This week in 1869, the tracks of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads met at Promontory Summit, Utah, and regular service began between Omaha and Sacramento. In the decades since its founding, Sacramento had served as the end of the line for gold prospectors, wagon trains, stagecoaches, steamboats and the Pony Express. With the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad, the state capital was again in the spotlight of history. And for many, there it has remained. In “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” the essayist, novelist and journalist Joan Didion drew a portrait of her hometown and the Sacramento Valley, dismissing those who “share in the pervasive delusion that California is only five hours from New York by air.” Maybe Beverly Hills is, she wrote, but “California is somewhere else.”
Many people in the East . . . do not believe this. They have been to Los Angeles or to San Francisco, have driven through a giant redwood and have seen the Pacific glazed by the afternoon sun off Big Sur, and they naturally tend to believe that they have in fact been to California. They have not been, and they probably never will be, for it is a longer and in many ways a more difficult trip than they might want to undertake, one of those trips on which the destination flickers chimerically on the horizon, ever receding, ever diminishing. I happen to know about that trip because I come from California, come from a family, or a congeries of families, that has always been in the Sacramento Valley.
You might protest that no family has been in the Sacramento Valley for anything approaching “always.” But it is characteristic of Californians to speak grandly of the past as if it had simultaneously begun, tabula rasa, and reached a happy ending on the day the wagons started west. Eureka--"I Have Found It"--as the state motto has it. Such a view of history casts a certain melancholia over those who participate in it; my own childhood was suffused with the conviction that we had long outlived our finest hour. In fact that is what I want to tell you about: what it is like to come from a place like Sacramento. If I could make you understand that, I could make you understand California and perhaps something else besides, for Sacramento is California, and California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.
Source: “Notes from a Native Daughter” from “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” by Joan Didion. Copyright 1966, 1968, renewed 1996 by Joan Didion. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.