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I’m Still California Dreamin’, But Growing Old Here Is a Nightmare

It used to be such a magical place.

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I first laid eyes on California back in 1969, when I was a 19-year-old hippie. It was the ultimate destination of a cross-country pilgrimage I made with my boyfriend, traveling in an old Volkswagen camper van with four bald tires and brakes that worked most of the time except when we were crossing the Rockies.

When we hit California, I knew immediately that I had arrived in paradise. The balmy, perfect weather, the surfers, the gentle rolling hills of Napa and Sonoma, the endless farm basket that was the Central Valley, and the Eastern Sierra mountains, with their pine-smelling perfume — I quickly became intoxicated by the golden light and sweet fragrance that was (is) California. Add to that the music scene of Laurel Canyon, the poets and writers who hung out at City Lights, the freedom to be you — no matter who you were.

And the people! OMG, the people! How fabulous and tanned and lovingly eccentric they all seemed. Just as the state was sunny, sultry and beautiful, so were its people! I fell in love.

California was everything New Jersey wasn’t. At least to me and the millions who flocked here starting back in the Gold Rush days. We all came to chase a dream, to find our better lives in America’s place of endless possibilities, where anything could happen and dreams could come true.

Don’t believe me? Take Los Angeles, a city built on illusion if ever there was one. Perhaps the illusion comes from the movies made here, but find me a waiter who isn’t really an actor waiting for his big break, or a cab driver who isn’t writing a screenplay at red lights, or a handyman who isn’t a stunt double and asks if you can’t see his resemblance to Tom Cruise. New Jersey didn’t have people like that, people who lived their dreams so openly and boldly. No, that is a hallmark of California. I belonged on the Left Coast, and I knew it with every fiber of my body way back in 1969 as we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge into the Marin Headlands, camped on the beach near Carpenteria and hiked to the top of the Hollywood sign.

It took a couple more decades of living in gray New Jersey, but when I turned 40, I uprooted and finally headed to Southern California to live permanently. It was I, my two dogs and a job at The Los Angeles Times that awaited me. I knew no one, had no close family in California and was simply heeding the state’s siren song.

“California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and the Papas might well have been blasting on my car stereo for the 3,000-mile journey. I tooted at any cars bearing California plates like I was greeting a familiar neighbor. They were Californians, I told the dogs, and soon we would be, too. I joked that I might need to dye my hair blond and my eyes blue.

California is a testing ground for life. Changes are tried out here. This is a place where failure only occurs if you are afraid to challenge yourself. Californians, I quickly learned, were just as diverse and quirky as their state. They are like the people you hope to meet on vacation: committed to the pursuit of fun and hedonistic pleasure, and absolutely devoted to living in the moment.

Looking back on my 30-plus years here, I can honestly say I have no regrets about watching New Jersey grow smaller in my rearview mirror. I met both my husbands in California, raised my two kids here and made a bundle on real estate, as well.

I’ve made wonderful friends here. I’ve also lived through wildfires, evacuations, major earthquakes, slides (both rock and mud) and one El Niño that left my canyon an island for six weeks.

I even commuted 26 miles each way in Los Angeles traffic for 18 years, which, according to my calculations, means I spent a full 12 weeks each year in the car just getting to and from the newspaper. Even so, it was worth it — all of it. That’s how deeply I fell in love with California.

But as I turn the corner on my 70s, my California dreamin’ has become a California worryin’. Growing old in a state where showing signs of actual aging is pretty much discouraged scares me to death. California’s culture is a youthful one. Beauty is defined by the young. There’s a reason that Malibu Urgent Care offers walk-in Botox injections 365 days a year. I don’t want to be one of those older women who walk down Rodeo Drive looking like they get their face tightened every six months. If my plantar fasciitis flares up, no, I’m not going to jump onto a treadmill at one of the ubiquitous California gyms just to get my daily 10,000 steps in. I love bread, and I will never jump on board the gluten-free train to a smaller stomach. I once joked that I would always be 20 pounds too heavy for California. Now that I’m 70, make that 30 pounds.

And then there is the practical side of living here. California is a car culture. While East Coast cities are vertical, those in California are sprawling horizontal places, a series of neighborhoods connected by superhighways and offering little in the way of public transportation. New Yorkers walk; Angelenos drive.

What happens when I cannot drive anymore? How will I get around?

California is also expensive. Housing, taxes, insurance are all among the highest in the country. Having recently retired from full-time work, I finally understand what a fixed income means: my earnings aren’t going to go up even though my bills certainly will. Do I really want to spend down my retirement savings just to keep basking in the California sun?

One thing is for certain: I’m not ready to join the line of cars with California plates headed north to Oregon. At least not yet.

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