When I was first asked to accept a technical writing contract in Santa Clara, California, I was quite unenthusiastic. I had visited California a few years previously, staying with friends in Fremont. I’d had a wonderful time, visiting all the famous touristy places, such as Hollywood and Disneyland in Southern California, the fabulous waterfalls and forests of Yosemite National Park, and the old Spanish-style coastal towns of Monterey and Carmel. I’d had a fabulous time but I really had no great desire to return.
I had just started a master’s degree course at UCD, in Ireland, so the money from such a contract would be great, but the inconvenience of taking ten days off to travel halfway around the world seemed to outweigh the benefits. After much soul-searching I decided to give it a go. If the contract proved to be too difficult, since I’d never worked as a technical writer before, I really wouldn’t have anything to lose. So on October 19th 2000 I set off for Santa Clara, never guessing what destiny had in store.
Within twenty-four hours of arriving in Santa Clara life had suddenly altered dramatically. I was booked in to an apartment in Milpitas. I was given my own cubicle in a huge building owned by Nortel, one of the largest telecommunications companies in the world, and had been introduced to the team I’d be working with. One of the members of this team was Bob, a dazzling, bubbly, very likeable guy who had a love for the outdoors and a passion for art, literature, and Irish culture. We immediately became friends. We spent the most wonderful ten days touring the Bay area, having dinner at exotic restaurants in Palo Alto and San Jose, walking along the glorious beach at Seascape, browsing through great libraries and bookstores, buying long, tie-die dresses in Capitola, and even getting to see Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at the Shoreline Theatre.
When the ten days were up I didn’t want to leave. I promised to come back for Christmas. Bob made plans to visit me in Ireland. So for a few months life became a hectic whirl travelling between two continents. I quickly began to fall under the spell of the real spirit of California. I had always imagined it to be a sunny haven for artists and hippies, for film stars and revolutionaries. Certainly it was the setting for a social revolution in the 1960s. I had never realised though the extent of its incredible natural beauty: the thousands of acres of stunning forests and hills that have been designated into parks all over the state; the miles of glorious beaches dotted along the whole west coast; the variety of towns and cities, from gold-rush settlements, to Spanish missions, and iconic sprawling cities.
Of course Santa Clara is at the centre of Silicon Valley, renowned for its high-tech industry where work is brutally competitive, and perfectionist standards largely prevail. I got a work visa and worked in several of these companies doing contract work. IT workers are generally well-paid but a lot of long hours are expected in return, and no matter how much effort you put into your work you can still be let go without so much as a handshake at a moments notice. Then there were other harsh realities of life that struck me: the enforcement of the barbaric death penalty, the numbers of homeless people particularly in San Francisco, the often callous attitude that associated poverty with weakness or laziness, high levels of smog from traffic congestion and industrial fumes, and the hugely inflated house and rent prices that force most people to eventually settle in other parts of the US.
Despite its social problems, Santa Clara County contains some of the most interesting towns and beautiful parks in the Bay Area. There is the little Asian town of Mountain View with its incredible array of restaurants; the city of San Jose with its old art deco hotels and Spanish-style buildings; Los Gatos with its charming antique and designer stores; Saratoga, a lovely old town at the foot of the Santa Cruz mountains. Some of the incredible parks I’ve visited include Uvas Canyon woodland, Big Basin State Park, Sanborn Skyline Park, Henry Coe State Park, and Coyote Lake in Mount Hamilton.
The town of Santa Clara is the main administrative center for the area. The most beautiful buildings there are the university and the mission. Throughout California there were twenty-one missions established by the Franciscan order from 1769 onwards. The areas where the missions were built gradually grew into major towns and cities. This was also how the town of Santa Clara began to flourish.
For three years I lived with Bob and his four adorable cats in his apartment in Lick Mill, Eastern Santa Clara, at the historic site of Lick Mansion. James Lick was one of the richest men in America in the mid 1800s, and he built a fabulous mansion and mill, both of which are still in pristine condition. Everyday I’d take a walk down by the Ulistac Natural Area, once inhabited by the Ohlone Indians. I often daydreamed about what it must have been like to live in Santa Clara, long before a white person had ever set foot on its sacred forests, hills and beaches.
During those years I took many incredible trips with Bob, to towns like Mountain View and Santa Cruz, to the cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sacramento, to magnificent beaches, forests, deserts, and mountains of incredible beauty. Santa Cruz became my favourite haunt, with its wonderful bookstores, great coffee shops, and quirky inhabitants. I attended meditation centres in Redwood City and Mountain View, and also took a bookbinding class. There was always so much to do, from watching old movies in great movie theatres, to going hiking in the mountains, or surfing at Seascape.
We travelled the length and breadth of California’s diverse landscape: snow-capped mountains en route to Lake Tahoe; lush autumn vineyards in Napa and Sonoma; magical redwoods in Santa Cruz and giant sequoias in Yosemite; the splendour of the Pacific ocean in summertime; the barren wilderness of the Mojave Desert in winter, where there is little to break the monotony of scorched earth except for the lone Joshua tree. Sometimes we’d cruise around the back roads of the Santa Cruz Mountains in Bob’s greeny-blue miata, soaking up sumptuous views under both turquoise skies and glittering blankets of stars. On longer journeys we’d take Bob’s truck. Then we often turned off the highway and caught a few hours rest before resuming our travels.