Last week-end, my friend Liz and I went on a Delta road trip. This was our loose itinerary:
11 a.m. Ride the Scenic Limited through the wildflowers at the Western Railway Museum.
Next, drive to Rio Vista and find an acceptable lunch spot.
The rest of the afternoon, explore the hauntingly interesting Delta towns of Isleton, Locke, Walnut Grove and Ryde.
7:15 p.m. Dinner at the Bull Valley Roadhouse in Port Costa.
I’m not going to lie. It was a long day. But, it was also one of those magical days where the weather cooperates with you, the sun is shining on your shoulders, you discover new things, you share places you’ve been before with a friend who actually appreciates them as much as you do, and you come across some real characters who seem to have stepped right out of the past.
So, the train ride. Every spring, the volunteer-run Western Railway Museum offers a scenic train ride on one of its lovingly-restored antique rail cars through the Delta wildflowers. Because of El Nino, this year there were actually wildflowers to appreciate. We opted for a First Class ticket, which entitled us to lemonade and cookies, and we lucked out getting the last two seats nearest the open door so we had the fresh Delta breeze blowing through our hair the entire way. Ah, Spring!
After our ride through the wildflowers, it was time to hit the road. Our first stop: Rio Vista, home to Foster’s Bighorn and it’s private collection of 250 specimens of big game taxidermy. Kind of breathtaking in a sad sort of way. But, it’s really quite an amazing collection. “Are these all real?” Liz asked me as we gawked at all the animal heads and torsos on the walls. Sadly, I had to say “yes.”
As a much-needed, uplifting foray after a visit to Foster’s, we met Julie, the owner of Windy River Company and its sister store, Fool Crow, two unique stores in one beautiful space. These two artisans have filled their store with art, home goods, lotions and curiosities on a side street in Rio Vista. This store, more than anywhere else, told me that the Delta was changing. Just a few years ago, if you asked someone where you could buy soy-based vegan candles and body butter, well…What a breath of fresh air this place is! And such nice people.
Next stop: Isleton. Sadly, it appears that the artisan pioneers who opened galleries in Isleton have mostly up and left – the result of being in the southern-most section of Sacramento County where policing is spotty and meth is abundant. But, it’s still worth checking out the historic district here. And, there are hopeful signs of life nearby. A Japanese bath house has opened down the road in Walnut Grove (great idea!). And, across the river in Ryde, the Ryde Hotel has become a popular wedding venue.
Speaking of the venerable Ryde Hotel, this haunted beauty has been featured on the Ghost Hunters TV show on the SyFy channel. The manager told us this place saw the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Robert Mitchum, and Judy Garland, as it was once owned by Hollywood star Lon Chaney, Jr. It was a hot spot during Prohibition, and it was also a big party spot in the sixties, seventies and eighties for many well-known rock stars. We were treated to an impromptu tour of the old speakeasy in the hotel basement and got to explore a few of the refurbished rooms, after a warning to be on the lookout for a crew of ghost chasers that were presently filming on site. A little bit eerie. Here’s an interview with a paranormal team that visited the hotel.
Stand up paddle boarding seems to be enjoying some novelty on the Delta, and I noticed some truly gorgeous homes with floor to ceiling windows and private boat docks lining the river where there once were mostly gritty houseboats and vintage cottages.
One of the more magical moments was when we met Martha, the owner of the Lockeport Grill & Fountain who shared an old ledger she found in the drawer of her soda fountain while graciously serving us iced tea to the tune of Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.” A woman sitting near us, Leica camera in hand, was shuffling through town records Martha was showing her, and we’re convinced she’s writing a book. It was all very hush hush. Outside Martha’s quaint and friendly soda fountain was a framed replica of the Mona Lisa with the face cut out so that you could put your own there and take a photo. A very cute idea that was attracting a bit of attention.
Locke is also where we happened upon a bevy of hipsters hanging at “Al the Wops,” (which Liz told me means “without papers”), so, this is another sign of changing times in this land that time had once forgotten. Locals say that usually their towns are filled with bikers and tourists on week-ends. But, even with some changes, the remnants of the past do still remain here.
There’s something haunting about these little Delta towns. Besides the stories of purported hauntings (like those at the Ryde Hotel), there’s something almost spooky out there. A soulful feeling hangs thick in the air, as if you could touch it. Is it the ghosts of the immigrant laborers? The Chinese, Japanese, and Europeans who worked in the fields and built the levees and railroads? Is it the occasional storefront that seems rooted in time, it’s merchandise discolored and spoiling in the sunshine with cobwebs wrapping around it like a mummy?
What an inspiring day and what a treat to have the length of day in which to roam. And, wrapping up our adventure with a fine meal at the Bull Valley Roadhouse in Port Costa was the perfect ending to a wonderful day.
It’s easy to forget that creativity can be sparked by getting out and seeing new landscapes, admiring the work of artisans who are creating beautiful objects and wonderful curiosities, and simply by eating a really great meal with a good friend. The day after our Delta road trip, I was so inspired that I went to the art store, bought a new sketch pad, went home and lit my coffee-scented candle from Windy River Company, and grabbed my Living Juicy book by SARK. I found myself writing a story that’s been floating around in my head for years. Thank you, Delta (and SARK), for all of your wonderful inspiration!