Living Without California

The sweaty gym sock of San Joaquin Valley air is in the rear-view.

When I mushed to California nearly 40 years ago, a mechanic said my Wisconsin car “had the disease” – from Rust Belt road salt. I leave now mottled from the disease of breathing -- allergies, asthma and bone-stripping prescription rescuers. My wife, a Valley native who twice sang in Europe with California choirs, has surrendered her choruses to coughing fits.

We can no longer live the aspiration that pollution is being slowly throttled. To us chokers, it’s a pipe dream.

Long-timers aren’t surprised by our leaving.  Many friends are weighing their own pull out.

Allergies, asthma and bronchitis steal into your life – no red flags, just dingy skies caked in microscopic particulates and baked in invisible ozone.  The scat we breathe is born of wildfires, agriculture, fireplaces for ambiance and for heat, cow methane, pesticides, diesel-spewing 18-wheelers and the geographic bad luck that wedges fetid Valley and Bay area air into a 50-mile-wide fissure of ag land, cities and national parks and forests.

We snore, thrashing riotously in phases of apnea. We breathe as though gargling through our noses. Our lungs rattle like a bag of marbles.

Oblivious, the Fresno area pulsates with new people and businesses. It’s affordable in a state riven and weakened by economic extremes. Affordability has primacy in California’s Maslow’s scale of livability.

My first 20 years in Fresno earned me the scar of asthma. Who knows how much ozone and PM 2.5 I’d blithely breathed. Some 20 years later I’ve joined the cast of “sensitive group,” a gelatinous term to diminish that all of us are living in a toxic risk environment.

Maybe if the daily air smelled and tasted like burned popcorn we’d pay attention. Maybe if we all wore beeping air monitors as though reconnoitering Chernobyl. Maybe if our electeds viewed us as more than a churning of mine canaries. That maybe is more real than the likelihood our health will stabilize or (ha!) get better by staying and praying.

Trust the regulators? The kind of pollution detector you employ, where it’s placed, how it’s read and how and when you share its data – that’s tinkering with my expiration date.

Medical remedies? We survive on crutches of antihistamines, decongestants, injections and, especially, daily maintenance and emergency inhalers. They can morph you into a chattering squirrel, saturate you in sweat and exhaust you like a spent marathoner.

For sensitive groups, “getting out” in Central California means getting the mail and taking out the trash. Hiking in Yosemite? Hollering for the Grizzlies Triple A team and the post-game fireworks? Too risky for pollution hermits.

Leaving packs a gut punch of guilt. We’re walking away from one of life’s treasures. The kids we raised here have stayed. We can – we could -- watch their kids converge on a soccer ball or wiggle holding an academic award. When hard luck hit, we offered welcoming shoulders.

Instead, we’ll schedule time-zone-friendly Skype calls. And being alive, however remote, will be our presence. There are no friends or family – yet – in our new Utah locale.

Guilt led me to another question: Have I been complicit in allowing our air to be salted with manure? Consider how we’ve passively, progressively allowed our airways to be crammed with every manner of fragrance or chemical taint.

An air-freshener electric pump has replaced the Glade manual sprayer. New cars and offices are dabbed with wallet-opening aromatic enticement. Sen-Sen has reappeared to spur a gag reflex. Try to find a toothpaste without mint. Is your mouthwash aroma different than your toilet-cleaner scent?

Real, faux and toxic scents – who wants a vanilla world? Soon, the hot item might be a scratch-and-sniff card for clean air. And suddenly the most important players on the football field are the bench-side oxygen tanks.

We’ve invested most of our lives in establishing family roots and growing with Central California, my wife as a teacher and I as a journalist. We will grieve it hard but lingering here might be the last bad move of our lives. We can’t chance it.

John G. Taylor, a former Fresno Bee reporter and editor, is owner of JT Communications Company. Write to him at

Below is a link to a podcast and story by Valley Public Radio reporter Kerry Klein detailing the personal impacts of Valley air pollution: