This is the third installment in our series, Greetings from California, in which intrepid writers file dispatches exploring the untrodden, unappreciated, or just unusual corners of the Golden State. Last year, frequent contributor Glen Martin faced the ghosts of his past when he returned to his hometown of Atascadero, California. (Check out previous letters including Krissy Eliot’s visit to Bigfoot country and Leah Worthington’s unforgettable ride through the Valley.)
It all started two years ago. A classmate I hadn’t seen in more than 40 years invited me to a Facebook group for alumni of my high school. I hesitated, but finally joined—more from idle curiosity than anything else. What had happened to those fresh-faced teens of my salad days in my hometown of Atascadero, California?
It became immediately clear that most of the participants were Trump supporters who conformed to his base demographic: old, white, rural, working class. There were posts promoting Pizzagate, screeds on Benghazi and the Deep State, Birther memes, and a nonstop cascade of vicious attacks on anyone who wasn’t a foursquare Trumpite. And of course, lots of fervent religious declarations and calls to prayer for one thing or another.
And yet, even after living and working in the Bay Area for decades, I knew these people. In a real sense, I was still one of them. There’s a little bit of redneck in me yet. I hunt and own firearms—deer rifles, shotguns, a couple of revolvers inherited from my father, my boyhood .22s (no AR-15s, however). Still, I had changed over the years. And as one of the few Democrats participating in the threads, I felt obliged to respond, at first in a restrained and rational fashion, later with increasing anger, and finally with mockery and belligerence.
Over several months, I developed—perhaps cultivated would be a better word—a true enemy, a pipefitter who specialized in SCREAMING ALL CAPS AD HOMINEM attacks, interspersing his abusive posts with LOLOLOLOL. I remembered him from high school and hadn’t liked him then, and he drove me nuts now. So I goaded him relentlessly, and he finally declared he’d give me a thrashing if he ever saw me, offering to pay my travel expenses to Atascadero so we could duke it out in the Sunken Gardens, a park in the middle of town.
At a certain point, two years into Trump’s term, I’d had enough. I was still posting, but I wanted some—what, closure? Real engagement? Maybe I just wanted to confront the Atascadero of my past. I had liked, or at least tolerated, most of these people growing up. But, like many others, I’d started to wonder if Trump and social media had poisoned us beyond reconciliation. A bit of research surprised me: Atascadero—home of my Facebook enemies, not to mention San Luis Obispo County’s Republican Party headquarters—was decidedly purple in the 2016 election, with only 47% voting for Trump.
So with all our contrasting colors, were we, as one Facebook commenter had claimed, so divided that we were doomed to literal civil war? Was Atascadero America writ small?
After making some arrangements, I drove down from Santa Rosa, my current home.
Back in the late 1960s, Atascadero was a wide spot on Highway 101 noteworthy for only one thing: The Atascadero State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, the institution where California incarcerated mentally ill people convicted of committing some of the most heinous crimes imaginable. My family moved there when I was in 6th grade, after my father had mustered out of the Army and taken a job at the hospital.
I liked some things about it: the oak-covered rolling hills and the Salinas River bottoms, where I hunted rabbits, doves, and quail and caught steelhead with Louis Owens, a boy who became my best friend. I also appreciated the modest and human scale of the place. The population was about 5,000, and there wasn’t a single stoplight in town. Residents would ride their horses down El Camino Real, Atascadero’s main street and the old route that once connected California’s missions.
I got into two fights during my first day of school, and I had many additional scraps through the years. (This was before students were suspended or expelled for fighting; you were merely expected to “take it off school grounds.”) Part of the problem was my big mouth. But I also felt utterly out of synch with my peers. I grew up on or around military bases, and my father, a master sergeant who served under black officers, would’ve whipped me for uttering any of the racial slurs then in common use. Racism in Atascadero wasn’t institutionalized as it was in the South, but it was still extant and invidious. I remember a high school classmate who said, out of the blue, “I hate niggers, and I don’t care who knows it.”
