08/09/2012 11:52 am ET Updated Oct 09, 2012

I Remember California

I remember most obviously the sun -- bright, white, emptied onto cliff-cut beaches and the rolling hills of the valley. The light is different in California: The sun is not set against but rather a very part of the too-blue sky. It is as perfect as the pictures and postcards, and as much of a cliché as the movies have made it to be.

For many years, I resisted California with a defiance that rivaled her beauty. It was only when I was very close to leaving that I realized how dearly I not only loved her but had come to belong on her coast. Life and plans laid out before I knew better progressed as I had intended, and I left California not particularly because I wanted to but because it was time. And so I wonder -- in the same way I wonder about career choices and relationships -- where in life's equation locale fits.

I'm from New York -- not The City (I have called her home, but that is an essay for another time), but an idyllic little city upstate called Saratoga Springs -- and as such in many ways operate with every Northeastern stereotype: I drive aggressively, curse more than occasionally, find yoga both baffling and agonizingly boring, and count corn on the cob as a vegetable in the summer months. When I moved to California at 18, it was with the kind of transience only an 18-year-old can possess: There was no need to make an effort because I was only a visitor; I had an exit strategy before I arrived. I was also, in a way so acute and painful the memory still makes my stomach flip with something close to teenage shame, absurdly homesick.

In California, my barista would ask about my day. The person in front of me on El Camino was forever driving the speed limit. My classmates were often late but never in a rush; there was always, relentlessly, a sense of calm that was nearer to quiet observation than casual indifference, although it took me some time to realize the subtlety. It was these seemingly minor (and, yes -- I would think generally positive) cultural nuances that were to a lonely outsider intolerable at first: I was a ferocious competitor, a ruthless type-A, an impulsive teenager who had long trained her young eyes on the pulse of the city 200 miles to the south of where she grew up. It was a matter of not fitting in: I did not ride skateboards and had never eaten frozen yogurt (nor know anyone who did or had), and at 18 or 19 I do believe things can be that stark. California was different, and decidedly not home.

What I failed to realize at first was that California was, in fact, a home of a different kind: It was a place that almost remarkably suited the things I like to do; her terrain and her people catered precisely not to superficial behavioral tics (a penchant for rolling through stop signs) but to my larger rhythm of life. At Stanford, I was an athlete; to this day, I operate with the sensibilities of one -- and although there are some wooded trails in my current corner of the Adirondacks that I will always pad silently through, I cannot surf and trail run and ski all in the same day like I could on an early spring day in the Bay Area. More notably, my trails here are lonely ones, and although running is always a lonely endeavor in California, the active culture is a thriving one. I am sure this is true in places like Austin and Breckinridge and Lake Placid, but because I am telling my story of place I can only talk about California.

I was on the West Coast encouraged to adventure and to play; in New York, and the city especially, play is measured in budgeted time (and for a great many, occurs on a machine indoors). What I initially mistook for a kind of laziness in California is actually patience and curiosity -- a remarkable attention to detail and a willingness to wonder. In time, I adopted these traits as my own, so that when I moved to Manhattan (and later, back Upstate) it was there that I didn't quite fit in. I had not only fallen in love with the hook of Highway 1 from Santa Barbara to San Diego or the constant presence of mountains on the horizon but had, against my most stubborn intentions, discovered I was at home on the left. The tragedy of the story is the easiest kind: I had to leave to realize I could not so effectively take what I learned in California with me back east -- to live like a Californian one must be surrounded by Californians. It does in fact take a village.

And so I am armed with this knowledge -- that if it were a simple matter of choosing, I would in a heartbeat select almost at a random a place dotted on a napkin-sketch of a mental map: Marin, Montecito, Encinitas. One of the mixed blessings of being in one's twenties is that there is the assumption that our jobs are semi-permanent and our love lives flexible; we could as well backpack around the sub-continent as we could moved to the Ojai Valley if only we had a little money. This is not to mistake my love of California with a tourist's love of a Caribbean Island -- there is a difference between loving a place while enjoying minimal responsibilities and wanting to make a life somewhere. What I wonder is if the life must come before the place.

For now, I look to California as a place on the horizon that approaches with wavering speed. On the West Coast, I learned that the worst kind of plan is the inflexible one: there is always a new trail, a new cliff -- a car and a stretch of endless highway. My hope is that I can carefully maneuver my next adventures westward, but even that is a wish to which I can only carefully pledge allegiance. The thing about a place is that it's not going anywhere, and so we have all the time in the world to find our way back.