Forty years ago this month, a housewife named Lucille Miller -- just turning 35 -- came to trial in San Bernardino for the murder of her husband, a dentist who was named Gordon Miller and called Cork. The murder was a clumsy one. Cork Miller burned to death in the back seat of a 1964 Volkswagen. According to the district attorney, Lucille Miller intended to make it look as if the car had rolled over an embankment and burst into flames. She would have had time in that deserted neighborhood to get home before the accident was reported. Instead, the car got stuck in the sand in low gear, and burst into flames anyway.
The trial was a sensation, and not only because Lucille Miller was pregnant when it began. It was also a trial of the pretensions of the ''New California,'' out at the edge of the subdivision frontier.
And so it remains. All the local papers covered the case, as did Joan Didion, who wrote about it in one of the great essays of the 20th century, ''Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.'' It is an essay of almost biblical wrath and dispassion. Behind its keening rhythms and daylight horrors lies Ms. Didion's sense that this new California, perpetually subdividing, perpetually suckering its dreamers, is guilty of a kind of misprision that she, a native Californian, refuses to share. The essay is often misread as an indictment of Lucille Miller. It is not. It is an indictment of a false promise, the ''revolving credit and dreams about bigger houses, better streets,'' the cascading of debt and adultery and sedatives and lies behind a facade of religious, socially ambitious respectability.
Ms. Didion begins with an almost tidal surge that condenses the history of the San Bernardino Valley into its debris, circa 1965, and its strange jumble of naïve beliefs: in Tijuana divorces, in biblical literalism, in the false glamour of the movies. Then comes the line that propels the story forward to the very end: ''Imagine Banyan Street first, because Banyan is where it happened.'' A short trip from San Bernardino down Route 66 and the reader is suddenly thrust onto the scene of the crime, caught in a tangle of lush, green foliage with the mountains towering overhead.
As it happens, I am living, for a few months, only a few miles away. It came as a surprise to realize that. Driving to Banyan Street would have seemed to me once about as likely as driving to Oz, if only because Ms. Didion's prose places the street in some mythic territory.
But the other morning -- a cool, wet dawn with the sun just passing between the horizon and the rim of clouds in the east -- I drove out Foothill Boulevard (Route 66) into Rancho Cucamonga, turned up Vineyard Avenue, which becomes Carnelian Street, and onto Banyan. The landmarks that guided Ms. Didion -- like the Kapu Kai Restaurant at what was then the corner of Carnelian and Foothill -- are long since gone. But that older California was never meant to be permanent. It was meant to be succeeded by something newer, better, always more upscale.
When Ms. Didion saw it, Banyan Street was almost the edge of beyond, past the ''faded bungalows of the people who grow a few grapes and keep a few chickens out here.'' It was a gravel road lined with eucalyptus and lemon groves. Ms. Didion saw something sinister in the clash between the dusty exfoliations of the eucalyptus and the ''unsettlingly glossy'' lemon leaves. A few hundred yards from the corner of Banyan and Sapphire, at the edge of an embankment that no longer exists, Lucille Miller killed her husband.
There is, of course, no trace of the crime any longer. Nor is there any trace of the lemon groves. They have vanished as surely as a Saturday Evening Post that would publish an essay like Joan Didion's. I knew what I would find, of course. It is what you find everywhere in this state: an almost unlimited expansion of the new California that Lucille Miller hoped to invent for herself after she collected the double-indemnity insurance benefit from her husband's ''accidental'' death. The houses on Banyan Street are far bigger than she would have imagined, though the lots are smaller. There is only one grove left -- an orange grove -- and it is a quarter acre at most. The trees are heavy with fruit, but no one seems to harvest the oranges.
Banyan Street is now as orderly as orderly can be. There is not a chicken or a grape in sight, and for all I know there is not a murderous spouse to be found. The houses slope away down the long alluvial hill, toward the Foothill Freeway and the valley beyond. The street is lined with trash containers standing at attention along the curbs.
I drove farther up Carnelian to find the street where Louise and Cork Miller lived in 1965. It's called Bella Vista, up near the top of Carnelian. The address was 8488.
Ms. Didion quotes a street sign in her essay: PRIVATE ROAD BELLA VISTA DEAD END. Bella Vista is still private and well marked, carefully warning horseback riders and drivers that this is private property, even though Bella Vista is indistinguishable from the public streets around it. In the recent rains, a tributary of Cucamonga Creek has nearly washed out the pavement in the middle of the block, and the dead end is caused by the gash of an even larger tributary -- 8488 would have stood hard against that narrow wash. Nothing is there now but a vacant lot. If you were to walk up that lot, you would be able to see the eastern rim of the mountains against the sun and the morning haze over the whole of the San Bernardino Valley.
The privacy of Bella Vista still feels strangely threatening, even 40 years later, and yet, as the game of privacy is played in California these days, Bella Vista is strictly an amateur. At the top of Carnelian, I came upon what you come upon at the top of nearly any road in California: a walled and gated ''estate'' full of houses, as carefully divided from the rest of Rancho Cucamonga as if they were overlooking Lima or Mexico City. ''Time past,'' Ms. Didion writes, ''is not believed to have any bearing upon time present or future, out in the golden land.'' Maybe not, but the residents high in their compounds -- at a peak well beyond Lucille Miller's poor ambitions -- are taking no chances.