I responded, “Really? Why don’t you go tell that to Arnold Cross or Davey Cooks?”
There were only about five African-American students in the entire school, and both Arnold and Davey were large, tough, saturnine black kids. My classmate didn’t respond beyond a glower.
Nor was such racism a recent phenomenon. Atascadero was founded as a utopian community in 1913 by magazine publisher E.G. Lewis, who inserted a clause in the colony’s charter that only whites could purchase property. I remember my father telling me that the town had been a hotbed of activity and recruitment for the Silver Shirts, a group of white supremacists, anti-Semites, and Nazi sympathizers who styled themselves after Hitler’s Brownshirts. (Indeed, some recent googling confirms that Atascadero was home to William Ernest Kullgren, a Silver Shirt leader and astrologer who published two pro-fascist rags, The Beacon Light Herald and America Speaks, from the 1930s through the 1950s; he was charged with sedition in 1943, but didn’t stand trial.)
I’ll never forget the night of a football game during my sophomore year of high school. It was completely dark by the time the game ended, and along with the other kids I left the field and wandered across the school’s dirt parking lot. Suddenly flames erupted at the far end, and we all rushed through the night toward them. We soon saw that the fire was a huge burning wooden “A,” and a group of boys were staggering drunkenly around it, whooping and yelling. They wore white hoods. Everyone stood slack-jawed and speechless at the periphery of the firelight.
The town was also steeped in religion. Not the mainline Catholic or Presbyterian variety where you go to Mass or hear a sermon, file quietly out, and go about your business, but the hollering, ecstatic Elmer Gantry kind, where the glory of the Lord and eternal damnation and righteous salvation are the topics of everyday conversation. My family was utterly secular, and I was irritated—and at times, oppressed—by all the God talk.
My parents moved after I graduated from high school, and I simultaneously left for my own digs in San Luis Obispo. I felt like I was shedding lead weights with every mile that I put between my hometown and me. I never intended to go back. With all the baggage of my adolescence, I wasn’t particularly anxious to renew my acquaintanceship with Atascadero.
And yet, there I was last fall with my pen and notebook.
Downtown—such as it was—seemed frozen in a time warp. There were some obvious differences: Nobody rode horses down El Camino Real, and an old, sprawling arcaded hotel complex had been torn down. But most of the buildings seemed untouched by the decades. The Sunken Gardens, an attractive expanse of greenery framing the striking Moorish-style Masonic Temple (now the city hall), were still there. Statues of nude nymphs and fauns still graced the greensward.
Overall, the town looked pretty much the same. There was just more of it. Atascadero had metastasized since my youth, sprawling south along El Camino Real and west on Highway 41, the road that leads to Morro Bay. The population had sextupled, and now stands at more than 30,000.
My first meeting was with Gary Pharis, whom I recalled as an amiable kid with a lazy grin. We connected on the evening of my arrival at Sculpterra Winery, just outside Atascadero in neighboring burg, Paso Robles. Growing up, Paso Robles was Atascadero’s poorer cousin, a literal cow town, diminutive, dusty, and poor. But in the intervening years it has become the center of the Central Coast’s wine industry and now rivals the Napa Valley in both the scope of its vineyards and quality of its wines. Its downtown is full of trendy restaurants and boutiques; BMWs and Mercedes sedans outnumber the pick-ups. Ironically, business leaders in Atascadero recently considered promoting it as the Gateway to the Wine Country—that is, Paso Robles.
Gary and his wife belonged to Sculpterra’s wine club, and I met them there for a special tasting. We sat listening to a live band, sipping an excellent red, and chatting. I almost forgot that he had posted Birther conspiracies, disparaging memes about Michelle Obama’s appearance, fierce defenses of AR-15s following mass shootings––and that I had responded with abusive ripostes.
Finally, our talk turned to politics. Remembering Gary’s claim that he had voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, I wondered how his politics could have shifted so dramatically in four years.
