“If the Pilgrims had landed in California, the East Coast would still be a wilderness.”

That line is usually attributed to Ronald Reagan, and whether he said it or not, I often quote it (especially to rib a New Yorker) because, well, the Gipper was right. Who would push across a country if you’d already found paradise? A state that can claim the Redwoods and Yosemite, but also Tahoe and Laurel Canyon, Beverly Hills and Disneyland, the Rose Bowl and Hollywood, the Golden Gate Bridge and Pebble Beach — there’s a reason Prince Harry gave up the crown for California.

Growing up in the West, California is the center of gravity. Families in Utah County plan their summers around trips to Disneyland. If you live on the East Bench, it might be a week in Newport. They may spend the rest of the year complaining about California — its traffic, its crime, its congestion — but on a gray day in February, “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas & the Papas might as well be the soundtrack.

And yet, there’s no denying something has changed. As Natalia Galicza reports in this month’s cover story, 800,000 people left the Golden State between 2021 and 2022.

So, what’s the matter with California?

To answer that question, Natalia drove from the southern end of the state, all the way up to Butte County. She visited Los Angeles, where the homeless crisis is so bad Skid Row now covers 50 city blocks, or four square miles, the largest such population in the United States. She also went to San Francisco, where downtown has become so dangerous that major retailers like Nordstrom and Whole Foods are simply closing up shop.

But the problem extends beyond the major population centers. In the Central Valley — the most productive farmland in the country — concerns about drought and climate change are pushing farmers out. In places like Butte County, the wildfire plague is what’s spurring out-migration.

To be clear, most people who live in California do not want to move, and if they can afford to stay, they will. The question is how much longer the financial costs will outweigh these growing problems, and whether the exodus that began during the pandemic will continue or recede over time.

Of course, there’s more going on in our annual State of the West issue. Sen. Mike Lee explores the debate over public lands and Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador offers ideas to resolve the immigration crisis at the border. Staff writer Ethan Bauer travels to Las Vegas to understand how and why gambling has taken over sports. Finally, managing editor Matthew Brown dives into the military’s role in shaping the West — for better or worse.

Ronald Reagan understood that California was more than just a place to visit, and how important the West was to the nation. He also knew that the West — outside a few coastal metropolises — doesn’t get the attention it merits in the national conversation. We believe that’s an ongoing mistake. The West’s perspectives on today’s issues are both distinct and essential. But we also know that for the world to understand who we are, it starts with understanding where we come from. I think the Gipper would agree.

This story appears in the March 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.