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.

23 Responses

  1. Anonymous

    The creek is filled with fecal bacteria.

    SLO and Five Cities are filled with meth and homeless.

    Those places are disgusting. Would never go there. Yuck!

  2. Slacky

    It’s funny, we are considered part of LA, Bakersfield etc. because tourists from these places come in with the Rona. We sadly need to be in considered as part of this area, because of tourists like you.

  3. Slo native

    It’s people like you that have ruined the SLO vibe. I’ve lived my entire life here and what was once “the Slo life” died a while ago when journalists flaunted it. Encouraging others to visit during a pandemic is ridiculous and not thoughtful to the people who actually call this place home. Stay in LA.

  4. Linda M. Russell

    I have lived in SLO county for almost 50 years. I so wish that the tourists never discovered our county. They have driven the price of food and most everything else so high that it’s very hard to get by. Our water bills are sky high as tourists take a long long shower and we have to pay for it! Sincerely, a SLO resident.

  5. David

    Thank you for the tip! I’ve found the Harmony Headlands Trail and Fiscallini Trails in Cambria to be absolutely magic! :DT

  6. Hasani Wallace

    Accurate depiction of SLO County except for the politics part. Southern SLO County (which is what you’re referring to, which includes the town of San Luis Obispo, Avila Beach, etc) is liberal. North County, however (Atascadero, paso roblesy, etc) is rather conservative.

  7. Diane

    Oh thank you! I lived there in the early n mid 1980’s. I think it was my favorite place. Try Avila Hot Springs.

  8. Woody

    Great piece.

    I live in Morro Bay and you’re right, it’s heaven here. Now stop telling everyone! 😉

  9. Jb

    Thank you for the nice article, but we in the Central Coast would prefer to not be exposed to more tourists that don’t appreciate our beaches and tranquility.

  10. Edward Bear

    Your description of SLO as just three hours from Los Angeles is exactly WHY we are lumped in with Southern California. People escaping tighter restrictions would flee to this region, carrying the infection with them. We will soon see less-critical hospital patients transferred here due to lack of space elsewhere. “Isolated SLO” is a convenient illusion for a tourist escape but 101 runs all the way up California, bringing what it will.

  11. Mr. Jimmy

    As misinformed as a person could be. Please don’t invite more people like you to our county. YOU are going to ruin it for everyone!!!!

  12. Dan

    I have lived in SLO county for awhile. You can tell who the tourist are by their driving. When a sign says left lane closed ahead, almost all cars move to the right lane. Then, here comes the driver that thinks this is an LA freeway at full speed up the left lane so they can squeeze in the front of the line. That is not living the SLO life. It takes time to become SLOer I guess.

  13. Mark Chambers

    Please remove this article. My home isnt a place for you to escape to during a time when you should be locked down in your own home. Because of people thinking they could “escape” here a d walk around without masks, our population is now fighting for its survival. You should be ashamed for even putting the idea out there. How would you like it if I came into your home with a highly communicable disease? That’s what you did.
    You’re not a local and you never will be because you’re disrespectful to this place we actually call home, have called home for generations and is now being destroyed by people of you’re unintelligent mentality.
    The world doesnt revolve around you. You are NOT the main character of this story called Life, so stop acting like it.

  14. Kay

    So South County is everything south of SLO. North County is over the grade. SLO is just called SLO. And the creek water is gross as birds in the tunnel above are numerous and concentrated.
    Good try for a noob though. 🙂

  15. Tina Grace

    Thank you! That was beautiful and it brought me to tears.
    When my family first moved to Cambria I was a mere 14 years old. I, of course, thought it was a terribly boring, tiny, little crumb of a town. Like many high schoolers from there I worked at Hearst Castle or the main Street grill in the summers and complained of how there was nothing to do.
    Now at 42 years old, and a resident of San Luis Obispo proper, I feel grateful everyday. The drive from San Luis Obispo to the five cities is strikingly gorgeous. There’s a specific part when you leave the mountains and can first see the ocean near Shell Beach and Avila Beach that many of us call “gratitude point”. Because how could you see that view and not be amazed at the glory and splendor? It causes my life stresses to be put in perspective.
    Anyway, life is difficult and stressful right now and I thank you for doing a great job of reminding me how truly fortunate I am to be “suffering” in such a majestic place.

  16. Shauna

    I loved your article about my hometown!! I feel so lucky and thankful to have grown up there and proud to be able to say that slo is my hometown. Anytime I here SLO mentioned in an article, a news story, see it written in the frame around a cars license plate and even in as a song lyric (ie: E40’s Broccoli!!) I get so happy and always miss my hometown or slo-town and I envy all the people I know that found a way to be able to still live there and enjoy it! I just didn’t realize how absolutely lucky I was and what a great thing it was for me and all of us who grew up in San Luis were until I had to live else where and then and only then did I really appreciate and still do feel so thankful that I was lucky enough to be able to grow up in that slice of heaven called Slo-town amen!!

  17. CMH

    As a resident of San Luis Obispo, we ask that you kindly stay home,and kindly not encourage others to come here. We are all really tired of people visiting and spreading covid-19 to our residents. Too many tourists are coming here, refusing to wear masks and exercise social distancing and our tiny towns have a very limited hospital capacity. I know you want to escape from the issues in your area, but you’re bringing them here with you and making them ours. Please, please, please stay away until the pandemic has resolved.

    Thank you.

  18. Sunday Morning

    SLO is also one of the most BORING places in Cali. I moved a year ago because after 10 years I’d seen it, done it, tried it and there wasn’t that much “it” there. I may be old but I wasn’t ready for an old folks home, I discovered. Also, I noticed crime is up there (I subscribe to the SLO Tribune) and everything is on fire these days. It’s not paradise. I thought it was when I moved there. Nope…

  19. Quentin

    Love the Central Coast. It is where me and my wife have gone for years to unwind and relax. Cambria and it’s coastal acces and views are my location of choice,

    Though I lived in SoCal for decades and have now retired to the Central Valley, the Central Coast has and will contimue to draw me for all the reasons the author mentioned; and many more.

  20. Jane

    I have lived in San Luis Obispo for 39 years, first in San Luis Obispo and then in Atascadero. When I moved to SLO in 1982, I lived in a second floor apartment where I kept my window open year round so I could hear the cows on the ranch next door (Madonna Ranch) lowing as they meandered through the fields. San Luis has grown throughout the years but is still a great place to live. Very little crime, streets and buildings are well kept and we have our beautiful City Hall in Sunken Gardens. I can’t think of another place in California where I’d rather live!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

We've got issues, and we're willing to share
(but only if you want them in your inbox).