California Flag

An Emigrant's Guide to California

Preparing for Western States
By Anstr Davidson

This was written in 2004. It has not been edited since. Some things have changed. For example, California has serious financial problems. But the drug dealers are just fine. The TrOJans and Bruins are still the two of the top pro teams in their sports, and northern Californians still think it doesn't stink when they go to the bathroom. Most important, Western States is still a great event that acts like it knows it.

It seems that every VHTRC member except for this reporter will go to the Mecca of trail running, the Western States 100 Mile Run. If you go to Western States, you have to go to California. For the benefit of VHTRC members, here is an Emigrant's Guide to California. Note 1 But first, a disclaimer.

Why Poke Fun at Western States? The Western States Endurance Run is a great event. It is well run, results from the labor of many hard working volunteers, has beautiful scenery, and is a worthy challenge. Western States is, however, the Micro$oft, $tarbucks, and New York ¥ankees of trail running. It is so big and self-important that it just gets to be a little much. Western States was the first trail event to go commercial. Remember the "First Interstate Bank Western States 100"? This year it's "the Western States Endurance Run Brought to You by North Face." But I am cynical. Let the Western States Web Site show you the true spirit of the event.

[Note: Any comments on this page about Western States are meant in pure fun and are those of Anstr Davidson, not the VHTRC or, particularly, Derrick Carr. (Can Derrick get off the "Do Not Pick" list for the lottery now?)]

California coastIntroduction: If California were a country, it would be a member of the G-8 since it would be the seventh largest world economy. If Los Angeles were a state, it would be the fourth largest U.S. economy. But California is not a country. At least not officially.

Geography: California is divided at the Tehachapi Mountains. (See Map.) How you refer to these two parts depends upon where you live. If you live north of the Tehachapis, your section is called "California" and the section below you is referred to as either "Southern California," "L.A.," "Baja California," or just "Down South" (said in a tone that comes out, "down in Hell"). If you live south of the Tehachapis, your section is called "California" and the land north of you is pretty much ignored unless the Dodgers are playing the Giants in Candlestick Park (or whatever it is called today). The primary reason that California exists as one state rather than two is that each section would call itself "California" and that would be hopelessly confusing.

The two parts of California are not equal. The north has the water, natural resources, and snotty attitude. The south has the people, the money, the action, the importance, and the laid back-attitude. A resident of the south needs a special permit to travel north of the Tehachapis.

(Speaking of water, it is often said, correctly, that L.A. stole the water from the Owens Valley (the valley east of the Sierras at the base of Mount Whitney). This might not have been a bad thing, however. Go to Lone Pine today and then go to Los Angeles and tell me which you like better. If the Owens Valley had its water, it would just be a suburb of L.A.)

Climate: Contrary to popular opinion, California has harsh and varied weather. It has cold, snow, heat, storms, etc. None of this occurs where anyone lives, however. In California you visit snow, it doesn't happen where you are. For the most part, heat in California is dry. If you are out in the sun, it can be unbearable even in relatively cool weather. But if you can get to the shade, it can be very pleasant. With the exception of the river delta around Sacramento, there is little warm humidity anywhere. (There is plenty of cool humidity at the beaches, however.)

Western States takes place in the "low" Sierras, not the high ones. This means that it doesn't get cold or stormy. The heat everyone complains about at Western States is more from the sun than the air. It's not bad in the shade, but these are pine forests and the trees are far less dense than in Virginia. It's hard to stay in the shade. At the pre-race briefing, it will be around 80 degrees and sunny. If you grab a spot in the shade, it will feel like 74 degrees. If you sit in the sun, it will feel like 90.

