts, the San Fernando Valley, or the barrio of East Los Angeles, all essential parts of that metropolis. Part of the shortcoming of "Big Dreams" is simply that California is too big. Every inch cannot be accounted for; every town cannot be visited. Still, there are unexpected surprises, such as the time he stops into Twenty-two Mile Roadhouse on the road to Fresno and listens, entranced by a fantastic piano player known only as Baker.

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Back in San Francisco, the final accounting is one of hope, concern, worry, a sense of "fear upon the land":

"In the [Silicon Valley] bars where hopeful programmers and MBAs met for exploratory discussions, the talk had a wistful flavor of nostalgia at the passing of a golden age. It was the same nostalgia you heard in San Francisco when gay men talked about a time before AIDS, the same sad acceptance that came into the voices of loggers and fishermen when they spoke of the lost abundance of the forests and the seas -- the same high-pitched note of regret that hung in the air everywhere in California when the party was over at last."

Yet the state's exquisite natural beauty remains.

Of a September evening in La Jolla, north of San Diego, he writes: "Again the air was a gift. There was nothing to fight. Nothing to resist. . . . Maybe California would be reduced, simply, to this -- this light, this air, this feeling on the skin."

But the myth ever endures. As the wife of a farmer in the Fall River Valley near Mount Shasta, says, "When I travel and say I'm from California, everybody thinks it means Los Angeles. Los Angeles! That's nine hundred miles from here. There's more to California than Los Angeles."

And Mr. Barich has brought much of it to us.

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Mr. Thompson is deputy bureau chief of the Anne Arundel County bureau of The Sun. He is a native of California.

Title: "Big Dreams: Into the Heart of California"

Author: Bill Barich

Publisher: Pantheon

-! Length, price: 546 pages, $24



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