March 30, 2015: Sacramento to Los Angeles
After a long but exciting day in the Central Valley ending at the Garth Brooks concert, I woke up early and headed into downtown Sacramento.
I got an unremarkable breakfast at an English restaurant before walking over to the California State Capitol. Since this was a Monday, I was hoping to try to meet Governor Jerry Brown (see my article on How To Meet A Governor). Unfortunately, there was an armed state trooper outside his office who told me that the legislature was out of session for the week and that nobody was around. I walked around the mostly empty state capitol building. Overall, this capitol building is average. There is nothing interesting inside. The legislative chambers are similar to most other states. However, the building did have a few cool features.
1st: California has had some interesting governors: Ronald Reagan, Jerry Brown, and of course Arnold. Their portraits are hanging on the 3rd floor in between the legislative galleries.
2nd: The basement of the capitol is full of dioramas sponsored by each of California’s 58 counties. The dioramas vary widely in quality, but give a great overview of how beautiful and diverse California is. From the southern Cascades to the plains of the Central Valley to the Mojave Desert to the southern beaches, California has so much to see and I have only seen a medium part of that.
3rd: The gardens outside the capitol are lovely. There are very few places in the world where you can see/support a redwood tree next to a palm tree.
After the capitol building, I drove over to Old Sacramento, a State Historic Park. I have always wondered why Sacramento was the capitol of California rather than San Francisco, which has had historical significance for so long. Old Sacramento explains this. California was originally discovered and settled by the Spanish who built 21 missions up the coast from San Diego to Sonoma. In 1839, a man named John Sutter built a fort in what is now downtown Sacramento. In 1948, gold was discovered on land owned by the same John Sutter about 50 miles away. His son then quickly established Sacramento in1849 as the base camp for all the gold miners coming into California. People coming by sea would reach San Francisco and continue up the Sacramento River. Coming overland, Sacramento was the western end of the California Trail, the Pony Express, and eventually the Transcontinental Railroad. In 1850, Sacramento was the first city to be incorporated in the new state of California. In 1854, the state capitol was moved to Sacramento for its central location, access to resources, and importance in transportation.
The old wooden buildings in Old Sacramento are mostly cheesy tourist gift shops, but sprinkled in are a few gems. One building is the end station of the Transcontinental Railroad, which started in Council Bluffs, Iowa and was completed at the Golden Spike site in Promontory Summit, Utah (I have actually been to both of those places). The other gem is the California State Railroad Museum. This amazing museum houses the oldest train in California and many many more trains. The volunteers are knowledgeable. Besides the trains I really enjoyed the exhibit on artwork on agricultural produce such as orange crates. Turns out a lot of people moved to California because of them.
California owes so much of its growth and economic status to the train. Not only did people immigrate to California on trains, but also farmers were able to export fruit and vegetables to the rest of the country via the railroads.
Heading south, I stopped at Gunther’s Ice Cream for a quick snack. This old-school ice creamery apparently is Sacramento’s best. I ordered a 50/50 which is half ice-cream, half slushie. It was so good.
About an hour south of Sacramento is Stockton, which has a reputation as being the worst large city to live or visit in California. Stockton’s claim to fame is being home to the losing team from Ernest Thayer’s poem Casey At The Bat. Stockton is also the 3rd most dangerous city in California after Oakland and Compton; its fifth largest employer is the prison system. The city went bankrupt in 2009 after declining real estate values from the financial bubble caused property tax revenues to drop so much that the cities revenue base was depleted.
So the question remains, why do people live in Stockton? One answer is that Stockton is home to the largest inland deepwater port in the country and is the main gateway for farmers to export their crops overseas. With California producing 90% of the world’s almonds, most almonds that don’t get eaten in the western US will probably be put on a ship in the port of Stockton. Additionally, California ships lots of produce including oranges and alfalfa to China. I drove by the Port of Stockton, about 10 minutes west of downtown. The port was busy although not as busy as normal due to a labor dispute. Compared to the Port of Los Angeles, the Port of Stockton was far less secured and much smaller. While there were fences surrounding the port, it would be very easy to walk/cut through. No barbed wire, and no surveillance.
After exploring as much of the port as possible, I drove through downtown Stockton. It reminded me a lot of these mid-sized regional Midwest towns such as Davenport, Iowa or Evansville, Indiana in terms of the size of the downtown and overall emptiness. While the city appeared walkable, most people were in their cars.
45 minutes south of Stockton lies Modesto, a town that looks eerily similar to Stockton, but in slightly better shape. Modesto is best known for the George Lucas film American Graffiti, which touches on the theme of cruising, car culture, and rock & roll. Modesto also was important in the rockabilly and west coast country music scenes. The reason I came to Modesto was to visit the Universal Life Church which ordained me as a minister online back in 2010. Arriving at the church in the mid-afternoon, I walked into the office which was essentially a room full of paper records and receipts. The lady working there told me to come back in an hour to meet the pastor. So I went to get lunch at Rockin B’s just north of downtown. I found the restaurant on Yelp and was pleasantly surprised to have probably the best hamburger of my life. Better than Father’s Office. I then walked around the empty downtown and visited the famous streets featured in American Graffiti.
At 3, I returned to the Universal Life Church and met the pastor, who showed me around the Church. The Universal Life Church was founded by Rev. Kirby Hensley in 1959 as a church of all people. Since people believe in different ideas that all lead to goodness, the Rev. Hensley decided to start ordaining everyone in his church so that they could spread their version of goodness and eventually, goodness will rule among the land. During the Vietnam War, being an ordained minister was a way to dodge the draft, so many people went to Modesto to join the church. However, the church really picked up steam when it launched its website, which has an online petition to become a minister. So far, the church has ordained over 18 million ministers worldwide. Unlike its competitors, the Universal Life Church actually reviews each request, so technically nobody gets ordained online. Rather, a person sees the request and ordains you long from Modesto.
The pastor then showed me the church building itself, which used to be a Baptist church. The church also owns 500 acres of land in Arizona that it one day hopes to turn into some sort of church retreat, but so far the land is undeveloped. Surprisingly, the church has services every Sunday that are attended by about 50 people.
While in the church, I asked the pastor to re-ordain me in the mother church. So he laid his hands on me and proclaimed me a “reborn” minister. We then went back to the office, took a picture, and printed out my certificate.
Now well on my way home, I stopped in Kingsburg to visit the Sun Maid raisin factory. All of those raisins you ate from the red boxes are processed here. They don’t offer factory tours anymore, but they do have an awesome gift shop and the world’s largest box of raisins. The staff was very friendly.
Getting back on the freeway, I noticed that my tire had low air, so I drove to a tire shop in Delano. They put air in my tire and told me my tire wasn’t flat- it just had low air. So, I continued on to Bakersfield.
In Bakersfield, I got tacos with my friend Jen from Wash U. She works for a company that provides environmental regulatory advice to oil companies. Bakersfield and the surrounding areas of the southern Central Valley are home to a lot of oil. It was so good to catch up with a school friend out here since very few Wash U people move to Southern California.
After dinner, I got in my car and once again noticed that the air was low. I drove to a gas station and filled up my tire with air. Then, I could hear that my tire did indeed have a small leak. Desperate to get back to LA at this time and not wanting to spend the night in Bakersfield, I pressed on figuring I would have to put more air in the tires along the way. Since dinner lasted 90 minutes and the car was drivable, getting back should be possible. I ended up stopping 3 times to fill up the tire: Grapevine, Lebec, and Santa Clarita before stumbling back to LA.