San Luis Obispo, California

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1995

San Luis Obispo, California

A town where you can have a real job, a real life, and still get to move in with the scenery. Several reasons to split the city and head for the Big Outdoors.
By Mike Steere

Population: 43,704; San Luis Obispo County, 231,340
Gestalt: Southern California's northern California

Old Spanish meets the age of Lycra on a stone wall of Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, the city's eighteenth-century historic heart. So many climbers were practicing moves on the wall that the mission recently put up "no trespassing" signs. Though the city is built around the mission, SLO refuses to get goofy about historic theming. What we have is a highly educated country town, almost a beach town, trying very hard not to become someplace else. Beneath all the seeming peace, SLO feels threatened and angry. No, this isn't another Santa Barbara, ostentatiously rich with a scary bunch of have-nots and homes built up every hillside. But God forbid this should turn into a sprawling everyman's eyesore like Santa Maria, just to the south. The city has been solidly behind the war against an ugly future, with growth-discouraging policies and lack of economic initiative.

Whatever might be wrong with the climate, isn't. The Pacific, eight miles away at the closest, saves the city from coastal cold-water clamminess but also spares it from inland heat. Heavy presences of California Polytechnic State University (15,490 students) and county and state government make the city professional-friendly beyond its size. The university's emphases on agriculture and technical specialties keep things earthy and level-headed, thin on wacko creative types.

Out there: Whatever you might feel like doing, short of mountaineering and other snow sports, is here. San Luis Obispo sits in a valley that makes a clean 2,500-foot upswoop to the Santa Lucia Mountains. The city has its own pet peaks called the Seven Sisters, a chain of extinct volcanoes with highly climbable cliffs and boulders. The county has 190,000 inland acres of national forest, more than 40,000 of them wilderness, as well as 12,500 acres of state parkland, mostly on the coast. Locals get sandy and wet at Avila Beach, a local treasure eight miles south, or get naked at adjacent Pirates Cove. SLO County makes the jump from southern California beaches and dunes to wild, rockbound northern shores--the Big Sur coast begins at the county line.

Paycheck: For making-a-living challenge, somewhat gnarly unless you've got a university or government meal ticket, a job at Pacific Gas & Electric, or something big from somewhere else. But hard might not be impossible. At 200 miles from L.A., 230 miles from San Francisco, SLO is close enough to either for face-to-faces to keep a modem business going.

Home: Prices in SLO proper appall non-Californians. Close to downtown, $200,000 buys small, cracker-boxy prewar cottages--cute, but the double-wides of their day. The same or less buys a new three-bedroom on five acres around Santa Margarita, ten miles northeast of the city on the hotter, drier, but still gorgeous side of the Santa Lucias.

Neighbors: Triathlete math prof with sea kayak perpetually on car rack. Sisters from Orange County whose folks bought them a house to live in while they study at Cal Poly. Retired air force major now working at the post office.

Très San Luis Obispo: Go gray but have a 23-year-old's bod; surf, with equal expertise and passion, the Pacific and the Internet; correct anybody who mispronounces it San Louie or, heaven forbid, San Louise, since the right way is San Lewis; take guests for an adventure in flamboyantly bad taste at the Madonna Inn, mother of all kitsch hotel/restaurants; treat SLO and the whole Central Coast as your original, personal find, even if you arrived last month.

Please, no more: Architects. They fledge out at Cal Poly but refuse to leave.

Prices of paradise: Grudging, inept college-age help in stores and restaurants. The same city that works so hard to keep its livable virtue has a quiet pact with an environmental devil, Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, on the coast, next to an earthquake fault and about 12 miles as the fallout might fly from town.

Kindred spirits: San Rafael, Santa Cruz, and Monterey, California.

See also: Find out what readers thought and how Mike Steere responded in our special online forum.

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