What do you think of California? Frank Lloyd Wright embraced the continental tilt theory that everything loose rolls to California. (True enough.) Truman Capote sneered, “It’s a scientific fact that if you stay in California you lose one point of your IQ every year.” (False, I hope.) Author Edward Abbey said, “There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California.”
But as a fourth generation Californian whose family arrived by covered wagon back in the day, I feel the best description comes from Mark Twain’s Roughing It. “It was a splendid population — for all the slow, sleepy, sluggish-brained sloths stayed at home — you never find that sort of people among pioneers — you cannot build pioneers out of that sort of material. It was that population that gave to California a name for getting up astounding enterprises and rushing them through with a magnificent dash and daring and a recklessness of cost or consequences, which she bears unto this day — and when she projects a new surprise the grave world smiles as usual and says, ‘Well, that is California all over.’”
To this day my home state remains a dizzying mix of can-do and anything-goes, a living embodiment of the saying “If you’re going to do something, you might as well go too far.” Last Friday I was gobsmacked to discover this was true of The California Museum as well. It was my first visit, and knowing the museum was partly sponsored by state funds, I assumed I'd find a pious whitewash of our checkered past. Instead it showed the good, the bad, the ugly, and the outlandish boldness for which the state is famous.
But before I get into that, I would like to pause and point out that the really astounding part of the story was finding myself actually standing there, in our state capital Sacramento, on my first road trip in over a year. Ever since Rich and I made the harrowing journey from Seville to California on May 18, 2020, we’d hunkered down in our San Anselmo cottage feeling lucky to be alive and determined to do whatever we could to stay that way. I actually slept in my own bed for 373 consecutive days — a lifetime record!
But with 51% of the state fully vaxxed, and our governor declaring June 15 the end of mask mandates and the reopening of just about everything, even my paranoia is crumbling fast. When four friends suggested a two-night excursion to Sacramento — aka The Big Tomato, The City of Trees, and Farm-to-Fork Capital — Rich and I decided it was finally time to drag our suitcases out of the attic and venture further afield than our backyard and the local supermarket.
We headed northeast on a train so sparsely occupied that we found ourselves in sole possession of the California Zephyr’s roomy observation car. Arriving in Sacramento was like walking into one of those sci-fi movies where everyone’s been vaporized by aliens, leaving just a pitiful remnant of humanity wandering the Earth. We hardly saw a soul as we ambled along the broad, tree-lined streets, admired the handsome Capitol grounds, and meandered past sweet old bungalows and stately Victorians. Restaurants, shops, and museums were mostly open; often we were their only customers. Their proprietors and staff could hardly have greeted us with more enthusiasm if we actually had been the last humans on the planet.
Sadly, the Dive Bar featuring professional mermaids (yes, I mean women dressed as mermaids) that Rich and I visited in 2016 was closed due to Covid. And the once-famous Zombie Walks died out somewhere around 2017. When I broke the bad news to our group a few days before departure, Pete replied, “No mermaids? No zombies? Why bother?”
Even without those attractions, we managed to find plenty to occupy us, including the Railroad Museum, dinner on the deck of the Delta King riverboat (now a haunted hotel), and a Local Roots Food Tour culminating in what was possibly the best gelato I’ve ever had (yes, even compared to Italy’s). We had drinks in the Citizen Hotel’s Scandal Lounge, it’s dark corners and old-school furnishings artfully arranged to make us feel like corrupt politicians making shady deals with nefarious characters. Full disclosure: we stayed at the Citizen and didn’t see anyone who appeared the slightest bit nefarious. Very disappointing, obviously.
Our last stop was The California Museum, where we were greeted by a large wooden bear wearing a mask (which will presumably be ceremoniously removed on June 15). I became immersed in exhibits about the contributions and hardships of Asian Americans in my state, and that’s when things got very real. I grew up hearing stories about the abuses heaped on Chinese railway workers and later upon Japanese Americans interned in concentration camps during World War II, but standing in front of those displays, I grew increasingly sad and ashamed. I read the first-person stories, saw a recreation of the pitiful cramped barracks in the internment camps (where a good friend of mine spent her teenage years), and absorbed the full details of the xenophobic laws defining Asian Americans as second class citizens. Employers exploiting foreign workers encouraged racism in the community, laying the groundwork for generations of prejudice and today’s Asian hate crimes.
On one wall was a video of George Takei, known to Star Trek fans as Mr. Sulu, helmsman of the USS Enterprise. “I am the grandson of immigrants from Japan who went to America, boldly going to a strange new world, seeking new opportunities. My mother was born in Sacramento, California. My father was a San Franciscan. They met and married in Los Angeles, and I was born there,” he says. “I spent my boyhood behind the barbed wire fences of American internment camps.”
Still reeling from those images, I found myself in an exhibit inviting me to become a “unity activist.” What’s that, you ask? It’s about celebrating diversity, organizing the community to protect human rights, and defending the value all people. Amen to that! There were photos of Native Americans occupying Alcatraz fifty years ago, the protest that led to the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, and people who, like the grumpmaster I wrote about last week, refuse to be defined by their gender, ethnicity, or physical appearance. Fairly radical stuff for a museum that’s partly funded by taxpayer dollars! I had my photo taken holding a poster about equality, proud to take my place as a permanent part of the unity activist exhibition.
