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Works and Days

Where Dreams Die

May 24th, 2011 - 5:51 am

I was given a great gift — but see below — to travel throughout California the last week, by land and by air over the state. It was hard to determine whether the natural beauty of the landscape or the ingenuity of our ancestors was the more impressive. The Sierra is still snow-locked and towers in white above a lush valley floor below. The lakes of the 1912 Big Creek Hydroelectric Project — Shaver, Huntington, and the still snowbound Edison and Florence above — belong in Switzerland. The squares of grapes and trees below look like a vast lush checkerboard from above.

I prefer the beauty of the Napa and Sonoma valleys to Tuscany; the former lacks only the majestic Roman and Renaissance history of the Italian countryside. Human genius in just a half-century has almost matched 2500 years of Italian viticulture. The California coast — the hills, beaches, and landscape — could be in the Peloponnese and easily stands the comparison. When early summer finally comes to the state in late spring, as it did last week, the result is almost divine: warmth and light without high humidity, daily rains, or high winds.

They say the Central Valley is the ugliest part of the state; I disagree. Last week from my great-great-grandmother’s upstairs balcony I could see snow capped mountains tower just thirty miles away; in-between were millions of green trees and vines and the water towers of small towns in every direction. Nothing in Spain or southern France is prettier. A man would have to be mad to leave such beauty, and the brilliant work of his predecessors who as artists built the dams and canals, laid out the agrarian patchwork, founded these communities that serve as bookends to the works of architectural and municipal genius in San Francisco, or Los Angeles and San Diego. Yes, a man would have to be mad — or quite rational — to leave paradise lost.

You see, here is the situation in California. Tens of thousands of prisoners are scheduled by a U.S. Supreme Court order to be released. But why this inability to house our criminals when we pay among the highest sales, income, and gas taxes in the nation? Too many criminals? Too few new prisons? Too high costs per prisoner? Too many non-violent crimes that warrant incarceration? God help us when they are released. We know what crime is like now; what will it be like if thousands are let go? I doubt they will end up in the yards of the justices who let them out.

I think I have a clue to what’s ahead. Here is an aside, a sort of confession of my last six months in the center of our cry-the-beloved state:

December 2011: rear-ended by a texting driver; I called 9/11 and the police; she called “relatives” who arrived in two carloads. You get the picture. Luckily the police got there before her “family” did, and cited her. Still waiting to fix the dented truck.

March 2011: riding a bike in rural California, flipped over a “loose dog,” resulting in assorted injuries. Residents — well over 10 in various dwellings —claimed ignorance about the dogs outside their homes: no licenses, no vaccinations, no leashes, no fence. Final score: them: slammed door and shrugs; me: ruined bike, injuries, and a long walk home.

May 2011: two males drive in “looking to buy scrap metal.” They are politely told to leave. That night barn is burglarized and $1200 in property stolen.

Later May 2011: a female drives in van into front driveway with four males, “just looking to rent” neighbor’s house. They leave. Only later I learn they earlier came in the back way and had forced their way in, prying the back driveway gate, springing and bending armature.

Later May 2011: shop is burglarized — both bolt and padlock knocked off. Shelves stripped clean. It is the little things like this that aggravate Californians, especially when lectured not to sweat it by the academics on the coast and the politicians in Sacramento.

NB: I have been hit three times in the last 10 years: 1) driver ran stop sign, slammed into my truck, limped off, was run down and detained by me until police arrived; 2) speeding driver hit a mattress in the road (things such as that are rarely tied down by motorists in California), swerved, was hit, did a 180, braked, but still hit me at 45 mph head-on (survived due to the air bags of the Honda Accord); 3) rear-ended as explained above. But this time your wiser author, when the car rear-ended me at 50 mph, was driving a four-wheel-drive Toyota Tundra with huge tow bar in back; the texter was driving a Civic. Nuff said.

Such is life 180 miles — and a cosmos away — from the Stanford campus.

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