“Obama was disappointing me,” he said, “and when the Democrats ran Hillary, that really chapped my hide. The corruption. Bengazi. And then Trump came along, and at first I didn’t like him, his personality. But I knew I wouldn’t vote Democratic again. And he started talking about more funding for the military and The Wall, and I thought, ‘Right on.’ A nation needs secure borders.”
I asked about Trump’s corruption, from violations of the emoluments clause to his entanglement with the Russians. (We met before Trump’s impeachment over his phone calls with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.) Gary shook his head.
“True, Trump wouldn’t make it as a deacon,” he said. “He may not have great moral character. But I agree with a lot of the things he stands for, and he keeps his promises. And looking at 2020, we’re at a pivotal time. The Democrats are portraying themselves as ‘social democrats’—as communists, really. I don’t support that at all.”
An evangelical Christian who adamantly opposed abortion, Gary was also heartened—as I was disheartened—by Trump’s Supreme Court appointees. And concerns that the President truckles to despots like Kim Jong Un and Putin?
“Kabuki theater,” he said.
Still, we agreed on one point. An overriding fear of Trump’s opponents—including Nancy Pelosi—is that he won’t step down even if he loses the 2020 election, something that could go beyond constitutional crisis to civil conflict. Would Gary support such a decision by the President?
“No,” he said. “He has to submit to the rule of law.”
In the end, our conversation was nothing like our Facebook discourse. Our exchanges were cordial; I enjoyed our time together, and it seemed to me that Gary felt the same way.
“Where there’s wine, there can be talk and friendship,” he said.
The next day I visited Carol Seitz—or Carol Sanford, as I knew her in high school. A gracious and soignée blonde, she greeted me in her home in Templeton, a small community seven miles north of Atascadero. Carol is a Trump supporter, though not a particularly ardent one.
“I thought he was arrogant and pompous when he first ran,” she said, “and I had some heated sit-downs with Ron [her husband]. But as the campaign developed, a lot of his positions made sense to me, and I could overlook his behavior. Everyone knows he’s not a politician, and he’s not my moral compass.”
Carol felt the main problem bedeviling our country isn’t our political differences, but the way we treat each other.
“When we were growing up, people could and did disagree, but they were civil,” she said. “Now it’s more that they want each other dead. It’s terrible, really.”
She recalled an incident when we were teens. She had attended a big tent religious revival held at the edge of town at the behest of an acquaintance who belonged to a fundamentalist church. I remembered it because I had gone too, accompanied by my friend and classmate Pat Michaels—now celebrated or notorious, depending on your point of view, as the nation’s most learned climate change skeptic, a climatologist who inveighed mightily against global warming “hysteria” in his book, The Satanic Gases.
People were rolling around on the ground and babbling in tongues at the revival, all to the accompaniment of a haranguing preacher and a band led by Mike Michaelson and his Christian Guitar. Pat and I were there to simply gawk and mock. Carol found the religious ecstasies too much for her and, seeing us laughing, hurried over to us. We fled.
Since then, she has accepted the Christian faith, while I’ve remained an atheist. But we agreed there’s a lot to be said for following the rule our parents laid down: don’t talk politics or religion, especially at the dinner table.
“Susan Macari is my dearest friend,” she said. “I grew up with her from grade school on, and I see her all the time. We hold different political views, but we just don’t discuss them. It wouldn’t add anything to our relationship. I don’t know if there’s a larger answer, but it works for us.”
Susan was one of the brightest lights of my high school class, a beautiful girl who was a cheerleader and homecoming queen—and a warm and caring human being. She married her high school sweetheart, John Macari, had children, and was widowed. She later married David Anderson, a teacher from the local school district. I met the couple, following my chat with Carol, in their home off a quiet street shaded by large sycamores near Highway 41. Susan is something of an anomaly for Atascadero: a Democrat. David is a lapsed Republican and stalwart Never Trumper.
