Finding the Island of California

I like old maps. There's a store near where I live that sells old maps and vintage posters. The maps themselves are fascinating. A friend came across a map from 1938 which had Manchukuo and referred to Korea as a Japanese colony. The store has a collection of maps from textbooks from what I assume to be 1940 with Native Americans and African-Americans and caucasians depicted in racial caricatures so far removed from what people actually look like that one wonders if it can even be considered "racist" in the usual sense.

But my favorite map is a Spanish map from the late 1600s that depicts California as an island. The Spanish persisted in insisting that California was an island into the 1700s. One can understand where this misconception would arise: the Gulf of California runs over a thousand miles deep. A novel from the late 1400s-early 1500s 1 novel, "Las sergas de Esplandián", described an island inhabited only by black women and ruled by Queen Calafia.

Naturally, when, in 1533, a Spanish mutineer by the name of Fortún Ximénez arrived at the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula 2 , it would be assumed that this was the Island of California of myth. This was reported to the governor of Mexico, and made its way into the maps. My knowledge of Spanish exploration of the region is pretty limited, but given the scale of the Sonora and Baja deserts, and the length of the peninsula, it is entirely possible that no Spaniard ever sailed up the gulf and made landfall on its northern shore. If this seems absurd, consider the persistent (possibly untrue) story that the French had no idea how much land they were selling to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. Cartography was not terribly advanced by this time anyway; take a gander at the French map below from right around the American Revolution, and pay particular attention to the shape and size of Florida.


I happen to live in a state which was among the first to legalize recreational marijuana in the United States. On day one of legalization, there were already van tours that would pick you up on a long layover at the airport, drive you to dispensaries, where you could then imbibe in the back of the van (the rules are quite a bit like alcohol, and iirc in the same way that you can drink in the back of a limo, you can smoke up as well) and then be dropped off at the airport in time to make your connecting flight. These tours were booked solid four months in advance. The legalization has turned recreational marijuana into a multi-billion-dollar industry.

There was also the side effect of people chasing stories of streets paved with weed. A lot of (younger, white) people moved to Colorado to pursue their particular choice of vice free of police involvement, but failed to account for things like "a high cost of living". Many of these people arrived without a job or money and ended up homeless.

A year earlier, Boulder had tried to relax its laws against "erecting temporary housing" (living in a tent in a city park) trying to help out the homeless population. This influx and the inevitable ugliness that followed led to a crackdown, ruining what should have been a very helpful thing for the people who are actually homeless and not merely people chasing a myth without thought of implications.

Colorado did not encourage this myth; we just tried to save some money, and ended up raising quite a bit in excise tax, and the law of unintended consequences created a burden for the homeless in a city that prides itself on its efforts to help said homeless.

Some places encourage the myth. Perhaps none so aggressively as New York, New York.

I have complained about this before, and I will complain about it again, but there are entire blocks of Manhattan that are completely unnavigable due to to sea of tourists taking photos of famous places. I cannot name another place that is name dropped more in popular song 3 . And New York insists on its myth: the City that Never Sleeps, the Big Apple, Gotham, Empire City, the list goes on. People seek out the Myth of Manhattan in scales beyond human comprehension. An estimated 60 million people visited New York in 2016 alone. That's more than the population of the entire Iberian peninsula.

What did they come for? The Statue of Liberty, itself a collection of myths including that it was a gift from France (it was, partially, but was mostly paid for by quite affluent Americans paying for a very nice statue) and the poem inscribed on the base:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she

With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

on a statue welcoming immigrants to a country with a history of not really welcoming immigrants4. Broadway, once derided for its shallow entertainment, is now the Mecca of musical theater, with tickets so expensive that only tourists would pay for the shows. Time Square, where no native New Yorker would visit 5 , only pass through when no other choice is presented. Radio City Music Hall, the United Nations headquarters, Central Park, and many, many, many museums. One of my friends had his family visit, and his father insisted on finding a pastrami on rye -- that was New York to his father, a (usually pretty good) diner sandwich.

I lived new New York for five years. My dominant memories are Hell's Kitchen restaurants, Alphabet City bars, and the museums around Central Park. Many native New Yorkers consider leaving their neighborhood a distant trek to a far-away land. The fascinating thing about a World City 6 is that it can be literally anything anybody wants it to be. There's a scale to the city that allows it to accomodate the desires of all but the most demanding of city-dwellers. The myths of what New York "is" are such a small and curated subset of what New York actually is. But the myths also end to be the ones that most people will come up with when pressed for a description of a place.


What can makes these myths so interesting is how static they seem to be. Spanish maps depicted California as an island long after explorers had throughly wandered the American Southwest. Boulder, CO still has a reputation as a hippy stronghold after three waves of California software developers moved in and priced the hippies out of the market. New York is so, so much more than a bunch of famous landmarks connected by a double decker bus tour. And it's an interesting problem, because these myths drive tourism, and in the 21 st century this means there is quite a market for these myths.

In 1977, New York (the city) was a disaster. This was the year of Son of Sam. The least bloody month, February, saw 82 murders, and the murder rate was pushing 20 murders per hundred thousand residents. Today it's under 4. The New York State Department of Commerce recruited Milton Glaser for a little ad campaign, and, expecting it to run only a few months, Glaser agreed to do the work for free. In 2009, Barack Obama awarded Milton Glaser the National Medal of the Arts -- the first graphic designer to receive the honor -- for developing the "I Heart New York" logo and campaign. The State of New York owns the trademark on the logo, and by some reports the state earns around $2M/year in licensing fees. Most of the paraphernalia peddled to tourists is unlicensed and worn proudly by almost no residents of the city itself.

