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What It Feels Like To Live In California

June 16, 2015

We are about to sneak up on our first anniversary of moving back to the United States and living in California for the first time.

The Story Behind California's Bear Flag

For parents reading, you know those mile markers such as ‘the fog’ lifting when your newborn is about three months old. Interestingly, this transition period has had a similar feeling because moving to a new community has been a transition just as extreme as giving birth that required treading in a vast unknown (navigating new school rules, new doctors, and finding the closest Target).

I am thrilled to get the first year behind us, now with new friends and routines in our pocket and a bit of a ‘we made it!’ exhale. The ground feels much more stable to us now. Although I’ve lived in 3 countries and multiple US cities in the past, nothing has felt like California before.

Barn in Sonoma, California

1. California is BIG (163,696 sq mi). At first I was surprised to meet native Californians who had never traveled on an airplane. But with the state holding 32 National Parks, forests, mountains, volcanoes, beaches, deserts, islands, ski resorts, amusement parks, and cosmopolitan cities, California offers a lot of choice for staycations covering the gamut of topography and climate.

Did you know California holds the lowest elevation (Death Valley) and highest elevation (Mt Whitney) on the US mainland? And as the third largest state in the country, much of the state is sparsely uninhabited and filled with protected open space.

2. The state is long and designed ‘vertically’. The other time I felt this was when I backpacked through long, narrow Chile.  Major California cities are situated on north/south Highways 5 and 101. While it may take only 4 hours to drive the width of California, one needs to carve at least 15 hours of drive time to reach the northern border from the southern state border.

3. California feels like an island, and it almost is. In fact, the first cartographers drew California as an island on maps. Steep mountain ranges cut off the state from the rest of the country, promoting evolution of unique plants and animals.  California ranks first in the nation in the number of endemic (native) plants, amphibians, reptiles, freshwater fish, and mammals.

With ocean to the west and mountains to the east, most of the population lives somewhere in between. California shares its time zone with only 3 states (and half of Idaho), so I need to be mindful when calling friends or businesses in other parts of the US. Surprisingly, California is actually halfway between Europe and Asia – we’re not nearly as close to Asia as I had expected.

Karl The Fog

4. The coastline is as long as the state. This seems obvious, but the coast has a bigger personality here than it did when we were living on the island of Great Britain. The fog rolls in from the sea, creating countless microclimates along the coast. In fact, Karl The Fog is personified in San Francisco on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook with foggy feeds.

From whale-watching, to eating oysters, to surfing and sunsets, the Pacific Coast is a big part of local culture. In fact, plastic grocery bags have been practically eliminated in the state partly to prevent them from settling in coastal waters.

5. Danger lurks everywhere. Living on ‘The Ring Of Fire’ makes this land quite unstable and increases the likelihood of earthquakes, erupting volcanoes, and tsunamis. Earthquake insurance is an expensive addition to home insurance policies, so most people don’t have it.

Some potentially deadly critters also call California home: great white sharks, black bears, rattlesnakes, black widow spiders, scorpions, and mosquitoes carrying West Nile Virus. But above all these, wildfires scare people most. Currently in the worst drought in recorded California history, vegetation is extremely flammable.

6. There’s a lot of people. As the most populated state in the US (38,802,500), California has traffic congestion problems in major cities and freeway arteries. There is a shortage of housing, which increases prices. Residents come here from all over the world, bringing their delicious food, interesting customs, and sometimes creating their own communities. I love the international flair here.

Chinatown, San Francisco

7. It’s expensive. Worldwide, highly desirable places to live are expensive, and California is no exception. Real estate is expensive, sales tax is high, and California shares the distinction of highest annual taxes with New York. Ouch! While California’s population continues to grow yearly, many leave due to the cost of living and taxes.

8. Californians feel grateful. Most Californians I’ve encountered are not native to the state. As a result, residents are quick to share why they love living here. If the high cost of living and traffic haven’t scared them off, you know there is something bigger keeping them here. Often I hear about the beauty of the state, healthy lifestyle, good weather, and endless list of activities to do.

Rainbow over Marin

9. Californians march to the beat of their own drum. As the epicenter of the Beat Generation, hippies, music & film industry, internet, and much scientific research, there is no question California attracts ‘outliers’ who find kindred spirits here.  It’s probably the most creative place I’ve lived, where boundaries are pushed in so many industries.

10. California feels healthy. From the state that invented wet suits, hot tubs with jets, and mountain biking, it’s no surprise Californians are active outdoors. There are not many places in the world where you can participate in a morning class of yoga-on-stand-up-paddleboard and then head to the mountains for a late afternoon ski run. Kite surfing, kayaking, rafting, scuba diving, ice climbing, snowboarding – they are all accessible for the beginner and on an extreme level too.

Since California is the nation’s top agricultural state, produce is often fresh, local, and simply beautiful. Farm to fork, farm dinners, paleo diet, locavore, organic, gluten-free are terms I see or hear frequently. Many restaurant menus offer experimental and healthy cuisine.  Did you know almost 100% of artichokes sold in the US are grown in California? And uniquely, growers of fresh produce, legal marijuana, and wine grapes have to work together on agricultural issues. Fascinating!

It has been fun to explore this new home state of mine.

California Road Trip

Thank you for joining my journey!

This is just the beginning 🙂 

Read more: Day Trips from San Francisco

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

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