Reagan for President posters from 1980 and 1984
I heard the phrase “Redwood Curtain” for the first time in Arizona. Coincidentally, Maria’s daughter had just finished a half-year internship at Redwoods National Park north of the Bay and she explained that the curtain refers to the existence of a second California that looks very different from the metropolitan swaths of the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Behind the curtain lies the belief that pioneers who settled the area in the 19th century were hard scrabble, self-reliant and needed no government assistance. It is the residual mythology of our pioneer ancestors that Didion describes.
There is a thread between the stories of rugged individuals, made mighty by their guns, rising against the menacing hoard, and our failures to construct systems that involve pooling of collective resources to help the needy. There is a thread between the California that prospered after the wave of gold rush development and the California which elected Reagan as governor. There is a thread between the Reagan of the war epics and the Reagan that became the father of modern conservative thinking in which collectivist cooperation became synonymous with that anathema S-word.
Looking back, I got a glimpse of the California behind the Redwood Curtain before I’d even heard the phrase. Last spring, as I roadtripped through Death Valley and the surrounding areas, I found myself in the Mojave desert, passing wrecks and abandoned houses, passing through small towns painted over with murals glorifying the good work of Iraq war vets, praising the “mission accomplished.” The name of God, of Jesus, repeatedly appeared in handwritten signage. And the names of the politicians in windows and on lawns were red instead of blue.
After a week of driving through dusty desert, as my trip was winding down, I thought, It’s time to go back to California.
Then it hit me that I had never left.