<i>"For most of my life California felt rich to me: that was the point of it, that was the promise ... the very texture of the place."

— Joan Didion, in the collection of essays called "Where I Was From."</i>

This spring we drove south through the broad, flat lands of the Central Valley and saw the signs proliferating among the orchards that line Interstate 5.

"New Dust Bowl Created by Congress," the signs say. "No Water, No Jobs Equals Higher Food Costs."

Here are farm corporations that have prospered for decades, thanks to water delivered to their doorsteps by state and federal agencies. Now they imagine themselves to be victims of a vindictive government.

The signs don't mention a drought like none in California history. Nor do they acknowledge the area's recent rush to plant almonds, trees that use more water than some other crops.

In her collection of essays about her native state, Joan Didion writes about the contradictions that frequent the California story, and here was a fine example.

In hard times, people look for someone to blame, and these are hard times in the Central Valley. A UC Davis study last week estimated the valley farm industry will suffer drought losses of $1.7 billion and 14,500 jobs. Water deliveries in this drought year will be about two-thirds of what is delivered in a normal year.

People who grew up in California — people like me — were raised to believe that we live in a blessed place, this <i>Golden State</i>. We were the envy of the world because land, climate and ambition combined to guarantee a large and upwardly mobile middle class — empowered by what we proudly proclaimed to be the finest system of public education in the world.

But now, even with the recession in the rearview mirror, California struggles to find the old mojo. Everywhere we look, there are questions. What will we do about a shrinking middle class, overseas competition, drought and climate change, rising public debt and declining public services, falling test scores?

What we will do about layers of government ill-equipped to respond to 21st century problems? What will we do about a confluence of politicians who are not very good at imagining the world beyond the next election?

Six years after the housing market cratered, a majority of registered voters continues to believe the state is moving in the wrong direction, according to a survey published Thursday by the Public Policy Institute of California. As for the economy, a plurality believes the next 12 months will bring more bad times.

Strolling through a tony shopping center on the west side of Los Angeles, surveying yet another manicured golf course in the Coachella Valley, eating a world-class meal in San Francisco, savoring the pleasures of living in the Wine Country of Sonoma County — we can see signs of abundance all around us. In technology and innovation, California remains a creative powerhouse.

Yet we know things aren't right. Too many people are out of work, or stuck in jobs that pay too little, widening the gap between rich and poor. Too many kids are being left behind. Government isn't taking care of the public improvements that provided the foundation for the broad prosperity now at risk.

Didion, descendant of a pioneer family in Sacramento, says she came to reconsider what she was taught about California exceptionalism. "That I should have continued, deep into adult life, to think of California as I was told as a child ...," she writes, "suggests a confusion of some magnitude, but there it was."

In the coming months, I mean to spend some travel time reconnecting with my home state, making sure I see places I've never visited — places such as Brawley and Baker, Susanville and Alturas.

Why would I do something so ... crazy? Why would I want to see places that won't be confused with Santa Barbara or San Francisco, Malibu or Sonoma?

I can't give you a good answer. Maybe it's a way to learn more about the state that paid for my college education and welcomed my parents when they arrived in the great post-war migration. Maybe it's a way to better understand the mythology that came with growing up in the Golden State.

You never know. I might learn something.

Read Didion, Kevin Starr or any other serious student of the state's history, and you will learn that California was never perfect, never close to perfect.

Its history can't escape stories of injustice, madness, greed, chicanery and just plain stupidity. For as long as there has been a state of California — which isn't all that long in the frame of history — Californians have found opportunities to exploit the less fortunate and lay waste to the environment.

Still, there were many times they did things the right way, times they looked out for each other and invested in the future. In 2014, we have the talent and the resources to do better, if we can only figure out how.

Meanwhile, if you have recommendations for my one-lap-of-California trips, shoot me an email or leave a comment. If you only want to say I'm crazy, you'll have to get in line.

<i>Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.</i>