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Opinion: The California Dream, A Catastrophic Wake-Up Call

A funnel appears in a thick plume of smoke from the Loyalton Fire last month in Lassen County, Calif. It is one of many wildfires to have hit the state recently.
Katelynn & Jordan Hewlett
A funnel appears in a thick plume of smoke from the Loyalton Fire last month in Lassen County, Calif. It is one of many wildfires to have hit the state recently.

The dreamscape of California has looked like a hellscape this week. California, America's Golden State — "Warm, palmy air — air you can kiss ..." wrote Jack Kerouac — has had choking air, scalding heat and surreal orange skies.

California has been the dreamland of so many who hope to strike it rich or start over, a state of mind, as well as a state: a place for fresh starts, freeways and free love.

This season has brought a cascade of calamities to California and the West, atop the pandemic. And Californians may wonder whether these are catastrophes to be endured just once a century or a generation, or are they a new way of life?

Steve Pennebaker, a software engineer and fourth-generation Californian, told us this week that when drought, fires, blackouts and mudslides struck his state time after time these past few years, friends would say, "Well, this is once in a lifetime."

"I've been hearing 'once in a lifetime' every few months for years now," he told us.

Steve and his wife, Susan Parker, were already discouraged by how so much of the state they love had become impossible to afford. Rent and home prices soar for those who can pay, while many of those who can't are left to live out of their cars — or sleep on the streets of California's great, glittering cities.

Steve Pennebaker says that with each new year of record fires, drought and scorched air and earth, he has asked his wife, "Are we frogs who are being boiled and don't know it yet?"

When we spoke this week, he and Susan had just moved to Washington state. They have watched California's red skies and raging wildfires from a distance. But there is gray smoke in the air from forest fires in Washington, too.

"Where do we run to?" Steve asked. "We're running out of places."

Bonnie Tsui, the California writer, told us this week that her young children first learned to wear N95 masks during the fires of 2018 and 2019, before the coronavirus made face coverings everyday attire.

"It stinks that they, at 7 and 10 years old, are pretty good at putting on two layers of masks," she said, "But to leave California is only to deny what we know to be true — the climate crisis is now, and it is everywhere, and we can't run from it."

When these fires have cooled and the air has cleared — for at least a while —California will still be an enormous and astounding place. But between climactic disasters, can it still hold so many dreams?

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.