California is the most populous and third largest state in the United States of America. California is often described in superlatives. Along with its size and population, it also has the highest and lowest points in the continental United States, and has some of the driest, wettest, hottest and coldest places. It is prone to earthquakes, drought, wildfire and the occasional volcanic eruption. It also has many famous landmarks and some of the United State's largest urban areas. California is sometimes compared to other nations in the world, to show that if it was an independent country, it would be as populous, large and as economically active as many major world powers. There is a county in California that is larger in area than nine of the smallest US states, and more populous than the 12 least populous. California is almost a nation in itself.
Some of this is by accident. In the same way that the borders of Europe were settled by religious wars or cousins marrying several hundred years ago, the borders of the states come from their territorial borders, which as much as I can tell, were probably drawn out by minor functionaries in the Department of the Interior sometime in the early 19th century. There is probably more to it then that, but if some politicians had decided to draw up the map differently in the 1850s, California might be two or three states, and would not be seen as quite a monolith. But that doesn't change the fact that California, as it is, is a gigantic and many-splendored place.
Because of its great size, California probably has more distinct regions than any other American state. These include:
- Southern California (or, to my Oregonian mind, Los Angeles), where the weather is very hot and dry and where many many people live close together. It includes Los Angeles and its suburbs, as well as San Diego. This area also includes Hollywood, California, the center of the American movie industry. It also includes the gigantic port facilities of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Like any large American city, the Los Angeles area is rich in immigrant communities, probably being the second most diverse city after New York, New York. Despite all of this diversity, Southern California is still fixed in my mind (and probably not only in my mind) as the land of smog, ego and urban sprawl.
- The Bay Area (or, to my Oregonian mind, San Francisco) is the area around San Francisco Bay. San Francisco is actually the second largest city in the Bay Area, behind San Jose. This probably makes my habit of referring to anyone from the Bay Area as "from San Francisco" inaccurate and annoying, but it at least has historical precedent. San Francisco was the first major port, and has the famous landmarks of Golden Gate Bridge and Golden Gate Park. As opposed to the stereotypes of stress-driven, egotistical Los Angelenos, San Francisco and the Bay Area is stereotypically a more relaxed place, although (again stereotypically) somewhat loopily so. San Francisco is famous for its gay subculture, and for being one of the founding spots of hippy culture. The area might be more famous now as one of the founding spots of the computer industry, especially in San Jose and Silicon Valley.
- The Central Valley: People familiar with California from images of the Hollywood Sign and Pride Week in San Francisco might overlook the large part of California that is given over to agriculture. The Central Valley, between the Coast Range and the Sierra Nevada, is a large flat area, that thanks to irrigation, plenty of sunshine, and cheap labor is the richest agricultural area in the United States. Many things are grown here, from exotic crops like avocados to staple crops like rice. Driving across this area seems to be an interminable experience, with the endless fields and orchards interspersed with functional towns. Although it might not be glamorous, it is one of the reasons that California has such large ports, and also the source of many semi-tropical crops. The largest city in the Central Valley is the state capital, Sacramento.
- The rest: outside of these large areas, are many less-populated areas that might not be familiar to those outside of California, and even to many of those in the state. From the dry, interior Salton Sea to the mountain towns along the Nevada border to the wet, forested area adjoining Oregon, there are many areas that are part of California due to the decisions of that 19th-century cartographer.
Because of this great diversity, which also includes a great mixture of ethnic groups, and many different subcultures, there is very little that can be said about California as a whole. The state has also had a mixed history politically: up until 1988, it was mostly conservative overall, but since 1992 has become more and more liberal. What might happen to California in the future, and its various regions, is something beyond my ability to guess at.