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Archive for February, 2010

Mount Diablo is a forlorn place with bone-freezing winds on desert-like slopes. Situated twenty-five miles due east of San Francisco, it was aptly named by the Spanish: a devil of a mountain. Its altitude put it in the cartographer’s list of holy places because it stands out as a marker, sometimes viewable for hundreds of miles, which was useful in those days before satellite imaging, GPS devices, and smog that now shelters Central California most of the year. I’ve never thought much about it because to me it is merely the high point in one of several geological wrinkles that run north and south, separating San Francisco Bay from the Central Valley. The mountain has little to recommend itself beside its historical usefulness in mapping the region. But every so often it makes its way into the news in a way that encapsulates the cultural forces working within California, forces that mirror our tectonic liabilities. Some people don’t like the mountain’s name. The pagans among us enjoy its irreverence, and realists enjoy its accuracy in labeling, but Bible thumpers slap the calf skin ever so much harder about the profane implications of this naming. Devil mountain. Can devil worship be far behind? One such individual wants to change its name to Mount Ronald Reagan.

California has been a prized destination since travelers from Asia crossed the Bering Straights ice bridge and discovered the region’s hospitable coast and valleys. Several millennia later, Francis Drake found the coast too foggy to locate a passage to the interior, but the Spanish moved north from Mexico and built a fort at the mouth of San Francisco Bay. Then gold seekers came from all directions creating a mix of expectations that still roils the state, pitting Coast and Mountains with the Great Central Valley in between.

When the quartz dust settled and the muddy runoff from the placer mining turned pale, the state was left with pockets of diversity that would be the envy of any world-class metropolis. It boasted immigrants from the far corners of the globe of every ethnic, racial, and religious persuasion. However, unlike Manhattan, where proximity forced the new faces from Ellis Island to get along, California has its insular acreage, its size. It’s a big place where people can cling to their own kind and shun the rest. But not completely. It seems to be the nature of these outposts of solitude to evangelize and reshape the world to their view of things. They produce individuals who would change the world to counter their own dark imaginings. The gentleman from Oakley, the latest would-be name changer, wants to trade a benign ancient devil for a twentieth century one: a faux cowboy who served as spokesman for the economic policies that devil us today. I’ll take the devil I know, thank you, and cherish my fantasy that Mr. Reagan had been satisfied with hawking appliances on GE Theater.

A post script to this little morality play: the name-change issue seems to be fading from view. Too many devil worshipers, I guess. But our would-be name changer attracted enough attention to earn a seat on the county’s Drug Advisory Board. He touted his experience as a recovering addict as qualification for such a post and the Contra Costa county supervisors evidently agreed. One might wonder if their adroit political move reflects California’s answer to the age-old problem of conflicting agendas: give the malcontent a venue where he can’t hurt anyone.

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