San Luis Obispo, California: America’s happy valley

This historic college town between California’s mountains and its rugged Pacific coast seems to have it all. No wonder Oprah raves about it

A few years ago my husband and I rented a bungalow in the Californian mission town of San Luis Obispo. We lived next to a firefighter and an octogenarian cowboy named Webb. There were annual block parties, potluck suppers, a coveted tomato growing prize (the champion donning a flowing silk cape, parading around our cul-de-sac). Saturday nights at the Sunset Drive-In, one of the few remaining outdoor cinemas in California, we swung our legs from our car boot, wrapped in blankets, radio tuned in for the movie. On the giant screen a cola bottle sang and danced with a tub of popcorn. We couldn’t believe our luck.

But, as the song goes, nothing ever lasts forever. When word got out we were moving, Webb came by with a bottle of moonshine. “Goddamn,” he said, leaning against his farm truck, shaking his head. “Los Angeles?” He had a demonic view of big city life. This was a bad business. Webb gazed into the middle distance in the direction of his cattle ranch. Why in the world, he pondered, would anyone be stupid enough to leave San Luis? It was a good question.

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