The People: You usually cannot distinguish northern and southern Californians by their look, dress, or accents. (Californians do not have an accent. This is one of the many ways that they are set apart from the rest of the United States.) The two groups are, however, quite different. Northerners believe they live in the greatest land in the world and will fight you if you dispute them. Southern Californians have never thought of this issue because they are having too much fun. If you criticize their homeland, they will be unfazed and secretly happy that you will not move here to further congest the freeways like all those folks from Ohio and Michigan who thought 70 degree weather during the Rose Bowl game looked neat. Another difference between northern and southern Californians is how they refer to their major cities. In the north, there is only one major city and only two ways to refer to it -- "The City" (preferred -- "The" is always capitalized) or "San Francisco" (tolerated). In the south, you may refer to the major city however you want -- "L.A." "Angeles" or "Anaheim." No one really lives in either The City or L.A., and in the south no one wants to. In the north, everyone wants to live in The City and pretends to do so. Ask a northerner where he is from and he is likely to say "San Francisco" even if he is from Sausalito or San Mateo. Even if a southern Californian is from L.A., he will say he is from "Northridge" "Hollywood" or "San Pedro" -- all districts of the city of Los Angeles.

Of course, there are significant differences between San Francisco and L.A. The former is actually a city that is pleasant and interesting to visit. The latter is just the geometric center of a sprawl that no one would visit or live in. Of course, while L.A. is not a real city, it has many civic accomplishments. Ask a northerner how many times the Olympic Games have been held in San Francisco. For L.A. the answer is two. And what does the north have to match UCLA basketball, USC football, the Lakers, or Sandy Koufax? (Ok, they did have Willy Mays.)

Language: The predominant language is English, though not for long. There are only a few words unique to California English. Examples are bitchin' ("very good") and freeway ("Interstate"). Other words have different meanings. For example, in California "on ramp" does not mean a place to stop while waiting for a break in traffic as it seems to mean to some idiots in Virginia.

Many visitors, especially those English speakers who have had high school Spanish, have trouble with California place names. California place names are not pronounced as either a Spanish or English speaker would say them. For example, La Jolla is not pronounced "la jaw la" (duh!). But "San" as in San Francisco or San Pedro is pronounced like "sand" not "song." On the other hand, most people say "pee drow" as opposed to "pay drow" for San Pedro. Los Angeles is pronounced as neither a Mexican nor a Virginian would pronounce it. The most fun is watching people try to pronounce Port Hueneme. (Actually, Hueneme was the name of a Chumash village name that meant "resting place." It's not Spanish.) (It's "why knee me.") Finally, on the great debate as to whether Lompoc is "poc" or "poke," you can go either way, but the inmates at the prison call it "the Poke."

California's First LadyGovernment: California is a democracy controlled by the voters through the Initiative process. The State Legislature is just a formality and has no power. There are three political parties in California: (1) The crazy right wing nuts (also known as "Republicans"); (2) the Democrats (composed of the two moderate Republicans in the state and the sane Democrats); and (3) the crazy left wing nuts (also known as "the crazy left wing nuts"). California is justly proud of its record in electing truly bizarre public officials. The list of California's greatest politicians is truly inspiring: Pat Brown, Jerry Brown, S.I. Hayakawa, George Murphy, Sam Yorty, Pierre Salinger, Michael Huffington, Tom Hayden, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronald Reagan (rest his soul), and the one of whom California is most proud, Dick Nixon. (You will note that California was not dumb enough to elect Nixon governor.) Remember, however, that none of these politicians matter. California does everything by the Initiative process which means that the ballot is many pages long and the politicians just yell at each other but don't govern anything. It works great.

The Economy: When you see all the late model cars and Hummers on the road, you will wonder, "Where do these people get all this money? Do they all sell drugs?" Well, many do sell drugs, but California has a vibrant, varied economy. California is the largest agricultural economy in the United States. California grows more than half of the nation's fruits, nuts and vegetables. (More Information.) At the same time, California is the home to Silicon Valley, the aerospace industry, and the entertainment industry. But what of the economic future? Look at it this way. Would you rather be on the trade route from the United States to Japan, China, and southeast Asia, or be on the trade route to France as New Jersey is?

Sports: Californians, especially those in the south, root for winners. Teams must earn respect, they don't get it just by being the home team. The pro football teams in California are, in order of merit, the Oakland Raiders, the San Francisco 49ers, the USC Trojans, and the San Diego Chargers. There are two pro basketball teams -- the Lakers and the Bruins. L.A. is perfectly happy with having only USC as a pro football team. That means there are no NFL games blacked out on TV.

