Letter to My California Dreamer: From England’s Rolling Hills to California’s Open-Skied Deserts

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Nicola and her dad at her college graduation in Claremont, CA, 1986. (Courtesy of Nicola Pitchford)

For a series we’re calling “Letter To My California Dreamer,” we’re asking Californians from all walks of life to write a short letter to one of the first people in their family who came to the Golden State. The letter should explain:

What was their California Dream?
What happened to it?
Is that California Dream still alive for you?

Here's a letter from Nicola Pitchford to her father, Julian:

My dear father,

I understand, now, your thing about the California desert. Southern California was the perfect place for you to start again, as a newly single father in the late 1970s. England was a grey and hopeless place, all public-sector strikes and drab school uniforms. L.A., by contrast, was a dream of swimming pools, divorcées, and continual redemption, with HALLELUJAH! bumper stickers everywhere.

Nicola, her brother Mark, and a family friend in Victorville, CA, circa 1977. (Photo by Julian Pitchford)

On weekends, you’d drag us out to camp in the Mojave. You loved the open skies, the shimmering heat, the scruffy towns. I loathed this freakish moonscape, devoid of soft greenery and “proper” trees. Things I couldn’t name bit me or gave me hives; I got sunburned to spite you, and sulked for my mother.

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I’m sure it reminded you of the Libyan Sahara, where you’d worked as a young engineer on water delivery projects. There’s a line in Lawrence of Arabia about that strange kind of Englishman who loves deserts – because he’s a misfit in his own “green, fat country.”

Nicola's father, Julian Pitchford, with his infant son Mark in his grandparents’ garden in England, circa 1964. (Courtesy of Nicola Pitchford)

Making me an immigrant, you made me a misfit too. I’m a privileged one: I speak my native language (more or less); I’ve never lacked a safe place or been treated with suspicion for my origins or my colour. But I still have that subtle gap, the alien uncertainty that makes me listen for things that go unnamed, things named differently in other tongues. I’m part of that global tribe that doesn’t take home for granted. I lean toward those on the edges.

And so I feel called by kinship to the migrant families now living a nightmare in the deserts of the Southwest. I know you shared their simple urge, the urge of good parents anywhere, to seek a better life for their children. I made that hard for you: all those mornings I sat crying over breakfast, homesick for the green hills of my motherland and heartsick for the mother who was somewhere among them. What does it do to a parent to see their child so unhappy and be helpless? Did you second-guess your choices? I don’t need to ask what it does to a child to be both uprooted from a home and separated from a parent, even as gently as it happened to me. I can offer no comfort to the parents and children torn from one another under the blazing borderland sky.

When you looked at the beauty of deserts, you too saw the nomads and migrants, the displaced and the dispossessed. Your own sense of kinship took you back in your last years to Africa’s driest places, to work alongside them in bringing clean water.

Photos of Joshua Tree and Death Valley sent to Nicola in London by her now-husband, Wilson. (Courtesy of Wilson Neate)

I adore the desert now. I’m still learning its language, its words, the natural history of its resilient plants and creatures. I married another immigrant desert-lover. I fell for him when I was working in rainy London and he sent photos from Joshua Tree and Death Valley, so I’d have a dream of blue sky to pin on my wall. A California dream. You would have appreciated that.

Your loving daughter,

Nicola

We’d love to  see your letter to your family’s California Dreamer. Maybe it was a parent, a great-great grandparent or maybe even you were the first in your family to come to California with a dream. Fill out the form here and share your story with us!