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May 19, 1991|Bob Secter | Bob Secter is The Times' Midwest bureau chief. Times researcher Tracy Shryer of Chicago also contributed

Up near the top of the "How Brandt and Shanon Vroman Came to Loathe Their Native Southern California" list has to be that nightmare trip to Santa Barbara three Thanksgivings ago. The sun was shining, the skies were clear. They took the Rabbit so they could put the top down and soak up some rays on the drive north. Big mistake. "It should be a two-hour, 15-minute drive," Shanon recalls, still shuddering from the flashback. "It took us four and a quarter hours. It was totally stuck. No accidents, no construction. Just people."

Brandt, a laid-back child of the Orange County beach culture, is a pretty relaxed individual. But behind a steering wheel on an overpacked freeway, he suddenly transforms into a vicious, snarling mongrel. He rides the bumper of the car ahead, figuring that if there is even the tiniest of gaps, some jerk will surely swerve in ahead of him and close it off anyway. Signaling a lane change is an act of self-defeating lunacy, he fumes, because the fiend in the next car over would see the flashing blinker as an invitation to speed up and cut him off.

After hours of crawling, tailgating and deceptive lane-hopping maneuvers designed to psyche out enemy automobiles, Brandt and Shanon arrived for holiday supper at Shanon's father's home sweating bullets. Their nerves were so frayed that had either of them been handed the carving tools, something much larger than the turkey might have been sliced into. "I was going to kill someone," Brandt gasps, recalling the drive.

"When you're spending four hours to get to Santa Barbara--the whole four hours, every minute of it--you're thinking back, "This drive used to take me a couple of hours. What in the world is wrong?'

"That's what really makes you start thinking: 'I got to get out of here; this is starting to kill me.' "

And so they did. Not immediately, to be sure. But eventually, after enduring hundreds more hours in traffic jams and shelling out tens of thousands of inflated mortgage dollars on a cracker-box condo and sucking in millions more gasps of foul, smog-laced air, Brandt and Shanon Vroman finally mustered enough chutzpah last year to take this country's glitziest, most drooled-over polyglot megalopolis and shove it.

Destination: suburban Portland, to a home complete with an acre of tree-shaded yard and a mortgage this side of the stratosphere. They report that the air is clean, the natives are friendly, commutes are a breeze, water is plentiful, and life is now a bowl of cherries. Like generations of the humble folk who once flooded California and then incessantly snickered at the poor, shivering wretches they left back East, the Vromans aren't above gloating. What's there not to like about Southern California, anyway? "Don't like the people, don't like the smog, don't like the traffic, don't like the lack of water, don't like the attitude, don't like the lifestyle, don't want to raise kids there," says Shanon, not skipping a beat. "All that, plus."

IN SIMPLER TIMES, THE WORLD WAS SPLIT into two classes of people. There were Californians--and people who loathed Californians. The Californians always suspected the California loathers were just a wee bit jealous. The California loathers always thought the Californians were just a wee bit wacky.

California-bashing is a long and time-honored tradition among those who haven't lived there. What's surprising, though, is how fashionable it's become among those who have. The Vromans are not alone.

Ask Janet Nagel, a 37-year-old bank loan officer, who took a pay cut and a lateral career hop to escape the high cost of housing and maddening traffic of Orange County. Unable to afford her Tustin apartment when the complex went condo, Nagel chose to go where she could afford to buy. A year ago she fled to a new life and a new job in Atlanta, where she has relatives. "When I was disconnecting the phone and utilities, the clerk would say, 'You going to move? I wish I could,' " Nagel recalls. "This from complete strangers."

Not exactly the sort of stuff that chambers of commerce boast about. After all, for so long, California, especially the southern end, was the nation's hot spot--the place to be for countless would-be stars, sun worshipers, entrepreneurs, navel-gazers, hustlers, job seekers and just about anybody trying to escape the cold, crime, congestion and hard luck they'd experienced in the East, the Rust Belt or, in days of yore, the Dust Bowl. Southern California may have been built on dreams, but these days the dream of a significant number of longtime residents is to get out.

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