Higher Education: Since everyone on the Right Coast thinks that all great educational institutions are located within 100 miles of Boston, California's colleges and universities are underrated. Cal Berkeley has only two chemical elements named for it, and Stanford educated most of the current Supreme Court, but they obviously mean nothing to the Ivy League. The state's greatest center for learning, of course, is Pomona College. USC doesn't educate anyone, but it produces great running backs, and none of them have been convicted of murder, in a criminal court, anyway.

Dangers: California is known as a dangerous place. It isn't. Just follow this simple guide for dealing with dangers:

DangerPreventive MeasuresWhat to Do When it Happens
Don't go under a freeway overpassNothing -- it's not the "Big One"
(the Big One)
Don't be in the stateNothing -- you are totally screwed no matter what you do
Forest fireDo Rain DancesPut everything in the Hummer and drive out of the mountains
Mud SlidesDon't Do Rain DancesPut everything in the Hummer and drive out of the mountains
SmogLive at the beachNothing -- a real southern Californian doesn't trust air he can't see
High Real Estate Prices at the BeachBuy your house in 1960Sleep in a storm drain in Santa Monica. It won't have any storm water in it.
Sun BurnWhat Problem?Nothing. Dermatologists need to eat too.

Going to Western States: If you are going to Western States as either a competitor, runner, or crew, you will have to travel to California. There are two ways to go to Western States. You can fly into the state capital of Sacramento, or you can fly into Reno in California's colony of Nevada. The visa in your passport for California is good for travel to Nevada. Nevada is a wonderful place. It has all the attributes of a colony -- a love/hate relationship with the mother country, inhabitants who pay no taxes but still bitch about it anyway, and free trade with the mother country. Flying into Reno is closer to the start of Western States and has significant tax advantages.

Sightseeing before the Race: You are required to see Lake Tahoe. (The view of Lake Tahoe from the top of the first climb during the race itself, while beautiful, does not count.) Mark Twain called boating on Lake Tahoe "Ballooning." Note 2 Drive the short way from Squaw Valley to the lake. When you arrive, you will see motels, gas stations, and no lake. You are in Tahoe City. It sucks. You need to find an unsettled section of shore line. There may be none left, but your best hope is on the Nevada side. Go clockwise around the lake. You won't regret it.

Donner Lake from north shore looking southYou should also see Donner Lake. This lake is smaller than Tahoe but no less a jewell. (One can easily swim the width of Donner Lake.) Don't just look down at Donner Lake from I-80. Drive along the shore line from the east toward Donner Pass to the west. There is an on ramp to I-80 just before you get to the west end of the lake. Look at the snow sheds for the railroad on the mountain to the south of the lake. If you swim in Donner Lake stay flat -- the water on the surface is warmer than that below. Also, be sure to visit the Donner Party Memorial at the east end of the lake. This is where the main portion of the Donner Party spent the winter of 1846-47. (Actually, George Donner, for whom the party was named, never saw the lake or the pass later named for him. His camp site is east of Truckee and, in the 1960s had only a small stone marker. There may be more there now.) There are more modern activities on Donner Lake now, including water skiing, and hanging around.

The Olympic Village at Squaw Valley is all gone so there is nothing to see there. Just remember, this was the scene of the first "Miracle on Ice" as the USA ice hockey team beat the Russians. (The Canadians were second, the Russians only third.) Also notable at that Olympics were the victories of Carol Heiss and David Jenkins in figure skating. Sadly, the olympic ice arena is gone, but it was pretty cool to be able to skate on the hollowed ice where the U.S. team beat the Russians as late as 1970. More information

The Race: If you are running the race, don't worry, they will take care of you. Remember when you entered the Army and they lined you all up and gave you everything they thought you needed and told you what to say, do, and think? (Ok, you were a draft dodger and don't know, but trust me, it happened.) Well Western States is like that. Just follow orders and you will be fine.