It would be an oversimplification to say that Susan loves Atascadero, but she is devoted to it. She has lived there most of her life, raised her children there, owned local businesses, and worked at Atascadero State Hospital. Currently, she spends much of her time working for a nonprofit group that feeds and supports Atascadero’s growing homeless population.
“There’s a certain comfort to living here, to living with people you’ve known your whole life,” she said over dinner. “On the other hand, people change, and sometimes you grow apart. It’s a small town, and that’s reflected in the small-minded way a lot of people here look at the world.”
Dave agreed, turning the conversation to Trump.
“You see that close-mindedness in the support for Trump,” he opined. “I was a Republican, I believed in the basic values of the party. But Trump doesn’t reflect those values, and I’m amazed that most Republicans don’t see that, that they can’t acknowledge what’s occurring. At this point, there’s so much anger on both sides that we just try to avoid any discussion of him.”
“It’s not worth it,” said Susan. “It can be explosive.”
Still, Susan won’t back down if pressed on politics. She’s forthright in her opinions on Facebook, though she always expresses herself in polite terms, and is particularly adamant about gun control.
“I’ve had four grandchildren who were on lockdown for active shooters,” she said. “Three were in Connecticut, near Sandy Hook when the massacre happened. Another was in Santa Monica. And it affected them deeply. And it still does. One of my grandkids is autistic and was sheltering in place for five hours. After my little granddaughter was on lockdown, she told me that the teachers said she had to pee in a garbage can because they couldn’t get to the restrooms. So those are the stakes.”
I’d been operating on the theory that Trump supporters in Atascadero were much like those in the rest of the country: old. Carol Seitz’s granddaughter disabused me of that notion, however. Joelle Winch is 20, an Atascadero High graduate, and is currently in Ecuador, studying abroad through Westmont College, a Christian liberal arts school in Montecito. We connected over FaceTime after my road trip, and she confirmed that she was indeed a Trump supporter, though she differs from many older Trump fans in one critical area.
“I’m a committed Christian, but I really don’t think we should dictate morality to people who don’t share our faith,” she said. “So I don’t support banning gay marriage. I don’t think it should be a political issue.”
By the same token, she thinks her own views should be accorded respect.
“I went on Instagram to support the decision [by Alabama Governor Kay Ivey] to outlaw abortion, and I was instantly attacked,” she recalled. “More than 20 people unfollowed me, and a lot blocked me. One girl messaged me that I’d go to Hell. But very few wanted to have a conversation—they just wanted to tell me how terrible I was. It’s all very polarized, though sometimes you can work through it. I had a high school friend condemning me on social media, but she came back later with some questions, so we’re agreeing to disagree, and we’ve remained friends.”
I asked Joelle if her views were widely shared among her high school classmates. Not really, she said.
“A lot of my friends feel the way I do, but I think most people my age are anti-Trump. Even in Atascadero.”
As it turned out, there’s nothing immutable about Atascadero. I wanted things to be different, and they were different, but often in ways I didn’t like. There were fewer trees and more cars. Nature seemed smaller and farther away.
I drove to the Salinas River bottom, a place that engendered pleasant recollections from my adolescence. My friend Louis Owens and I had hunted there as kids. He was raised in the deepest poverty, growing up in a tarpapered shack on the banks of the river. His mother often fried up the rabbits we shot in Crisco, then served them to us and his eight siblings with potatoes scorched in the same grease. He was the only member of his family to graduate from college. He later completed his PhD in English, gained renown as both a novelist and literary critic, and was the youngest professor ever tenured by the University of California. In 2002, he shot himself while serving as the director of the creative writing program at UC Davis.
The river bottom had been a source of solace and freedom for us, a wide, immensely long expanse of willow thickets and cottonwood groves teeming with game. We’d spend entire days exploring it. I wanted to stroll it again, recalling my hunts with my deceased friend, reliving those relatively rare days of enjoyment in an otherwise dreary adolescence.
