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Joe Mathews

In California’s Middle Kingdom, Life is SLO



Photo of beach and town of Pismo Beach, California
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SLO down, California. Even in pandemic, you move too fast.

This new year, perhaps Californians should resolve to model the spirit of SLO, the acronym for San Luis Obispo County, perhaps the easiest place in California to catch your breath.

portrait of columnist Joe Mathews

Joe Mathews


SLO is central to my COVID coping. Whenever work or distance learning or home confinement feels unbearable, my family of five drives three hours north from L.A. to some empty and beautiful spot in that empty and beautiful county.

This escape strategy exploits both pandemic discounts on lodging and a central truth about California. The Golden State is most exhausting at its edges, where most Californians live. If you want to find space and peace, you must go to California’s middle.

The paradox of San Luis Obispo County is that it feels like a place apart precisely because it’s centrally located. The Cal Poly historian Daniel E. Krieger called it California’s “Middle Kingdom,” where neither San Francisco nor L.A. dominates. Electricity comes from PG&E in the north, and gas from SoCal.

This middle identity runs deep. San Luis Obispo was the middle mission in the Franciscan chain. SLO still takes middling pride in having invented the motel in 1925 to serve middle-class vacationers who couldn’t afford finer lodging. Today, San Luis Obispo County, with lower incomes that other high-cost coastal places, retains a relatively middle-class vibe. Its politics, while trending left, are middle of the road by California standards.

While SLO County may be small in people—with just 283,000 residents, about as many as Chula Vista—it retains a strong sense of itself. In recent weeks, its elected officials and media  protested the state’s new stay-at-home order for putting the county in the “Southern California region” along with counties as distant as Riverside and Imperial. The San Luis Obispo Tribune editorialized, with fervor unusual for SLO, that “If Gov. Gavin Newsom doesn’t want a full-scale rebellion,” he’ll recognize the Central Coast as its own region.

Most of the time, San Luis Obispo, rather than a place for revolt, is an escape from the permanent revolutions of life in our urban regions. I’ve loved the place since childhood, when my family stopped there on drives to the Bay Area. As an adult, I’ve dreamed of summer vacations on the super-cool SLO coast, but high-season SLO motel prices were too much for a nonprofit journalist. Until the pandemic hit.

We Certainly Haven’t Become SLOcals

We first snuck away one sweltering July week when it was 100-plus in Southern California, and 62 on a hill outside Cambria, where a motor lodge with $400-a-night rates was offering $99 rooms. Social distancing was easy—the lodge didn’t have indoor hallways, and there was hardly anyone around. Just a few days there felt restorative—mental health therapy far cheaper than any shrink.

We certainly haven’t become SLOcals. We don’t drink wine or like olallieberries. But we’ve come to appreciate the diverse principalities of the Middle Kingdom: the sun-splashed beauty of the Five Cities area, splashing in the creek that runs through downtown San Luis Obispo, the unfussy excellence of Cal Poly, with graduation rates so high I dream of sending my oldest son there.

Still, those are all South County places, and we’ve learned that we prefer to spend time “over the grade”—that is, above the steep Cuesta Pass that divides North from South in SLO. We’re partial to the North County’s oak trees and gardens, to drives along Highway 46, to the Mexican food and mini-golf in Atascadero, and to the cookies and coffee in Cambria.

For me, the least stressful day of a very stressful 2020 came on the cold late summer afternoon when I left my wife to her work and the kids to online lessons, and walked alone for a couple miles along the beach at San Simeon State Park. My eyes delighted in the landscape—looking over the coast, out to sea, and then up at Hearst Castle, closed for COVID. For two hours, in the middle of California, this middle-aged newspaperman didn’t see a single other person, and imagined the Middle Kingdom was his own.

I walked as SLO-ly as I could.

About the Author

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.