Crews are a different story. You are on your own. My suggestion is that if you are a crew, don't bother to meet your runner. There is too much traffic, narrow roads and, if you runner is any good, he or she won't spend more than 30 seconds with you. If you have time to talk to your runner, he is a loser who is spending too much time in the aid station. Here are my suggestions for crews:

  • Sleep in. What is exciting at the start? You need your sleep.
  • Have breakfast in Truckee, a quaint, but dirty little railroad town.
  • Go see Donner Lake and the Donner Party Museum there.
  • Drive to Auburn but don't stay there, it's a tourist trap. Drive to Nevada City. (Warning, there is a county in California named "Nevada." Don't confuse this with the colony of California whose capital is Carson City.)
  • Have lunch. I suggest two bottles of wine. The weather will be clear, sunny, warm, and dry. It will be perfect for drinking wine in the shade.
  • Go to Forest Hill to meet your runner. He will be there by 7 PM unless he is a loser who won't break 24 hours. (Remember, there are two kinds of Western States finishers -- those who break 24 hours and losers.) The only landmark in Foresthill is the spot in the bushes outside the school where this reporter puked both times he participate in the event.
  • Say "Hi" to your runner. This is where he can pick up a pacer. You don't want to pace him. The last 40 miles of the race are totally boring, especially at night. There will be eager Californians ready to pace him. (One way to tell a California WS runner from a non-Californian is that the former believes that you cannot finish Western States without a pacer. This person will finish and say, "I owe it all to my pacer." He will not, however, share is buckle with his pacer.)
  • Get some sleep. You have had a long day.
  • See the finish at the high school. If your runner will "buckle" (a verb invented, like all things, in California) you have to get up in the middle of the night. If your runner is a loser, you can sleep in because he will finish in the daytime.

How to act during the race: It is very important that you conduct yourself properly at Western States. Remember, you are at the only 100 mile trail run in the country. There is no other. Nothing else matters in the world. Western States is more important than peace in the world or even Jennifer Lopez. You must abide by some simple rules:

  • Pay proper respect to those who have reached Western States sainthood. There are three of them -- Gordon Ainsleigh, Anne Trayson, and Tim Twietmeyer. You must bow your head whenever their names are said or anyone makes a reference to them. In their presence, you should kneel until they grant you permission to stand. (Even though Scott Jurek has won the race for the last several years in a row and Mike Morton holds the course record, neither is eligible for sainthood since neither is from northern California. Helen Klein is no longer a saint now that people don't need to suck up to her husband.)
  • You are permitted to refer to other trail runs but only in the context of how you use them as training for 'States.
  • Do not refer to the run as "'States" unless you are from California. They will laugh at your futile attempt to be an insider.
  • Do not ask the following question: "You have eight medical checks and several equally tough 100 mile runs have none. Do you have more or fewer medical emergencies?"
  • Do not ask a doctor: "If you are going to volunteer your time, isn't there a clinic in Sacramento with real sick people you can help rather than watching perfectly healthy people puke?"
  • Do not ask: "Where does all the money go?"
  • Remember the great Western States dichotomy. The organizers and participants of the event want the outside world to believe that running the event is life-threatening. That's why the event has doctors, medical bracelets, pacers, etc. But then the organizers and entrants do everything possible to make the event relatively tame -- billions of aid stations, pacers, drop bags, etc. Don't let the secret out. Don't say: "Western States is very tough, but there is nothing dangerous about it." Remember, you have stared death in the face.

After the Race: The great event is over. Your plane does not leave for a couple of days. What to see? Here are some suggestions:

Yosemite: This is a really cool place. An added advantage is that your drive to Yosemite takes you through the foothills that were the "gold country." Even a few hours spent in Yosemite are worth the trip.

Sacramento: As with most state capitals, there isn't much to see here. The California State Railroad Museum is, however, interesting. If, by chance, you miss the hot, humid weather back home, you may want to terry in Sacramento. It is hot and, thanks to the river delta, humid there.

