My favourite place: California, USA

In the October 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine, Andrew Dickson selects California as his favourite place. History Extra caught up with him to find out more…

A dirt road in the Alabama Hills of the Eastern Sierra Nevada. The road leads to Mount Whitney and Lone Pine Peak. (Photo by Mimi Ditchie Photography/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the October 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Some places you visit, history grabs you by the throat. I have strong memories of standing inside the Palace of Minos at Knossos on Crete as a nine-year-old child: hot, dark, forbidding, the Bronze Age menacingly close at hand. I’ve most often had that vertiginous sense of stepping into the past in Britain, where one is forever blundering into objects of serious vintage without intending to.

So perhaps it seems perverse to choose for this piece a place such as California, where the majority of history, as conventionally told, has occurred only since the mid-19th century. The territory was a straggling collection of coastal villages until 1848 and the discovery of gold in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains at Sutter’s Mill (today the Marshall Gold Discovery Park, where visitors can try their hand at panning).

In 1848, the area was chiefly inhabited by descendants of 18th-century Spanish settlers and missionaries, surrounded by larger but dispersed inland Native American communities. Once the gold rush began, aspiring ‘argonauts’ dashed to the west coast of the US from across the globe, and the place changed forever. In 1848, San Francisco was a sleepy, fogbound garrison town of 800 souls; by 1849, it was home to 25,000. No wonder historian HW Brands dubbed the place the “instant city”. Overall, perhaps 100,000 arrived in California in those pell-mell first few years. The territory would be admitted to the US in 1850, after the end of the Mexican-American War.

Of course, California’s timeline goes back much further – more than 1,000 years, if you know where to scout it out. The aboriginal Chumash people left brightly painted rock art in caves that are 25 minutes from the yachting clubs of downtown Santa Barbara, in the Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park. Near Death Valley in eastern California you can find traces of petroglyphs (rock carvings); tours are organised by Maturango Museum, Ridgecrest. Yet painfully little survives of the Native American populations who lived here before being wiped out by 16th and 17th-century Spanish colonisation and smallpox.

Since the gold rush, in particular, California has functioned as a tabula rasa on which the rest of the US has projected its grandest aspirations – the golden gateway to the future, the place where you can abandon the past and chase the rainbow. Courtesy of a succession of terrible earthquakes and fires, even San Francisco retains an improvised, ramshackle feel.

All this makes it a wonderful environment for anyone interested in history to wander. More than any other place I’ve been, California’s hectic urge to remake and reinvent itself has created a brightly coloured patchwork of many different cultures and pasts. Contrasts are everywhere: Native American history, Chinese history, Spanish history, Scottish history, Japanese history, German history – there are whole worlds here in just one US state.

In the Sierra Nevada mountains north of Sacramento I spent a week in search of Shakespeare’s influence in the Wild West for a book I was writing, and found mainly desolate mining ghost towns. They include North Bloomfield (formerly Humbug), in the Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park in the Sierra Nevada hills, and the eerily atmospheric Bodie, east of Yosemite.

In the south of the state you can visit La Purisima near Lompoc, an 18th-century Franciscan mission in beautiful grounds, reconstructed during the depression of the 1930s. In amusing opposition, in Ojai it’s Spanish Revival architecture and hippie hangouts all the way – a legacy of the town’s history as a 1920s spiritual centre.

Head south and go to Hearst Castle, William Randolph Hearst’s overblown pleasure dome, with choir stalls plundered from Italian Renaissance churches and bedrooms done in Venetian-doge kitsch. Yet even Hearst Castle pales in comparison with J Paul Getty’s replica Roman villa outside

Los Angeles, filled with priceless ancient statuary. Located on the brow of a hill overlooking the Pacific Coast Highway, the place is surrounded by deep forest that, were you brave enough to penetrate it, would feel like something out of the Jurassic era.

Andrew Dickson is a writer and journalist. His latest book is Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe (Vintage, 2016). 

Advice for Travellers

Best time to go

Any time. Summer’s a popular season to visit, but March to early May is one of California’s most beautiful times of year.

Getting there

Flights are available from many parts of the UK, then rent a car to plan your own road trip.

What to pack

Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, based on a series of road trips he made in the late 1940s and early 1950s, many passing through the state.

What to bring back

The classic WPA travel guide California in the 1930s. Compiled at the behest of Roosevelt’s New Deal, by a motley crew of unemployed artists, novelists, historians and photographers, this has been republished by the University of California.

Readers’ views

I’d highly recommend Old Town in San Diego. It was the first place in California where Europeans settled @dtsturner

The drive to Monterey is worth it for the industrial and literary history – as well as the aquarium! – Jill Anthony-Ackery

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Joshua Tree National Monument is desolate and beautiful and worth seeing – Aimee Rogers