I received no fewer than four less-than-savory emails from indignant southern Californians responding to my last post, which of course was the perfect inspiration for this post.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite toys was a wooden puzzle of the United States. Each piece, painted in a single bright color, corresponded to one of our 50 states. I’d generally go from east to west, placing Maine first–a ritual which I think imbued me with a fascination for that state, then Florida–because that’s where my grandparents lived at the time, then fill in the rest piece by piece. I often wonder if that puzzle still exists in my parents’ basement; it’s the kind of toy I’d love to give to my children someday.
It’s no secret that Americans suffer from complete ignorance regarding the topic of where-things-are-in-the-world. There are many causes for this; for starters, our media tends to ignore anything happening outside the States. Also, quite frankly, most Americans couldn’t care less about the rest of the world. A red-blooded American (a phrase I’ve never understood, unless in the context of Star Trek) will proudly proclaim that America is “the greatest country on earth”, so why bother looking past its borders?
Despite my public complaints, California is a wonderful place. Its topography is among the most varied in the country, the weather in most of California is by most folks’ standards absolutely perfect, and it’s the birthplace of many global cultural and economic trends, a fact which may not make the state wonderful but does certainly make it both dynamic and important. So, despite my protestations about living here, I wholeheartedly admit that as places on the planet go, California ain’t so bad.
The people though, fall victim to a kind of provincial snobbery unsurpassed by pretty much everyone except the French. When I tell people in California I’m from Chicago, they look at me with pity. When I tell my Californian students to travel around the U.S. after they graduate, they look at me as if I’m insane. I once was complaining about how poorly many Californians drive in the snow and my soon-to-be father-in-law responded “why on earth would anyone want to live in a place where you have to learn to drive in the snow”. This from a man who spent most of his life on the volcanic, lava-spewing island of Hawaii and from a man who currently lives only a few dozen miles from the San Andreas fault. All this to say that most people who call California home–red blooded Californians, or perhaps more precisely, almond-soy-triple-foam chai latte Californians–suffer from a more localized version of geographic ignorance than most Americans.
Apparently the U.S. puzzle I played with as a child was never marketed in California. When I talk to Californians about my many road trips, I’m always totally amazed by the comments and questions I get just in response to my comments about geography. I’ve compiled these reactions and synthesized a map of the United States which corresponds to the twisted geographic perception most Californians possess.
A few prefatory words. Maps are fundamentally about shapes. I assume that Californians are aware of the basic shape of the U.S. I also assume that Californians know that there are 50 states and that Alaska and Hawaii are generally not considered part of the continental United States.
- California. Unsurprisingly, California remains intact.
- This is the state of Reno, which is easy to spot because it’s just outside the “Tahoe Region”.
- The state of Vegas.
- All Californians know that their neighbor to the north is Oregon. They know this because Oregon is where Chai was invented.
- This is the state of Seattle unless you’re really wealthy, in which case it’s the state of Puget Sound. This is where Starbucks comes from. You’ll note that both Oregon and Seattle span the space between the west coastline and the I-5 corridor.
- This is Death Valley. It’s hot here. Except in the winter, when it’s cold.
- This is the state of Aspen. From the state of Aspen, you can ski straight into state #9
- This state has two names for Californians. If you’re from Northern California, it’s known as “That Bastard of a President’s Ranch”. If you’re from Southern California, it’s called “The Alamo”.
- The Midwest. It’s a huge state, as you can see, and for Californians, Midwest inhabitants on both sides of the Mississippi live on a strict diet of iceberg lettuce and Budweiser, which is why they have such big hair.
- The blue vertical line is the Mississippi River. Californians don’t actually know where it is, they just know it’s in the middle of the country and that it runs “up and down”.
- 11 points to the state of Chicago, which is a convenient home to the city of Chicago. [I can’t begin to tell you how many Californians think Chicago is a state].
- This is Florida. It’s home to Disney World (which is just like Disneyland) and a lot of Cubans, like that Ricky Martin.
- This is Back East, colloquially known as New England. It contains most of the 50 states because the Pilgrims thought small. That’s why they’re so rude Back East, you know. They don’t have room enough to spread out their yoga mats and become one with the universe.
- New York, where the official state animal is the bagel.
In closing, I’d like to remind Californians of the phrase ”tongue in cheek”. C’mon, Californians! Learn to laugh at yourselves, and you’ll find that everyone else is laughing with you, not at you. Because we all take the governor of California very seriously.