The Golden Gate in the 1960sThe City: You should visit San Francisco. It is a beautiful city. Even the tourist traps are cool. Don't miss Coit Tower (graffiti often alters the name) and its free view of The City, the Buena Vista Cafe at the end of the cable car line to the Wharf (be sure to have Irish Coffee), and cross the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County.

Speaking of bridges, when you cross the Bay Bridge, you will realize that Dustin Hoffman was going the wrong way when he crossed the bridge to see Katherine Ross at Cal in the Graduate. Also, when he got there the idyllic scenes of "Cal" were actually the University of Southern California. There was great irony in that. In the '60s, there were no two different institutions than Cal and USC.

If you visit San Francisco, remember to bring long pants and a sweater. Note 3

The South: If you have more time, you may want to venture south. Take Highways 101 and 1 south. When you get to Ventura, you have gone far enough. The state further south is for living in, not visiting.

Moving to California: You know how when you visit a place you say, "This would be a nice place to live!" but you realize that you don't really want to live there? Unlike other places, California really is a nice place to live. Fortunately, you can't afford to. The state is too crowded. So come on back to the hot Washington summer. The cicadas will likely be dead by then.

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Note 1: With apologies to Langsford Hastings who wrote an Emigrant's Guide to Oregon and California in 1845. His work was instrumental in convincing many of the emigrants of 1846, including those in the Donner Party, to go to California, rather than Oregon.

What Hastings said of Californians is probably true today -- heavily hispanic, pluralistic, well-educated, and resourceful:

The entire population of Upper California including foreigners, Mexicans and Indians, may be estimated at about thirty-one thousand human souls, of whom, about one thousand are foreigners, ten thousand are Mexicans, and the residue are Indians. By the term foreigners, I include all those who are not native citizens of Mexico, whether they have become citizens by naturalization, or whether they remain in a state of alienage. They consist, chiefly, of Americans, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans and Spaniards, but there is a very large majority of the former. The foreigners are principally settled at the various towns, and upon the Sacramento; those of whom who, are located at the latter place, consist almost entirely of our own citizens. The foreigners of this country are, generally, very intelligent; many of them have-received all the advantages of an education; and they all possess an unusual degree of industry and enterprise. Those who are emigrating to that remote and almost unknown region, like those who are emigrating to Oregon, are, in all respects, a different class of persons, from those who usually emigrate to our frontier. They generally, possess, more than an ordinary degree of intelligence, and that they possess an eminent degree of industry, enterprise and bravery, is most clearly evinced, from the very fact, of their entering upon this most arduous and perilous undertaking.

Lansford W. Hastings, An Emigrant's Guide to California and Oregon, pp 112-13 (1845).

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Note 2: Twain, Mark, Roughing It, 1872 (available here).

So singularly clear was the water, that where it was only twenty or thirty feet deep the bottom was so perfectly distinct that the boat seemed floating in the air! Yes, where it was even eighty feet deep. Every little pebble was distinct, every speckled trout, every hand's- breadth of sand. Often, as we lay on our faces, a granite boulder, as large as a village church, would start out of the bottom apparently, and seem climbing up rapidly to the surface, till presently it threatened to touch our faces, and we could not resist the impulse to seize an oar and avert the danger. But the boat would float on, and the boulder descend again, and then we could see that when we had been exactly above it, it must still have been twenty or thirty feet below the surface. Down through the transparency of these great depths, the water was not merely transparent, but dazzlingly, brilliantly so. All objects seen through it had a bright, strong vividness, not only of outline, but of every minute detail, which they would not have had when seen simply through the same depth of atmosphere. So empty and airy did all spaces seem below us, and so strong was the sense of floating high aloft in mid-nothingness, that we called these boat-excursions "balloon-voyages."

Roughing It, Chapter 23.

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Note 3: Mark Twain is often repeated, but unconfirmed quotation is:

"The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco."

See also: PBS comment on the quotation | Quotations about San Francisco. One of the best statements about San Francisco comes from its only really famous son, Joe Dimaggio, at his 50th birthday party:

I'm proud to have been a Yankee. But I have found more happiness and contentment since I came back home to San Francisco than any man has a right to deserve. This is the friendliest city in the world.

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