A Dash of Heaven, a Sprinkling of Hell: The Contradictions of California’s Inland Empire

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SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — The first time I drove up Interstate 215 was on a dark night, the shadows of palm trees rising beside the freeway, a vacuum-packed mattress in the back seat, the rest of my life in the trunk. I turned left off the exit, rolled past some railroad tracks and wondered where I was. And where I was going. I could make out small- to mid-sized houses, some newly painted, glimmering like jewels set in concrete. Others were run-down, with rusted cars to match.

I was going the wrong way. I flipped around and headed north, crossed the railroad tracks, passed a Chevron and an IHOP. I made a few more turns and watched as the houses became four-bedroom tract homes. SimCity on a desert, beneath a wide, open sky. Here, you can see the stars.

This is a place of contradiction.

A Latino restaurant owner on Fifth Street in San Bernardino once told me he wanted the wetbacks gone. We are among California’s least educated people despite the abundance of colleges and universities here. We are poor and rich. We are urban and rural. We spend hours every day away from our families, commuting to Los Angeles because we want a better life for our children out here. We are Twentynine Palms, where soldiers train in the desert’s serenity to fight in faraway wars. There is a view of the mountains from our office. The only thing in the way is the rising Lowe’s megastore.

Lois Strand, 89, told me that when she drove through San Bernardino for the first time more than 45 years ago, she thought to herself, “Shangri-La”. It was day, and it was warm in the valley. The mountains above were topped with snow. (1)

Sometimes it feels like we’re living in hell. There was the day 60 mile-per-hour winds dispatched clouds of sand to fly like white bees across the highway, provoking a 17-car pileup near Ludlow (2). Below, in San Bernardino, winds rocked the earth. The blue sky smiled, all coy.

Leaving my house one Friday in October after the hail and lightning had subsided, Andrew got stuck in a downpour that pummelled the city’s north end with 2 inches of rain in a night (3). Ten days later, the Esperanza fire ripped through 40,000 acres of land. Five firefighters died defending a home.

Esperanza, in Spanish, is hope.

Several months ago, when we were both still working at the Sun, Guy lent me a book of faults. One day soon, researchers predict, the lacerated earth will give way, uncaging years of pent-up rage. The San Andreas, the book says, runs about 0.3 miles north of and parallel to Northpark Avenue. That’s where I live.

I rent a room for $550 a month in a half-million-dollar home with granite countertops and a three-car garage. My street curves up to kiss the foothills that rise into the mountains. My backyard is sand.

At night, I listen to the clattering propellors of the police helicopter that circles a couple miles from here, beaming its spotlight down to earth like an alien vessel. The sliver of light follows someone. Someone. Someone running? Was someone killed tonight? Shot? Stabbed? Strangled? Is someone missing? For whom are they searching? When the wind isn’t blowing 70 miles per hour as it licks the shuddering hillsides, I light a cigarette and stand outside, watching, waiting, asking.

Earthquakes, flames, floods, sandstorms, screaming winds and shotguns. At 107 degrees, the world seems angry. It snowed last winter.

Are there tornadoes here?

What disasters don’t we have? Natural or not, they unleash their fury suddenly, surprising the placid deserts and mountains into pristine wakefulness.

It is beautiful.

When you’re not in the city, when there are no skyscrapers, you can see the weather as it comes. You can watch the clouds churning, gnashing their charcoal-hued teeth. The morning after the first snow fell on the mountains, I stepped outside. It was quiet, it was beautiful. I was at peace.

Driving north on 215 one afternoon on the way to Rancho Cucamonga, I watched the sun, a dollop of liquid gold, drop behind the mountains. The world blushed. The sky was rimmed in amber. Tiny clouds, like crystal gems, lay low, festooning the sky in a thousand gleaming pinks and yellows.

I merged onto Interstate 15 and, heading south, realized the sunset was again before me. On every horizon, 360 degrees around, the world stared back in raucous color. On hot July days, with the wind on hiatus, the umber smog chokes the valley, hiding the mountains’ majesty.

A dash of heaven. A sprinkling of hell.


Story written in July 2007.

(1) San Bernardino Sun: Charlotte Hsu. “Homeowners in Limbo.” June 18, 2007. Newslibrary to search
(2) San Bernardino Sun: Stacia Glenn and Melissa Pinion-Whitt. “Deadly smashup.” Apr. 13, 2007. Newslibrary to search
(3) San Bernardino Sun: Andrew Silva. “Flash flood damages streets, 18 homes.” Oct. 15, 2006. Newslibrary to search

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