What is it about southern California that draws so many dreamers? Obviously there’s the allure of the weather (or lack thereof) and the glitz of Hollywood. There’s the old cliché about the variety of outdoor activities: you can surf and ski in the same day. Maybe the appeal lies in the youthful energy and exuberant liberalism of the region. This is, after all, the far edge of western civilization – in geological terms, the most recently formed; in more relatable terms, the most recently settled.
The great migration to southern California began soon after March 4, 1842, when Francisco Lopez discovered gold in Placerita Canyon, in the hills north of the San Fernando Valley. According to legend, Lopez fell asleep beneath a great oak tree on his brother-in-law’s ranch, and dreamed that he was surrounded by gold. When Lopez awoke, he started picking wild onions in a nearby grove of sycamores and soon noticed gold particles on the roots. Before long, people all across the country were having similar dreams, then packing up their belongings and heading west.
In his book The American Dream (Oxford UP, 2004), Jim Cullen suggests that the Puritan ethic has been replaced by “the Dream of the Coast” – a dream of fame and fortune achieved with minimal effort. People still come to southern California hoping to hit the jackpot – not gold, but maybe a recurring role on a long-running TV show. Eighty years ago, these would-be performers could have found themselves re-living the turbulent years of frontier life, 1860 – 1890, in a western serial. Many were shot in the San Fernando Valley – at places like Iverson Ranch, Corriganville, Melody Ranch and Paramount Ranch – not too far from the Oak of the Golden Dream.
Today, even those histories are history. Iverson is a suburb, and the best way to visit it is through Robert G. Sherman’s wonderful book Quiet on the Set! Motion Picture History at the Iverson Movie Location Ranch (Sherway, 1984). The neighboring Corriganville ranch is now a local park, filled with historical markers showing where famous B-westerns (and a couple of A-westerns) were shot. Melody Ranch, which was recently used for the filming of the HBO series Deadwood, is closed to the public on all but one day of the year. Paramount Ranch, just off of Mulholland near Malibu Creek State Park, is more accessible and you can roam through a fairly elaborate western town set (used most prominently in the CBS series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman). These sites may be relics of a bygone past, but what remains is the dream of a new beginning and a better life.
After two years of living here, I'm still captivated by the afternoon light – that gold/orange hue over the Pacific Ocean that natives attribute to the smog. To me, it conveys the spirit of the place better than palm trees or celebrity premieres. There’s something majestic and endlessly alluring about the light – something we’d keep following into the west, if the land beneath our feet hadn’t run out.
from a mural in Placerita Canyon State Park
Walker Cabin, built in the 1920s by the then-owners of the property
the sycamores to the left are where Lopez struck gold
Oak of the Golden Dream
View from Palos Verdes