Emma Hyche


(Google) Mapping Didion’s California

It was the faraway times before quarantine when I thought of travelling to California this spring, to my favorite town in the Sierra Nevada’s at the edge of the Tahoe National Forest near where the Yuba River splits. I’ve travelled there twice alone around this time of year, to read and write in solitude and let the architecture of my mind settle around me on the ground, where I can study it more clearly. It is a California that remains a little strange, with towns named Red Dog and You Bet and Gold Spot and Rough and Ready. With the onset of the COVID-19 virus and the cessation of nearly all travel, those plans faded, and I started reading Joan Didion instead.

Didion to me represents a California of the mind—a California that might survive under the slick homogenization, globalization, and standardization that seems to afflict most places, not just California. Didion’s writing about California has impressed itself upon me for the entirety of my writing life more strongly than any other author’s on any place. In nostalgia and nonfiction, rather than the world unmediated, every detail of my mind’s California becomes suffused with an inward glow. That’s what good writing can do: create a world that is like the world we know, but more magical, unexpected, and ultimately more unknowable.

When I can’t travel, I read, and when I’m done reading, I look on Google Maps at the locations I’ve read about. This document collects these locations and pairs them with their relevant Didion passages from her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The essay “Notes from a Native Daughter,” from which much of these images are drawn, contains Didion at her most autobiographical and romantic of the collection, contrasting the Sacramento and California of her youth with what remains in 1965. These snapshots of Didion’s locations are meant to form a third leg to the essay’s dualism of now and then. Some of the places are much the same, while most are unrecognizable or gone entirely. Combing the virtual landscape on Google Maps is an attempt to grasp Didion’s California in its particularity, its idiosyncrasy, and its singularity.

The relevant text passages precede, and the Google Maps images follow.



8488 Bella Vista Dr.

Rancho Cucamonga, CA 91701

“There was talk of unhappiness, talk of another man. That kind of motive, during the next few weeks, was what they set out to establish. They set out to find it in accountants’ ledgers and double-indemnity clauses and motel registers, set out to determine what might move a woman who believes in all the promises of the middle class—a woman who had been chairmen of the Heart Fund and who always knew a reasonable little dressmaker and who had come of the bleak wild of prairie fundamentalism to find what she imagined to be the good life—what should drive such a woman to sit on a street called Bella Vista and look out her new picture window into the empty California sun and calculate how to burn her husband alive in a Volkswagen.”

(“Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream”, 1966)

Hyche 1



16756 Chico Corona Rd. / The CA Institution for Women

Corona, CA 92880

The California Institution for Women at Frontera, where Lucille Miller is now, lies down where Euclid Avenue turns into country road, not too many miles from where she once lived and shopped and organized the Heart Fund Ball…On visitors’ day there are big cars in the parking area, big Buicks and Pontiacs that belong to grandparents and sisters and fathers (not many of them belong to husbands), and some of them have bumper stickers that say “SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL POLICE.”

A lot of California murderesses live here, a lot of girls who somehow misunderstood the promise.”

(“Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream”, 1966)

Hyche 2



7000 Romaine Street

Los Angeles, CA 90038

Seven thousand Romaine Street is in that part of Los Angeles familiar to admirers of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett: the underside of Hollywood, south of Sunset Boulevard, a middle-class slum of “model studios” and warehouses and two-family bungalows. Because Paramount and Columbia and Desilu and the Samuel Goldwyn studios are nearby, many of the people who live around here have some tenuous connection with the motion-picture industry. They once processed fan photographs, say, or knew Jean Harlow’s manicurist. 7000 Romaine looks itself like a faded movie exterior, a pastel building with chipped art moderne detailing, the windows now either boarded up or paned with chicken-wire glass and, at the entrance, among the dusty oleander, a rubber mat that reads WELCOME.

Actually, no one is welcome, for 7000 Romaine belongs to Howard Hughes, and the door is locked.”

(“7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38”, 1967)

Hyche 3



9122 Compton Ave (former site of the Communist Party U.S.A.)

Watts, CA 9002

“Not long ago I spent some time with Michael Laski, down at the Workers’ International bookstore in Watts, the West Coast headquarters of the Communist Party U.S.A. (Marxist-Leninist). We sat at a kitchen table beneath the hammer-and-sickle flag and the portraits of Marx, Engels, Mao Tse-tung, Lenin, and Stalin (Mao in the favored center position), and we discussed the revolution necessary to bring about the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

(“Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.)”, 1967)

Hyche 4



742 Arguello Boulevard

San Francisco, CA 94118

“Somebody other than Jane Lisch gave me an address for Chester Anderson, 443 Arguello, but 443 Arguello does not exist. I telephone the wife of the man who gave me 443 Arguello and she says it’s 742 Arguello.

