Chris Hillman has traveled throughout the world for many decades, performing concerts with some of music’s greatest bands. California, though, is the place he knows best — and loves the most.
“I am a third-generation Californian,” says Hillman, a founding member of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Desert Rose Band. “It is a most interesting place with beautiful Mediterranean weather, the Pacific Ocean and Spanish culture. It’s at the end of the continent, so it attracted many diverse characters seeking it all.”
Hillman’s favorite California places are along the central coast: Atascadero, Morro Bay, Monterey, Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo. And he loves Palm Desert and La Quinta, small, quiet desert towns.
He lives west of Los Angeles in Ventura County, the southernmost county on the central coast.
“We moved here in 1980 for the charm of the small town that it was, similar to my growing up in North San Diego County,” says Hillman, a singer-songwriter, guitarist and mandolin player who wrote a 2020 book about his life, Time Between, My Life As A Byrd, Burrito Brother, And Beyond.
The charm of the area was sadly interrupted on Dec. 4, 2017, his 73rd birthday, when Hillman’s house was damaged in the Thomas Fire that started north of Santa Paula and, aided by strong Santa Ana winds, reached the city of Ventura within hours. More than 1,000 structures were destroyed by the fire before it was fully contained on Jan. 12, 2018.
Hillman and his wife Connie had to evacuate their home, and, when they returned, they learned that their kitchen and den had been consumed by the fire. A neighbor’s burning balcony had collapsed through their kitchen window, and firefighters had to break down the front door to get inside to extinguish the flames.
Yet, they were grateful the house was still standing. Many nearby homes were destroyed.
“The surrounding area was an eerie site,” Hillman writes in Time Between. “Entire homes were reduced to rubble. It looked more like a bombed-out scene from war-torn Syria than the familiar neighborhood streets I drove every day. Smoke was still rising from the ground, gas lines were burning and the wind was whipping up toxic ash that floated in the air all around us.”
Life in California hasn’t always been easy for Hillman, but the state’s natural wonders, particularly the beaches, are dear to his heart. He boyhood home was about five miles from Del Mar, a Southern California coastal city north of San Diego.
“When I could still surf, I loved the break at Solana Beach, where I first learned in 1959,” he says. “Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Trestles Beach and Doheny Beach have great left-breaking swells.”
In Time Between, Hillman recalls his surfing days.
“Solana Beach became my regular haunt,” he writes. “My pals and I would paddle out on a daily basis when we weren’t at our respective summer jobs. These were the glory days of California surfing when we would get out of the water, build a bonfire on the beach and sometimes even sleep on the nearby cliffs overnight to catch the morning glass-off (when the wind dies down and the water surface looks smooth and glassy).”
San Diego is where visitors to California should start their trip, Hillman advises. “Follow the trail of Father Serra who traveled up the state building missions,” he says. “This brings in the cultural history and the beauty of California.”
Junipero Serra, known as the “Founder of California,” was a Spanish missionary who arrived in San Diego in 1769 and founded the state’s first settlements, according to the Museum of the City of San Francisco.
Serra was born on a European island, Majorca, but its other European islands that are very meaningful to Hillman and his family.
“We began traveling to Europe when our children were toddlers,” he says. “Eventually, we would only visit Greece in the summer. I love the people, the food, the sea. The islands of Aegina, Crete, Rhodes and Spetes were wonderful to visit, and we had a memorable time at Vervena, the village of Connie’s family in the Peloponnese.”
Playing music for audiences everywhere, travel has been a constant part of Hillman’s life.
“My life has been blessed,” he says, “not only as a working musician but as someone who traveled the world at the same time.”