As far as state names go, California is the black sheep of America.
Rather than some stale, obligatory honor to a founding father, a lazy attempt to replicate somewhere in England or a halfhearted remembrance of a decimated Indian nation, “California” is a dream. It represents not what was found or what died here, but what is possible here.
That’s what Spanish author Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo was thinking when he coined the word in his novel, The Exploits of Esplandian (1510). In it he describes an island that lies “very close to a side of the Earthly Paradise,” upon which live a race of mighty Amazon warrior women who ride griffins and wield axes made of gold. Their queen? Just some bad-ass chick named Califia.
Early female biker gangs aside, Rodriguez’s take on California is perfect for the American West. It symbolizes an untamed and bountiful land, a place of wildness and potential, adventure and opportunity — all popular connotations of California’s past, present and (hopefully) future.
The surprising thing is, the name actually delivers what it promises. From palm trees to pot leaves, boomtowns to Tinseltown, where the physical beauty of its celebrities is rivaled only by that of its natural landmarks, the state is often regarded as 160,000 square miles of utopia (not counting Bakersfield). It has every climate except tropical rainforest and arctic tundra. It contains one of the most diverse gathering of cultures in a country made out of other cultures, and represents opinions of every shade on the political spectrum. It has some of the best universities in the world and contains both Silicon Valley and Hollywood, the international meccas of technology and entertainment, respectively. Business isn’t bad here either. If it was its own country, California would have the eighth largest economy in the world. Also, Tupac said it knows how to party.
Obviously California is far from perfect, what with the rampant earthquakes, debt, unemployment and botched plastic surgeries. I mean, I almost got robbed while writing this. Still, no one expects it to actually be flawless, or cheap, or even sustainable. That’s just what you have to get used to when everyone wants to live here.
Of course, if you don’t think California measures up to its promise, you can always go back to Kansas. Just don’t expect anyone to write an awesome rap song about it.