“But don’t go there,” she says.

I say I’ll telephone.

“There’s no number,” she says. “I can’t give it to you.”

742 Arguello,” I say.

“No,” she says. “I don’t know. And don’t go there. And don’t use either my name or my husband’s name if you do.””

(“Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” 1967)

Hyche 5



847 Montgomery Street (former site of Ernie’s Restaurant)

San Francisco, CA 94133

“It is very easy to sit at the bar in, say, La Scala in Beverly Hills., or Ernie’s in San Francisco, and to share in the pervasive delusion that California is only five hours from New York by air. The truth is that La Scala and Ernie’s are only five hours from New York by air. California is somewhere else.”

(“Notes from a Native Daughter,” 1965)

Hyche 6



Capital City Freeway over the American River

Sacramento, CA 95821

“…I remember swimming (albeit nervously, for I was a nervous child, afraid of sinkholes and afraid of snakes, and perhaps that was the beginning of my error) the same rivers we had swum for a century: the Sacramento, so thick with silt that we could barely see our hands a few inches beneath the surface; the American, running clean and fast with melted Sierra snow until July, when it would slow down, and rattlesnakes would sun themselves on its newly exposed rocks.”

(“Notes from a Native Daughter,” 1965)

Hyche 7



Trinity Church

2620 Capital Ave

Sacramento, CA 95816

“When summer ended—when the State Fair closed and the heat broke, when the last green hop vines had been torn down along the H street road and the tule fog began rising off the low ground at night—we would go back to memorizing the Products of Our Latin American Neighbors and to visiting the great-aunts on Sunday, dozens of great-aunts, year after year of Sundays. When I think now of those winters I think of yellow elm leaves wadded in the gutters outside the Trinity Episcopal Pro-Cathedral on M Street. There are actually people in Sacramento now who call M Street Capitol Avenue, and Trinity has one of those featureless new buildings, but perhaps children still learn the same things there on Sunday mornings:

  1. In what way does the Holy Land resemble the Sacramento Valley?
  2. In the type and diversity of its agricultural products.”

(“Notes from a Native Daughter,” 1965)

Hyche 8



California State Route 99

Central Valley, CA

“A hundred miles north of Los Angeles, at the moment when you drop from the Tehachapi Mountains into the outskirts of Bakersfield, you leave Southern California and enter the Valley. ‘You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at you and at you…and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at your with the whine of the tires, and if you don’t quit staring at that line and don’t take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of the neck you’ll hypnotize yourself.

Robert Penn Warren wrote that about another road, but he might have been writing about the Valley road, U.S. 99, three hundred miles from Bakersfield to Sacramento, a highway so straight that when one flies on the most direct pattern from Los Angeles to Sacramento one never loses sight of U.S. 99.

(“Notes from a Native Daughter,” 1965)

Hyche 9



The convergence of the American and Sacramento Rivers

38°35’54.0″N 121°30’30.3″W

Sacramento, CA 95833

“The Sacramento, the American, sometimes the Consumnes, occasionally the Feather. Incautious children died every day in those rivers; we read about it in the paper, how they had miscalculated a current or stepped into a hole down where the American runs into the Sacramento, how the Berry Brothers had been called in from Yolo County to drag the river but how the bodies remained unrecovered.”

(“Notes from a Native Daughter,” 1965)

Hyche 10



I Street Arch

Modesto, CA 95354

 “…the Valley towns understand one another, share a peculiar spirit. They think alike and they look alike. I can tell Modesto from Merced, but I have visited there, gone to dances there; besides, there is over the main street of Modesto an arched sign which reads:



There is no such sign in Merced.”

(“Notes from a Native Daughter,” 1965)

Hyche 11



Larchmont Riviera neighborhood

La Riviera, CA 95826

“The Sacramento papers, however, simply mirror the Sacramento peculiarity, the Valley fate, which is to be paralyzed by a past no longer relevant. Sacramento is a town which grew up on farming and discovered to its shock that land has more profitable uses. (The chamber of commerce will give you crop figures, but pay them no mind—what matters is the feeling, the knowledge that where the green hops once grew is now Larchmont Riviera, that what used to be the Whitney ranch is now Sunset City, thirty-three thousand houses and a country-club complex.) It is a town in which defense industry and its absentee owners are suddenly the most important facts; a town which has never had more people or more money, but has lost its raison d’etre.”