But this is New York for many people. The t-shirts and the miniature Statue of Liberty figurines and the little snow globes of landmarks that millions of people went to see in one year. (Very) Conservative estimate, a person might spend $1000 on a week in New York between hotels, so we are talking about a multi-billion-dollar industry for a single city. This is an astronomical amount of money, which creates a whole industry with a deep interest in preserving the images and stories and ideas -- in short, the myths -- that drive people to visit the Big Apple7.

What's peculiar about this, to me, is that so many of these places are more interesting than any of the "iconic" things about them.

Here's an example.

The go-to thing to do in the southern Baja California peninsula is to do body shots of tequila in Cabo. Many, many millions of people visit Cabo every year for white sand beaches in an expensive resort secluded from the rest of Mexico. This is the (well-earned) reputation of Cabo: a party central for people who want to leave their home country for a party without ever dealing with the actual hassles of leaving their home country8.

Also available in the southern Baja area is Espíritu Santo, a UNESCO world heritage site with one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, where you can snorkel with sea lions and whale sharks and eat some really solid food and all you have to do is take a bus from the Cabo airport about an hour north of the Tropic of Cancer and hey-presto you're in a town most tourists have never heard of, with quirky small hotels and a few top notch restaurants if you ask around a bit. When I was there I was almost talked into buying a microbrewery that had the lightest, most enjoyable-in-30-Celsius stout I've ever had.


Taken by me, with the thumb left in for effect. I could say "Creative Commons" but who wants a photo of people taking photos of a statue, with a thumb in the middle?

Taken by me, with the thumb left in for effect. I could say "Creative Commons" but who wants a photo of people taking photos of a statue, with a thumb in the middle?

Across from Nyhavn and the Skuespillhuset in Copenhagen, next to the Viking hippy village of Christiania, Copenhagen Street Food has taken over an old shipping warehouse. Copenhagen Street Food is chock full of food and drink stalls, and one of them serves the best fried chicken I've ever had. About a mile away, after a walk across the modern, colorful pedestrian/bicycle Inderhavnsbroen bridge and past the Kastellet (the old fortress that overlooks the mouth of Copenhagen's old harbor), Amalienborg Castle, and the Danish Museum of Design, two hundred tourists crowd around a small statue of the Little Mermaid.


  1. It is a remarkable bit of archaeology to figure out when old books were published. In this particular example, the book in question is a part of a series, and the oldest known printed edition dates to 1510, but a later installment in the series has a published edition dated four months earlier. Hell, we've narrowed Hamlet to a three-year publication window, and it's Hamleta.

  2. And was killed in a fight with the locals, natch.

  3. It has its own Wikipedia article, and said article is a list as long as this essay. Everyone from Frank Sinatra to Steely Dan have name dropped a place in New York. The Wikipedia article itself catalogs 123 songs, 124 if you include Duke Ellington's "Harlemania", whose titles just begin with "Harlem". This does not even exhaust the list of songs with Harlem in the title somewhere.

  4. Consider, for example, Benjamin Franklin ranting about the German immigrants in colonial Pennsylvania: "Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation...and as few of the English understand the German Language, and so cannot address them either from the Press or Pulpit, ’tis almost impossible to remove any prejudices they once entertain...Not being used to Liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it...I remember when they modestly declined intermeddling in our Elections, but now they come in droves, and carry all before them, except in one or two Counties...In short unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies, as you very judiciously propose, they will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious." Of course, being the first true American, Franklin also started the first German language newspaper in the British colonies. It failed.

  5. And also containing the subject of perhaps the most-read New York Times restaurant review in history.

  6. I define a capital-'W'-capital-'C' "World City" as being a place where you can buy literally any good or service at a store that is open at 2 AM. This ranges from groceries to tailored suits to a car. An incomplete list, biased towards places I have visited, includes: New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Tokyo, London. If you live in a city and are wondering if it constitutes a "World City", ask yourself if you've ever complained that all the restaurants are closed. If the answer is yes, then you do not live in a "World City".

  7. Which, remarkably, has not been trademarked.

  8. I talk like leaving the country (here country = United States) is a relatively straightforward process. And in a lot of ways, it is. Anyone holding a United States passport can travel to 174 countries without a visa or by buying an inexpensive visa stamp on arrival -- this is third in the world. Air travel abroad is also relatively inexpensive. Flights to Mexico from most of the major gateway cities in the US (NY, Chicago, SF, Denver, Atlanta, Houston, LA, Seatle, ...) can be as low as $350 round trip, possibly less. But there is a lot of headache involved in international travel as well, especially if you aren't used to the sort of rolling-with-the-punches inhabiting a culture that is not your own requires. A couple of examples: tipping customs can vary within a region, so just because you learned the rules in Spain does not mean you're covered for Portugal; German hotels have very thin pillows and expect that everyone is a back-sleeper; outside of Tokyo the English prevalence in Japan is a bit limited, which can make you dependent on a translation app on your phone; English airports have slot machines in them; &c. ad infinatum ad nauseam. The point is, yeah, if you've never ever ever left your home country before, you should probably open up by going to a major world city in a country whose customs are similar but not identical to your own (think Canada or the UK) if you are going for anything remotely resembling the (non-existent) "local experience".

  9. Side note that I include only because it's interesting to think about: There's still debate as to the age of the protagonist of perhaps the most famous piece of literature in the Western canon. Most contemporary depictions are of the Kenneth Branagh mold, who was 35 or 36 when he depicted the Prince of Denmark. However, there are textual differences between the folios, and politically it makes no sense that a 36 year old would have to defer to his uncle to ascend to the throne. As such, there are some that argue that Hamlet was 17 or 18, a boy on the cusp of manhood. These are two wildly different interpretations of the character, that fundamentally changes the interpretations and themes of the play.