Ten years after the gold rush of 1849, when strains of ''California or Bust'' still echoed across the country, a hunter and trapper named Captain Elisha Stephens became the first settler of Cupertino. Born in South Carolina, Stephens is credited with leading the first wagon train across the Sierra Nevadas. He was already in his mid-50s when he built a home and established a vineyard along the banks of the river now named after him by a careless speller - Stevens Creek.
Within a few years Stephens found his little corner of Santa Clara Valley becoming ''too durn civilized'' for his tastes. In 1864 he moved on, a true American and a true son of Cupertino - a community originally known only as the Crossroads.
Today the civilization Stephens was fleeing covers nearly every square acre of the valley. The rich soil has been plowed under, paved over, built upon to make room for shopping centers, industrial parks, and the subdivisions that house the 38,000 residents of Cupertino. Only a token orchard still stands here and there, like a museum piece. The new crossroads has become the intersection of two thoroughfares: Stevens Creek Boulevard and Highway 9.
Cupertino is a state of traffic. ''So what we have here,'' explains Linda Lauzze, a Cupertino planner, ''is this: In the morning everybody goes south to north'' - to Santa Clara, to Sunnyvale, to all the centers of Silicon Valley where the high-tech industries - Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Tandem - hum. ''Then in the evening, when work lets out, everybody goes north to south.''
It is as if all the westward-ho pioneers, like Elisha Stephens, who have invaded California over the years could not stop - condemned to become a community in perpetual motion.
The lots in Cupertino average around 6,000 square feet - small by the standards of the American suburb. But almost every lot is outlined by a fence - not a symbolic rail fence, as in the East, or a chain-link fence, as in the Midwest, but a cedar fence, surrounding and towering above its tiny plot, as if to keep it, too, from being carried away in the traffic.
How does a community achieve a measure of stability in a sea of change? The traffic and the fence - perpetual flux and fragile fortress - these opposing presences in a California suburb seem to symbolize the challenge of the suburb everywhere in 1983.
Everybody sees the traffic - everybody understands the state as the state-of-mind Scott Kaufer wrote about in a recent issue of California magazine:
''Something about California has always attracted dreamers and sages who would fashion a perfect society for the rest of us to emulate. Utopians need to believe that the impossible is plausible - and California has traditionally radiated that impression.''
But don't forget those fences.
''California, like any other state, is not a homogeneous unit,'' says Barbara Rogers, a member of the Cupertino City Council. ''We have out here all the funny cults. But lots of people in California think they're very peculiar, too.''
Something called ''Sound-Offs'' allows the residents to voice often conservative gripes to the Cupertino council in a monthly newsletter, the ''Cupertino Scene.'' Cries like ''Don't destroy Cupertino! We'll have another San Jose'' are typical. (San Jose grew from 17 square miles and 95,000 people to 135 square miles and half a million people between 1950 and 1975.)
There are un-Californian recommendations to ''restrain small motorbikes-cycles,'' especially on weekends.
This town, once a center of orchards, now has planted new cherry trees in Memorial Park, producing a nostalgic yearning for more trees - particularly around the post office (''It's like a desert in the summer,'' one resident writes).
The sleek-looking, low-profile architecture that makes even the town hall resemble a particularly attractive fast-food chain, the traffic crawling north and south - all that is most modern about Cupertino - lies between green foothills of the Santa Clara mountains, declaring a kind of permanence and continuity.
Councilwoman Rogers, born and brought up in New Jersey, lived in Florida and Indiana on her way to Cupertino. Rather than finding her Californians self-absorbed in experimental life styles, she keeps encountering ''people who care about the community and get involved in it.''
Cupertino seems to long to stop the traffic, find a new crossroads, and gather itself together.
Shopping centers like the award-winning Vallco Fashion Park, a million-square-foot monument to consumption, have become social and cultural gathering places. Residents come in from the California sun to skate in a lower-level ice rink. Musical groups perform in the center of the mall. And department store seminars often replace club meetings, luring patrons with talks on financial planning.
There is both a charm and a certain pathos to the custom that summons guests in Cupertino's chic restaurants to their tables by calling out their first names.
But it's hard to be open, relaxed, and informal when you're running out of space. A visitor keeps coming back to those fences that enclose and protect Cupertino's most precious asset. ''There's just no land,'' says Glenn Rupp, a real estate broker who has lived in the area since 1955, the year Cupertino was incorporated. Where his office now stands, a cherry orchard flowered. Indeed, for years Cupertino was one big 11-square-mile orchard, producing prunes as well as cherries. Lockheed was the big industry. The price of an average house was around $10,000 - $99 down. Now, Mr. Rupp estimates, the average price is around
The frontier is squeezing, in every sense.
''When we moved into our house 13 years ago, it was a nice average tract house,'' Nancy Madson says. ''We thought: 'This is a nice start. We'll be here for five years, then we'll build our own home.' That was the American dream as I knew it from my own experience - that's what I had grown up with.
''Now we have come to the decision that what we need is to simplify our lives and relieve ourselves of some of the burdens of responsibility that include our house and its maintenance and care. We've turned away from that original goal of having the big beautiful house, realizing we're not there enough to enjoy it. If we were to put money into something, it would probably be something recreational that we could enjoy together in our spare time, rather than something that would require constant care.''
Mrs. Madson, the mother of an 8-year-old son, is a cheerful woman of considerable energies. Like 51 percent of the women in the country, she works. She is assistant principal at Cupertino's Homestead High School.
For the Madsons, as for many working couples everywhere, home ownership has shifted to what Mrs. Madson calls ''managing, rather than doing ourselves.'' If the old orthodoxy was do-it-yourself - a blend of the Protestant work ethic and Jeffersonian self-sufficiency - the new, often desperate credo is: Hire it done. To meet that need, suburban services in Cupertino, as elsewhere, have sprung up like dandelions. From cleaning services to day-care centers, caterers to house sitters, the suburbs increasingly are running on remote control.