(“Notes from a Native Daughter,” 1965)

Hyche 12



Florin Rebekah Lodge 20

8360 Florin Road

Florin, CA 95838

“But I could take you a few miles from there into towns where the banks still bear names like The Bank of Alex Brown, into towns where the one hotel still has an octagonal-tiled floor in the dining room and dusty potted palms and big ceiling fans; into town where everything—the seed business, the Harvester franchise, the hotel, the department store and the main street—carries a single name, the name of the man who built the town. A few Sundays ago, I was in a town like that, a town smaller than that, really, no hotel, no Harvester franchise, the bank burned out, a river town. It was the golden anniversary of some of my relatives and it was 110 degrees and the guests of honor sat on straight-backed chairs in front of a sheaf of gladioluses in the Rebekah Hall. I mentioned visiting Aerojet-General to a cousin I saw there, who listened to me with interested disbelief. Which is the true California? That is what we all wonder.”

(“Notes from a Native Daughter,” 1965)

Hyche 13



7257 Sunset Boulevard

West Hollywood, CA 90046

“It is three o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and 105 degrees and the air is so thick with smog that the dusty palm trees loom up with a sudden and rather attractive mystery. I have been playing in the sprinklers with the baby and I get in the car and go to Ralph’s Market on the corner of Sunset and Fuller wearing an old bikini bathing suit. That is not a very good thing to wear to the market but neither is it, at Ralph’s on the corner of Sunset and Fuller, an unusual costume.”

(“Los Angeles Notebook,” 1965-1967)

Hyche 14



Former Home of Harvey Rawlings, Atty.

307 Tamarac Drive

Pasadena, CA 91105

“The longest single Santa Ana period in recent years was in 1957, and it lasted not the usual three or hour days but fourteen days, from November 21 until December 4. On the first day 25,000 acres of the San Gabriel Mountains were burning, with gusts reaching 100 miles an hour…On November 22 the fire in the San Gabriels was out of control…On November 26 a prominent Pasadena attorney, depressed about money, shot and killed his wife, their two sons, and themselves.”

(“Los Angeles Notebook,” 1965-1967)

Hyche 15



Alcatraz Island

San Francisco, CA 

“Any child could imagine a prison more like a prison than Alcatraz looks, for what bars and wires there are seem perfunctory, beside the point; the island itself was the prison, and the cold tide its wall. It is precisely what they called it: the Rock.”

(“Rock of Ages,” 1967)

Hyche 17



CA HWY-1/Cabrillo Highway

San Simeon, CA 93452

“’Happiness’ is, after all, a consumption ethic, and Newport is the monument of a society in which production was seen as the moral point, the reward if not exactly the end, of the economic process. The place is devoid of the pleasure principle…And it was not as if there were no other options for these people: William Randolph Hearst built not at Newport but out on the edge of the Pacific. San Simeon, whatever its peculiarities, is in fact la cuestra encantada, swimming in golden light, sybaritic air, a deeply romantic place. But in Newport the air proclaims only the sources of money.”

(“The Seacoast of Despair,” 1967)

Hyche 18



I append this piece after months of quarantine, of closed circular orbits between work, home, the grocery store, and back. I’m still trawling Google Maps in substitution for the movement denied me by nothing I can control. I wind along the roads of California near Folsom Lake, past gated houses and evergreens and hills of pale tan gravel. I cursor in parallel to the Feather River running south down the center of California like a spine. Between clicks the seasons change, from high summer to drizzly fall. The miasma of dust kicked up by the car I’m not driving but sit in, the spice of orange groves in the air. Rust on highway girders. A slow brown creek. Beached boats in the yards of ranch houses. A trace clings to my cursor finger—red like a cedar limb when you split it open.

In plague-time, I’ve become very conscious of the borders of my body, and how their permeability may be a threat. My body strews imperceptible molecules and vapors that may be tainted without my knowledge, over which I can only layer strips of fabric and chemicals. My body exudes what may be poison, only I don’t know it yet. In Didion’s novel Play It As It Lays, the protagonist meditates on “where her body stopped and the air began, about the exact point in space and time that was the difference between Maria and other.” Perhaps I am always trying to find that point. Perhaps there is no distinction that matters—I am boundaryless, porous, and always already a threat, whether sitting on my porch in the rain, or hovering over California, poised eternally above winding gray asphalt.


Emma Hyche is a poet and essayist currently based in Denver, Colorado. A winner of the 2016 AWP Intro Journals Prize and a recent MFA graduate, her work appears in ApartmentTimberDreginaldEntropy, and elsewhere.