But when I got there I found that the river was much degraded. Berms had been erected to constrict the flow, and the channel was narrow and choked with arundo, a noxious invasive cane. I saw no rabbits, no quail: just piles of garbage and tarps from homeless encampments. A faint odor of feces—and menace—wafted with the breeze. I left.
Later, I climbed Pine Mountain, a promontory that rises not far from downtown. It had been in private hands while I was growing up, but local conservancy groups had negotiated land purchases and conservation easements, and now most of the mountain is a protected reserve, with a well-maintained trail wending to the summit. I hiked to the top one warm and breezy afternoon. The air was as I remembered it, rich with the balsams of resinous plants. Cumulus clouds lofted in the robin’s egg sky. Below, Atascadero reposed beneath the big, defining oaks and sycamores. The view was only of the town center, with the sprawl along southern El Camino Real obscured. It looked like the Atascadero of my youth—the surrounding forested hills, the small, green village with no stoplights and lots of horses. I felt a sudden longing and regret that I couldn’t define precisely, but that had something to do with myself, the town, its residents, the nation, Facebook, Trump. The vista somehow rekindled a feeling of “otherness” that I’d had when I lived there, a feeling I’d shared with a few other kids.
Jeannie Bosch was a high school contemporary who now lives in Sonoma County. Her brother Rick, a slight, bookish, wry-humored boy, was one of my best friends. He had been drafted after high school and sent to Vietnam, where he was killed. Jeannie bolted from Atascadero “like a shot” as soon as she could.
“Our family moved down from Downieville [in the Sierra Nevada] when I was 10,” she said, showing me some prized chickens pecking around her verdant Sebastopol property after I’d returned from Atascadero. “There were seven of us kids and my parents—my dad had landed a teaching contract at Atascadero—and every mile down from the mountains felt like I was getting closer to Hell. And when we got to Atascadero, I knew we had arrived. I felt like an outsider the entire time I was there.”
I was never able to talk to my fiercest Facebook adversaries—the carpenter who is preparing for civil war and the pipefitter who threatened to kick my ass. I obtained the phone number of the carpenter from a mutual friend, but he ignored a voicemail I left. Susan Macari has known the pipefitter for most of her life and I enlisted her to invite him to our dinner, but he refused to attend. I did, however, talk to one other person before leaving town.
Rick Elisarraras was a year behind me in high school. He was an uncommonly handsome kid, cheerful and popular. He was also a superb motorcyclist, and he won a national racing championship a few years after graduating. We had befriended each other on Facebook, and it soon became clear that he supported Trump. But he never became strident, insulting or condescending; he tended to make light of conflict, deflecting anger rather than stoking it. He was a Christian, but rather than invoke thunder and damnation he’d simply pray for your health and happiness –and acceptance of the Lord, of course.
One day, he posted a message on Facebook confirming that he had late stage pancreatic cancer but was receiving treatment and was feeling optimistic. He asked people to pray for his wife, who was taking the news hard. I messaged him a couple of weeks prior to my visit, and we agreed to meet for breakfast at the local Denny’s.
We clasped hands when we met, and I realized that I was incredibly happy to see him. We ate breakfast, and I ventured a few questions about Trump, but he avoided answering them beyond endorsing Trump’s steadfast support of Israel, which he felt was demanded by Scripture. Mainly he wanted to talk about me: my family, the photos I had posted, my life since leaving high school. He spoke modestly of his own accomplishments as a businessman, which were considerable. Like Susan, he spent a good deal of his time providing services to Atascadero’s homeless population, though he worked through his church rather than a community organization. I asked about his health. He laughed and said his condition was treatable but not curable, and that he reckoned he had some time left.
We talked about the state of both Atascadero and the country, the barricades that separated us. He had no solution, he said, beyond the compassion that was ordained by his faith and that was now his greatest comfort.
“We can disagree, but we can still be the best of friends,” he said. “We have to. I really think that’s necessary.”
And with that, I drove out of town.