Dreams of Gold

If California were to secede from the United States and establish itself, as its first Anglo settlers once intended, as an independent republic, it would instantly emerge as one of the world's richest nations. As it is, one in every ten Americans now resides in the so-called Golden State. Its economy affects not only those of neighboring states but those of whole nations—Mexico, Canada, Singapore, even Japan. It is somehow different in just about every way from the rest of the country. To live in California is, as Aldous Huxley observed, to be forever part of a separate reality.

Bill Barich, a journalist, undertakes to provide a portrait of his state in his fine and aptly titled book Big Dreams. His method is to travel from Point A to Point B and to narrate all that he sees, a common enough literary device that is nevertheless challenged by California's vastness. Realizing the complexity of his mission, Barich offers us a beeline ramble through the state, beginning in the high desert east of Mount Shasta and wandering leisurely through the Klamath River Valley, Crescent City and Hoopa, the Tuscan landscapes of the Anderson Valley and the Monterey Peninsula, down to Death Valley and the dusty shores of the Salton Sea. The author's appreciation of the subtleties that separate one place from the next yield a lucid, entertaining travelogue.

With his command of California history, Barich sees continuities that...

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