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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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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