I was driving south on I-5, one of the four major north-south highways that cross California, and began to realize that I past scarcely a freeway exit without some idea of what I would find were I to turn off of the freeway and head either east or west. This is somewhat unusual, California is a huge state and it is rare for someone to have a working knowledge of the street-level geography of more than a few parts of it* due to its sheer size. But I have a unique job, and I have had to travel down more of California's backroads, into more of this state's obscure towns, and out to more isolated locations than anyone I know who is not a professional colleague.
This is sometimes a pain, seven months in the oil fields is longer than anyone should be forced to take, but most of the time it's a pleasure. When I drive with Kaylia I take great delight in telling her about my adventures down that road, up that hill, or around that corner. That I can usually add a historic anecdote ("Joaquin Murieta was supposedly killed there, but there may never have actually been a Joaquin Murieta", "arguing couples used to be locked up in stocks in the town square over there, for public humiliation", or "there's a rock art cave up that way that served the local native peoples as a sacred site, before it was covered over by graffitti from stage-coach passengers in the 1860s") makes it more fun for me, and Kaylia is kind enough not to tell me to stop yapping and keep my eyes on the road.
Even when I drive alone, there is great joy for me in recounting my relationship to my surroundings. Thinking about the view from a given mountaintop, or the stories that my field crew was telling as we drove up a particular road, or the cool site that we found where we least expected it within an otherwise unremarkable canyon, all of this gives me a greater appreciation for my home state and makes even the distant parts of it feel like home.
When I think about the abandoned mercury mine and the goast town that surrounds it, or the reservoir with the ominous name of Hell Hole, or the small mountain town named Priest Valley that would be a fine setting for a horror film, I am not thinking of places that I have heard of or seen photos of, or even just passed through once. I am thinking of places where I have spent time and come to know.
I am very lucky. I have an intimate immediate knowledge of much of California from Calistoga south to Los Angeles (and I am working my way farther north still), and I am comfortable enough in it that even when I have not yet been to a particular location, I have little fear of wandering off the beaten path to see what I might find. This vast state is like my own giant garden, and I love it.
*In some places, ignorance of even large-scale geography is the norm. For example, the vast majority of the people I know from Los Angeles have no clue as to where cities located north of Santa Barbara sit - I have routinely been informed that Monterey is a suburb of San Francisco and that Sacramento is a small town in the S.F. Bay Area, for example - and as it is lacking in major cities, many Californians never venture into the far northern parts of the state except to pass through them on the way to Oregon.