City manager Robert Quinlan, still enthusiastic and confident after 12 years on the job, acknowledges the unpredictable condition of a California suburb.
''For one thing, the whole strategy of development has changed,'' he says. ''Prior to Proposition 13, office buildings would have been a real plus, because they would have provided a better property tax than housing. Now property tax is not so important a thing to us nor to our schools. But sales tax has become extremely important - the revenue generated by shopping centers and high-quality restaurants.
''A lot of the problems have no respect for town lines. Many of the communities are working together to come up with joint solutions - on solid waste disposal, for instance, and delivery of power and other services.'' Suburbs no longer dependent on a central city now find themselves dependent on each other.
''Environmental concern has become extremely important,'' Mr. Quinlan continues. ''The rule seems to be: The lower the income, the more people are interested in services rendered by government - social services, police services , fire service, whatever. The higher the income, the more people are concerned about land-use planning, zoning issues, quality-of-life issues.
''All these things kind of play against one another. When we try to predict five years down the road, we're really just guessing. People around here don't think in terms of permanence much.
''On the other hand, maybe that's the wave of the future. Maybe we don't think in terms of permanence. Maybe we're going to have Kleenex houses in the future. We're going to have blocks of land owned by corporations and they'll be maybe leasing the land like they do in Hawaii, and a person will buy a home but won't own the land. They'll just lease the land. And they'll only build homes to last 15 years, because things are changing so rapidly that particular configurations may not make any sense later on.
''What will the suburb of the future look like?
When the Monitor asked this question, other experts were equally cautious.
Constance Perin, a cultural anthropoligist teaching a course at Harvard in ''The Social and Cultural Geography of Suburbs,'' told the Monitor: ''I predict that renters' social status is going to improve. The definition of the American middle class is tied up with home ownership. The important status distinction that supersedes a lot of class distinction is between owning and renting. Renting is going to come out from under the cloud. If the polarization between owners and renters can diminish, that's all to the good.''
David Riesman, whose classic ''The Lonely Crowd'' seemed at the time to be a label for the suburbs, sees them becoming more urban. He notes ''a good deal more isolation among people.''
He also speaks of the ''hedonism of families,'' which ''makes life more costly and sacrifice often less common. Children don't mow the lawn or run paper routes. Families live in a cocoon of television. They eat out a lot. This has made the suburbs more urban, as though these were singles living in the suburbs.
''Peer culture is in charge,'' he continues. ''One has a feeling of parents running a motel for their kids rather than a home.''
He wonders ''whether the children will survive the working mother. We have gotten a little too cavalier about this question,'' Professor Riesman told the Monitor. ''Children from birth to the age of six who have not had a mother at home are showing up having stress in college.''
But on the plus side, he concludes: ''There are no boondocks left in America. There's no Siberia. There's hardly any place you can find that doesn't have a little theater, doesn't have some kind of chamber music group, doesn't have a literary circle. So we have to balance the people who eat out at restaurants with the people who go to musuems. There's been a general upgrading of American taste, American culture - this has changed the suburbs.''
Herbert J. Gans, author of ''The Levittowners'' and now on the faculty of Columbia University, has become more and more cautious about generalizing as the years go by. ''All the suburbs have in common,'' he told the Monitor, ''is that they're outside the city limits.''
''What's happening now is more a function of necessity,'' he says. But he finds that whatever romance of the American heart the suburb represents, the attraction is still there. ''The dream has gotten more expensive,'' he concludes. ''The dream has been cut down a bit. But the dream goes on.''
Robert C. Wood, who wrote ''Suburbia: Its People and Their Politics'' almost a quarter of a century ago, sums up suburbs as ''republics-in-miniature that have survived.'' After the '50s, he remarks, not too much attention was paid to the suburbs. In the '60s, the subject was the cities. In the '70s, it was the environment. Now, he suggests, fiscal and social problems are bringing attention back to the suburbs. Civil rights, feminism, ''swinging'' life styles, drugs, industrial pollution - everything affecting the rest of society - has invaded the suburbs, whether the suburbs are ready or not.
Professor Wood told the Monitor that the revisionism - the ''recycling'' - of the suburbs will go on.
He sees the apartments ''catering to the new life style with tennis courts and swimming pools'' filling in those swimming pools for day-care centers when the ''mini-baby-boom'' comes along.He sees the suburbs growing older, in every sense, as the number of people over 65 increases, threatening to produce a ''defensive, aging suburban population'' protecting a status quo - the kind of zoning that becomes a form of discrimination.
''If you were going to do straight projections, which economists and analysts like to do, you would have a set of quite different forces than those that began the suburbs and the American dream of housing and roots. You could say sort of more of the same - the reinforcement of the fortress mentality - and sort of decline into shabby gentility of what they thought they were getting, with the physical structure of the houses built, the shopping centers, with these being sort of inappropriate forms for the world we're talking about.
''But that's projections. There's another possibility on this - a sea change. It may very well be that we're at a point of history in this country when we're going to have a sea change and just throw the projections out the window.
''But if that sea change comes, it's going to require some kind of political coalition of parties that have been adversaries - the conservationists sitting down with housing developers; some reconciliation between the races; some major renewal of institutions, of which central-city public schools constitute, in my judgment, the most urgent task. We would have a fundamental shift of values that would begin to address suburbs and their cheapening qualities - and center cities and their unrealized potential.''
Professor Wood's description of the mood that would bring about such a renaissance - such a ''sea change'' - is curiously like the mood that first gave birth to the suburbs: a ''disposition to fraternity.''