Hotel California

A few evenings ago, we walked down State Street in Santa Barbara, an often questionable activity. In the last twenty odd years the street has been comprehensively malled. Rents have increased, turnover has had to respond and now retail formulae that work in youth-oriented markets dominate - their brands escutcheoned at the cornice line declaring their engagement of the glabrous hordes. The locals avoid the street like the plague.

But this night was different; it was the evening of the Summer Solstice festival. There was a sense in the air that the lords and mistresses of misrule had been let loose - that the machinations of globally branded capitalism had, for the moment, been swept away in a return to the pastoral debaucheries of - well, less than two hundred and fifty years ago. For then the Chumash village of Syuxtun would erupt, at summer's solstice, into a night of promiscuity as the usual proscription against adultery was relaxed and males were free to mate with a willing female of their choice.

Yes, the Uber conservative streets of Santa Barbara are, for one-night only, given up to the licentiousness of the mob, or so it seemed as face-painted carousers careened down State Street. And there, in a doorway, a woman of dark, Indian features was packing away her box of remaining cascarones, confetti-filled eggshells that are traditionally broken over the head of a boy or girl the egg-breaker wishes to favor. The streets were strewn with the tiny pieces of colored paper - business had been good.

We headed east one block to a bar where we had a drink before walking over to the Presidio (Independence Day), where we had dinner reservations at Julienne on the corner of Santa Barbara and Canon Perdido Streets. From the restaurant's windows could be seen the exposed adobe of one wing of the presidio quadrangle unceremoniously sacrificed on the alter of an orthagonal street grid. A little west of the restaurant the other quadrangle limb has been similarly truncated. I deplore this act of amputation, but applaud the decision to reveal to the world the nature of both the adobe construction and the deed by leaving the wounds uncauterized, for the cut through the sandy brown building material remains unpainted and thus stands out against the white-wash of the surficial adobe.

It was for Lorrie's birthday that I had planned this weekend of urban delight, where we could walk to our chosen entertainments. We stayed at The Upham Hotel which proclaims itself to be the oldest continuously operating hotel in California having been established in 1871. Shortly after it opened, the celebrated writer and commentator Charles Nordhoff took a room while exploring the region in 1872. We stayed in the original Italianate building in a room on the second level with the stairway to the signature belvedere immediately outside the door. The conceit grew in my mind that Nordhoff might have chosen this same end room with windows to the south and west because, before the program of irrigation that has now forested the town, it would have offered a view of the ocean.

However, Nordhoff, it seems, was no great fan of ocean breezes. Despite (or because of) spending his youth at sea, he writes of Santa Barbara, "there is a good hotel there (The Upham, then called Lincoln House, for the builder was a cousin of the President), and another is a building, but neither of them stands in a pleasant situation, and both are near the shore, where the air is less dry than in the higher parts of town." Even at higher altitudes (and he suggests Montecito), the air is now uniformly more moist than in Nordhoff's day, a product of exotic arboreal transpiration and rampant sprinklering.

Nordhoff published his seminal work, California: For Health, Pleasure and Residence in 1874, and spoke glowingly of the State: in a very real sense he invented twentieth century California. The book promoted the State at a time when it was increasingly accessible to easterners via the transcontinental railway finally realized, a few years previously, in 1869.

In an act of brazen opportunism, the village that would become Ojai (New Moon) was named Nordhoff in 1874 - the year that his guide was published. A close perusal of the work reveals not a word about Ojai, although a later edition does mention it, the writer being lured, perhaps, to his eponymous town by an understandable vanity.

Meanwhile, and by this I am referencing the intervening 137 years, Nordhoff's stock has declined to the point that he is frequently confused with his grandson Charles Bernard Nordhoff, co-author of Mutiny on the Bounty with James Hall, published in 1932. The Upham Hotel shills not Nordhoff but Aldous Huxley as its most famous guest (he spent the winter of 1960 in residence). To add insult to injury, the town of Nordhoff abandoned its Prussian name in 1917 for Ojai, a moniker filched from the valley of the moon, ?Awha'y (The Land Speaks for Itself) a community some eight miles to the east now known as Upper Ojai.

In a week that saw Monaco initiate its royal wedding festivities on Thursday night with a free concert given by The Eagles, earning them a jolt of rejuvenating publicity on every celebrity web site on the planet, I wonder what it would take to rehabilitate Charles Nordhoff, the inventor of California Dreaming. The latter is long dead - but I sense an emerging synergy: the Eagles, Nordhoff and that Italianate Hotel in Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara, a paradise that lies at the foot of a torqued mountain range, uniquely canted west, so that the town faces due south thus avoiding the "harsh and foggy north and north west winds, which make the coast north of Point Conception disagreeable..."(Space and Practice) is the essence of Nordhoff's California. It is part of a dreamscape initiated in 1874 by his guide and to which every resident of California is now heir.

Room 14 at The Upham: June 26, 2011. Was it real or just my imagination... "There were voices down the corridor, I thought I heard them say, 'Welcome to the Hotel California'...."

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