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I haven’t been in America for two and a half years and haven’t set foot in California for more than three. Now back from Northern Ireland for a two week holiday in my home state I am seeing it through a fresh set of eyes. The experience has been somewhat jarring.

Stepping off the plane into the corridors of San Francisco International Airport, what I notice first is the size of the place. Indeed, for the last few days, I have been overwhelmed by the size of everything: the cars, the roads, the food, the houses, the trees, the bridges. Everything is huge.

45 million people come through San Francisco International every year. To compare, only 4 million come through Belfast International. The ceilings in some rooms must reach six stories high. The airport itself is the size of a small city, with its own transportation system—including a raised tram way. It took us 45 minutes to find where my mum parked the car. Only after some walking did we realise that the international terminal has its own car park.

At the hotel on the morning following our flight the air smells of brown grass, sage, hot asphalt, sea salt and car exhaust. Like the yellowish soil on the hills, it is warm and dry. This is my first full day back in California and looking around I am struck by how sun-baked the buildings and landscape seem.

The amount of American flags flying everywhere as we drive north to my mother-in-law’s house in Sonoma County—about 100 miles north of San Francisco—surprises me. They are hoisted in front of businesses, hotels, apartment complexes, mobile home parks, nursery homes, and atop caravans. Perhaps the experience with flag troubles over the last year in Belfast has heightened my awareness, but honestly, growing up, I don’t remember such a prevalence of flags.

Since we’ve been here, except for a bit of afternoon fog and coolness on Friday, the skies have been clear, the temperature warm (it’s been 19 or 20 every day so far). There is talk of drought. In the local Sonoma County newspaper yesterday’s front page showed the image of a disgruntled firewood salesman. The unusually dry weather and sunny skies have created smog problems in Northern California, forcing many councils to implement Spare the Air days—basically bans on wood burning.

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With drought conditions, there is talk of water restrictions in the spring and summer. Many of my mother-in-law’s friends at dinner last night expressed contempt for Southern California, where most of the North’s water supply is sent. The resentment is growing and some of the more rural counties in Northern California have even revived the idea of forming a separate state independent of Hollywood/Los Angeles/Silicon Valley influence.

Along the highway are a number of hydroponic shops—shops that provide supplies necessary for indoor horticulture. It’s an indication of the growing significance of marijuana to the local economy. While still illegal for recreational use, the legalisation of medical marijuana has provided cover for the large-scale proliferation of what has always been a strong aspect of the local economy.

It’s amazing to me how many people seem to make a living from the growth and distribution of pot. In some counties, like Humbolt (just north of Sonoma), marijuana is estimated to make up 26% of the local economy. In many conversations I’ve had here people talk openly of a son, neighbour, or friend who grows and sells marijuana. It’s a tolerated, but still illegal, part of the economy. Last night, a guy from Arcata I ran into at the coffee shop, told me of the fears of the many Humboldt County mom-and-pop pot operations. With the inevitability of marijuana legalisation on the horizon, there is the prospect that large-scale growing will wipeout existing family businesses.

No matter what kind of spin you place on the local marijuana trade, the illegality of the business brings violence, corruption, and destruction of life. Three men, the youngest (24) from my hometown of Sebastopol, were recently murdered while arranging a delivery to Colorado. The shooter, say detectives, simply told them, “It had to be done.”

My wife, also a native Californian now living in Belfast, describes being back here as something akin to visiting the Wild West. It’s rugged, free in spirit, and slightly menacing.  Northern California is a place that values creativity and innovation, and I love the place’s little quirks, such as hybrid-only parking at the local Chemist, baristas that describe a certain bean’s flavour as “herbacious,” and the Mexican inflection of the local culture and food. Not my home anymore, but always a part of who I am.

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