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Up The Road: The Orange County Story

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Pascal Walschots
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The US Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach is on for the summer of 2021.

Beyond Disneyland, what’s the point of Orange County? Don’t ask someone from Los Angeles.

The differences between L.A. and O.C. next door are not easy for outsiders to grasp. Both feature sunny neighborhoods strung together by shopping malls and freeways. Both sped through the boom-bust times of mission settlement, farming, oil, subdivisions, and aerospace. Both steal water from elsewhere. And both believe the other is missing out.

The fuss started in the late 1800s, when L.A. County was almost as large as Ohio. Tired of taxation without representation, residents of the Santa Ana Valley—modern-day Orange County—up and seceded from L.A. The post-break-up bickering continues to this day.

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Dave and Margie Hill
Snide Angelenos say this statue at the John Wayne Airport represents Orange County high culture.

Angelenos say orange trees in O.C. are as abundant as seals at Seal Beach. (There are no seals at Seal Beach.) That the John Wayne statue at the airport represents high culture. That the place is more G-rated than a Disney cartoon. That only O.C. could produce the likes of ex-President Richard Nixon. That, at best, it exhibits shallow, standard-brand beauty—at worst, vapid nouveau-riche snobbery. Call it an emergency gas stop on the way to San Diego.

Indignant O.C. residents counter that people from L.A. are self-absorbed cultural elitists who consume fads in food, clothing, and thought. That Orange County has no smog, and folks here can still surf freeways fast enough for speeding tickets. And they aren’t hypocrites. They don’t lecture the world about diversity then sneak home, L.A.-style, to segregated neighborhoods.

But according to T. Jefferson Parker in Behind the Orange Curtain, just one thing separates Angelenos from residents of the Big Orange:

L.A. people all want to be someone else, he says. Look at them, and, as Jim Harrison has written, “see the folly whirling in their eyes.” The waiters all want to be novelists; the novelists all want to be screenwriters; the screenwriters all want to direct; the directors all want to produce; the producers all want to keep the other guys relegated to net participation and guild minimums.

Now take Orange Countians. We know who we are. The blandly handsome, heavily mortgaged, marathon-running aerospace manager . . . does not entertain dreams of movie making. He has weapons to build, a country to defend, a family to provide for. [T]he blond mall rat, age 16, eyes aflame with consumer fever . . . . The loose-jawed surfer . . . who entertains not a single thought besides the next south swell, south being to his left, he’s pretty sure, if he’s facing the gnardical tubes of the Pacific, which he usually is.

People in L.A., Parker tells us, “can’t face reality. We can.”

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Jack Miller
Ex-President Richard Nixon was raised as an evangelical Quaker in this modest Yorba Linda home.

Well. Reality gets complicated. Orange County is still whiter and wealthier than L.A., but nowadays it’s electing very liberal Democrats, like Katie Porter. And Orange County does have smog and choked freeways. Like California, only more so.

Until next time, when we visit Surf City, this is Kim Weir for Up the Road.

Up the Road Encourages Responsible, Safe Travel

Here are previous Up the Road episodes that explore why we should travel, how to do it responsibly, and how to travel responsibly now, in the shadow of COVID-19. Not everyone should be traveling now, of course. But everyone who does travel needs to do so responsibly, to prevent viral spread. Take a listen:

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Kim Weir is the founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project. She researches, writes, and hosts Up the Road, a radio show and mini-podcast about California co-produced by North State Public Radio. Kim got her start as a travel journalist in 1990 with the publication of the first and original Moon Handbooks Northern California, a surprise best-seller. Six other Moon books on California soon followed. She is a member, by invitation, of the venerable Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Kim earned a BA in environmental studies and analysis, with an emphasis on botany and ecology, and also holds an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Paradise.
Matt Fidler is a producer and sound designer with over 15 years’ experience producing nationally distributed public radio programs. He has worked for shows such as Freakonomics Radio, Selected Shorts, Studio 360, The New Yorker Radio Hour and The Takeaway. In 2017, Matt launched the language podcast Very Bad Words, hitting the #28 spot in the iTunes podcast charts.