Envisioning California
An Introduction to THE VISIONARY STATE

Erik Davis

I don’t know about you, but I was born and raised a California heathen. I took my first breath near San Francisco during the Summer of Love, and I grew up north of San Diego in Del Mar, a community of university profs, tech mavericks, and long-hairs name-dropped by the Beach Boys in “Surfin’ U.S.A.” When I was a teenager, my family moved to Rancho Santa Fe, into a rambling ranch house that lay about a mile from the Spanish Revival mansion where the Heaven’s Gate UFO cult later committed mystic suicide. Since 1995, I have lived in San Francisco, where my great-great-great-grandfather I. C. C. Russ disembarked with his family from the Loo Choo in the fortuitous year of 1847. My roots are here, in this rootless place.

So what’s the “heathen” part? I was not baptized, and grew up with about as much Christianity as you can hang on a pine tree. As an adolescent, I found myself surrounded by the mystic carnival of California’s spiritual counterculture. By the time I went east to college, I had engaged with Wiccans, Hare Krishnas, est leaders, Shivananda yogis, Zen monks, born-again surfers, Satanists, LSD mystics, and wandering white-robed mendicants who abjured meat but smoked tobacco. Even the manager of the Picnic’n’Chicken where I slaved as a fry cook was a Spiritualist, having experienced a transformative vision of a face speaking to him through a wall. When I returned to California from New York in 1995, I engaged in a more serious study of Zen, and a less serious exploration of the slaphappy mystic bacchanal that swirls around the annual Burning Man festival.

Around the turn of the century, a good friend of mine found himself at a crossroads in his life, and returned, with a twist, to the faith of his fathers, which in his case was Judaism. Admittedly, the renewal group he hooked into was a very California affair, but it still provided him with some of the priceless gifts of religious tradition: community, context, and continuity. Even if you struggle against your given tradition, it can provide a sense of ballast. People who have been raised with faith at least have something formative to wrestle with, something they have little choice but to engage. It lies at the root.

At the time, all this made me itch with envy. I was enjoying my life more deeply than ever before, but it still often felt like a slowly unfolding existential crisis, a wayward drift through the clamorous dark. I am not by temperament a believer, but at times I found myself longing for a childhood faith to reconnect with, or at least to creatively revise. But I only had the spiritual supermarket—the vast array of books, gurus, practices, paths, and healing modalities that burdens the modern seeker with consumer choice. In other words, I only had California, with its fast-food faiths, its pop occulture and spiritual hedonism.

But then it dawned on me: what if California itself was my tradition, a great polytheistic fusion of transplanted religions, nature mysticism, tools of transport, and creepy cults? What if the restlessness and constant mutation of California’s alternative spiritual scene actually reflected an almost dogmatic insight that reality itself is inherently perspectival? What if the California tradition was like the land itself: a collection of amazing and diverse ecologies, but united by freeways?

And so, searching for my rootless roots, I began to research alternative spirituality and religious sectarianism in California, reading deeply, doing interviews, and traveling to unusual sacred sites. I discovered that California’s culture of consciousness exploration is much older than the New Age or hippie flower-power. Less a place of origins than of mutations, California has long been a laboratory of the spirit, a visionary playground at the far margins of the West. Here, deities and practices from across space and time have been and are mixed and matched, refracted and refined, packaged and consumed anew. Almost a century ago, commentators were already complaining about Los Angeles’ surfeit of “astral planers, Emmanuel movers, Rosicrucians and other boozy transcendentalists.” Such spiritual eclecticism is not novel, of course, but nowhere else in the modern world has it come as close to becoming the status quo. I call this spiritual ethos “California consciousness”: an imaginative, experimental, and sometimes hedonistic quest for human transformation by any means necessary.

Defining and explaining the core elements of California consciousness is no easy task, however. I came up with a handful of underlying themes—visionary experience, nature, technology, the realized body. But the attempt to create an over-arching framework from which to hang all these tattered tales and mutant heresies grew frustrating. Then I realized that, in order to reflect its subject, the book should not be unified under a single concept, because the tradition itself is defined by inconstant spiritual pluralism. Instead of writing a definitive tome, I wanted a book to take the form of a journey, a wayward drift that would mirror the wanderings I was already making across the state, visiting monasteries and mountaintops, churches and homes, storefronts and desert arroyos.

It was in these trips that I felt closest to the historical roots of California consciousness, which itself is infused with the long dream of California as a destination and a launching pad. Some of the locations I visited were famous structures, architectural monuments to God or Art or both; others were marginal places, slipping into oblivion, or disguised by later owners. I found nearly all of these spots to be beautiful or strange, and they brought to life, if only for a spell, the people and stories that created them and that continue to shape the spirit of the West. My research began to take the form of a psychogeography: a dreamlike movement through space that uncovers hidden stories and symbolic connections, but never reaches a final resolution. This book is a reflection of these trips.

Accompanying me on the journey was the photographer Michael Rauner, whose enchanting photographs enabled The Visionary State to partake of the visionary and not just speak of it. The editor for the book, Alan Rapp, introduced Michael to me, and the hook-up could not have been more felicitous. Like me, Rauner is a native Californian. He grew up Catholic and was trained by nuns at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in the Mexican and African-American environs of East San Diego. Another Anglo teenage seeker, Rauner would come to explore the liminal zone between sacred and profane in his art. When we first met, he showed me two books of photography he had shot and designed, one about the Mission San Diego de Alcalá, and a more ambitious project devoted to California’s hidden world of amateur bullfighting—a bloodless ritual with mythic roots. An earlier project, Reliquary DNA, offered a mystical take on genetic research. Rauner not only resonated with the vision I was pursuing, but brought a tremendous sensitivity to the task of capturing the unusual character of the state’s spiritual landscape. Because of Michael, The Visionary State is an unusual  book: a sometimes synchronistic collaboration between writer and photographer, evenly balanced between the yin of aesthetic encounter and the yang of commentary and historical lore.

Even before the project was completed, both Michael and I were already being peppered with questions about why we did or did not include certain sites. Besides the surfeit of riches that made painful cuts necessary, the sites we chose all share a visionary quality. I define visionary as a singular seeing, rooted in imagination and personal experience and the deep sources of the sacred. The visionary person sees farther, or sees differently, and then draws others into the dream. What I find compelling in the life of California is the vital connection between the visionary imagination and cultural invention, and how these two forces have together created an enchanted and sometimes sacred landscape that overlays the crass and quotidian world of strip malls and parking lots. Visions can be tacky or mad or even terrifying. Disneyland was a vision, as was Hearst Castle, or even McDonald’s.

As a place that has always been imagined as much as it has been lived, California is, perhaps, inherently visionary. The Gold Rush was a vision, and so was Los Angeles, which bootstrapped itself into being through self-mythology and hype. California was and remains a land of harbingers.  So much of the anxious science-fiction world we now inhabit was sparked or grew to dominance in the golden state: freeways, fast food, cinema, TV, aerospace, body culture, biotechnology, environmentalism, designer drugs, teenage tribes, satellites, personal computers, the Internet. California’s peculiar spiritual culture can thus be seen as a prophetic and paradoxical reflection of the epochal transformations of our time—both an attempt to harmonize with the turbulence and to provide alternatives to its considerable blight.

Welcome, then, to California’s theme park of the gods.