All in all, we had a grand time in Sacramento, even if we didn’t see the Delta King’s ghost, hobnob with nefarious politicians, or encounter large numbers of fellow humans. After June 15, I expect things will get livelier. In the meantime Rich and I are busy planning other road trips to visit family in various parts of the state. Up to now I hadn’t considered a detour to Lake Tahoe, but I might have to revise that. “Three months of camp life on Lake Tahoe,” wrote Mark Twain, “would restore an Egyptian mummy to his pristine vigor, and give him an appetite like an alligator.” I can’t think of a better way than that to jump start post-pandemic life, can you?
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“Is this one of those eat-in-the dark places?” Rich asked as we stumbled out of the bright heat of late afternoon into the near-black interior. I was taking him out for a birthday drink at Sacramento’s Dive Bar, chosen because Rich loves a casual gin joint with low lighting and slightly seedy charm. In darkness so dense we could barely navigate, we groped our way towards the gleam of backlit bottles and the glow of a forty-foot aquarium where large, colorful fish swam among fake rocks and treasure chests. Then a live mermaid slithered into the tank.
She wasn't a real mermaid, of course, but a young woman dressed in a fish tail and a few strategically placed clam shells. She swam back and forth, blowing languid, bubbly kisses to the crowd, which at that hour consisted of Rich, myself, and one or two others. The act wasn’t particularly racy; in fact, it looked like cold, hard work to me. I backed up to get a photo and almost bumped into two young women staring up at the tank.
“Aren’t you glad you don’t have to do that for a living?” I remarked.
“Actually, that is what I do for a living,” one said. “I work here as a mermaid.”
Oops. “Wow. Really?" I turned to her companion. "You too?”
“No, I don’t work here,” she said. “But I am a mermaid. I have my own traveling tank.”
We chatted a while about the life of a professional mermaid, and I reflected that Sacramento was turning out to be a lot more interesting than I'd expected.
Sacramento suffers from constant and, if I am to be brutally honest, not terribly flattering comparison to San Francisco and LA. As a California city in which to pursue business or pleasure, it’s considered an also-ran. That must be disheartening for a town that was once the hottest destination on the planet. In 1838 the discovery of gold at nearby Sutter’s Mill made it the epicenter of the California Gold Rush, and everyone with a get-rich-quick itch showed up, many adding their own brand of wildness to the legends of the Old West.
Since then, Sacramento has settled down into something of a cultural backwater, and now locals are working hard to renovate the city’s infrastructure and reputation. Four years ago, the mayor declared it America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital, citing the area’s year-round growing season and 1.5 million acres of farms and ranches. OK, we thought, they had plenty of fresh ingredients available, but did that guarantee quality? We decided to give the town’s cuisine a test run with a Local Roots Food Tour of K Street, once the city’s main thoroughfare.
Our knowledgeable and vivacious guide, Cearra, first steered us to Mayahuel, named for a Mexican fertility deity. Under the slightly unnerving gaze of the goddess, we sampled así sabe (fresh watermelon, cucumber, lime, and tequila rimmed with chile), accompanied by the signature chile poblano soup. Wow.
Next came the Ambrosia Café, a casual eatery beloved by nearby office workers. “Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger used to stop in,” Cearra said. Easy to see why. Our grilled cheese sandwiches were amazing: crusty, homemade focaccia bread, gruyère cheese, artisan herbed cream cheese, and thin slices of apple. Yum. “I’ll be back,” Rich told the hostess.
Dessert began at Andy’s Candy Apothecary, winner of the city’s first Calling All Dreamers competition, which awarded the owners startup costs plus services donated by local pros. “Andy wanted apothecary in the name,” Cearra explained, “because candy cures all ills.” I certainly felt better after sampling the dark chocolates, salted caramels, and other treats.
Our final stop was Cornflower Creamery, where owner Cynthia explained her “farm-to-scoop” approach: fresh, local ingredients sweetened with fruits and vegetables, using minimal sugar and no artificial flavors or corn syrup. Somewhat skeptically, I tried the current special, Pride Confetti, flavored with purple carrot juice, studded with candied fruit and granola. To my amazement, I loved it.
Strolling up K Street, Cearra regaled us with city history, such as the devastating floods of 1853 and 1862 that caused the town to raise whole neighborhoods ten to twenty feet higher. This left many underground rooms that are, naturally, said to be haunted. In fact, our Dive Bar host told us hair-raising, first-person tales of whispering voices and demonic laughter. “And of course,” he added casually, “the Crest Theater across the street has been haunted ever since the marquee fell down and killed two people.” Yikes!
This kind of vivid backstory is a boon to locals who are working to redefine Sacramento’s future. Will the city become a vibrant alternative to overpriced, traffic-choked San Francisco/Silicon Valley just two hours to the south? With ghosts, mermaids, and a hot new foodie scene, I think they’ve got a good shot. Good luck, Sacramento! We’ll be back.
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Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I do not accept sponsorships of any kind. All gin joints, mermaid tanks, and eateries mentioned in my blog posts are included solely because I believe you might find them interesting and/or useful in planning your own adventures.
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I'm an American travel writer living in Seville, Spain. I travel the world seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and outrageously delicious food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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